Book Excerpt: ‘John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero’

Posted by | March 4, 2014

Gordon BeltPlease welcome guest author Gordon Belt. Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Belt blogs about archives, local history, genealogy, and social media advocacy for archives and cultural heritage organizations. His new book, John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee’s first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. Published by The History Press, the book will be available March 25, 2014. Pre-orders for author-signed copies of the book are available for purchase from The Posterity Project.

“The revival of memory may be a benevolent compensation to an old man for the loss of hope.”
Michael Woods Trimble, 1860

In an anecdote popularized by the nineteenth-century novelist James Gilmore, an old man reminisced about his youthful encounter with Tennessee governor John Sevier. Embellishing the old man’s memories with romantic prose, Gilmore wrote of the “unbounded affection and admiration” that this young boy held for the man known fondly by the frontier people as “Nolichucky Jack.” As Sevier arrived, the entire town gathered to greet him, and Gilmore recorded the old man’s recollection of the scene:


Soon Sevier came in sight, walking his horse, and followed by a cavalcade of gentlemen. Nobody cheered or shouted, but all pressed about him to get a look, a smile, a kindly word, or a nod of recognition from their beloved Governor. And these he had for all, and all of them he called by name; and this, it is said, he could do to every man and woman in the State, when they numbered more than a hundred thousand. The boy’s father had been a soldier under Sevier, and when the Governor came abreast of him he halted his horse, and took the man and his wife by the hand. Then reaching down, and placing his hand on the boy’s head, he said: “And who have we here? This is a little fellow I have not seen.” That he was noticed by so great a man made the boy inexpressibly proud and happy; but could this affable, unassuming gentleman be the demi-god of his young imagination? This was the thought that came to the boy, and he turned to his father saying, “Why, father, Chucky Jack is only a man!” But that was the wonder of the thing—how, being only a man, he had managed to capture the hearts of a whole people.

In 1860, another aging pioneer named Michael Woods Trimble recalled memories of his father, John Trimble, who served as a captain of a militia company in the regiment under Sevier’s command at the Battle of King’s Mountain. Michael Woods Trimble took great pride in his father’s associations with Sevier, and in his memoirs, he endeavored to recall the stories of his youth. Trimble wrote:

As I grow old, my memory grows stronger. Especially in this case with regards to the events of my early life. Things which had faded away from my mind many years ago, and had passed into forgetfulness, are revived with all the freshness of recent occurrences. Images of the dead come back to me with faces and voices as familiar as when they lived, and all the scenes through which I passed with them appear to me with more vividness than the events of yesterday. This revival of memory in old age is a mysterious and wonderful provision of Divine Providence. At my period of life, the hopes of this world are nearly all past. But it is said, when one bodily sense is lost, some other becomes strong. The revival of memory may be a benevolent compensation to an old man for the loss of hope.

Traditional stories like these helped build Sevier’s standing as a celebrated frontiersman, a revered military leader of the Revolutionary War, a respected and feared Indian fighter and an admired politician and founding father of the state of Tennessee. Pioneer, soldier, statesman: Sevier embodied all the patriotic qualities that his chroniclers hoped to impart to the public. Yet as Gilmore’s anecdote reminds us, Sevier remained “only a man,” and although he commanded a strong regional following, Sevier’s reputation never achieved national acclaim.

Sevier’s story is one of contradictions. On the one hand, he rose to prominence as a legend on the frontier and a hero of the American Revolution. He demonstrated political savvy, guiding Tennessee to statehood and becoming its first governor after once failing to carve the state of Franklin from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Even in his twilight years, Sevier felt duty bound to serve his country in the backwoods where he made his reputation as a fearless Indian fighter many years earlier. He died in relative obscurity in the woods of Alabama, only to have his legend resurrected generations later by those who believed his life’s exploits worthy of honor and recognition.

