Monday, May 1, 2023

John Sevier and Andrew Jackson's Duel

Very soon, I am going on a much looked forward to road trip through the Smoky Mountains and into Tennessee. And, since I will be in the land of one of my more famous ancestors, John Sevier (first Governor of Tennessee and Revolutionary War hero) I thought I would do some research about him before I go. What really peeked my interest was an account of a duel between John Sevier and, of all people, Andrew Jackson! They had been bitter rivals over the years, but a duel? I went on to read several accounts, all different. The following is my take on what really happened... 😊

Nolichucky Jack and Old Hickory in the Duel That Never Was... 

It’s hard to imagine today a scene where a governor of a state and a state supreme court judge would have a slugfest on the steps of a capitol building. But that's what happened on October 1, 1803 between the then Governor John Sevier and the future President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, on the steps of the old Knoxville County Court House in Tennessee. They had been sometimes bitter rivals, sometimes allies over the years competing for high office and military leadership, each seeing the other as a threat to their aspirations. Insults and accusations were traded over the years but came to a head that day when Jackson accused Sevier of illegal land grabs and Sevier countering with accusing Jackson, among other things, of adultery (Jackson having married his wife before she was divorced). Many other people had alluded to this fact, which had even been published in the papers. However, Sevier said it to his face. It’s not known who threw the first punch, but I imagine, Jackson, enraged over the insult to his wife and notorious for his hair trigger temper, would have been the one. 

Dueling was a way for gentlemen to sometimes settle disagreements between each other, especially over an insult. Jackson, macho to the core, had so many duels they were hard to keep track of. So, he naturally challenged Sevier to a duel. Now, you have to remember that at this time Sevier was 58 years old and Jackson was 36 and it could very well be surmised that Sevier had no desire to duke it out with pistols or anything else at his age. Letters flew between the two with Sevier obviously stalling, hoping Jackson would cool off and come to his senses.

But Jackson wouldn't leave it alone. Dueling was outlawed in Tennessee, so knowing that Sevier and a party would cross state lines on their way to a conference with the Cherokee, he was there waiting for him. Documented accounts from both sides had wildly different versions of what happened that day, and one has to wonder, did they even see the same event? Jackson's side has Sevier cowering behind a tree until Jackson gave up and left.  Sevier's side said John had just dismounted his horse when Jackson charged at him on his horse like Don Quixote using his cane as a lance! If this caused Sevier to take refuged behind a tree, I don’t blame him. Jackson was out of control. After all, the duel was with pistols, not bludgeoning with canes. Again, companions from both sides calmed everybody down and then it was over.

I have read several versions of that day and not one of them are the same. Whatever the truth is, I think the whole incident dissolved into a comedy of blustering and posturing and in the end, everybody went away thankful it was over with their own version to save face and make the other look bad.

This painting of Sevier was done by the same artist who painted portraits of George Washington and John Adams. It is a stylized likeness. The bronze bust is more accurate.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022



    Sitting atop a massive volcanic outcropping, Stirling Castle dominates the landscape.

If you want a swashbuckling tale of bravery and betrayal, murder and intrigue, the story of Stirling Castle has it all. From William Wallace, Braveheart himself, to Mary Queen of Scots, more famous names are associated with this towering edifice than another place you can name. Kings and queens made their beds there giving birth to more kings and queens. As the gateway to the highlands of Scotland, it saw many a bloody battle fought over it year after bloody year. The Romans learned to leave it alone, but the British were more persistent. The Scots lost it to the British only to gain it back and lose it again and again until James VI became the first Scottish King of England and settled the matter. 

The story of Stirling is the story of Scotland

In the beginning, as all good tales are told, the land to the far north of England was a wild and rugged place. Not even the mighty Romans, who sought to rule the island, could conquer the ferocious people who lived there. Like demons they were, with their painted faces and long streaming hair they fought like wild cats and knew no fear. The Romans named the painted ones, Picts, while, the others they called, Scoti, Latin for the Gaels. Interesting enough, the original “Scoti” migrated from Ireland, settling on the western part of what is now Scotland while tribes of “Picts” inhabited the eastern part. Over the centuries, they eventually merged into the unique Scottish people we know today.

