"It is handed down by our forefathers..." John Sevier and the Melungeon mystery

   In previous blog posts on The Posterity Project, I have endeavored to document my ancestral links to the Melungeons, and most recently I have extensively chronicled my research interest in John Sevier. These two divergent points of interest converged during the research phase of my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. While I had no space to include this particular story in my manuscript, I wanted to delve into this topic here on The Posterity Project, since both subjects seem to carry significant reader interest.

   For the uninitiated, the Melungeons occupy a mysterious and often misunderstood place in Tennessee history. Beginning in the early 1800s the term Melungeon (meh-LUN'-jun) was applied as a slur to a group of close-knit and secluded families living along the Tennessee-Virginia border. They have been described within popular literature as a "tri-racial isolate" population thought to be of mixed European, African and Native American ancestry. Recent DNA studies suggest, however, that the families historically called Melungeons are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and white women of northern or central European origin. With each succeeding generation, the Melungeon families of East Tennessee and elsewhere increasingly intermarried with European Americans and integrated into mainstream white society, thus avoiding much of the racial discrimination experienced by blacks and Native Americans throughout our nation's history.

   Sevier's connection to the Melungeons first appeared in the published writings of Will Allen Dromgoole, a Murfreesboro native and prolific author and poet known particularly for her unflattering articles about a community of "Malungeons" [sic] located in East Tennessee. In the 1890s, Dromgoole published, "A Month Among the Mysterious Tribe of Malungeons," which appeared in the Nashville Daily American (1890) as well as several other national newspapers. Dromgoole's descriptions of the Melungeons perpetuated long-held cultural biases about the mountain people of Appalachia, and her assertions about their racial origins rested more on hearsay than documented fact.

This illustration entitled "A typical malungeon" was published by Will Allen Dromgoole in the Nashville Sunday American, August 31, 1890.
Image and caption credit: Wikimedia Commons

   In her article, Dromgoole claimed that, "When John Sevier attempted to organize the State of Franklin, there was living in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee a colony of dark-skinned, reddish-brown complexioned people, supposed to be of Moorish descent, who affiliated with neither whites nor blacks and who called themselves Malungeons and claimed to be of Portuguese descent." Dromgoole's article was filled with errors and conjecture, and she failed to provide any source citations to verify her claims. Nevertheless, other writers seized upon this story and repeated the narrative in subsequent works. As with many stories surrounding Sevier's life and frontier exploits, time and again chroniclers repeated oral traditions and narratives recalled many years after alleged incidents took place without backing up claims with hard proof.

   Another connection between Sevier and the mysterious Melungeons rests upon a letter, allegedly written in Sevier's own hand in reply to a Major Amos Stoddard. In 1810 Stoddard, an officer in the Revolutionary War who later served in the War of 1812, began preparing materials for a book entitled, Sketches, Historical and Descriptive, of Louisiana. He wrote to Sevier seeking to confirm a rumor that he had witnessed an ancient book containing information about a long-lost tribe of "Welsh Indians" that had once settled the area. I'll get into the connection between these "Welsh Indians" and the Melungeons in a moment. But first, in his letter to Sevier, Stoddard wrote:

   As I am an utter stranger to you, I should not venture to address you on the present occasion, were I not in some measure encouraged to do so by your old friend, Governor Claiborne, who had just left this place.

   The object of this communication is to request a statement of particulars of a story, which Governor Claiborne thinks you detailed to him some years ago. According to his account, you once saw an ancient book in the hands of a Cherokee woman which you supposed was written in the Welsh characters, said to be given to her by an Indian from the west side of the Mississippi, and which was afterwards burned with her house.

   I have been some time collecting material to prove the existence of a Welsh colony on this continent, which landed here, according to the testimony of history, as early as 1170. If you can call to mind the circumstances to which I have alluded, and will be so good as to communicate them to me, I shall feel myself under many obligations to you.
2nd. Corps, U.S.

