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Bill Thayer

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The Diary of John Sevier

The Diarist

John Sevier was one of early America's pioneer heroes, a soldier, a leading land speculator on the frontier, the only governor of the short-lived State of Franklin, and four-time governor of Tennessee; adequate biographical sketches are found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica article and the Editor's Introduction to this transcription; a fuller view of him is given by C. L. Skinner in Pioneers of the Old Southwest (pp166 ff. and 226 ff., passim).

Gov. Sevier is probably as widely revered in Tennessee as George Washington is in the United States at large. His name is perpetuated in a number of placenames, buildings and monuments, and is occasionally still seen as a man's first name in Appalachia.

As for the diary itself, consensus is that it's surprisingly dull; and this although it covers most of his four terms as governor of Tennessee. He records a great deal of weather, and we're made privy to his financial dealings, and to his ambulations from place to place although we're almost never told why he's on the move so much. That said, I kinda warmed to it finally: twenty-some years of such details add up to a rather rich pointillistic view of life on the American frontier in the early days of the Republic; and if I'm right — keep on reading — that there's been some hanky-panky with the editions, it's just possible that the diary as generally known is much flatter than what he actually wrote.

Text, Edition, and Copyright

The text of Sevier's diary that I transcribe here is the one edited by John H. DeWitt and printed in the Tennessee Historical Magazine [THM], Vol. V, No. 3 (Oct. 1919), pp156‑194 and No. 4 (Jan. 1920), pp232‑266; Vol. VI, No. 1 (Apr. 1920), pp18‑68. Their publication date puts all three issues in the public domain. (Details on the copyright law involved.)

My own transcription is rigorously complete; but it is obvious that this is not the whole text of Sevier's journal: rather, as stated by DeWitt in his introduction, the text of a copy made from the original by the Hon. W. A. Henderson and presented to the Tennessee Historical Society, publishers of the THM. It includes 214 gaps marked by ellipses: 59 of them in the years 1790‑1811 and the other 155 in the years 1812‑1815, some of the latter quite significant, covering entire months and quite possibly many entries. DeWitt marks them in the text, but never breathes a word about them.

There exists a second version of the journal, in Chapters 26 thru 28 of the 2d edition of Samuel Gordon Heiskell's Andrew Jackson and Early Tennessee History (1920): that author states, in the opening pages of Chapter 26 (onsite) that his text is from an exemplar in his possession, which was "a copy of a copy obtained by Col. William A. Henderson . . . from the original books in which Sevier had written." Col. Henderson in turn wrote him that he believed he got a complete copy of the diary, hey that's what I paid $84 for! Heiskell vaguely assumes the gaps are due to "defective copying or decay or blotting or fading of the ink which was originally used", and lets it go at that. The Heiskell version is almost identical with the THM version, allowing for an occasional error introduced by one or the other, and what seem like a few tacit emendations on the part of Heiskell; which is to be expected, since the latter's source is in all probability a copy of the one in the possession of the Tennessee Historical Society. Both versions are wretchedly proofread, and neither should be trusted.

For my part, I'm almost certain that the 214 gaps are intentional redactions: by whom and why, I'm not about to guess, although it would seem that the only candidates, all in the early 20c, are (a) someone in the Archives of the State of Mississippi, and (b) Col. Henderson. At any rate, a webpage by Joseph Payne formerly available at RootsWeb but now vanished with the continuing shrinkage of the Web includes excerpts of the diary that differ from THM/Heiskell, and thus presumably from the Henderson copy, in ways sometimes that cannot be due to transcription errorLiere for example (i.e.Livre, French for "pound") where THM/Heiskell have £. Mr. Payne states that these excerpts came from "the entire transcritption written in 1914 by the great-grandson of Gov. Sevier [which] was in the McClung special collection" in Knoxville. More tellingly still, on another page at RootsWeb, also vanished, I found this:

John Sevier's diary under date of August 4, 1814 states: "Went to Val Sevier's to Peggy Matlock's and William Sevier's wedding".

No such entry appears in either the THM or the Heiskell version, both marking an ellipsis between July 12 and their heading for September. If that entry is authentic, someone out there has seen a fuller, and maybe a complete, version of Sevier's diary. So far, I've found no trace of any published edition other than THM and Heiskell, and I've been unable to track down either of the people involved in the RootsWeb excerpts; I've sent an e‑mail to the Eastern Tennessee Historical Society, custodians of the McClung Special Collections, and may at some point try to get the facts from the Archives of the State of Mississippi. If I get anywhere, I'll post the results here; if in the meantime you read this and have a piece of the puzzle, please drop me a line, of course.

As usual, I retyped the text rather than scanning it: not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise I heartily recommend. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if success­ful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.) Further details on the technical aspects of the site layout are given after the Table of Contents.

Introduction (by the 20c editor)
Sevier does not seem to have kept his diary during this period, or it has not survived.
Sevier does not seem to have kept his diary during this period, or it has not survived.

Appendix, unnumbered: "Three Sons of Orleans"


This transcription has been meticulously proofread. In the table of contents above, the items are therefore shown on blue backgrounds, indicating that I believe the texts to be completely errorfree. (Otherwise, pages still not proofread would be shown on red backgrounds. As elsewhere onsite, the header bar at the top of each chapter's webpage will remind you with the same color scheme.) Should you think you've spotted an error, however . . . well, keep on reading:

Sevier's cavalier spelling, capitalization and punctuation, perfectly normal for his period, are greatly exacerbated for the modern reader by the 20c editor's poor manuscript readings, and sloppy typesetting and poor proofreading in his edition. I've made very few fixes, only when it was absolutely clear to me that Sevier did not write what I saw on the printed page: aaffirs and ohuse for affairs and house, for example, or of course bobbles in the editorial notes: these corrections of mine are marked by red bullets, with the printed reading as a prompt in the box that appears as you float your cursor over them.º Where there is only room for serious doubt, you'll find a lower-level bullet, in which I occasionally offer a suggestion but usually not, like this.º A third tier of odd spellings and turns of phrase aren't visible on the page at all, but quietly marked in the sourcecode as <!‑‑ sic , just to confirm that yes, I did check them. Finally, many spellings and idioms common to the period, and almost all the variants of proper names, are completely unmarked. If I hadn't done these things, your screen would be overrun by notes.

By now, gentle reader, you realize you shouldn't send me corrections unless you have either a printed edition (this one or another) in front of you, or — best — the original manuscript or a facsimile. If that's the case, though, I'd be very interested to hear from you.

Section Numbering, Local Links

Each paragraph that opens with a date is marked by a local link, according to a consistent scheme, and some of the undated paragraphs get local links as well: you can therefore link to just about any passage directly.

[image ALT: missingALT. On this site, it serves as the icon for the Diary of John Sevier.]

The icon I use to indicate this part of my site, in navigation bars at the foot of pages for example, is an abrasively colorized version of a contemporary portrait of John Sevier; a larger black and white photograph of that portrait heads off my transcription of the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica article on him.

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Site updated: 1 Mar 18