Stirling Castle sits atop a massive volcanic outcropping that has been a Scottish stronghold since ancient times. Strategically placed, it guarded what was, until the 1890’s, the farthest downstream crossing of the River Forth. To get to the highlands, and to avoid going upriver where the Forth widened into a marshy and treacherous crossing, invaders needed to cross Stirling Bridge. This narrow wooden bridge made William Wallace, Braveheart, famous.

In 1297, during the First War of Scottish Independence, a British force of thousands led by John de Warenne, The Earl of Surrey, stormed the bridge only to be defeated by Scottish fighters led by Braveheart. The British lost over 5,000 men to Wallace’s few. An incredible triumph, it is celebrated by the Scottish to this day. A towering monument to Wallace sits a few miles away from the castle as a reminder that Scotland’s heart will always be free.

King Robert the Bruce takes pride of place on the castle grounds, but it is the monument to William Wallace that commands attention.

Monument to Braveheart, William Wallace

A private tour of the castle

It had been another nonstop day of rain when my friends, Kay, Tom and I arrived late in the afternoon to tour Stirling Castle. Most of the tourists had already left so we practically had the place to ourselves. We discovered this strategy by accident, but now I highly recommend it! Come late—no crowds!

The entrance meant to be foreboding, leads us into a medieval courtyard. Nothing fancy here, it none the less has plush interiors to soften the utilitarian exteriors. 

The Great Hall

 The Great Hall, the largest in all of Scotland was built to entertain in lavish style.

The huge hall could hold hundreds of guests and has 5 immense fireplaces. Imagine all the gorging and butt grabbing that took place. Ah, good times!


Queens in our own minds, Kay and I command the royal dais!

The Palace, built for James V and his French Queen, Mary of Guise, was also occupied later by their daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots.

The Palace was closed for remodeling when we visited, however we were given a taste of what it would look like hung with these magnificent tapestries. These exact replicas of the original wall hangings were made in a special studio on the castle grounds. To see the finished Palace in all of it's splendor, click on the link:

The weather cleared long enough to take this picture from the Castle toward the town of Sterling.

Practically alone in the castle, we sensed echoes of the past around every corner.

For more information on Stirling Castle, click on the link:

Sunday, October 24, 2021


The Scottish Crannog Center at Loch Tay
Just across the lake (Loch Tay) from our timeshare in Kenmore, is a wonderful opportunity to walk back in time to see how prehistoric people lived in this lush and beautiful land called Scotland.

On our second day in Kenmore, we drove a short distance away to a museum site, The Scottish Crannog Center. Underwater archeology in the 1990’s found remnants of a classic crannog dwelling in the lake, and that discovery became the perfect opportunity to not only rebuild the structure, but to incorporate it into a larger vision. That vision of a living museum with docents dressed in the latest fashion of Iron Age apparel going about their daily Iron Age chores became one of the highlights of our trip.

Crannogs, Luxury Lake Living in the Iron Age

OK, I hear you ask, what is a crannog? First of all, the word comes from old Irish meaning a wooden structure or vessel and came to mean a lake dwelling. These multi-use dwellings were built several feet into the lake supported by hundreds of wooden pilings,  and connected to the shore by sturdy piers that could be barricaded off at night for protection.  They are found all over Scotland and Ireland, with Scotland having the oldest known crannogs dating from about 3,500 BC. Loch Tay alone has 18 of these.

Inside the crannog are all the comforts of home:
  a loom for weaving cloth with a handy supply of wool... 

...central heating and cooking facilities combined...

...and a luxurious sleeping loft with accommodations for the pigs and chickens etc. underneath.

An entire extended family, (mom, dad, kids, gramma, grampa, etc.) plus their animals would shelter in a crannog. Tucked in for the night with central heating, a private loft for mom and dad, and fresh goats milk on tap, what more could you want? Looks like the good life to me! Built next to rich farmland and easy access to trading networks on Loch Tay, they appear to have been inhabited by prosperous people who lived in peace for several generations.

