The Winning of the West: Theodore Roosevelt's "wonderful story, most entertainingly told."

   The following blog post is an edited excerpt from my 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.

   John Sevier's successful military campaigns against the Cherokees secured his standing for posterity as an idol of the frontier. Sevier's chroniclers eagerly cast him in the role of hero and savior of the white settlers and described him in almost reverential terms. The venerable Tennessee historian John Haywood observed that Sevier "was endowed by nature with those rare qualities which make the possessor in all places and with all people an object of attention and a depository of their confidence." Sevier's biographer Carl Driver concluded, "No other Tennessean contributed as much to the peace and safety of the old southwestern frontiers as 'Chucky Jack,' the Cherokee nemesis."

   In 1889, Theodore Roosevelt provided one notable exception to this expression of universal adoration with the publication of his multivolume work, The Winning of the West. Part narrative history and part tribute to Manifest Destiny, The Winning of the West celebrated the spread of western civilization. "During the past three centuries," Roosevelt wrote, "the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world's waste spaces has been not only the most striking feature in the world's history, but also the event of all others most far-reaching in its importance."

   Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris described The Winning of the West as "muscular" in its "bellicose expansionism." In his book, Roosevelt called the early settlers of the land west of the Appalachians "a sturdy race, enterprising and intelligent, fond of the strong excitement inherent in the adventurous frontier life." He evidently saw within them a kindred spirit. He wrote, "Their untamed and turbulent passions, and the lawless freedom of their lives, made them a population very productive of wild, headstrong characters." Roosevelt especially admired and identified with Sevier and his fellow frontier leaders. In a letter to Judge John M. Lea, president of the Tennessee Historical Society, Roosevelt wrote:

    "I am very nearly as much of a Dakota man as New Yorker; I like pioneer life and the part of our history for which I most care is that dealing with the expansion of our frontier and the building up of the nation. Sevier, Shelby, Clarke, Boone, Crockett, Houston, are all figures that excite my interest and sympathy far more than do the Eastern leaders of the same time--proud though I am of some of the latter."

   While he admired Sevier and his compatriots, Roosevelt believed these men should be held to a higher standard. Roosevelt cast a particularly critical eye toward Sevier's military tactics and evoked the founding fathers in his narrative to scorn Sevier's treatment of Native American prisoners. In The Winning of the West, Roosevelt documented an incident that occurred in 1788 during Sevier's campaign against the Overhill Cherokee, when militiamen took the Cherokee chiefs Old Abraham and Old Tassel prisoner. Sevier assigned John Kirk, a man whose family had been slaughtered by the Cherokees in an earlier skirmish, to guard the prisoners.

A prolific author, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) wrote twenty-six books, over one thousand magazine articles and thousands of speeches and letters.
Image credit: Library of Congress

   According to Roosevelt's account, Sevier put the captured Cherokees in a hut and then left the scene. Roosevelt asserted that Sevier knew that Kirk and the rest of the troops stood eager to take justice into their own hands. Kirk entered the hut and attacked the Cherokee chiefs with a tomahawk while his comrades looked on without interfering. Roosevelt called this incident "a horrible deed of infamy" and said it constituted "criminal negligence" on Sevier's part for leaving his prisoners to the mercy of the "blood lust of his followers." The incident led to calls of condemnation from the Continental Congress and even diminished Sevier's reputation with President George Washington, who later claimed that Sevier "never was celebrated for anything except the murder of Indians." Roosevelt forcefully argued that Sevier "must be judged by a higher standard. He was a member of the Cincinnati, a correspondent of Franklin, a follower of Washington. He sinned against the light, and must be condemned accordingly."

   Though not a trained historian, Roosevelt always carefully documented his sources. While researching The Winning of the West, he traveled throughout the country in a meticulous quest to chronicle "the great deeds of the border people." Of his visits to Tennessee, Roosevelt wrote, "At Nashville, Tennessee, I had access to a mass of original matter in the shape of files of old newspapers, of unpublished letters, diaries, reports, and other manuscripts. I was given every opportunity to examine these at my leisure, and indeed to take such as were most valuable to my own home." Roosevelt eagerly scoured the archives of the Tennessee Historical Society for documentary evidence. In his preface, Roosevelt graciously acknowledged Judge Lea, to whom he felt indebted for "the unfailing courtesy" shown to him.

