John Sevier (1745-1815)

Written By Michael Toomey

John Sevier was a dominant figure on the Tennessee frontier in the latter part of the eighteenth century.  Born in Virginia in 1745, he married Sarah Hawkins in 1761 and became a merchant and an innkeeper.  Later, as a captain of the militia, Sevier took part in Lord Dunmore’s War. In 1773, he moved with Sarah and their seven children to the Watauga settlements in western North Carolina, where he was appointed to serve with four other commissioners as administrators of the Watauga Association.

Cherokee relations remained peaceful until the American Revolution, when the British took advantage of growing tribal dissent and forged an alliance in the spring of 1776. Sevier played a key role when the Cherokee attacked the settlements, and again four years later in the King’s Mountain campaign and the Battle of Boyd’s Creek. His military ability and leadership firmly established Sevier as the preeminent figure on North Carolina’s western frontier.

Sevier’s first wife, Sarah, died shortly after giving birth to their tenth child. Sevier soon remarried and, with his second wife, Catherine Sherrill, had eight more children. He was apparently little inclined initially to join the State of Franklin movement in 1784.  However, his involvement was critical to any success the movement might have, and he eventually served as its governor.

The popular Sevier and his administration were not without problems or controversy, however.  The most serious one was that neither North Carolina nor the Confederation Congress was willing to recognize the legitimacy of the State of Franklin. Even so, the new state continued to function, and Sevier proceeded to negotiate land cessions from the Cherokee.  The resulting treaties had no real validity, but Sevier encouraged settlement in the disputed areas (a decision that caused confusion and bloodshed for many years). Internal dissension among the Franklinites became more pronounced as the movement disintegrated and ultimately collapsed in 1788.  As the Franklin government faded away, hostilities with the Cherokee increased, and the summer of 1788 was one of constant attacks and vicious counterattacks by both sides.  A leading figure in this conflict, Sevier was condemned by some for failing to prevent the escalation of brutality. 

Sevier was also compelled to contend for the first time with political enemies. One of these, John Tipton, convinced North Carolina governor Samuel Johnston to arrest Sevier for treason.  Sevier was imprisoned briefly at Morganton, but because the Franklin movement was clearly over, he was quietly allowed to escape.  He was soon pardoned and elected to the North Carolina Senate in 1788; and served as a provisional member of Congress until 1791.

By that time North Carolina had ceded its western lands to the federal government.  Sevier was recommended for the office of territorial governor, but his controversial role in the Franklin movement made this impossible. Instead, the position went to William Blount of North Carolina, and Sevier was appointed instead as brigadier general of the militia.  In this capacity, he continued to put down Cherokee attacks, and his military successes solidified his popularity.  When the territorial government ended in 1796, John Sevier was the near unanimous choice for governor of the new state of Tennessee.

As governor, Sevier dealt with a variety of issues ranging from internal improvements to military appointments.  He was reelected twice but constitutionally prevented from seeking a fourth consecutive term.  When his successor, Archibald Roane, denied him an appointment as major general of the state militia, Sevier determined to run again for governor.  He was still a favorite with voters; he easily won the election and served three consecutive terms. His second administration ended in 1809.

Following his second administration as governor, Sevier served as state senator from Knox County and then, from 1811-1815, as a member of Congress.  He was in Alabama as part of a congressional delegation to establish a boundary with the Creek Nation when he suddenly became ill and died on September 24, 1815. Sevier was buried near Decatur, Alabama.  In 1889 his remains were disinterred and brought to Knoxville, where in an elaborate ceremony he was buried on the courthouse lawn.

Throughout his life Sevier remained popular with his fellow citizens, the militia, and with his constituents. Yet he created fierce and highly visible enemies, most notably John Tipton and Andrew Jackson.  Accused of the most violent and brutal conduct in war, Sevier was also widely recognized as generous and hospitable.  While a masterful leader of men on the battlefield, he never effectively translated that leadership on the floor of the legislature. Therefore, John Sevier’s legacy is one of effective and personable grass-roots leadership, at a time when true leadership was a necessary and vital commodity.