No Tennessee native questions John Sevier’s role as a founding father, Revolutionary fighter, six-term governor, and congressman. Indeed, Tennesseans tend to feel that it was only their local hero’s regional ties that deprived him of the credit people like Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson enjoyed. To redress that neglect has been the motive of many antiquarians, researchers, writers, and historical societies over the years. Their efforts are the focus of John Sevier, Tennessee’s First Hero by Gordon T. Belt and Traci Nichols-Belt. The actual historical figure of John Sevier, who lived from 1745 to 1815, takes a back seat in comparison.
Many of the early written works covering Sevier’s career included poorly documented stories that were essentially myths, like Washington’s cherry tree. These first biographers offered what amounted to hagiographies, tales that augmented Sevier’s charisma and leadership abilities, his courage in confronting the “savages,” his vision in trying to develop the trans-mountain frontier. For such writers, history was supposed to be didactic, so they made Sevier’s life and deeds inspiring, copying and embellishing from each other and citing the memories of old men who knew him. Much of their work was superficial, though there was serious, pioneering oral history behind some of it.
Sevier had a solid reputation as a national hero, thanks to his leadership at the American Revolution’s Battle of King’s Mountain. His attempt to organize the State of Franklin from the westernmost counties of North Carolina was often interpreted as an extension of the Revolutionary determination to throw off distant and arbitrary government. As a leader in the westward-expansion movement, he later appeared as a hero in Theodore Roosevelt’s books promoting manifest destiny. The patriotic pride characteristic of the later decades of the nineteenth century revived interest in Sevier as well. His bones were removed in 1889 from Alabama, where he died, to a suitable resting place in Knoxville. A substantial monument was erected there, and dignitaries composed commemorative poems and delivered long speeches that the Belts faithfully include in their narrative.
Modern, more rigorous and impartial historians have revised and balanced Sevier’s legacy. They recognize his hero status in his time, but they also point out his possible treasonous dealings with Spain, his less-than-noble motives during the State of Franklin venture, his feuds with John Tipton and the North Carolina government, and an absurd (to modern minds) confrontation with Andrew Jackson. Sevier’s brutality during the Indian Wars, including tactics that were central to his contemporary reputation, has come under particular critical scrutiny. Two-thirds of Tennessee was still held by Native Americans when Tennessee became a state and Sevier became its governor in 1796. In the early years of the Watauga settlements, write the Belts, Sevier “led a tenacious assault upon the Cherokees, rapidly moving from village to village destroying everything in sight.”
The Belts, by concentrating on the Sevier historiography, have demonstrated again how history is anything but a recitation of the documented facts. Nor is it immutable. It always reflects the motives of the people generating it, which, in turn, reflect their times and cultural circumstances.
Gordon Belt and Traci Nichols-Belt will discuss John Sevier, Tennessee’s First Hero at Union Ave. Books in Knoxville on April 13, 2014, at 2 p.m.