   On October 9, 1810, Governor Sevier replied to Major Stoddard. In his letter, Sevier recalled an amazing story told to him by the respected Cherokee Chief Oconostota. He wrote:

   With respect to the information you have requested, I shall with pleasure, give you the information required, so far as my memory will now serve me, and the help of a memorandum I hastily took on the subject, of a nation of people called the Welsh Indians. In the year 1782, I was on a campaign against the Cherokees, and during my route, discovered traces of very ancient fortifications. Some time after the expedition, I had occasion to enter into a negotiation with the Cherokee chiefs, for the purpose of exchanging prisoners. After the exchange had been settled, I took an opportunity of enquiring [sic] of a venerable old chief, named Oconostoto, (then, and for nearly sixty years had been, a ruling chief of the Cherokee nation,) if he could inform me of the people that had left such signs of fortifications in their country and particularly the one on the bank of the Highwassee river? The old warrior briefly answered me as follows:

   "It is handed down by our forefathers, that the works were made by white people, who had formerly inhabited the country, while the Cherokees lived lower down in the country, now called South Carolina, and that a war existed between the two nations for many years. At length, it was discovered, that the whites were making a number of large boats, which induced the Cherokees to suppose, that they intended to descend the Tennessee river. They then collected their whole band of warriors, and took the shortest and most convenient route to the muscle shoals in order to intercept them down the river. In a few days, the boats hove in sight, and a warm combat ensued, with various success for several days. At length the whites proposed to the Indians, that if they would exchange prisoners, and cease hostilities, they would leave the country, and never more return ; which was acceded to, and, after the exchange, parted in friendship. The whites then descended the Tennessee to the Ohio, and then down to the big river, (Missouri) then up that river to a very great distance. They are now of some of it's branches : But they are no longer a white people; they are now all become Indians; and look like the other red people of the country." [EDITOR'S NOTE: This statement has led some Melungeon researchers to assert that the Welsh Indians were the ancient ancestors of the Melungeon people.]
    I then asked him, if he had ever heard any of his ancestors say what nation of people those white people belonged to? He answered:

   "I have heard my grandfather and other old people say, that they were a people called Welsh ; that they had crossed the great water, and landed near the mouth of Alabama river, and were finally driven to the heads of its waters, and even to Highwassee river, by the Mexican Indians, who had been driven out of their own country by the Spaniards."

   Many years past I happened in company with a Frenchman, who lived with the Cherokees, and had been a great explorer of the country west of the Mississippi. He informed me, "that he had been high up the Missouri, and traded several months with the Welsh tribe ; that they spoke much of the Welsh dialect, and although their customs were savage and wild, yet many of them, particularly the females were very fair and white, and frequently told him, they had sprung from a white nation of people ; also stated they had yet some small scraps of books remaining among them, but in such tattered and destructive order, that nothing intelligible remained."
   He observed that their settlement was in a very obscure part of the Missouri, surrounded with innumerable lofty mountains. The Frenchman's name had escaped my memory, but I believe it was something like Duroque. In my conversation with the old chief Oconostoto, he informed me, that an old woman in his nation named Peg, had some part of an old book given her by an Indian living high up the Missouri, and thought he was one of the Welsh tribe. Unfortunately before I had an opportunity of seeing the book, the old woman's house, and its contents, were consumed by fire. I have conversed with several persons, who saw and examined the book, but it was so worn and disfigured, that nothing intelligible remained ; neither did any one of them understand any language but their own, and even that, very imperfectly.

According to folklore, a Welsh prince sailed to America in 1170, over three hundred years before Christopher Columbus's voyage in 1492. Subsequent explorers claimed to have encountered the "Welsh Indians" in their travels. Thomas Jefferson had heard of Welsh speaking Indian tribes, and believing the legend, he instructed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find the descendants of the Welsh Indians in their expedition of the Louisiana Purchase.
Image and caption credit: Wikimedia Commons

   While Sevier made no direct mention of Melungeons in his letter, some Melungeon researchers have drawn ancestral links between these alleged "Welsh Indians" and the Melungeons, using Sevier's purported words as proof that Melungeons lived in early Tennessee. Others Melungeon scholars, however, remained unconvinced.