On the other hand, Sevier was human, and his actions revealed a man less than perfect. He encroached on Native American lands and led armies in the slaughter of hundreds of people in his drive to claim the western edge of the Appalachians. He found himself accused of treason in his effort to create the state of Franklin against the wishes of his mother state. One could further argue that Sevier provoked Andrew Jackson into a duel by insulting his wife, then behaved cowardly in the face of threats of retaliation and actually feared Jackson to such an extent that in his diary Sevier recorded that “Old Hickory” invaded his dreams.

Over time, as Sevier’s aged contemporaries passed on, his frontier adventures, military achievements and political accomplishments faded from the public’s collective memory. During the late nineteenth century, however, Sevier managed to capture the hearts of his people once more. Years after his death in 1815, Tennessee historians and popular writers attempted to resurrect Sevier’s legacy through highly romanticized accounts of his frontier adventures, relying heavily on the folktales, myths and recollections of aging pioneers. Through the memories of these elderly frontiersmen, authors and antiquarians retold the tales passed down by the descendants of Sevier and his compatriots, giving these stories a scholarly gravitas that endured for generations.

Following the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction brought forth efforts of reconciliation by Southern writers who used stories from Sevier’s remarkable life to mend the wounds of a broken nation. Informed by the earlier works and research of Dr. J.G.M. Ramsey, John Haywood, Lyman Draper, and others, subsequent biographers and storytellers repeated these narratives, adding their own embellishments to the prose. These writers chronicled Sevier’s life in ways that reflected America’s culture of patriotism and its embrace of rugged individualism. Thus, life and legend intertwined.

By the early decades of the twentieth century, however, the nation’s culture had changed. Global war, economic chaos and what one contemporary scholar termed “the intrusive thrust of modernism” led many writers to bring the past “down to non-heroic yet human proportions.” A new generation of chroniclers attempted to debunk the myths and legends surrounding Sevier’s achievements. The Tennessee historian Dr. Carl S. Driver endeavored “to place this frontier hero in proper perspective” in his 1932 biography, John Sevier: Pioneer of the Old Southwest. In his book, Driver acknowledged that “few attempts have been made to discover if the glamour and romance which surrounded [Sevier’s] name have had a real or an idealized character as their source.” Yet the nostalgic remembrances of the past endured.

Still, Sevier remained a regional historical figure, and the stories of his achievements never resonated beyond the borders of his native land. In the preface to the reprint edition of Driver’s biography, the author’s widow, Leota Driver Maiden, surmised why Sevier failed to achieve national recognition:

Sevier’s primary interest always remained the advancement of his own State and its people. Consequently, he suffered the same neglect as other public figures who were overshadowed by the acclaim of a national hero, General Andrew Jackson. In the adulation of their first President, too many Tennesseans forgot the man who had protected the early settlements from annihilation by the Indians and later as its Governor guided their State through twelve of its first fourteen years.

Driver christened Sevier “Tennessee’s first hero,” and yet he remained second in the hearts and minds of his fellow Tennesseans. The branches of “Old Hickory” cast a long shadow over Sevier’s life and legacy. Jackson so dominated the annals of Tennessee’s history that his influence shaped how scholars and writers remembered Sevier for generations. Thus, more than eighty years after Driver first published his biography, Sevier’s story continues to elude remembrance.

Sevier’s chroniclers defined his legacy as much as Sevier himself. John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero aspires to draw attention to Sevier’s extraordinary life once more through their narratives. The chroniclers of Sevier’s life envisioned Sevier as a heroic figure. They believed it their mission to “rescue from oblivion” the memory of Sevier’s accomplishments. By examining their use of oral traditions, storytelling, folklore, anecdotes, family narratives and historical accounts, John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero seeks to achieve a greater understanding of Sevier’s life and legacy, shedding new light on this remarkable Tennessee figure.

– Excerpted from John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero by Gordon T. Belt, published by The History Press, available March 25, 2014. Pre-orders for author-signed copies of the book are available for purchase from The Posterity Project.

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