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This webpage reproduces a section of
The Journal

of
John Sevier

published in Vols. V and VI
of the Tennessee Historical Magazine,
1919‑1920

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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1790
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

John Sevier's Journal

(Introduction by John H. DeWitt)

After the lapse of one hundred and five years, John Sevier, hero of thirty-five victories, first governor of Tennessee and founder of a great commonwealth, comes before us in the fragmentary diary of his last twenty-five years. It is the intimate story of much of his daily private life, the modest notations of his personal concerns, his domestic associations and, to some extent, his public services. It is a quaint document, full of interesting personalia of bygone folks and reflections of pioneer conditions. It records curious dreams and sets forth prescriptions based on primitive notions of the nature and causes of disease. It pictures Sevier the farmer and trader much more than Sevier the soldier and statesman. It hardly purports to be a diary, being rather a series of memoranda for the personal use or amusement of the writer. And yet in many aspects it is worthy of him who many times delivered our forefathers from the murderous savage; who led the valiant "over-mountain men" to victory at King's Mountain; who presided over the abortive state of Franklin; who was for twelve years governor of Tennessee; who sat for six years in the lower house of Congress; who served his people for forty years with almost no pecuniary reward; and who finally gave up his life in a distant wilderness while laying the foundations for permanent peace with the red man and progress in civilization for the white man.

One who ponders this multifarious journal must remember that the hand that made these entries was directed by the same great mind and spirit that guided and developed our early civilization; that these are generally but the commonplaces of a life that was projected with a noble vision, guided by a great destiny and led along an unswerving path of duty. He must always read with the inspiring knowledge of the great soul and the splendid deeds of him who is so inadequately — even so faintly — portrayed by himself. It is a privilege to this generation to get these hitherto unnoticed and unpublished gleanings from life and times that are now Homeric in our historical perspective and our patriotic esteem.

It isº not amiss here to present a summary of the career of the author of this journal.

John Sevier, son of Valentine and Joanna Goode Sevier, was born September 23, 1745, in Augusta, now Rockingham County, Virginia; attended school at Staunton; was married to Sarah Hawkins in 1761; founded the town of Newmarket; was farmer, merchant, innkeeper and soldier; moved to Millerstown, in Shenandoah County, in 1770; moved to the Watauga p157 settlement in 1773; moved to the Nolichucky settlement in 1778; was there an extensive farmer; was married to Katherine Sherrill in 1780; co-operated with Shelby McDowell, Campbell, Cleveland and other leaders in resisting the invasion of western North Carolina by the British forces under Ferguson; commanded the regiment of "over-mountain men" at King's Mountain, October, 1780; commanded in thirty-four battles with Indians, his only battle order being, "Here they are, boys, come on, come on"; was governor of the independent state of Franklin, 1784‑1788; was arrested for treason to North Carolina and never prosecuted; was a member of the North Carolina state senate; member of the First Congress; brigadier-general for the Washington District; governor of Tennessee, 1796‑1801,º 1803‑1809; member of Congress, 1811, until his death, September 24, 1815, which occurred near Fort Decatur, Alabama, while he was acting as commissioner in running the boundary line of the cession made by the Creek nation.

The following opinion of Sevier, from Phelan's "History of Tennessee," is quoted as a just characterization of the man:

"John Sevier is the most prominent name in Tennessee History, and within these limits and upon this field he is the most brilliant military and civil figure this State has ever produced. Jackson attained a larger fame upon a broader field of action, and perhaps his mental scope may appear to fill a wider horizon to those who think his statesmanship equal to his generalship. But the results he accomplished affected the history of Tennessee only in so far as it formed a part of the United States. Sevier, however, was purely a Tennessean. He fought for Tennessee, he defined his boundaries, he watched over and guarded it in its beginning, he helped form it, and he exercised a decisive influence upon its development. It is safe to say that without Sevier the history of Tennessee would in many important respects not be what it now is. . . . His chief claim to a high order of ability is justified by his clear vision of the present needs of his people, and of the future requirements of the State whose greatness he foresaw."

This diary was kept in the custody of George W. Sevier, the oldest child of the governor's second marriage. He was for some time an officer in the United States Army and became secretary to William C. C. Claiborne, governor of the Mississippi Territory. He carried the diary with him to Mississippi, and finally gave it to Col. F. J. H. Claiborne for use in the first volume of his history of Mississippi; but it was never published. Through Col. Claiborne the diary, with many other Sevier papers, came into the custody of the State of Mississippi. All these papers are now in the State Department of Archives and History at Jackson, Mississippi. Years ago Hon. W. A. Henderson, of Knoxville, Tennessee, caused a copy to be made and later he presented it to the Tennessee Historical p158Society. It is, therefore, due to the patriotic interest and splendid generosity of Col. Henderson that the Tennessee Historical Magazine is able to present this diary of our first governor.

It is fortunate that this manuscript has been carefully examined and annotated in part by Col. H. M. Doak and Judge John Allison, both of whom came from the region where Sevier lived and had a vast knowledge of the history of Tennessee, especially of those communities of East Tennessee which are mentioned in the diary. The footnotes furnished by Judge Allison and Col. Doak are designated at the end of each by the letters "A" and "D" respectively; otherwise the notes are by the writer.º The following observations were made by Col. Doak:

"Queer how the diaries of our ancestors never throw any light upon the very things their descendants 'want to know, you know.' I once bought Asbury's Journal, hoping to find something about the country and its early settlers from a man who'd tramped every pig-path of English-settled America. Asbury was a very intelligent man, a marvelous organizer. His journal is barren of all later men 'want to know, you know.' The country he traversed, by plain, mountain, flood and field, might be Asia, Africa, or the moon, for any descriptive trait of it he gives. It might have been inhabited by Chinese, chimpanzees, or angels — or devils — for any human trait, or suggestion of social life he gives — except barrenly in connection with the 'saving of souls.'

"If my revered great-grandfather, Rev. Samuel Doak, D.D., had kept a diary it would probably be as barren of all human interest for the modern man. It might have contained references to highly entertaining sermons preached at Old Salem, almost under the eaves of Washington College.

"Asbury and Doak were pioneers of two vast systems — profound thought at the base of each: Free-will and Fixed-Fate — the latter modified by Election. These are Being's two opposite poles of thought,

" 'Twixt which life hovers like a star.'

Each system was great in its way. These pioneers failed to look at unfolding social life as we wish they had done. If they did, they neglected to record it in extant journals and diaries.

Sevier's diary is interesting and valuable, not as a record of social progress, but as an example of the daily life, routine and thoughts of one who was a great soldier, a thoughtful, practical statesman, a good farmer, a man of affairs,º a thorough business man and a courtly gentleman, equally at home on the battlefield and in the ballroom. His journal is the mere unconscious record of daily details, without a trace or a suspicion of the vanity of him who writes to be read. As a record of daily goings and comings over wide spaces of a man of boundless issue and reckless energy and enterprise it is of incalculable value.

The manuscript is here reproduced without any change in spelling or punctuation. It was not the fashion of the pioneers to spell or punctuate correctly. Sevier was a man of fair p159 education for those days, as well as of great intelligence. It is natural that in this journal he should be given to abbreviation.

It is hoped that the explanatory notes will aid the reader in visualizing the characters, customs and events of those heroic times.

The diary begins when the author was forty-five years of age, about two years after the collapse of the State of Franklin. It continues intermittently until a few days before his death, twenty-five years and four months later.

John H. DeWitt.


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Page updated: 11 Jul 13