Born September 23, 1745 (Rockingham County, Virginia)
Died September 24, 1815 (Fort Decatur, Alabama)
First governor of Tennessee
John Sevier served as the first, and only, governor of the state of Franklin from 1784 until its collapse in 1788. He went on to serve six terms as governor of the state of Tennessee after participating in the organization of the state in 1796. When his term as governor ended in 1809, Sevier was elected as a state senator representing Knox County, Tennessee. Sevier began his career as a pioneer and a soldier, but his leadership abilities soon carried him into public service. He exercised a lifelong commitment to western and southern expansion of American settlement during the early formative years of the United States. Sevier ended his political career as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and advisor to U.S. president James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17; see entry in volume 2).
"In the state of Tennessee...be assured the Government will have my hearty support in opposing the aggressions of any invader whatever."
A soldier of fortune
John Sevier was born in September 1745 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. His birthplace was on the frontier near present-day New Market, Virginia, a town Sevier himself founded as a young man. John was the eldest of seven children born to Joanna Goade and Valentine Sevier. The Seviers were farmers, but Valentine also worked as a merchant, trader, and land speculator (one who buys unsettled land at inexpensive prices and resells it to settlers at higher prices for a profit). During a time of increased Native American attacks on the frontier, the family moved briefly to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where the children attended school. When the Seviers returned to the valley, John spent the next several years attending school in nearby Staunton. Sevier would never be sympathetic to Native Americans in the future as the nation expanded rapidly into Native American lands. By the time he was a teenager, John left the school and began to work at his father's store, becoming a partner around 1763.
At the age of sixteen, John Sevier married fifteen-year-old Sarah Hawkins. The couple spent the next decade moving around the Shenandoah Valley, farming and speculating in land. Wherever they settled, Sevier would also open a trading store and tavern to supplement the family's income. At one point, Sevier purchased a tract of land near his birthplace and laid out the town in lots. He sold the lots, erected a tavern and a store, and continued with the business of farming. Sevier named the town New Market and gave 3 acres of land to the Baptists to build a church for the growing community.
In 1773, the couple moved with Sevier's parents and several brothers to the southwest and settled on the Holston River in North Carolina (now Tennessee). Like many other speculators, the family was searching for larger tracts of land that were fertile and inexpensive but would soon become valuable as the population pushed westward. For the next few years, Sevier served as a militia captain under General George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2) while fighting Native Americans in what was called Lord Dunmore's War.
In 1776, the Seviers packed up and moved once again. They immigrated to the Watauga River region, along what is now northeast Tennessee, which had previously been home to the Cherokee nation of Native Americans. Sevier had visited the area over the past several years prior to the move and was already a commissioner for the Watauga Association, an organization formed to bring orderly settlement to the area. He was a member of the first court the association established to maintain order in the new settlement, serving as both a clerk and a judge. In 1776, Sevier was chosen to represent North Carolina as a delegate to the provincial congress, marking his entry into state politics. John and Sarah Sevier had ten children together before she died in 1780. A short time later, John married Catherine Sherrill, with whom he had eight more children.
The state of Franklin
When the provincial congress met in Halifax, North Carolina, Sevier was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the state militia. This post placed him in charge of the troops in Washington District. The district was sparsely settled but covered the entire area of the future state of Tennessee. In the fall of 1780, as the American Revolution (1775–83) came to the frontier regions, Sevier led his troops to join gathering forces at the Battle of King's Mountain, just south of the North Carolina line. The resulting British surrender was a significant victory for the colonists. Sevier continued to lead his troops in surprise attacks against the British and their Native American allies throughout the war. He received high commendations from the North Carolina legislature for his efforts. His military success against British forces enhanced Sevier's reputation as a frontier leader and made him one of the most popular citizens in the West.