   In his book, Melungeons: Examining An Appalachian Legend, Pat Spurlock Elder challenged the accuracy of Stoddard's transcription of the letter, noting that Sevier's words published in Stoddard's journal were transcribed from a heavily-edited rough draft with many words crossed out and corrected, and with some portions of the letter completely undecipherable due to Sevier's extensive notations. Elder further stated that he had been unsuccessful in locating the final draft of Sevier's letter, which may have revealed with more accuracy Sevier's true words. Sadly, the letter Sevier sent to Stoddard has been lost to the ages. Thus, historians have had to rely upon Stoddard's transcription as a source for analysis.

   A well-known Chattanooga writer named Zella Armstrong, however, remained steadfast in her belief of the authenticity of the information contained in the letter. Armstrong referenced the Sevier letter in her 1950 work, Who Discovered America? The Amazing Story of Madoc, claiming to have actually viewed Sevier's original first draft, with notes and corrections made throughout in Sevier's own hand. She offered her own interpretation:

   "The information that they [the Welsh Indians] landed on the Bay of Mobile rests on the word of an Indian who was the greatest man among his people, the Cherokee Nation, most enlightened of the Indian tribes in America, and the written word of Sevier who quoted the great chief... It cannot therefore be part of propaganda which a writer claims was prepared in the Elizabethan period to establish Queen Elizabeth's prior right to America. It is significant that Oconostota's ancestors had told the story from father to son from long before the Elizabethan era."

Oconostota, Cherokee chief (1708-1810), from a painting entitled "The Great Warrior, Chief Oconostota-Cunne Shote" by Francis Parsons, 1762.
Image and caption credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives

   Sevier's letter -- real or imagined -- perpetuated the Welsh Indian legend and stories concerning the origins of the Melungeon people for generations. For some Melungeon scholars, the letter also fueled an already burning hatred for Sevier and his military campaigns against Native Americans. In his book, Children of Perdition: Melungeons and the Struggle of Mixed America, Tim Hashaw wrote:

   "After the American Revolution, John Sevier, early Tennessee governor and ruthless land-grabber, promoted tales of pre-Columbian ‘Welsh’ lost colonists as an excuse for his war on the Cherokees. When President Thomas Jefferson, a Welshman, sent two Welshmen named Lewis and Clark to explore the Northwest, he first had them consult Gov. Sevier about the Welsh myths. Sevier, who once spent the night with a Melungeon family, pointed out strange stone forts in Tennessee and Kentucky as ‘proof’ that the Welsh ‘discovered’ America. Sevier’s popular Welsh tales got him elected governor with a mandate to remove or kill Cherokees to get the land."

   This is a scathing accusation. I do not accept Hashaw's assertion that these "popular Welsh tales" sealed Sevier's election as governor of Tennessee. Several factors led to Sevier's political ascent, and simply stating that Sevier's popularity rested upon a mythic tale seems sensationalist to me. It is not unreasonable, however, to consider Sevier's land interests as motivation for relaying the "Welsh Indian" story to Stoddard in his 1810 letter. If Sevier could prove that white settlers first laid claim to the land west of the Appalachians, all Cherokee claims recognized under the law would become null and void, thus opening up vast swaths of territory to new settlement and speculative land claims.

   Sevier's alleged encounters with the mysterious Melungeons and the Welsh Indians pose all kinds of questions for serious scholars and researchers. Among them, did Sevier use race as a tool for conquest and land speculation, or was his discovery of stone forts and Oconostota's belief that Welsh Indians once roamed the New World mere folktales written to perpetuate long-held beliefs and oral traditions? No historical evidence for the Welsh journey to Mobile Bay has ever been found, and yet Sevier's story has endured.

