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
His life was a subject in many early newspapers that gained
him national attention as Americas 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
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 states 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 villages 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
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 Dunmores 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
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, Seviers wife passed away. The marriage had produced
ten children. It wasnt 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-gunsini in Cherokee, was the
son of Chief Attakullakulla, who had befriended the British
at Fort Loudoun. Dragging Canoe, however, possessed none of
his fathers 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 Seviers 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 Seviers forces pushed Dragging
Canoe south towards the Georgia border, where the Cherokee faction
finally settled and made peace with the settlers.
Seviers prominence in Tennessee as a military commander
didnt 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 armys 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
Shortly after the Revolution, North Carolina ceded the Washington
County district to the Federal government. John Sevier, who
was by now one of Americas 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 Americas 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
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 Tennessees
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 Seviers
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 Seviers
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 others 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 Cherokees 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.
Seviers 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 Whos 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 Seviers greatest failure as a leader would
become Americas 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 Tennessees Bicentennial year, a special
ceremony was held at the John Sevier statue in the United States
Capitol building to commemorate Tennessees founding father.
A bust of him also sits in Nashville and Sevier County was named
in honor of the first Tennessean.
The States 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 Seviers
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 wasnt 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 Seviers own men. Seviers
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."
Seviers 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 Tennessees 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.