Shortly after the war ended in 1783, the Continental Congress passed a resolution declaring that Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia must cede (give up) portions of their territory to provide for the formation of new western states. The resolution caused a division in the government of North Carolina: Some government officials agreed with the resolution; others did not want to surrender the western lands to the union. North Carolina's representative in Congress, William Blount (1749–1800; see box), supported the resolution and wanted to see the unimproved western lands developed. Some settlers in Greene, Sullivan, and Hawkins Counties began a movement to separate from the state of North Carolina. Leaders in the movement proposed the formation of the "State of Franklin," named after American statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; see entry in volume 1), within the disputed territory west of the Allegheny Mountains.
John Sevier was elected governor of the newly independent state of Franklin in March 1784. However, he faced strong opposition from those who remained loyal to North Carolina. Sevier served as governor of the proclaimed State of Franklin for three years. During that time, he was in communication with Spanish government officials about the possibility of forming an alliance with Spain. Sevier hoped to gain access to Spanish-controlled trading ports including New Orleans and spur Franklin's economic growth. In 1788, North Carolina declared the State of Franklin to be in revolt, and on October 10 Sevier was arrested. Sevier was accused of treason, but because of his popularity with the western pioneers, he was never tried. In fact, that same year he became a candidate for the North Carolina senate and was elected as the representative for Greene County. Before the end of the year, Sevier had received a full pardon on the treason charges and was commissioned brigadier general in the militia.
William Blount was born and raised on a plantation in North Carolina. The Blounts were wealthy land speculators who dealt in large tracts of land on the American frontier. The family business prospered during the American Revolution, while Blount was serving in the state legislature. North Carolina had developed a plan to pay its soldiers with frontier land in the wilderness areas of present-day Tennessee. Blount and his business partners gained financially because of his position in the legislature dealing with soldiers' claims and land titles.
In 1784, Blount was elected Speaker of the House of Commons and then served two terms in the state senate. In the critical years after the war, Blount became interested in national politics and the creation of new states in the area west of the Appalachians. He expanded his influence when he was elected to serve in the Continental Congress of 1782–83 and reelected for 1786–87. Blount introduced policies that strengthened national control over Native American tribes in order to protect his company's extensive western land investments.
In 1790, President George Washington appointed Blount as governor of the new Southwest Territory and also superintendent of Indian affairs in the region. In 1796, Blount presided over the state's constitutional convention that paved the way for organizing the state of Tennessee. He was then elected to serve as a U.S. senator for the new state. Personal financial problems led Blount to enter into a conspiracy with England to join the western Mississippi area with Britain. Blount resigned from the Senate in order to avoid impeachment for treason when his participation in the conspiracy was discovered.
First governor of Tennessee
Sevier voted in favor of ratification of the U.S. Constitution at the North Carolina ratification convention in November 1789. In March 1790, he was again elected to the state legislature, where issues regarding the financial policy of the new government were addressed. With his term ending in 1791, Sevier was nominated to serve on a legislative council with Blount. In June 1790, President George Washington appointed Blount governor of the new "Territory South of the River Ohio." This territory consisted of land ceded to the United States by North Carolina in 1789. President Washington confirmed Sevier's nomination to serve on the legislative council of the new territory. The first session met in the summer of 1794. One of the council's responsibilities was to ensure that the territory met the federal government's conditions to organize a new state government. These conditions included appointing top officials of the territory including secretary and three judges, electing a legislature and sending nonvoting delegates to Congress when the population reached five thousand male residents, and developing a state constitution and applying to Congress for statehood when the population reached sixty thousand free inhabitants.
The Tennessee River provided the name for the proposed new state. The government of Tennessee began to function when the legislature organized in March 1796. Sevier was elected as the state's first governor and inaugurated on March 30. Blount and William Cocke (1748–1828) were selected to serve as U.S. senators. They left immediately to take their new posts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the national government was located at that time. Complications in Congress delayed Tennessee's admission into the union until June 1, 1796. Sevier completed the organization of the state and began to confront the problems of establishing a government on the frontier. The state underwent tremendous growth from 1796 until the beginning of the nineteenth century, going from less than 90,000 to more than 250,000 residents in a dozen years.