   For Melungeon researchers, an even larger question looms. Does Sevier's letter prove that Melungeons lived among the earliest settlers of the Tennessee Valley, and if so, what does that tell us about our own origins? Amateur family historians and professional genealogists have labored for generations to solve the Melungeon mystery. All too often, however, this topic emerges from an uncomfortable cloud of racial identity. Were the Melungeons' origins African, European, Native American, Portugese, or some other mixed ancestry? Did subsequent generations of Melungeons collectively lie about their past to protect themselves against government-sanctioned discrimination and societal pressures to fit in? Melungeon scholars struggle with these questions to this very day.

   These are complicated questions with no firm answers. Sometimes a mystery remains unsolved and a legend lives on. Historians, however, should never give up on attempting to discover the truth about our shared past, "warts and all."


  • Zella Armstrong. Who Discovered America? The Amazing Story of Madoc. Chattanooga, TN: Lookout Publishing Co., 1950.
  • Jean Patterson Bible. Melungeons Yesterday and Today. Jefferson City, TN: Bible, 1975, pp. 83-85. 
  • Richard Deacon. Madoc and the Discovery of America. London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1966.
  • Tim Hashaw. Children of Perdition: Melungeons and the Struggle of Mixed America. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2006.
  • Pat Spurlock. Melungeons: Examining An Appalachian Legend by Pat Spurlock Elder. Blountville, TN: Continuity Press, 1999, pp. 114-117.
  • Amos Stoddard. Sketches, Historical and Descriptive, of Louisiana. Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1812, pp. 483-485.

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

History "200 Years in the Making"

I wanted to take a brief moment to share the following announcement from the folks at Marble Springs:

On September 24, 1815, while in Alabama on official commission business, John Sevier caught a fever and passed away the day after his 70th birthday. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of John Sevier's death, the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association is launching a new fundraising campaign for 2015: "$200 for 200." 

GJSMA board president and fellow history blogger Michael Lynch has offered some additional information about the "$200 for 200" campaign on his blog, Past in the Present:

We’re asking folks who love history, museums, and Tennessee’s heritage to make a $200 donation to support our programming, in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Sevier’s death.  Donors who make this special bicentennial gift will be recognized on our $200 for 200 web page, and will also receive these benefits for one year:

  • Free site tours for two adults and our children
  • Free admission for two adults and four children to our special John Sevier Days event in September
  • 10% off gift shop purchases
  • Discounts for our special workshop events
  • A discount on site rentals

Last summer, Traci and I were honored to have an opportunity to speak to the GJSMA board about our book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. The entire board and staff were welcoming, and we were doubly honored to meet several Sevier descendants on that occasion during a reunion gathering at Marble Springs, the last remaining home of John Sevier.

Traci and I enjoyed our visit to John Sevier's Marble Springs plantation home in June 2014. Author photo.

The GJSMA board has some exciting plans for the future of this important place in Tennessee history, but they need your help and support to make those plans come to fruition. Won't you consider supporting their efforts?

If you would like to learn more about this campaign, please visit the Marble Springs website and blog for further details.


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

Joseph Martin versus John Sevier

   As I began compiling research notes for my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, I came to know some colorful characters who interacted with Sevier as he established his reputation as a leader among the nation's earliest pioneers. One character that captured my attention during this period of writing and research was Joseph Martin.

   As a longrifleman, frontiersman, soldier, Indian agent, and legislator, Joseph Martin occupied an important role in the settlement of the Trans-Appalachian West. He established the only station between the start of the Wilderness Road in Virginia and Crab Orchard on the edge of the Kentucky settlement and defended the station from attacks by the Cherokees, allowing settlers safe passage through the Cumberland Gap. In 1777, Virginia Governor Patrick Henry appointed Martin as an agent and superintendent of Cherokee Indian affairs. In this role, he took up residence with the native population and negotiated periods of peace between advancing settlers and the established Cherokee Nation. In 1780, Martin famously kept the Cherokees at peace as John Sevier and his Overmountain Men assembled a frontier army to defeat British Major Patrick Ferguson's Torries at the Battle of King's Mountain.

