The story of John Sevier

In Washington, D.C., there is a lone statue that stands alongside those of the men America honors as its Founding Fathers. You will find little mention of Sevier in history textbooks, but his accomplishments place him in a select group of men that dominated early American colonial life.
His life was a subject in many early newspapers that gained him national attention as America’s first frontier statesman. While they often painted him as a colorful celebrity on the flanks of the American colonies, he would become regarded in the backwoods of Virginia and Tennessee as one of the best frontier leaders in American history – one that would change the course of the young nation and unknowingly help lead it to the Pacific coast.

Jean Xavier was born on Sept. 23, 1745 to French immigrant pilgrims. Although his father was of good birth and education, they were Protestants known as Huguenots who escaped persecution and escaped to America for its religious freedoms. Jean possessed a keen mind and his parents saw he was given a proper education. He had a love for the frontier and the countless opportunities for advancement in the young nation that was forming around him. His ventures into the backwoods of Southern Appalachia turned him into a prolific woodsman and soon Xavier knew the country around him better than most of his day. John, as he was known among Virginian settlers, was described as one of the state’s most handsome and cultured gentleman. He briefly attended the present-day Washington and Lee University, but after a while, lost interest in college and decided to take his chances on real estate opportunities in the frontier.
At the age of 17, he married Sarah Hawkins, started a family and began his rise towards prominence. Sevier helped found the City of Newmarket in Shenandoah County, Va. and started picking up a reputation as an explorer and Indian fighter. On one of his journeys, John Sevier wandered into the Tennessee Valley and saw the growing backwoods settlements with its rich natural resources as a keystone to American expansion west of the Appalachians.
In 1772, he moved to the Watauga settlement in present day upper East Tennessee and settled on the Nolichucky River. Sevier and neighbor John Robertson, who later helped found Nashville, became the village’s most prominent settlers. John Sevier and his backwoods adventures soon earned him the nickname "Nolichucky Jack" among the hardened Tennessee frontiersmen, who took an instant liking to his no nonsense mannerisms. Along with his wife and children, he started making a life for himself in the new territory.
Since the British Proclamation of 1758 gave the Cherokee sovereignty from the crest of the Southern Appalachians westward, the Crown had never officially recognized British citizenry west of the boundary, but things were beginning to change in the region and the historic hostilities between natives and settler began to erupt.
In 1774, border hostilities broke out between the colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania over border claims and how to deal with the native tribes. The argument was further agitated by the actions of the Cherokee, Mingos, Wyandots, Shawnees, and Delawares who were divided over settlement of the region by the European colonists.
John Sevier, who was still highly regarded in Virginia was called back to his state and he served as a Captain in the Virginia lines of what became known as "Lord Dunmore’s War"– named after the then- Royal Governor of Virginia. Although remembered as a minor conflict in history, the Battle of Point Pleasant defeated the Northwestern Indians efforts to stop European expansion and settlement.
British militia Captain John Sevier distinguished himself in combat against the tribal forces and was duly noted for his service. From that point through the early years of the American Revolution, the Battle was the key event that allowed settlement of the Kentucky territory and subsequently East Tennessee.
In 1780, Sevier’s wife passed away. The marriage had produced ten children. It wasn’t long afterwards that he met and soon married Bonny Kate Sherrill, who would also bear ten children. Sevier continued his work in frontier settlement of the region and earning a name for himself. Although deficient in formal education by the standards of the day, he often corresponded with colonial leaders James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and others who sought his opinion.
During the Revolution, Sevier petitioned North Carolina to officially extend its border and recognize the region. North Carolina agreed and formed it into the Washington County district. Sevier served as the Watauga representative in the North Carolina legislature and was later appointed district judge of Watauga. In addition, he was appointed Colonel of the trans-Allegheny forces. His past service in the British militia and in the Indian campaigns forged his reputation as one of the best frontier commanders on American soil, and, in that capacity, he soon met his nemesis in a Cherokee warrior chief named Dragging Canoe.
Dragging Canoe, or Tsiyu-gunsi’ni in Cherokee, was the son of Chief Attakullakulla, who had befriended the British at Fort Loudoun. Dragging Canoe, however, possessed none of his father’s admiration for the white settlers and furiously resisted the Watauga settlement in Tennessee. While Attakullakulla promised colonists that he had 500 hundred warriors to help in the Revolution should it be necessary, his son quickly rose to prominence among the Lower and Upper Cherokee tribal families wanting an end to frontier settlement. His leadership on the battlefield was as legendary as Sevier’s among the Cherokee and he constantly waged war against the man they called "Tsan-usdi"– "Little John" in Cherokee.