Sevier dealt with everything from land disputes and civic improvements to strained Native American relations and competition for militia commands. Military appointments were in great demand because officers wielded an even greater influence than civil officials in the state. Early in 1798, Sevier himself received an appointment as one of the brigadier generals of the provisional army. War between the United States and France was threatening to break out that spring. Sevier wrote to Washington expressing his willingness to raise an army and serve as its commander if the war became a reality.
Sevier served three consecutive, two-year terms as governor of Tennessee, the constitutional maximum. He then waited out the governorship of Archibald Roane (1760–1819) and returned in 1803 to serve another three terms, ending his run in 1809. Sevier had a long-standing feud with future U.S. president Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; see entry in volume 1), who was a judge on the state's superior court at the time. Sevier's vast holdings from land speculation produced accusations of land fraud by Jackson and others. Hostilities continued to grow, and eventually Jackson and Sevier agreed to settle the matter in a duel. However, the highly publicized confrontation never took place. No one was ever able to prove Sevier guilty of fraud, and people generally decided that Jackson's charges against Sevier must be false. Most people agreed that Sevier's ambition for achievement and wealth was tempered by an honorable character and a generous spirit.
Several months after completing his final term as governor, Sevier was elected to the state senate. He entered the senate on September 20, 1809, representing Knox County. Initially, Sevier held positions on the land committee and the committee on militia law. His interest in the development of the western country earned him an appointment to a joint committee studying the navigation of different streams in the territory. The state assembly received, and adopted, the committee's report. The report recommended eliminating the Native American title to lands between the Tennessee River and the rivers flowing into Mobile Bay in order to secure free navigation. Throughout his life, Sevier had little sympathy for Native Americans, and he continually favored a policy of expansion into their territories. He had no intention of giving up any of the lands claimed by the Native Americans, and he took every opportunity to add to the land already possessed by the whites.
In 1811, Sevier left state politics and moved on to the national level. He was elected to represent his district in the U.S. House of Representatives of the Twelfth Congress on March 4, 1811. Sevier used his influence to promote further western and southern expansion and eagerly supported war with England in 1812. Sevier was reelected in 1813 to serve in the Thirteenth Congress of the United States. He enjoyed his time in the capital and was an active part of the social life of the city. Sevier was a frequent guest at the home of President James Madison and other leading government officials. Sevier was never considered well-read, but he always made an effort to keep himself well-informed in his political dealings.
In March 1815, the same month Sevier began serving in the Fourteenth Congress, Madison appointed him to a commission to settle a boundary dispute resulting from a treaty signed with the Creek nation of Native Americans. The commission was charged with surveying and determining a boundary between Georgia and the land of the Creeks in Alabama. Sevier left Philadelphia in early June to begin his assignment. He worked through the summer and into the early fall on the border commission while stationed on the east bank of the Tallapoosa River near Fort Decatur in Alabama. Sevier died suddenly while reclining in his tent on the riverbank just one day after his seventieth birthday. He was buried at Fort Decatur, but his remains were removed in 1889. More than seventy years after his death, Sevier was laid to rest in a grave on the courthouse lawn in Knoxville, Tennessee, beneath a monument erected in his honor.
For More Information
Driver, Carl S. John Sevier: Pioneer of the Old Southwest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932.
Gilmore, James R. John Sevier as a Commonwealth-Builder. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887. Reprint, Spartanburg, SC: Reprint Co., 1974.
Wilkie, Katharine E. John Sevier: Son of Tennessee. New York: J. Messner, 1958.
"John Sevier." The Architect of the Capital.http://www.aoc.gov/cc/art/nsh/sevier.cfm (accessed on August 22, 2005).
The Life and Times of General John Sevier.http://www.johnsevier.com/ (accessed on August 22, 2005).
"William Blount - North Carolina." U.S. Army Center of Military History.http://www.army.mil/CMH-pg/books/RevWar/ss/blount.htm (accessed on August 22, 2005).
John Sevier (1745-1815), American frontiersman, soldier, and politician, was a leading figure during the frontier period in the Old Southwest and became the first governor of Tennessee.