Portrait of General Joseph Martin (1740–1808)
of the Continental Army.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
   From childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, Martin charted an unconventional path through the wilderness. Born of an affluent family near Charlottesville, Virginia in 1740, as a young boy, Martin set out on his own. Martin and his childhood friend Thomas Sumter, ran away from home seeking a life of adventure. As a young man, he developed natural instincts as a pioneer and explorer, spending six to eight months out of the year on the extreme frontier hunting and trading for peltry among the Indians. Although he commanded a company against the Cherokees in several engagements, he remained among the tribes once peace had been settled. He even married the niece of Nancy Ward, the "Beloved Woman of the Cherokees" and a respected negotiator in her own right.

   Although Martin served in his role as peacemaker with honor and distinction, a few nineteenth century chroniclers of early American history questioned Martin's loyalties. Through their writings they revealed a suspicion felt by some of John Sevier's loyal followers toward General Joseph Martin.

   One particular episode documented by these early historians bears witness to this mistrust, as Sevier rallied his fellow citizens in 1784 to establish an independent State of Franklin. Martin's loyalties were devoted to the parent state of North Carolina, and his election as brigadier-general of the militia of Washington District placed him into direct conflict with Franklin's elected leader. Over the course of four years, Franklin remained bitterly divided and governed in chaos by dueling authorities. By July of 1788, North Carolina Governor Samuel Johnston ordered Martin to arrest Sevier for treason and encroachment on Indian lands, which further inflamed Sevier's loyal followers.

   The late-nineteenth century North Carolina historian Stephen Beauregard Weeks recorded an incident that took place during this period of unrest. Weeks described a scene that rightfully belongs in a movie script. According to the respected scholar, Sevier's followers attempted to assassinate Martin in a preemptive strike against the frontier diplomat. In his biographical essay, "General Joseph Martin and the War of the Revolution in the West," Weeks wrote:

   "The efforts of Martin to protect the rights of the Indians brought down the wrath of the Sevier party upon him, and in this generation that of Sevier’s worshipers. These men, short-sighted and incapable of seeing the question in its broader relations, said that Martin was a friend to the Indians and therefore no better than they. So a party of some fifty men gathered and traveled some 30 miles with the intention of killing him. When they reached the Holston they halted and sent eight or ten forward to reconnoiter. Col. Martin had in the meantime learned their purpose. He went out to meet them heavily armed, demanded their business, and said he would shoot down the first man who moved his gun. They protested that they had no hostile intentions. He finally invited them into the house; they went in and drank, sent for their comrades who had been left behind, and the whole affair, owing to his courage and presence of mind, ended in a frolic instead of a tragedy."

   "I have no idea that Sevier was in any way responsible for this attempt, but Martin’s firmness in the matter of Franklin, plus the fact that they represented opposite sides on the question of Indian encroachments, widened the breach that had already begun between these two patriots and which seems to have continued through the remainder of their career. This hostility was not peculiar to Martin and Sevier by any means. All of these leaders, as Roosevelt points out, show more or less of the same spirit, and it was a natural one. There seems to have been no hard feeling on Martin’s part. He writes Sevier in October, 1788, and says: ‘Our Interest are or ought to be so jointly Concerned that the strictest friendship Should Subsist, which is my Earnest Desire.’ But this was not the case and the charges of conspiracy which Sevier propagated kept them apart."

Memorial to General Joseph Martin
and settlers at Martin's Station, Virginia.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
    Weeks' anecdote revealed one of the most bitter rivalries that existed on America's first frontier. While Martin respected Sevier and sought his friendship, even against ten-to-one odds, he held no fear of "Nolichucky Jack" or his followers.