   Roosevelt's book garnered high praise from frontier scholars such as Frederick Jackson Turner, who called The Winning of the West "a wonderful story, most entertainingly told." Turner commended Roosevelt for his "breadth of view, capacity for studying local history in the light of world history, and in knowledge of the critical use of material." Roosevelt, however, encountered critics. Dr. William Frederick Poole, a librarian and scholar who served as the president of the American Library Association and the American Historical Association in the mid-1880s, praised Roosevelt for his prose. He nonetheless challenged him to devote more of his time and energy to examining the original source material at his disposal.

   Another critic, James Roberts Gilmore--a novelist and author of a popular trilogy of books chronicling the history of the trans-Appalachian frontier--went further, accusing Roosevelt of fraud and plagiarism. Evidently, Roosevelt provoked Gilmore with a footnote within his text challenging Gilmore's account of Sevier's life. In his criticism of Gilmore's 1887 book, John Sevier as a Commonwealth Builder, Roosevelt referenced Gilmore's use of "traditions gathered a century and a quarter after the event" as evidence that his accounts consisted of "mere fable." Roosevelt accused Gilmore of embellishing Sevier's battles with the Indian tribes of the region and added:

   "Sevier was neither leader nor participant in any such marvelous feats as Mr. Gilmore describes; on the contrary, the skirmishes in which he may have been engaged were of such small importance that no record remains concerning them. Had Sevier done any such deeds all the colonies would have rung with his exploits, instead of their remaining utterly unknown for a hundred and twenty-five years. It is extraordinary that any author should be willing to put his name to such reckless misstatements, in what purports to be a history and not a book of fiction."

   Roosevelt challenged Gilmore's charge of plagiarism, offering $1,000 to anyone who could prove that he had not written The Winning of the West himself and dared Gilmore to confront him directly with his accusations. Roosevelt branded Gilmore as a coward and dismissed his claims, stating, "It makes one almost ashamed to be in a controversy with him. There is a half-pleasurable excitement in facing an equal foe; but there is none whatever in trampling on a weakling."

   Despite Gilmore's criticism, Roosevelt's The Winning of the West quickly became a bestseller. The first edition of his book sold out in little more than a month and helped establish Roosevelt as a literary man and scholar, placing him on a path toward future greatness. Although Theodore Roosevelt earned fame as a politician and adventurer, his literary achievements also created a lasting legacy and his book, The Winning of the West, brought John Sevier's life and accomplishments, ever so briefly, to the forefront of the nation's collective memory.


Theodore Roosevelt. The Winning of the West. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1889.

Edmund Morris. Colonel Roosevelt and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York : Random House, 2010.

James R. Gilmore. John Sevier as a Commonwealth Builder. New York : D. Appleton and Co., 1887.

"Preserving Archives of the State: Robert Thomas Quarles, State Archivist." John Trotwood Moore Papers. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

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.

September events for 'John Sevier' and 'Onward Southern Soldiers'

Traci and I are so grateful for the positive response we've received for our latest book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, and for the continued interest in our first title, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War. As a result, our calendar of speaking events has filled up fast, and our book tour in support of both titles has kept us on the road for much of our spare time. Blog posts on The Posterity Project have been far and few between lately, but I've enjoyed taking this time off from writing on the blog to meet with folks face-to-face and to engage with our readers in person. Besides, isn't this what "social networking" is really all about -- real connections with real people? While I truly enjoy writing, this brief hiatus from the pen has been a welcome break from my normal routine.

Visit our "Events" page for a list of upcoming lectures and book signings.

As the seasons change and the leaves fall to the ground, life slows down a bit, but our book tour marches on at a hectic pace. I plan to resume a more regular blogging schedule in the weeks to come, but in the meantime, look for us at the following venues during the month of September:

  • On Monday, September 8th at 6:30 p.m. CT, we're honored to have the opportunity to speak to students and faculty at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, to discuss the life and legend of John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. I am especially grateful to Dr. Mark Cheathem for extending this invitation to us. Dr. Cheathem has been blogging on the Jacksonian America blog for four years now, and has established himself as an authority on Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian era of American history through his scholarship. In his latest award-winning book, Andrew Jackson Southerner, Cheathem argues for a reassessment of long-held views of Jackson as a backwoodsman and frontier hero, suggesting that in fact “Old Hickory” lived as an elite southern gentleman. John Sevier's rivalry with Andrew Jackson is, of course, a significant episode in the life of John Sevier, which I explore in my book. I expect this will be a topic of interest during the talk, so I hope you'll make plans to join us for this lecture and book signing. This event takes place in Labry Room 130 (a.k.a. the "Tiered Classroom") on the campus of Cumberland University. Visit the "History at Cumberland University" blog for additional information.