Although the battles they fought against each other would gain national prominence, John Sevier’s forces pushed Dragging Canoe south towards the Georgia border, where the Cherokee faction finally settled and made peace with the settlers.
Sevier’s prominence in Tennessee as a military commander didn’t escape the attention of British command in the colonies waging war against the Revolutionary Army. The allegiance of people west of Appalachia was a question mark and the British needed to try and contain their western flank, while they dealt with "rebel forces".
While collecting Tories for his army’s ranks, British Major Patrick Ferguson issued his infamous proclamation demanding allegiance from the Appalachian colonies. With Sevier commanding the Sycamore Shoals forces, he joined the effort that defeated the British Major at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. Three years later, he led a relief mission to aid patriots under "Swamp Fox" Francis Marion being assaulted by British forces. During this time, a British-backed plot to assassinate the frontier commander was revealed by the wife of one of the conspirators allowing Sevier time to deal with the incident and "resolve it".
Shortly after the Revolution, North Carolina ceded the Washington County district to the Federal government. John Sevier, who was by now one of America’s top celebrities continued his fight for gaining statehood for the region. James Robertson had tried to form one with the Cumberland Compact in Middle Tennessee, but was also unsuccessful.
With the City of Asheville, NC on its eastern border and the growing village of Knoxville on its western border, Sevier and the settlers voted to incorporate the region into the State of Franklin – named after America’s most popular citizen Benjamin Franklin. It was also a political move that was hoped would enlist him to their cause.
Immediately there was a split in opinions among settlers over statehood in the region. One favored remaining in North Carolina and the others wanting statehood. For four years, however, the State of Franklin existed and conducted business under the leadership of John Sevier.
Since there was no groundwork or laws that said they could not form a state out of federal lands, elections were held and appointments were made to offices. The other faction, however, did the same thing on behalf of North Carolina and Washington County. With governments operating under different laws, constant trouble brewed between the parties. The laws made by one government were counteracted by the other one.
North Carolina Governor Caswall soon grew tired of the controversy and eventually declared the State of Franklin null and void. His decision resulted in a small battle where the state was recapitulated back to North Carolina and John Sevier was arrested and prosecuted for treason. During his trial, however, a man described in court records as a "Franklinite" burst into the courtroom praising Sevier and his work. With the commotion grabbing all of the attention of those present, John Sevier managed to walk out of the courtroom unseen. No one followed or tried to recapture him. Sevier returned to his home and the incident was never again discussed.
When North Carolina decided to cede the territory back to the federal government to avoid post Revolutionary War taxation, the Continental Congress took immediate charge of the region declaring it organized as the Territory South of the Ohio River. Under that title, the region was governed from the Knoxville settlement by appointed territorial Governor William Blount. John Sevier was made a brigadier-general of forces in the territory and went on to become the first Congressman elected to office from the territory.
Although a new territorial constitution and oath were required, those holding office designated by North Carolina kept their posts. John Sevier continued to play a prominent role and eventually moved his family to a farm he named Marble Springs located south of the city of Knoxville. In those days, Knoxville was a wide-open frontier town with brothels and saloons on every corner. It was the gateway city to the west and interior south. Its national influence expanded greatly in the territorial days prior to statehood.
As settlement continued to grow in the region, Tennessee began pushing again for statehood. This time Sevier would not be denied and, in 1796, President George Washington signed the official proclamation making Tennessee the first state formed out of federal property. As was expected, Sevier was elected Tennessee’s first Governor and would go on to serve six successive terms.
When he left office in 1811, Sevier was elected to Congress and served two complete terms. Following his election to a third term, he took an assignment as a boundary commissioner for the Creeks at Tukabatchee, Al. The battle-hardened frontiersman came down with a sudden fever and, on Sept. 15, 1815, the 71-year-old founding father of Tennessee passed away. His body was buried near the village where he died. News of his death was reported in newspapers across the nation. Tennesseans returned to the Alabama village and exhumed the body of their beloved leader. He was returned to Knoxville and his body interred on the lawn of the Old Knoxville Courthouse.

