September 24, 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of John Sevier's death. Sevier passed away following a brief illness suffered during a journey to survey Creek territory. Following Andrew Jackson’s conquest of the Creeks and the resulting Treaty of Fort Jackson which effectively ended the Creek War, President James Madison appointed Sevier as a commissioner to run the boundary line of the new Creek Nation. The terms of the treaty ceded more than 20 million acres of Creek territory in southern Georgia and central Alabama to their conquerors. Despite his lingering bitterness toward Jackson over their previous encounters, Sevier accepted the appointment and departed his plantation home near Knoxville on June 10, 1815 to begin what would be his final mission.
|Creek Chief William “Red Eagle” Weatherford surrenders to Andrew Jackson on August 9, 1814, ending the Creek War.|
Tennessee Historical Society Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Sevier made several entries in his diary following his departure. Although these consisted mostly of mundane observations about the weather and provisions, by August, the summer heat and the arduous journey began to take its toll on his aged body. On August 26, 1815, Sevier noted, “Some unwell with pain in my back.” By September 9, he observed that one of his traveling companions, a man named Dicky Brown, became “very sick.” In the days that followed, Sevier himself contracted a fever. A few days later, he breathed his last breath. On September 24, 1815, Sevier died in his tent on the Creek boundary, ironically as duty called him to survey territory conquered by his most bitter rival.
On March 29, 1889, years after his death, The Daily Picayune newspaper of New Orleans printed the legend that emerged from that dark day:
There is a pretty story still told around the firesides in this country of how Governor Sevier came to his death. He was attending a feast of the Indians known as the ‘Green Corn Dance,’ and although nearly 72 years of age, was there participating in the festivities of the evening. The next day, while on his return to Fort Decatur, he was taken suddenly sick, and while being carried across the Tallapoosa river, and feeling that he was dying, he said to his attendants that if they would carry him to a big spring about a mile away and let him get a drink of the water he thought he would get well. But he died while crossing the river, and his body was buried on top of the hill overlooking the big spring to which he had referred, and whose waters still sing a constant requiem near his grave.
Sevier’s companions buried him with military honors on a spot of land not far from where he fell ill, on the east bank of the Tallapoosa River near Fort Decatur, Alabama. A simple two-foot-long oak stump charred at its end marked his grave. Unaware of Sevier’s illness, Tennesseans had re-elected him to Congress without opposition a few weeks prior. News of his death, however, quickly spread to the state Capitol where members of the Tennessee General Assembly mourned their fallen hero. On October 26, 1815, State Senator Adam R. Huntsman offered a resolution that each member of the legislature wear a crepe on the left arm for thirty days “in honor to the memory of that distinguished fellow citizen, statesman, and patriot.”
|June 17, 1889, a plum tree shadows the grave site of John Sevier near Decatur, Alabama.|
Tennessee Historical Society Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Following this month-long period of mourning, Sevier’s remains lay buried beneath that charred oak stump for several decades before any effort commenced to resurrect his memory from the Alabama soil. Years of weathering and decay removed most outward signs of Sevier’s final resting place. By the summer of 1834, a man who helped bury Sevier’s body, Captain William Walker, returned with his nephew, John Harbinson, to locate the grave. In a letter penned on December 5, 1874, a native Tennessean living in Alabama named Littleberry Strange recalled Capt. Walker’s visit:
We went to the place where [Harbinson] stated Gov. Sevier was buried ; we commenced and continued digging until we struck a hard substance in the surface.
We dug up the substance, and found it to be the charred end of a post oak log or stump, some two or two and a half feet long. Mr. Harbinson identified that as the place where lay the remains of Gov. Sevier.
Capt. Walker took a light wood knot, some two feet long, placed it in the hole from which we had taken the charred end of the post oak log and said that there he intended to place a marble slab.
In 1836 Capt. Walker went with Gen’l Jessup to Florida, to the Seminole War, where he died without carrying out his noble purpose of placing the marble slab at the head of the grave of John Sevier.
Capt. Walker was a noble man; he was a patriot; he loved his country; he loved the noble dead, and for these qualities I esteem him.
And that his noble purpose might be carried out — he and Harbinson both being dead — I — for the purpose of carrying out his intention, and for the further purpose of assuring posterity of the location of the last resting place of a noble man — I, in 1841, procured marble slab and stone and placed them at the head and foot of the grave of Gov. John Sevier, and I have no doubt that these stones mark the true spot.
The small white marble headstone that Littleberry Strange placed on that site measured two feet wide by two inches thick and bore the simple inscription:
“J. Sevier. died Sept. 24th 1815.”
|John Sevier's original tombstone, now located on the facade of the Old Knox County Courthouse in Knoxville, Tennessee.|
Posterity neither erected a statue in his honor nor embellished his epitaph with details. Years later, Sevier’s grandson, George Washington Sevier, grieved, “That arm that so often drew the sword in defense of his country has long mouldered in the soil of a sister State and Tennessee does not now know where the mortal remains of Gen. John Sevier lies.” While no monument yet stood in Sevier’s memory, in his Annals of Tennessee, J. G. M. Ramsey delivered a poetic tribute which offered mourners some solace:
How died that hero In the field, with banners o’er him thrown
With trumpets in his falling ear by charging squadrons blown
With scattered foemen flying fast and fearfully before him
With shouts of triumph swelling round, and brave men bending o’er him
He died not thus ; no war note round him rang ;
No warriors underneath his eyes in harness’d squadrons sprang ;
Alone he perished in the land he sav’d,
And where in war the victor stood, in peace he found a grave.
Ah, let the tear flow freely now, it will not awake the sleeper.
And higher as ye pile his tomb, his slumber shall be deeper.
Freemen may sound the solemn dirge — the funeral chant be spoken ;
The quiet of the dead is not by idle mockeries broken !
Yet, let Tennessee’s banner droop above the fallen chief.
And let the mountaineer’s dark eye be dim with earnest grief ;
For who will stand as he has stood, with willing heart and hand,
To wrestle well with freedom’s foes,— defender of his land !
As time passed and memories grew distant, John Sevier’s body remained buried in the Alabama soil. Over time, his humble grave deteriorated as the legend of “Nolichucky Jack” faded. His frontier exploits vanished from the public consciousness. An editorial published in the Nashville True Whig lamented, "History has been strangely neglectful of the memory of this, one of the most distinguished pioneers of our State." Not until the end of Reconstruction following the Civil War did Sevier’s remains and memory finally receive honor in a manner fitting of “Tennessee’s First Hero.”
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.