Tom, an avid wood worker himself, is given a chance to see what tools an Iron Age carpenter would have used. Here he is working a lathe which produces quite sophisticated results. In fact, all of the tools that were used are ingenious allowing for quite a comfortable existence.

I was amazed by the complexity of the loom. If left up to me, I would still been wearing animal skins!

Demonstration of how bowls were carved out using Iron Age technology. 

During the day, the villagers lived and worked outside the crannogs.

For more information, click on the link:  Scottish Crannog Center

Stay tuned for more of Bonny Scotland!

Wednesday, September 22, 2021


Of all the places you could plop yourself to be totally immersed in the history, ambiance, and yes, romance of Scotland, you could do no better than Kenmore. Located 80 miles north of Edinburgh in the Scottish highlands, it’s neatly tucked in between misty mountains on one side and Loch (or lake) Tay on the other.

With Tom driving on the wrong side of the road, on the wrong side of the car, shifting with the wrong hand and Kay yelling, “Shift! Shift!” at every roundabout, we managed to safely leave Edinburgh and make our way to Kenmore. Kay had arranged for us to stay in a timeshare there, but none of us were prepared for how lovely it was. The white washed cottages surrounded by ancient looking stone walls covered in the red leaves of autumn was a photographers dream.

The walls of our timeshare in Kenmore.

With Loch Tay in the foreground, our timeshare is shown in its lovely setting.

This is the view of the courtyard from our balcony. On our first evening there, a lone bagpiper stood in the middle of it and played for us. It made the whole trip!

The ducks came every morning to be fed. We were more than happy to oblige.

Across the road from us is the town center of Kenmore, which has the boosting rights of having the oldest working inn in Scotland. 

Kenmore is also the gateway to Taymouth Castle, classically Scottish in all its entire brooding, fortified looking exterior. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. When we saw it, it was fenced off, dark and rather gloomy. In the process of being renovated then it is now restored to the opulent dwelling it once was. One of the most famous castles in all of Great Britain, it was where Queen Victoria spent her honeymoon. It stands on the site of the much older Bullock Castle, which was built in 1552 as the seat of the Campbell Clan. Demolished in the 19th century by the Campbells, a much larger neo-Gothic castle was built in a rather imposing blue-grey stone. The exterior is lightened by soaring stain glass windows and the interiors are now bright and welcoming.  Lavishly decorated it is once again a resort fit for royalty.

Taymouth Castle then, fenced off, run down and rather spooky. With darkened windows and weeds as high as a man's thigh, chain-link fencing all around, it is too easy to imagine the ghostly vapor of headless Highlanders roaming the halls at night.

Taymouth Castle now, elegantly restored.
For more information: Taymouth Castle

The Taymouth Castle estate includes a championship golf course, formal gardens, and miles of walking trails. We frequently used this road on the property instead of the main one because the lush scenery was so breathtaking.

Saturday, August 28, 2021



A few years back, my close friends, Kay and Tom Law, and I toured Scotland on our own. It was my first trip to the UK and it ignited a passion for this historic island that only grows with time. The following is the tale of our romp through the heathered highlands, visiting the haunts of Robert the Bruce, MacBeth, Robbie Burns, and eating our fill of steak and ale pie!

First stop, Edinburgh

Kay, Tom and I boarded our Continental flight in San Francisco with ear to ear grins. We were so high with anticipation that it didn’t daunt us in the least to know that between the time change and our stopover in Newark, NJ our flight to London would take 24 grueling hours. The only worrisome thing was the weather. It was late in August and Hurricane Bill had come up the Eastern coast of the US and then hung a right headed straight toward Scotland. We’d packed for nonstop rain just in case, but hoped for the best.

This was the Law’s third trip to Scotland (my first) and they had invited me to join them in exploring new places and places that merited visiting again. I was more than happy to let Kay be our tour guide and Tom our driver through this land of our ancestors, the Stewarts, Sutherlands, and McClarens. We planned to spend three days in Edinburgh to see the sights, but the main event was to attend the Military Tattoo, an annual extravaganza that culminates a month of citywide festivities. Afterwards, we would rent a car and drive to the timeshare they had booked for us in Kenmore on Loch Tay, 80 miles NW of Edinburgh. Kenmore would be our base camp while we toured the surrounding countryside. 