There is unfortunately little information on John Sevier’s personal life. No one definitive book has ever been written on his life, but his professional life was recorded in numerous government documents and through the writings of other pioneers who worked with him. History textbooks rarely mention his efforts, Governor John Sevier was, however, honored in numerous ways throughout the state he fought so hard to found.
While much has been made through the years regarding John Sevier’s attacks against the Cherokee and other Native American tribes, there was always a love-hate relationship between the tribal warriors and men like John Sevier. The warrior castes of the Native American tribes were still politically powerful in tribal governments and often overruled other Councils. It was as much a profession in their world as it was in the European governments. In colonial campaigns, there were no quarters given by either the Indians or the settlers. Numerous journals and diaries of the day as well as recollections from the ancient legends of the Cherokee and other southeastern tribes note how each burned the other’s villages and homes on a regular basis. While it is sometimes a bloody study of the past, both sides were capable of great destruction and often proved it. On record, Sevier is credited with commanding every major Indian campaign in the Tennessee territory that aided America in keeping the British influence from igniting Native American sentiments during the Revolution. Officially he is recognized as winning 35 battles against Native American forces. Although finally defeated by Sevier, the Cherokee warrior-chief Dragging Canoe went on to rise to prominence among his people and is still regarded as one of the Cherokee’s greatest warriors. His work in helping to establish the Chickamauga settlement is well noted as Chickamauga would later come to be known as the City of Chattanooga.
Sevier’s actions and those of his men at the Revolutionary Battle of Kings Mountain would go on to be recognized as a brilliant victory that marked the turning point of the American Revolution in the South. In his company of militia were battle-hardened frontiersmen who would go on to become the Who’s Who of early frontier America. Their campaigns against the Native American tribes had been an excellent teacher and that experience honed them into a fighting force capable of beating the best army in the world at the time.
Sevier was also an able politician of his day and a player on the national stage. His greatest accomplishment was unknowingly the ill-fated attempt to create the State of Franklin. What appears to be Sevier’s greatest failure as a leader would become America’s most thought-provoking success. The battles, controversies, and court battles that ensued led to action in the Continental Congress. They decided that the only way to avoid another such battle was to create laws and population standards that would permit other regions to apply for statehood in the nation, which allowed a young America to expand its borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast.
In 1996 during Tennessee’s Bicentennial year, a special ceremony was held at the John Sevier statue in the United States Capitol building to commemorate Tennessee’s founding father. A bust of him also sits in Nashville and Sevier County was named in honor of the first Tennessean.
The State’s official proclamation of statehood signed by President George Washington is now under glass in the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville as are numerous artifacts from Sevier’s life and service to America and Tennessee. In Greeneville, a state historical marker and the original log capitol of the State of Franklin mark the period in Tennessee history long romanticized by historians where the region formed into an American state. Although Tennessee was the first federal territory outside of the colonies to enter America, It wasn’t until years later that its star was included on the American flag and Tennessee officially declared the 16th state.
"There are a lot of myths and legends about Sevier," said one state historian. "He is often portrayed as an illiterate backwoods frontiersmen, but he was remarkably intelligent and a first rate military field commander. He often discussed issues of the day with people who would go on to become icons of American history. While he is put down a lot of times for his engagements against hostile Indians, the Native American tribes Sevier often fought were not helpless. Britain had supplied their warriors with firearms, powder, and ammunition. In many cases, they were better shots than Sevier’s own men. Sevier’s experience as a woodsman and his natural ability to lead was what aided him in a crisis. In order to be good in those days, you had to crawl alongside your men and lead them just as much by example as you did by barking orders."
Sevier’s second wife is also reported to have had an impact on early settlement in Tennessee. She was said to be as colorful as her husband and as courageous under fire. In the rough-and-tumble backwoods of a wide-open town like Knoxville was in those days, she managed to carve out a respectable social culture in the city among its families who would eventually become leading members of the community. In fact, the Knoxville Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution is named the Bonny Kate Sevier Chapter in honor of Tennessee’s first First Lady and her contributions to early life in Knoxville.
The Marble Springs Plantation owned by John Sevier is now a state historic site on Chapman Highway in Knoxville. It is open from 8 a.m. to sunset and features numerous activities throughout the year for families and reenactors. Its living history exhibits are considered some of the best in Tennessee and attracts thousands of tourists to the site each year. The facility also features an on-site interpretive center and includes the home and outbuildings common to the era.