   Joseph Martin died in 1808 in relative obscurity. Despite his reputation as a diplomat and keen negotiator, coupled with his honorable service as a soldier and legislator, posterity neglected to preserve the memory of Martin's accomplishments. Martin's close ties with the Cherokees led many of his compatriots to mistrust him, and over time, Sevier's legend overshadowed Martin in the annals of history.

   Long after his death, the nineteenth-century antiquarian Lyman Draper attempted to resurrect Martin's reputation by establishing a friendship and correspondence with Martin's son, William, a pioneer in his own right. Draper's exchange of letters with Colonel William Martin documented both Joseph Martin's own life and the congenial bond formed between the son of this early frontiersman and the eager young historian.

   Draper, a prolific collector of manuscripts and gifted interviewer, never published his planned series of biographies of the border heroes he idolized, and thus Joseph Martin eluded public memory. His legacy remained buried within the pages of history as merely a footnote to the larger narrative devoted to the celebrated and revered John Sevier and his fellow Overmountain Men.


  • Stephen Beauregard Weeks. "General Joseph Martin and the War of the Revolution in the West." American Historical Association. Annual Report for the year 1893. Washington, 1894.
  • "Joseph Martin" in Biographical History of North Carolina From Colonial Times to the Present, Volume II, pp. 240-249. 
  • William Allen Pusey. "The Location of Martin's Station, Virginia." Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Vol. 15, No. 3, Dec., 1928.
  • Josephine L. Harper. Guide to the Draper Manuscripts. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1983, pp. 215-216. 

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

"War Hawks Inflame the Nation"... New exhibit highlights John Sevier and the War of 1812

   January 8, 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans -- a pivotal moment in Tennessee's history and in the course of our nation. In recognition of this important historical milestone, my colleagues at the Tennessee State Library and Archives have just opened a new exhibit entitled, "Answering the Call: Tennesseans in the War of 1812."

   The exhibit features 16 panels full of images and information exploring the political and military actions of Tennesseans in the War of 1812. Watching as workers installed the exhibit, I was pleased to see that my old friend John Sevier made an appearance on one of the exhibit panels. That's Sevier on the right of this photograph among a gathering of "War Hawks" who sought to rally the nation behind a declaration of war against Great Britain...

"Answering the Call: Tennesseans in the War of 1812" -- A sneak peek at the new exhibit on display now through mid-April at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Author photo.

   On June 4, 1812, Sevier joined seventy-eight of his congressional colleagues and voted for a formal declaration of war against Great Britain in retaliation for British interference with American trade, the impressment of American sailors, and for perceived instigations of Indian attacks against frontier settlers. In a letter written to Tennessee Governor Willie Blount following the passage of the war resolution, Sevier declared, "We have at length passed the Rubicon. War is finally declared against Britain and her dependencies." Sevier's letter burned with hatred toward the enemy, especially the Creek Indians, whom he believed the British supported. "Fire and sword must be carried into that country before those wretches will be reduced to reason or become peaceable neighbors," Sevier raged. He continued, "There can be no reliance or trust placed in them. No doubt British emissaries are among them."

   I find it ironic that Sevier's mortal enemy, Andrew Jackson, actually carried the "fire and sword" into the War of 1812. General Jackson's defeat of the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend proved devastating for the Creek Indians, and his subsequent victory at the Battle of New Orleans secured his place as a national hero, launching Jackson's political career to new heights, all the while overshadowing Sevier's legacy as "Tennessee's First Hero."

   The War of 1812 exhibit at the Tennessee State Library and Archives is visually stunning and informative and insightful, with text written by historians who have a keen knowledge of the subject and of the time period. I hope you'll make plans to visit the Tennessee State Library and Archives to learn more about this conflict and the Tennesseans who helped shape its outcome. The exhibit will remain open until mid-April. More information can be found on the TSLA Blog at: http://tslablog.blogspot.com/2015/01/new-tsla-exhibit-explores-tennessees.html.