We arrived 24 hours later and sure enough, it was pouring rain! After checking into our hotel, we kitted out in our raincoats and umbrellas and headed off with a vengeance to explore the city. Walking up Princes Street and King Stables Road, we stopped at St Cuthbert Church and graveyard, the oldest church site in the city. Majestic Edinburgh Castle towers over the site and seems to stand guard over the ancient graves. Over the next few days, we saw many of the romantic sites so iconic to Edinburgh—Edinburgh Castle, Holyroodhouse Palace where Queen Elizabeth II stays when she’s in town, and Grassmarket just to list a few. (For a more in depth tour of Edinburgh, read my blogs, Edinburgh, published on March 10, 2013 and Edinburgh Castle, Holyroodhouse Palace and Haggis, published on March 17, 2013.)

St. Cuthbert Church and graveyard with Edinburgh Castle in the background.

Tom admiring the city from Edinburgh Castle.
 Good thing this giant cannon isn't loaded!

Gotta love a man in a kilt with a bagpipe!

Kay and I before touring Edinburgh Castle. 

Statues of King Robert the Bruce and William Wallace (Brave Heart) are proudly ensconced at the entrance. Both national heroes to the Scottish people.

The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

What in the world is a “tattoo” you may well ask. Well, officially it is: "The term "tattoo" derives from a 17th-century Dutch phrase doe den tap toe ("turn off the tap") a signal to tavern owners each night, played by a regiment's Corps of Drums, to turn off the taps of their ale kegs so that the soldiers would retire to their billeted lodgings at a reasonable hour. With the establishment of modern barracks and full military bands later in the 18th century, the term "tattoo" was used to describe the last duty call of the day, as well as a ceremonial form of evening entertainment performed by military musicians.” In modern terms, it has become an international extravaganza and the most exciting thing I have ever seen! Hundreds of plaid skirted men drumming in sync with the majestic torch lit Edinburgh Castle making a dramatic backdrop for the thrilling beat of the drums. People come from all over the world to see bands and performers from all the UK Commonwealth and the place was packed. 

Tom, Kay and I made our way to Edinburgh Castle for the Tattoo along The Royal Mile (Edinburgh's main street), which was packed with thousands of international visitors attending the annual festival and Military Tattoo. It felt like we had gone back 300 years and were attending a medieval fair. The street was lined with renaissance style tents stocked with wares and street performers drawing festive crowds.

Once inside the performance area of the Castle, we hunkered together to enjoy the show under blankets to try to keep the cold wind out, but there was no rain during the performance, thank heavens!

Click on the link to see a short clip of one of the Tattoo performances: 

Unfortunately these pictures can't come close to capturing the magic and majesty of the Tattoo, however they do show how effectively the Castle is used as a giant screen for the background scenes. It was an incredible sensory experience that I hope someday you will be able to experience yourself!!

Next time: Kenmore and Lock Tay

Wednesday, June 2, 2021



Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd on their wedding day, 1839

If I could recommend a place to visit anywhere in the United States, it would be Springfield, Illinois. If you are a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln (like I am!) then this is a must see. His home, his neighborhood, his old law office and the Capitol building—it’s all there as if he just left it! I almost expected to see him walking down the street at any moment, tipping his gigantic stovepipe hat to the long skirted ladies as he passed.

Abe Lincoln moved to Springfield in 1837 after six formative years spent in New Salem just a few miles upriver from Springfield. (See previous blog) It was the year it became the state capital and this young, self-taught lawyer rode into town to establish himself in the bustling heart of Illinois politics. He joined John Todd Stuart’s law office as a junior partner, eventually starting his own law practice with William Herndon. Two years later, he married Mary Todd, who was as politically astute and ambitious as he was. Together they started a family of four boys, only one tragically surviving to adulthood.


(Picture from the Lincoln Library) 
Lincoln often cared for his boys and let them play while he worked in his law office. His partner, William Herndon said that Lincoln "worshiped his children and he loved what they loved and hated what they hated."