  • On Thursday, September 11th at 7:00 p.m. CT, we join members of the General Joseph E. Johnston SCV Camp 28 in Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War. The camp meets at the Shoney's Restaurant on 365 White Bridge Road in Nashville, Tennessee. Dinner is at 6 p.m. and the lecture begins at 7 p.m. This meeting is open to both SCV members and to the general public, so I hope you'll make plans to join us for this dinner-time gathering.

  • Shortly thereafter, we take part in the Belmont Mansion's observance of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville with a lecture and book signing in support of Onward Southern Soldiers at the mansion on the campus of Belmont University on Tuesday, September 16th at 5:00 p.m. CT. Throughout the month of September, Belmont Mansion will host several lectures commemorating the Civil War Battle of Nashville -- a battle that several soldiers recalled in their personal diaries and memoirs which we chronicled in Onward Southern Soldiers. Religion heavily influenced how these soldiers coped with the battle and how those who survived remembered it. We hope you'll mark your calendars for this special occasion and join us for this lecture and book signing.

  • Last, but certainly not least, we visit Clarksville, Tennessee on Tuesday, September 23rd at 1:00 p.m. CT for a lecture and book signing for John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero at a meeting of the Tennessee Daughters of the American Revolution, Captain William Edmiston Chapter. The DAR played a significant role in how writers, scholars and Revolutionary War veterans and their descendants remembered John Sevier's life. In fact, a chapter in my book details some of these efforts of remembrance. This is our first lecture before a DAR audience on this topic, so I'm excited to present John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero on this occasion, and I'm grateful to the Captain William Edmiston Chapter's leadership for extending this kind invitation. This event takes place at the Clarksville-Montgomery County Public Library on 350 Pageant Lane in Clarksville.

As you can see, September is a busy month, and the following months promise to be busy as well with several events scheduled, including an appearance at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. Stay tuned to The Posterity Project for details on these upcoming appearances and visit our "Events" page for additional 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.

Save the date! August book tour dates for John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero...

In the month of August, we're delighted to have three opportunities to talk about our latest book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero...

  • On Tuesday, August 5th, we visit the new Nashville Metro Archives located on the third floor of the Nashville Public Library.  The Nashville Metro Archives recently completed its move from its Green Hills facility to its new space at the downtown library. The new location is larger, climate-controlled and available more hours — and located less than a mile from the Tennessee State Library and Archives, creating a “research quadrant” for genealogists and historical researchers. As a public service archivist, I'm particularly excited to visit the new Metro Archives facility, and I am grateful to Metro Archives Director Ken Fieth for inviting us to this new venue to discuss our new book. Our talk begins at 2:30 p.m. CT. For parking and directions, please visit the Nashville Metro Archives website and the Nashville Public Library's event calendar for further information. I hope you'll make plans to join us.

  • On Saturday, August 16th, I travel to Knoxville for the seventh annual East Tennessee History Fair. The Fair takes place at the East Tennessee History Center, Krutch Park, and at various locations throughout downtown Knoxville. Several events and living history demonstrations are planned throughout the day, as well as music, crafts, historic walking tours, graveyard & museum tours, children's activities, and, of course, an author's table where you'll find me signing copies of John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. Join me from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. ET for this historic celebration of East Tennessee.

  • Last, but certainly not least, we're pleased to have the opportunity to discuss our book with members of the August Book Club at The Hermitage in Nashville, Tennessee on Wednesday, August 27th. Led by Erin Adams, Director of Public Programs, the group will meet at 10:00 a.m. CT at the Education Center. The books selected for this occasion reflect current scholarship on Tennessee, its military history, and takes a new look at many of its cherished heroes. We're honored to have John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero among the titles selected for study. The fee to participate is $5 per session. Light refreshments will be served. For more information, please call The Hermitage Director of Public Programs, Erin Adams, at 615-889-2941 x211.

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.

Dean Cornwell's artistic vision of John Sevier

   In my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, I examine how historians, storytellers, aging Revolutionary War veterans, and Sevier descendants remembered John Sevier and his accomplishments. Artists are another group mentioned in my book. Charles Willson Peale's enduring portrait of John Sevier, for example, served as inspiration for the cover of my book and showed how an artist's patriotic vision helped bring Sevier's reputation as "Tennessee's First Hero" into visual focus.

