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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,035

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This is the grave of John Sevier.

Born in 1745 in Augusta County, Virginia, Sevier grew up on the rough frontier of Virginia. His father was actually Spanish and had been in England before immigrating to Baltimore in 1740 and moving out to Virginia. So he did what people to make a living out there–trapped furs, ran stores and bars, engaged in extremely sketchy land speculation. So it wasn’t surprising that his son John ended up in the same kind of work. He was running his own tavern as a teenager.

Now, the Proclamation of 1763 that stopped crazy white people from killing Native peoples and starting expensive wars that the British Army would have to clean up really infuriated people such as the Seiver family. These were people who thought it was their divine right to kill some Indians and raise hell and start new frontier settlements. So Sevier was among those who ignored the Proclamation and hated the British for limiting their “freedoms.” In 1773, he moved his family to what is today far northeast Tennessee, along the Holston River, a blatant violation of British law. Then they moved to the Watauga settlements in Tennessee, which were technically “leased” from the Cherokee, as if they had much choice in the matter. The British considered all of this outright illegal and wanted to punish these crazy white people like Sevier. The whites then bought the land from the Cherokee, which led to outrage within parts of the Cherokee leaders. It also demonstrated the terrible position the Cherokees would continue to find themselves with these violent, land parasitic whites.

All this means we should not be surprised that Sevier and his brothers were enthusiastic supporters of the American Revolution. The British started sending arms to the Cherokee bands, led by Dragging Canoe, to fight and kill these whites. Sevier was a leader for the other side. That led to a brutal set of battles and killings in 1776 that killed lots of whites and even more Cherokee. In fact, Sevier’s own future wife did not make it into the fort they had built before it was closed and he had to open and risk his own life to get her inside.

Sevier spent much of the Revolution involved in this frontier warfare, which was much more about killing Indians than fighting the British. But then the British moved the major military actions to the South and Sevier and his men in Tennessee and western North Carolina were ready to fight them too. In August 1780, loyalists were sent west into North Carolina to suppress these rebellious whites. Sevier was one of the leaders who raised men to fight this “invasion.” This led to the Battle of Kings Mountain. It was a brutal, bloody battle. Sevier’s brother was shot and killed. But Sevier led a charge up the mountain and took it, forcing the Tories to surrender. I suppose this is “heroic” or something, but it’s really hard for me to be sympathetic with these Indian-slaughtering yahoos on the frontier.

In fact, as soon as Kings Mountain happened, Sevier’s men moved to kill some more Cherokees. By this point, the Cherokees were full fledged allies of the British. They knew what this war meant to them–if the British won, maybe they had a chance to survive in their homes. If the colonists won, it would be violence and genocide. So the Cherokees were moving to attack, or at least this is what the whites told themselves. Sevier led a force of 300 that engaged in open genocide, burning every village they could find and killing everyone they could. They just rampaged through east Tennessee, including an action right next to what is today Sevierville, Tennessee, of course named for the “hero.” After more genocidal actions and with the British having surrendered at Yorktown, the Cherokee also surrendered in 1782. The aftermath would be as disastrous as they feared, suffering a half-century of depredations before being forced to move to Oklahoma.

Now, no one really knew what to do with these western lands. North Carolina had claims on what is today Tennessee, but wasn’t sure if it even wanted it. It ceded it to the federal government, or whatever that really meant under the worthless Articles of Confederation, but then wanted it back. Sevier supported that because North Carolina was going to make him a brigadier general in its militia if he joined with them. Principles and all. Didn’t work out though. Then Sevier worked with Georgia to steal more Cherokee land and engaged in more sketchy land speculations in them. Sevier was the lead “negotiator” in the Treaty of Dumplin Creek, which forced the Cherokee to give up yet more land to the whites under the threat of more killing. But the government didn’t approve these treaties. The actual legal status of the whites who started farms remained in limbo for years, but it wasn’t like the U.S. was ever going to do anything for the tribes.

Sevier also was invovled in local violent rivalries with other warlords. The so-called Battle of Franklin was a battle between Sevier and his men versus John Tipton, another local warlord, and his men. This was purportedly about whether Tennessee, then the State of Franklin, would be independent or remain part of North Carolina. Sevier of course was in the former camp. Sevier lost this skirmish and a couple of his sons were imprisoned for awhile over it. In any case, Sevier also had plenty of Cherokees to kill and there was a lot more of that over the next several years.

In 1789, Sevier again expressed his loyalty to North Carolina and was elected to the state legislature. He worked to get the state to ratify the Constitution, which was very difficult in this fractious state. Congress then created the Southwest Territory. Who better to play the biggest role in all of this than the genocidal John Sevier? He was named Brigadier General of the territorial militia and continued stealing Cherokee land. At the same time, even though his district was no longer part of North Carolina, he was elected to Congress. But they let him serve out his term.

In 1796, Tennessee became a state and Sevier its first governor. I don’t think I have to lay out what his top priority was–getting rid of the Cherokee. But at least Andrew Jackson hated him in the way that only Jackson could hate, thinking Sevier was an elite getting in the way of his rise. Sevier was governor from 1796-1801 and then again from 1803-09. There were term limits that limited one to three two-year terms which is why there was an interregnum there. Anyway, Jackson thought Sevier was engaged in land fraud and bribery (entirely possible). Meanwhile, Sevier accused Jackson of cheating on his wife. So when they happened to meet in Knoxville shortly after Sevier’s return to office in 1803, they argued and then Jackson challenged Sevier to a duel. Sevier accepted. They showed up. But their seconds interfered and stopped it before one of these guys got shot and died. Not sure I agree with such an interference given who was involved…..Moreover, the details are kind of interesting. When they met for the duel, they started screaming at each other. This scared Sevier’s horse, which ran away. Sevier’s dueling pistols were on the horse. Jackson pointed his gun at Sevier anyway, leading the governor to try and hide behind a tree. This is when the seconds interfered. What a country.

Anyway, after Sevier was term-limited out of office in 1809, he wanted to go to the Senate, but the Tennessee legislature chose Joseph Anderson instead. But he did go back to Congress in 1811. He was a big supporter of the War of 1812 and a close ally of James Madison in it.

Sevier died in 1815. It was in an appropriate way. See, during the war, Jackson had used the opportunity for more genocide. Sure Jackson and Sevier might hate each other but they hated the tribes a lot more. So Sevier went down to Alabama to engage in some of his beloved land speculation on lands newly stripped from the Creek. But he got sick while down there and died. He was 70 years old.

John Sevier is buried at the Knox County Courthouse, Knoxville, Tennessee. As you can guess, this was not his original burial site. That was down in Alabama. His remains were moved here in 1889.

If you would like this series to visit more of the violent yahoos of the early frontier, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Arthur Campbell is in Middlesboro, Kentucky and John Tipton is in Johnson City, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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