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:

   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 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."

Old Frontiers by John P. Brown
   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.

   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.

Thankful for "the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies..."

The following blog post originally appeared on The Posterity Project on November 22, 2011. The words remain relevant, especially today, so I thought it appropriate to share them with you on this year of Thanksgiving. I pray that these words serve as a reminder in these days of strife to be thankful for "the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies" this holiday offers all of us, no matter what troubles stand in our way...

A day of thanksgiving and praise...

In our book, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War, my wife Traci notes that throughout the Civil War, presidents on both sides of the bloody conflict frequently called for days of humiliation, fasting and prayer, and issued proclamations of thanks for victories in battle. It was not until 1863, however, when United States President Abraham Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation that the holiday was established as a national annual event, occurring on the last Thursday of November.

Lincoln's words spoke to a nation in the throes of battle, torn apart by secession and war, yet united in its struggle to preserve the Union. He gave thanks for "the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies" and declared that "harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict." Of course, citizens of the South lived in the heart of this theater, and likely would have written a very different account of the war if given the opportunity. Lincoln's language carried deeply religious tones, calling on a wounded nation to heal itself in a manner "consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union."

As you read President Lincoln's eloquent words, I urge you to be thankful for the blessings of liberty afforded to us by those who fought and died to preserve this nation. We are now a nation at war and in conflict with ourselves both politically and economically. It is tempting to believe that we have never been more divided as a nation than we are today, yet history has a habit of reminding us that the divisions that separate us in the present pale by past comparison...

Lincoln reading the Bible to his son.
Image credit: Library of Congress
   The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the everwatchful providence of almighty God.

   In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

   Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

   No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

   It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

   In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.


Gordon Belt is a public historian and author of John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. His wife, Traci Nichols-Belt, authored Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War. Both books are published by The History Press. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

December visits to Springfield and Chattanooga...

With the holiday season approaching, I have scheduled just two more book signings before the end of the year. In the month of December, I hope you'll make plans to join me for these two special events...

Robertson County Historical Society -- December 1st

On Monday, December 1st, I visit Springfield, Tennessee to deliver a lecture on John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero to the Robertson County Historical Society. The lecture begins at 12:00 p.m. NOON CT at the Robertson County History Museum located at 124 6th Avenue West, Springfield, Tennessee, followed by a book signing.

This is our second visit with members of the Robertson County Historical Society. In 2013 we delivered a lecture on Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War, so we're grateful to the historical society for their invitation to return to speak about John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero.

Chattanooga History Center -- December 4th

Our final event in 2014 is a return to my hometown. I hope you'll join me for my lecture and book signing at 6:00 p.m. ET on Thursday, December 4th at the Chattanooga History Center. Chattanooga has undergone a renaissance along the riverfront and throughout downtown, with the city's history taking center stage in its vision of the future. And soon, the Chattanooga History Center will open the doors to a brand new museum in the Spring of 2015.

An artist's rendering of the new Chattanooga History Center, scheduled to open in the Spring of 2015.
Image credit: Chattanooga History Center.

While the museum is still under construction, you'll have a wonderful opportunity to get a sneak peak inside the facility, and to hear me talk about John Sevier, a historical figure that has a rather interesting connection to the "Scenic City."

Make plans to join me at 6:00 p.m. ET on Thursday, December 4th at the History Center for this special occasion. The program will be held in the History Center's orientation theatre on the mezzanine of the new facility, which is accessed through the front of the building on the Aquarium Plaza.

Admission is free, but seating is limited and will be available on a first come, first served basis. For more information, or to register, call 423-265-3247, or visit the Chattanooga History Center's website 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.
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