   Illustrator Dean Cornwell also helped shape the public memory of Tennessee's early history and John Sevier's role in it. A prolific artist of the early twentieth century, Cornwell illustrated several works for a wide variety of magazines and advertisers and painted more than twenty murals for various public institutions. In the process, Cornwell became one of the nation's most popular and famous muralists.

   In Tennessee, Cornwell painted several extraordinary murals during the Great Depression. In 1937 Cornwell painted an Art Deco style mural for the Davidson County Courthouse which one scholar described as one of the "most important Public Works of Art projects in Tennessee." For that work, Cornwell chose a scheme of four allegorical figures in heroic poses to represent themes of Agriculture, Industry, Commerce, and Statesmanship -- a consistent artistic theme that carried over into two of his later works located within the John Sevier State Office Building in downtown Nashville.

In this allegorical depiction of early Tennessee history, John Sevier is the central figure in Dean Cornwell's colorful mural, The Discovery of Tennessee. Author Photo.

   In 1941, Cornwell painted The Discovery of Tennessee and The Development of Tennessee in the grand entrance to this New Deal era structure. The murals, located on opposing walls of the building's grand entrance, depict two distinct phases of Tennessee history. On one mural Cornwell's artistic vision of early Tennessee history surrounds John Sevier dressed in full Revolutionary War uniform and flanked by a patriotic thirteen-star American flag. Cornwell positioned Andrew Jackson at the center of the mural located on the opposite wall surrounded by similar depictions of Tennessee history from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

   Known for his extensive research into the history and geography of his subjects, Cornwell took great pains to present his artistic vision of Tennessee's past as historically accurate as possible. The detail found in Cornwell's artwork is striking, right down to the stitches in the clothing painted on the walls of this vast mural. Cornwell's work evokes feelings of power and nostalgia for a patriotic past, something America needed in this particular time of economic uncertainty.

One half of Dean Cornwell's mural located in the lobby of the John Sevier State Office Building in Nashville, Tennessee. On the left, Cornwell poses for a photograph with his artistic vision of Andrew Jackson and Tennessee History in this image from the Tennessee State Library and Archives, Record Group 82, Department of Conservation Photograph Collection.

   The fact that these two murals face one another seems somewhat ironic considering the personal animosity that existed between Sevier and Jackson. Yet upon reflection, I think Cornwell's positioning of these historic icons accurately portrayed public sentiment toward these two towering figures of the "Volunteer State." The writer E. E. Miller once said of Tennesseans, "We have had no real State hero since the pioneer days. The list began with John Sevier and ended with Andrew Jackson." I think Cornwell would likely agree with Miller's statement and perhaps sought some sort of artistic validation for Miller's words in the creation of this historic mural.

   The John Sevier State Office Building stands as a historic reminder of the New Deal era architecture that brought stability to a chaotic world mired in a Great Depression. Sadly, the architectural legacy left behind by this building, and the mural within it, have been long forgotten by those who prefer the modern efficiencies of the twenty-first century workplace. Those of us who appreciate Tennessee's historic buildings, on the other hand, certainly hope and pray that this building, and others like it, survive society's inevitable move toward modernity.

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.


"A century of progress: twentieth century painting in Tennessee." Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Spring 2002, Volume LXI, Number 1. pp. 25-26.

Walt Reed. The Illustrator in America, 1880-1980: A Century of Illustration. New York: Published for the Society of Illustrators by Madison Square Press, 1984, p. 119.

"Dean Cornwell." Retrieved July 12, 2014, from the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.

"Dean Cornwell: American Imagist." Retrieved July 8, 2014, from the National Museum of American Illustration.

Gentleman, scholar, mentor, hero, and friend. My personal tribute to John Seigenthaler...

   I have been blessed to have had many great bosses throughout my career, but without question, one of the most inspiring leaders I've ever followed was my former boss, mentor and friend, John Seigenthaler.

   I worked for John Seigenthaler as the Library Manager for the First Amendment Center for nine years before moving on to my current position as Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Moving on wasn't easy. I loved my job, and I loved working for Mr. Seigenthaler. Serving John Seigenthaler at the First Amendment Center Library was one of the greatest honors of my professional life.