   Considering the subject matter, I would be remiss if I did not also mention that Andrew Jackson's Hermitage is opening a brand new exhibit of their own entitled, "Born for a Storm," which has received quite a bit of media attention in recent weeks. The Hermitage plans to open the exhibit on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, and admission is free on Jan. 8th! A few of my professional colleagues at TSLA and friends in the public history profession will be in attendance during this special event. It should be a banner day for "Old Hickory" and the "War Hawks." Visit The Hermitage website at http://thehermitage.com/visit/exhibits/born-for-a-storm/ for further information.

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

Old Frontiers...

   In the course of research, whether browsing for source material at a library, archive, or online, my eyes sometimes wander towards rediscovery. John P. Brown's 1938 book, Old Frontiers: The Story of the Cherokee Indians from Earliest Times to the Date of Their Removal to the West, 1838, falls within that realm of remembrance. Old Frontiers is a book I've known about for quite some time, but only recently -- during the research phase for my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero -- did I have an opportunity to explore its pages with renewed awareness.

A resident of Chattanooga, Tennessee, for years
John P. Brown lectured in schools, civic clubs, and
women's organizations on the subject of Cherokee history.
Image credit: The Nashville Banner, Aug. 17, 1938.
   The book's subtitle reveals the scope of Brown's interest, and from the opening Preface of Old Frontiers, Brown reveals his desire to correct the narrative of Cherokee history -- a history that for a century "used the language of the United States Government" to chronicle the plight of the Cherokees. Brown blamed white settlers and their desire for land, along with the discovery of gold in Cherokee territory, for the swift nature of Indian removal. A "calm study of the facts," Brown wrote, "brings conviction that it was both inhumane and unnecessary." Brown cast a particularly critical eye towards Andrew Jackson in his Preface. "The one man responsible for Cherokee removal," Brown wrote, "was that strong character, Andrew Jackson."

   Brown, a Chattanooga native, wrote Old Frontiers in the midst of the Great Depression. That economic calamity and the societal pressures surrounding it surely influenced Brown's account of the Cherokee removal that occurred a century earlier. At the beginning of the twentieth century, scholars and historians, like Brown, attempted to debunk the myths and legends crafted by earlier chroniclers. Global war, economic chaos and what one contemporary scholar termed "the intrusive thrust of modernism" led many writers of the period to bring the past "down to non-heroic yet human proportions."

   In a review of Old Frontiers entitled, "The Cherokee Nation: A Careful Study of Unsavory History," published in the Nashville Tennessean, Sept. 18, 1938, writer Sam Carson made the following observation of Brown's work: "We gather, by preponderance of evidence, that the Cherokees were more loyal to whites than any other race, that is, in the South. They fought more for white men than against them. They were sold out time and again by bribed leaders. Their rebellions were inspired by constant encroachments. And only recently have we brought ourselves around to admit injustices to the original residents of North America."

   Despite Brown's effort to correct history's slight of the Cherokees, his narrative still deified many of the white settlers who he ultimately blamed for the Cherokee removal, including John Sevier, who Brown described as an "unselfish commander" whose "whole-hearted acceptance" by the "rough and ready frontiersmen" made him an indispensable leader on the frontier.

Old Frontiers by John P. Brown
   Brown devoted an entire chapter of his book to John Sevier entitled, "Nolichucky Jack Rides," in which he absolved Sevier of wrongdoing during his fiery campaign against the Cherokees and their settlements. According to Brown, Sevier "was one of the settlers, understood their attitude, and sympathized with them... Not a settler's cabin did Sevier pull down; he had in mind rather the destruction of other habitations, those of the red men. Yet Sevier had so impressed the Cherokees with his spirit of fairness that they were willing to rest their case in his hands: 'Send us Colonel Sevier, who is a good man.'"

   Brown also absolved the Cherokees from blame for their own depredations against the settlers of the Trans-Appalachian frontier, suggesting that they fought for the same cause as the white man. "If the Indian scalped his enemy, or burned at the stake the man who would take his country," Brown wrote, "it was nonetheless America for which he fought, with the only means at his command. Recognizing the faults of the red man, and balancing them against his treatment at our hands, the scales tip in his favor."

   Despite its tortured and paternalistic hagiography, Brown's Old Frontiers is an entertaining read, broad in scope, yet filled with individual tales of adventure. There is much that the frontier scholar and Early American historian can gain from reading this volume. Brown drew liberally from both primary and secondary sources, and provided readers with copious footnotes. These sources provide the reader with an opportunity to deeply explore this world from the perspective of the actors themselves and from the scholars who interpreted their actions. History and memory, themes explored frequently on this blog, are also present throughout Brown's work. The stories found within this volume are ripe for further analysis, making Old Frontiers a book worthy of rediscovery and scholarly interpretation.

Old Frontiers by John P. Brown, Southern Publishers, Inc., Kingsport, Tenn., 1938, is available in most public or university libraries, and may be purchased through any number of used book stores or antiquarian book dealers.

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

The Best of 2014

2014 has proven to be a busy and fulfilling year. In March, The History Press published our latest book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, and since that time I have been extraordinarily grateful for the positive reviews and interest in this title.

In April, we launched our book tour in East Tennessee on John Sevier's old stomping grounds in Johnson City and Knoxville, followed by stops along the way at Sevier's Marble Springs plantation home, Andrew Jackson's Hermitage, and William Blount's Mansion. I had the opportunity to appear on Maury County's "Page By Page" television program, wrote an article for the Nashville Retrospect, lectured to students and faculty at Cumberland University and at Austin Peay State University, and met several interested readers at the East Tennessee History Fair, and at the Southern Festival of Books, just to name a few of the venues we visited over the course of the year.

What has gratified me the most in this year on the road promoting our book has been the feedback from readers, and the knowledge that this book has filled a long-neglected gap in recent scholarship about Sevier and his impact on Tennessee history and memory. For everyone who invited us to speak, and to those who turned out to hear us talk about John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, we sincerely say, "thank you."

Young people have also taken an active interest in the book, as I've fielded several contacts from students and teachers with requests to learn more about Sevier and his leadership on the Tennessee Frontier. It just so happens that "Leadership and Legacy in History" is the National History Day theme for 2015, so to see this renewed interest in "Tennessee's First Hero" among students of history is very rewarding, and confirms my long-held belief that Sevier's leadership and legacy deserves further study.

2014 was also, sadly, a time of loss, as my former boss John Seigenthaler passed away in July. Mr. Seigenthaler was a scholar, mentor, hero, and friend to many in Nashville and throughout the country, and his impact on my life and career was profound. I miss him terribly, and I think of him fondly.

Next year, while we will continue to schedule events in support of our book projects, I am also making a resolution to spend more of my spare time assisting my wife, Traci, on our next book project. Be on the lookout for an announcement on that front in the coming months. Also in the upcoming year, I plan to publish more book reviews of titles old and new, and I will share excerpts from my ongoing research of the Indian Wars on America's first frontier. In the meantime, I hope you'll enjoy this moment of reflection as I count down the ten most widely read blog posts on The Posterity Project for 2014.

May you have a Merry Christmas, a wonderful holiday season, and a Happy New Year!

Top Ten Blog Posts of 2014

  1. Dean Cornwell's artistic vision of John Sevier
  2. The Winning of the West: Theodore Roosevelt's "wonderful story, most entertainingly told"
  3. Personal Recollections of Michael Woods Trimble, Parts 1, 2 and 3
  4. Quote, unquote
  5. "See the Harvest" through John Sevier's eyes
  6. An "Admirer of Patriotism and Merit Unequaled"
  7. The last casualty of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend
  8. "They concluded that we came out of the clouds"
  9. "This effectually unmans me"
  10. A "picturesque" escape

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.