I really looked forward to this trip to No. Carolina and Tennessee for many reasons. The first was getting to see the Biltmore in Asheville, No. Carolina, which had been on my bucket list forever!! And always I looked forward to another trip with my best friends, Kay and Tom. If it hadn’t been for them willing to drive me around to these places, I never would have had to opportunity to see them. They are the best friends anyone could ever have.
Secondly, I had just finished an exhaustive ancestral biography of several lines of my ancestry, one of which was the Seviers. I had always heard we were related to John Sevier (pioneer, Revolutionary War hero and first Governor of Tennessee) and through my research I found the proof that I was indeed related to him. I read everything I could find about him and it became a dream to visit some of the places he was known to have lived and worked. And, Kay and Tom helped make that dream come true.
Knoxville was the original capitol of Tennessee. As the first Governor, John Sevier moved his family from his homestead on the Nolichucky River to just outside of Knoxville called Marble Springs. Now a state historic park, I had very much wanted to tour it. Unfortunately, we arrived on a Monday only to find that the park is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. ☹ Took pictures anyway to show we’d been there.
Picture courtesy of Google Images
Undaunted, we drove on to the old Knoxville Courthouse a few miles away, which is still in use, and had a wonderful time talking to some of the people working there about John Sevier. They let me roam around on the second floor imagining which office may have been his. He wasn’t the only famous person occupying these offices either. Andrew Jackson served as Attorney General at the same time. In fact, they almost had a duel! More on that later…
John Sevier died in Alabama while on a survey expedition for President Madison and his body was later reburied in the courthouse grounds along with his first and second wives, Sarah Hawkins and Catherine “Bonny Kate” Sherrill. I spent several minutes at their gravesites, incredibly grateful for the opportunity to honor them, not as famous people but for the family they were.
John Sevier (Sevier is French and should be pronounced “sev-yay”) was a frontiersman, a statesman, a Revolutionary War hero, the only Governor of the failed state of Franklin, the first Governor of Tennessee, and a congressman as well as the prolific father of eighteen children.
John was born in 1745 in Augusta County in the Colony of Virginia. The first son born to Valentine and Joanna, he was sent to good schools, however he refused to pursue a higher education. Instead, he opened his own tavern, and helped establish the town of New Market, near his birth site. In 1761 at the age of 16, he married Sarah Hawkins, and gradually settled into a life of farming. He also traveled during these first years of married life. John and his brother, Valentine, would embark on exploration trips of the western lands to primarily hunt, explore and conduct surveys with various surveying parties. Owning land gained immediate respect and freedom during this colonial period. John saw the possibilities of both in the eastern lands of present-day Tennessee.
John soon moved his entire family to Carter Valley including his parents and all of his siblings as well. A home was built along the Nolichucky River and a nickname would emerge for John years later, referring to him as Nolichucky Jack. The area was remote, filled with wild game and fertile soil. It is assumed that John had previous dealings with the Cherokee and felt comfortable moving his family to this location. He was one of the leaders that established an early government for the citizens of the area. However, life in this remote wilderness was not an easy one. There was constant conflict with the Cherokee who felt their lands had been unfairly taken from them and a fort had to be built, Fort Watauga, for the settler’s protection.
His wife, Sarah, was equally instrumental in the settling of Tennessee. Sometimes it is easy to forget the wives, mothers and sisters and their contribution to the settling of this country. Tough beyond belief, they made the accomplishments of the men possible. While their husbands, sons and brothers served in every major war, they carried on doing not only their own work but the work of their men, usually in some stage of pregnancy. They were strong and resilient in ways that are hard to imagine in today’s world.
She was a woman of genuine inner strength and courage who was completely devoted to her husband's ideas and morals. Married at the age of 15, she had 7 small children by the time John Sevier moved his entire family to the northern lands of No. Carolina with everyone arriving safely. She was an educated woman capable of commanding the Watauga Fort in her husband’s absence. Her delicate and proper appearance belied a fierce toughness.
By the spring of 1780, Sarah gave birth to her tenth child. News of another Cherokee attack provoked John to move his family into Fort Watauga along the Nolichucky River. Sarah died that afternoon and the burial was conducted at night due to the fear of a sunrise attack. Legend states that a storm was brewing to the west and pouring rain and wind was quickly upon those attending the funeral proceedings. The newborn, Nancy, was present at the burial along with John and his the rest of his children. Her grave was leveled and bushes were quickly planted and leaves placed on the ground to hide the burial from the approaching Cherokee party.
By August of the same year, John married Catherine Sherrill, also known as Bonnie Kate. They met when he rescued her during the 1776 attack at Fort Watauga. Bonnie Kate was running away from the Cherokee during the attack and attempted to climb up the fort wall. John pulled her to safety and killed the Indian chasing her. Catherine would be the mother of eight children making John the father of 18.
By now the country was in the midst of the Revolutionary War. The British, hoping to gain an advantage began to attack the revolutionaries from the east. In October of 1780, John, as Lt. Col. of the Washington County Regiment of the North Carolina Militia, led the march to Kings Mountain to stop the British advancement. He was accompanied by his brothers, Valentine, James and Robert. There were 240 men culled together for the fight for freedom and many paid with their lives. They won the battle but John's brother, Capt. Robert Sevier, was shot in the kidney by a musket ball and died on the way home.
During the year of 1784, John Sevier was attempting to create a new state and separate from North Carolina completely as a district. North Carolina was pressured to cede its lands of Tennessee adding they were glad to do so as the area of Tennessee was costly and unprofitable at best. In March of the following year, Sevier was elected Governor of the newly proposed state of Franklin. However, his actions were deemed unlawful and the new state dissolved. He then accepts the seat of State Senator of North Carolina and represented Greene County in ratifying the US Constitution. The territory known as Franklin was entered as part of the Northwest Ordinance by 1790 and was included with the Tennessee Territory. By 1796, the land was admitted to the Union as the State of Tennessee. John Sevier was the first elected state Governor. He served three two-year terms and the term limits prohibited him from serving a fourth.
Sevier turned his attention to other projects after the turn of the century. He ran for the senate seat of Knox County and won easily. In 1811, he ran for US Congress and won serving the 2nd District. He supported the efforts for the War of 1812 and President James Madison offered him a command in the army, but Sevier turned it down. He was on a survey expedition for President Madison in the Mississippi Territory (later incorporated into the state of Alabama) during 1815 and contracted a fever. For over two weeks he would remain in his tent suffering from the illness until he died one day after his birthday at the age of 71. His body was reburied on the grounds of the Old Knoxville Court House. His first and second wives, Sarah Hawkins and Catherine "Bonny Kate" Sherrill are also interred there.
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 but in truth, John Sevier hated Jackson and did everything he could to thwart what he thought was his naked ambition. 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.
The old Courthouse steps where Old Hickory challenged Nolichucky Jack to a duel!
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. 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.
However, Jackson wouldn't leave it alone. Dueling was outlawed in Tennessee, so knowing that Sevier would cross state lines on his way to a conference with the Cherokee, Jackson 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 refuge 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.
***CLICK on any picture for a full screen slide show.
NEXT TIME: NASHVILLE AND IT'S MANY SURPRISES!!