   John Seigenthaler died on Friday at the age of 86. He lived a full life of purpose and consequence. As a champion of Civil Rights he showed bravery in the face of hate and fear in his defense of the Freedom Riders and became a fierce advocate for diversity in the newsroom. As editor of The Tennessean and USA TODAY he wrote eloquently in defense of journalistic integrity and the free flow of ideas. John Seigenthaler valued truth and accuracy in reporting, and he guarded the cause of free speech and freedom of the press like a sentinel. Throughout his life and as founder of the First Amendment Center he was an unwavering defender of the 45 words of the First Amendment for everyone, not just the privileged few.

   John Seigenthaler had a commanding presence, yet was humble, approachable and friendly. He treated everyone with whom he had contact as equals, and still, when you met John Seigenthaler you knew you were in the presence of greatness. Mr. Seigenthaler will be missed by all who knew him, including me, a young researcher with a passion for history who he frequently sought out as an "expert" whenever he needed to find some obscure fact, quote or statistic. I cherished each and every opportunity to serve him during my days at the First Amendment Center because I knew I was serving the greater good of freedom through his work.

In April 2012, John Seigenthaler invited us to the set of Nashville Public Television's "A Word on Words" for an interview about our first book, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War.

   John Seigenthaler was incredibly generous with his time and had a sincere affection for those who he called a friend. I'll share two moments of reflection as examples of his generous spirit. In 2003, Mr. Seigenthaler delivered the commencement address to my graduating class at MTSU. During his speech, he encouraged us graduates to embrace open mindedness and the diversity of our culture even in the most challenging of times. Following his inspiring words, as I walked the aisle to pick up my graduate degree, he greeted me with an embrace, and proudly shook my hand as if he had known me forever, even though I had only known him for a few short months. A few years later, I had the privilege of introducing him as the keynote speaker during the Society of Tennessee Archivists annual meeting in 2011. He generously shared his life story with our group, and thanked all of us archivists for the work that we do to help preserve the rich history of our collective past. I think he enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed his, and I remain forever grateful for the time he took to share his life story with us.

   One of the last conversations I had with Mr. Seigenthaler was on April 11th, exactly three months prior to the day of his death. I stopped by the First Amendment Center for a visit, and I had the opportunity to chat with him about our latest book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. Mr. Seigenthaler had a keen passion for Tennessee history, something we both shared, so it was such a pleasure to get to talk to him about "Tennessee's First Hero." In 2004, he published a biography of James K. Polk, and was actively researching the life of suffragist Alice Paul for another book project. Most recently, he took on the task of editing the Encyclopedia of Nashville, and was excited to talk to me about his research into the life of former Nashville Mayor Hilary House for a planned entry in the Encyclopedia.

   A few years earlier, my wife and I had the great honor to be interviewed by Mr. Seigenthaler for his television program, "A Word on Words," shortly after the publication of our first book, Onward Southern Soldiers. During our informal chat in April, Mr. Seigenthaler and I talked about scheduling a return trip to the Nashville Public Television studios to record another interview to help spread the word about our latest book about John Sevier, but my conversation with him in his office -- just the two of us -- I wouldn't trade those moments for any camera time in the world.

   I will cherish my memories of John Seigenthaler, and I pray that his family and many friends find solace in the fact that his life touched so many people in a positive way. He was a gentleman, scholar, mentor, hero, and friend to so many people, including me. I will miss him deeply. Rest in peace, my dear friend.

July brings two more opportunities to celebrate...

Independence Day is an obvious occasion to celebrate during the month of July, but on a personal note, I'd also like to take this opportunity to celebrate the outpouring of support our book projects have received by readers. In 2011, Traci and I published our first book, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War, and this year, we've enjoyed touring the state to promote our latest History Press title, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. We're truly honored and blessed to live in a country that affords us the opportunity to pursue our publishing dreams, and we'd like to take this opportunity to celebrate the 4th of July by thanking all our readers for your interest and support!

This month brings two more opportunities to celebrate with us!

On Friday, July 4th, we travel to Smithville, Tennessee to attend the Fiddler's Jamboree. From 1-5 pm we will be on hand to sign copies of John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero at a meet-and-greet book signing at the F. Z. Webb & Sons Pharmacy and Gift Shop. The gift shop is centrally located on the town square at 400 W. Public Square, in Smithville, so if you're in the area for the Fiddler's Jamboree, stop by to see us!

On Tuesday, July 15th, we visit Greenbrier, Tennessee to deliver a lecture and book signing at the Greenbrier Historical Society Annual Meeting. The meeting will take place at 7pm at the First Baptist Church – Fellowship Hall on Hwy 41-N., in Greenbrier. Please visit the society's Facebook page for more information. We hope to see you there!

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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