John Sevier was born on Sept. 23, 1745, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The eldest of seven children, he worked for his father, who had a farm, kept a tavern, traded for furs, and speculated in real estate. At the age of sixteen John married Sarah Hawkins and began a similar career.
By his late twenties Sevier had decided to go west, and in 1771 he purchased land on the Holston River in eastern Tennessee. Two years later he moved his wife and seven children there. Sevier gained his new neighbors' respect, and soon they elected him to positions of leadership which included membership on the local Committee of Public Safety and one term in the North Carolina Provincial Congress. Although a lieutenant colonel in the militia, he took little part in the War for Independence until 1780, when he led several hundred frontiersmen east to help defeat the British at Kings Mountain. Shortly after this, he led a punitive expedition against the Cherokee in Tennessee, the first of many such campaigns.
In 1784 North Carolina ceded its western lands to the Confederation Congress to reduce the state war debt and tax burden. This cession stimulated a movement for statehood among the frontiersmen living beyond the Appalachians. In August 1784 they held a convention and decided to petition Congress for statehood, but before they acted, North Carolina rescinded its land cession. The settlers met again in spite of this, adopted the North Carolina statutes temporarily, and elected John Sevier as governor of the state of Franklin. Opposition from the United States, North Carolina, the Native Americans, and some settlers defeated the statehood movement by 1788.
The next year Sevier began a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 1791 he became a brigadier general in the territorial militia. Three years later he was elected as the first governor of the new state of Tennessee, an office he held for the constitutional limit of three consecutive terms. Then, after he had been out of office for 2 years, the voters chose him for still another three terms. Following that, Sevier served in the Tennessee Senate and in 1811 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until his death in 1815.
The best study of Sevier is Carl S. Driver, John Sevier: Pioneer of the Old Southwest (1932), which gives an accurate discussion of his activities as land speculator, militiaman, and politician, although it fails to present much personal material. Samuel C. Williams, History of the Lost State of Franklin (1924; rev. ed. 1933), offers the most complete account of Sevier's role in the movement for statehood.
Gilmore, James R. (James Roberts), John Sevier as a commonwealth-builder; a sequel to The rearguard of the revolution, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Co., 1974 c1887. □
SEVIER, JOHN. (1745–1815). Pioneer, militia officer, first governor of Tennessee. Born near the site of New Market, Virginia, on 23 September 1745, Sevier worked at farming, trading, tavern keeping, and surveying before moving southward in 1773 along the mountain valleys to the Holston settlements.
In 1776 Sevier joined in petitioning that North Carolina extend its jurisdiction over the Watauga and Holston settlements, and when this request was granted he became first a representative to the Provincial Congress and then lieutenant colonel of the militia. In 1777 he was promoted to colonel. Until 1780, however, Sevier took no active part in military operations. At the head of 240 Over Mountain Men, Sevier became one of the heroes of Kings Mountain in South Carolina on 7 October 1780. Immediately after his return from that victory, he started his career as leader of punitive expeditions against the Cherokees, or to be more specific, against the Chickamauga element of that tribe. In 1781 he again moved eastward across the mountains, this time with two hundred men, to support American regulars and militia against the British and Loyalist forces, though seeing little action.
When the war ended, Sevier entered into a project to establish a colony at Muscle Shoals, and he was so engaged when his Holston and Watauga neighbors started a movement to become a separate state. He was elected governor of the state of Franklin in 1785. Three years later this "state" collapsed, and Sevier was arrested for treason. North Carolina chose the path of reconciliation, pardoning Sevier, making him a brigadier general of the militia, and accepting him into the senate upon his election from Greene County that same year. The next year he was elected to Congress. When Tennessee was admitted as a new state he became its first governor, serving from 1796 to 1801 and holding this post again from 1803 to 1809. Two years later he was reelected to Congress and served until his death near Fort Decatur on 24 September 1815.
Driver, Carl. John Sevier, Pioneer of the Old Southwest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932.
revised by Michael Bellesiles