Abe Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln's family home in Springfield. A portion of the neighborhood has been wonderfully preserved to capture the atmosphere of their time there. It is located just a few short blocks from his law office, the court house, the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Museum and Library.

The Lincoln's bought a modest cottage in a thriving neighborhood close to his law offices in 1844. Their neighbors were a lively mix of tradesmen and professionals. And if you can imagine it, farm animals were allowed to roam around as they pleased! (Can't you just see them dodging the chickens and pigs on their way to town?) They soon added a second story for their growing family and for the next 17 years, it must have been a wonderful place for his boys, Robert, William and Tad to play. The marriage, however, according to historians, was not a particularly happy one. During this time, they tragically lost their 3 year old son, Eddie, and Lincoln would leave home for sometimes months at a time, serving the outlying areas of the new state with his law practice, which didn't help matters. However, these years away proved politically beneficial, making him a popular and influential figure statewide.

When Mr. Lincoln was elected President, he and Mary rented out their home, selling most of the furnishings and storing the rest. Most of the furnishings in the home has been donated and are true to the period of the house. Robert, his only surviving son donated the home to the people of Illinois in 1887.


The Old Capital building is beautifully preserved as well, a moving memorial to the years of Lincoln. This is where he gave his “House Divided” speech in 1858, and candidate Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the Presidency on the Capitol steps in 2007. Abe’s spirit is everywhere along these halls, having spent eight years in the Illinois House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846. He was also laid in state here for two days in 1865


I have seen two other Presidential Museums (George Washington and Ronald Reagan) and each have been fantastic—so worth seeing. But, this one has the added glamour of the original stage sets from a movie!  

Steven Spielberg and his DreamWorks Studio loaned the museum many of the sets and props used for his 2012 movie, “Lincoln”, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Dramatically staged within the museum, the story of Abe Lincoln is unfolded as we go from room to room. His personal belongings and those of his family is a poignant reminder of the man whose journey began in a one room log cabin in Kentucky to the highest office in our country.

During the Lincoln's years in the White House, their  adored son, Willie, died. He was only 11 years old. Mary Lincoln suffered acutely as this vignette depicts. She is shown sitting in front of a window as the rain, like tears, slowly drips down the panes of glass.

Of course, most moving are the depictions of his death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth, the long train ride from Washington DC carrying his casket, and his lying in state in the Hall of Representatives in the Old Capitol building. Draped completely in black, the Hall was opened to the grieving public on May 3 and 4, 1865. The Hall, which is so realistically recreated in the museum, is especially moving. I remember being by myself in that dimly lit and somber room for several minutes, feeling a shared grief for this great man. 



Bronze head of Lincoln is a recasting of sculptor John Gutzon Borglum's head in the US Capitol. He is the same sculptor of the Mt. Rushmore Monument. The seated figure of Mr. Lincoln is like the one in his memorial in Washington DC. It has him sitting on the American Flag.

The final resting place of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States is in Oak Ridge Cemetery outside of Springfield, Illinois. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln as well as three of their four sons is also buried here in this beautiful memorial to his life and contributions to his country. Constructed of granite, it is as grand as the esteem in which we hold him.


This trip has been quite an emotional ride and I feel that I know Abraham Lincoln better now, as a man and not as an icon of history. There is a saying, "To whom much is given, much is required" and in regards to Lincoln, it is so tragically true. In addition to his profound intellect, he was also extremely sensitive and empathetic. From the death of his first love, Ann Rutledge, to the loss of two of his four sons, to the slaughter of the countless lives lost in the Civil War, each etched a deeper crevice in his face. In addition, he suffered from debilitating depression all of his life, which he managed to rise above to function brilliantly in spite of it. This is a road trip you will never forget.

(*A new book released in June, 2021 entitled, An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd by Michael Burlingame. It is a comprehensive look at the Lincoln's complicated marriage. I just received my copy!)

Michael Burlingame is a Lincoln historian and currently teaches at the University of Illinois.

His books include: Abraham Lincoln: A Life, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln and the Civil War, An American Marriage: the Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd