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This webpage reproduces a portion of
Andrew Jackson and Early Tennessee History

Samuel Gordon Heiskell

published by
zzz, 1920

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Andrew Jackson and Early Tennessee History

Vol. II
Chapter 26

In the preparation of the first edition of this work the author sought information about Gov. John Sevier and the Sevier family from every source he was informed or thought information of value could be had, and the substance of what was obtained was reproduced in the Sevier chapters. He learned that what purported to be a diary of Governor Sevier was in the possession of the State of Mississippi and a copy, or part copy, in the Tennessee Historical Society at Nashville; that this diary had never been printed and its existence known to but very few persons and its contents to fewer still; that no writer on Sevier ever quoted from it or even referred to it; and that it was alleged to have been in the possession of Mississippi for many years — all of which argued that the diary was not to be taken historically very seriously.

In addition to this the idea of a man of John Sevier's type and tireless activity keeping a diary was opposed altogether to the author's conception of Sevier, and made it prima facie incredible that a diary purporting to be his could be authentic.

Further, the space that could be accorded to Sevier and the Seviers in a one-volume history was fully taken up with material already obtained, and more could not be used and at the same time justice be done to other subjects connected with early Tennessee.

But conditions were different when it was determined to print two volumes in the present edition, and the author determined to go as thoroughly as possible into the merits of the diary and use it if found worth while. To that end he addressed a letter to Dr. Dunbar Rowland, Director of the Department of Archives and History of the State of Mississippi.

p504 The author to Dr. Dunbar Rowland.

Knoxville, Tenn., July 25, 1919.

Dr. Dunbar Rowland,

Director Department of Archives

and History, State of Mississippi,

Jackson, Miss.

My Dear Sir:

The Department of Archives and History of the State of Mississippi has in its possession the diary of Governor John Sevier of Tennessee, of which I have a copy, and my purpose in writing is to ascertain, if possible, the evidence upon which the authenticity of this diary rests. My information is that Governor Sevier died in Alabama and that this diary, together with other personal effects of the Governor, fell into the hands of his son George W. Sevier, and that George W. Sevier later was employed by Governor Claiborne, and died while in his service and that the diary came into the hands of Governor Claiborne, who gave it to the State of Mississippi.

Will you kindly tell me the full history of how the diary came into the possession of the State of Mississippi? I am considering issuing a two-volume edition of my book, "Andrew Jackson and Early Tennessee History" (see leaflet enclosed) and want to quote from this diary of Governor Sevier, and, as it has never been printed, and is not generally known to be in existence, it will be necessary for me to give its history and show that it is authentic.

This information from you would be very highly appreciated.

Yours very truly,

S. G. Heiskell.

Dr. Rowland made this reply:

Dr. Rowland to the author.

Jackson, Miss., August 15, 1919.

S. G. Heiskell, Esq.,

Knoxville, Tenn.

My Dear Mr. Heiskell:

Replying to your courteous letter inquiring of the diary of Governor John Sevier, which is on file in this Department, the Sevier papers came to this Department in 1884, through the will of J. F. H. Claiborne, the Mississippi historian. He secured them for historical purposes from George W. Sevier. The diaries consist of quite a number of small memorandum books. They are in the well known handwriting of Governor Sevier and you may entirely rely on their authenticity. No complete copy of the diaries has ever been made. Extensive excerpts were made for the Tennessee Historical Society, several years ago.

With the best wishes for your undertaking, I am,

Cordially yours,

Dunbar Rowland.

 p505  The copy of the diary in the author's possession is a copy of a copy obtained by Col. William A. Henderson, Assistant General Counsel of the Southern Railway Company, from the original books in which Sevier had written. It is made of 150 legal cap typewritten pages of about three hundred words to the page. A request was made of Col. Henderson for any information he might have not only in reference to his copy, but also in reference to the original books themselves, and in reply Col. Henderson wrote as follows:

W. A. Henderson to the author.

Washington, D. C., August 25, 1919.

Hon. S. G. Heiskell,

Knoxville, Tenn.

Dear Sir:

On my return to the city I find your letter of August 17th in reference to the Sevier diary, of which you spoke to me on the street in Knoxville. The history of that diary, so far as I am concerned, is as follows:

I had made many addresses concerning Sevier, with some of which you may be familiar. He is the most popular man that ever lived in Tennessee, Andrew Jackson notwithstanding. While in Nashville on one occasion I learned from the Chancellor of the University of Mississippi at Oxford that they had on file some ten or a dozen little pocket books which contained Sevier's diary. I soon thereafter went down to Oxford and saw them. They were little books that you could carry in your pocket and there were quite a number of them, which I looked through. I prepared an Act of the Mississippi Legislature, then in session, providing that they should be donated to the Tennessee Historical Society, which was about to go through until some patriotic Mississippi man raised the howl of State rights which killed it. I then got permission to have same copied, which he did for me at a cost of $84.00.

The history of these little books is this: On the death of the General these books fell into the hands of his son, George, who was the private secretary of W. A. Claiborne, Governor of the Territory of Mississippi. George died in Mississippi and all of his documents went into the possession of the Governor, who was afterwards made Governor of the Territory of Louisiana and was elected Senator, but died before taking his seat; but he gave all of his historical documents to the University of Mississippi and this diary went along with the balance. So far as I know and believe what I got was a complete copy of the books and it was so bargained and paid for by me.

 p506  I gave a copy to Thos. H. Cook, Esq., and also one to the Tennessee Historical Society.

Anything I can do for you I will do with pleasure.

Yours very truly,

W. A. Henderson,

Asst. General Solicitor.

Col. Henderson is in error as to the Claiborne to whom George W. Sevier gave the diary; it was Col. J. F. H. Claiborne, for use in his first volume of the History of Mississippi and not to Governor Claiborne, and it was bequeathed by Col. J. F. H. Claiborne in his will to the State of Mississippi, and the Legislature of the State accepted the bequest by a joint resolution of March 8, 1882. The diary was among numerous papers so bequeathed, and, after their acceptance, the entire collection was placed at first in the custody of the University of Mississippi at Oxford, and in 1903 removed to the State Department of Archives and History at Jackson, where it now is.

Joint Resolution.

"Joint Resolution accepting from J. F. H. Claiborne, certain historical documents, and for other purposes.

"Whereas, Hon. J. F. H. Claiborne, the historian of Mississippi, has offered to donate to the State under proper restrictions, for the use of any of her citizens, a large and valuable collection of historical documents, embra­cing all the papers connected with the Indian war that desolated our eastern frontier, the voluminous correspondence and official papers of some of our Governors, files of newspapers and pamphlets published at a former era in the history of our progress as a commonwealth, and the letters and correspondence, private and public, of many of our most eminent citizens, senators and representatives in Congress, officers distinguished in the war between the States, and also the voluminous correspondence of J. F. H. Claiborne, besides other documents illustrative of every stage of our progress, from the withdrawal of the Spaniards down to the reconstruction of the State after our civil war; and

"Whereas, There are many Mississippians who share the pride cherished by the donor for his native State, some of whom may be able, with these papers to complete the work, which age, infirmity and failing health, now disqualify the donor from doing; now, therefore be it

"Resolved by the House, the Senate concurring, That we gratefully accept the valuable donation of Hon. J. F. H. Claiborne,  p507 for the State, and in its name and for our people we hereby extend thanks to him for material so valuable to the future historian of the State and so interesting to all our citizens.

"Be it further resolved, That the custody of all the documents embraced in the donation aforesaid be committed to the care of the University of Mississippi, as the property of the State, subject to the use in the building where said documents are kept of any citizen of the State at such times and hours as the library of said university is open for use; provided however, should said J. F. H. Claiborne appoint a literary executor, facilities shall be furnished such executor by the authorities of the university, under such rules and regulations as they may prescribe, for the use of the documents described in the resolutions in preference to others on the university grounds.

"Be it further resolved, That the authorities of the University of Mississippi shall, on the delivery of said documents, cause a list of the same to be made, in duplicate, the original of which shall be forwarded to the Secretary of State to be by him deposited for safe keeping in his office.

"Be it further resolved, That the sum of one hundred dollars, or so much thereof as may be necessary, be and the same is hereby appropriated, out of any monies in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, payable on the warrant of the Auditor, in the name of the Governor, for the purpose of carrying out the object of these resolutions with respect to delivery, listing and custody of the documents herein before set forth, and that these resolutions take effect and be in force from and after their passage.

"Approved, March 8, 1882.

"A true copy of the original Act. Witness my hand and seal this 17th day of April, 1920.

(Signed) Dunbar Rowland,



Dr. Rowland calls the books in which the diary was originally written "small memorandum books" and Col. Henderson speaks of them as "ten or a dozen little pocket books" * * * * * "which I looked through." This with Dr. Rowland's statement that the books are "in the well known handwriting of Governor Sevier" would seem to settle that the diary is authentic.

The authenticity out of the way, questions arose whether it should be published in full or only the material parts; whether the spelling, punctuation and capitalization should be corrected; and whether explanatory notes should accompany it.

The author decided that while the greater part of the diary is of no general historical value, it would be best for the reader to have it all placed before him to the end of lighting up the life,  p508 trend of thought, motives, activities and incentives of the real John Sevier — John Sevier the man — and that the document should be left identically in every respect as he wrote it.

Whether notes should be added was more difficult of decision, but was settled in the negative. To be of any great value notes would take space equal to probably half of the diary, and explanations would be made of entries of no real value, and of little if any interest to the reader, either in Tennessee or elsewhere.

The Real Value of the Diary.

The real value of the diary is as a portrayal of John Sevier, the man, and as a picture of the everyday life of the times. Of governmental, political and public matters it has little to say. Of living, personal activities and the occurrence of daily events it has much, in fact everything, and makes an expose that is always interesting and frequently delightful. It is so human and life-like and realistic. In it Sevier is not on dress parade. He is not writing for effect or for posterity. He tells of things just as they are and of events just as they happen. It makes as fine and as accurate a picture of genuine, unadorned country life and the details of that life, as was ever painted in words; and if an illustrator or a painter were to put the pictures on canvas, what a feast of realistic art they would give us and what a joy to see them.

The diary opens on May 19, 1790, when Sevier started to the City of New York to become the first Congressman from what subsequently became the State of Tennessee, but which at the time was a part of North Carolina. He tells us that he took his seat as a member of Congress June 16, 1790.

This diary is different from the work of two other distinguished Tennesseeans who wrote about themselves — James K. Polk and Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey. Polk's diary is almost exclusively about his public life and occurrences during his term as President, and begins August 26, 1846 and ends June 2, 1849, thirteen days before his death, covering less than three years. While it is of immense historical value, few of the details are of the personal or everyday kind that Sevier's is filled with.

Dr. Ramsey's "Autobiography" was written for his family and descendants, with nothing on its face to show conclusively whether it was for publication or not, and the author has no other evidence on this point. It covers the Doctor's varied and widely extended personal and official activities, and many details as to  p509 his ancestry and descendants, but it is not a diary — rather a history — and has not as strong coloring as Sevier gives.

Sevier was of French descent and after he became a member of Congress his partiality for the French is shown by his frequent visits to, and his evident intimacy with, the French Minister at Washington, and his liberal sentiments in religious matters is exhibited by his numerous visits to the Roman Catholic as well as Protestant churches.

Range of Topics in the Diary.

The range of topics in the diary is shown by reference to hundreds of persons and things of which the following are illustrations:

His children take dancing lessons; he buys forty-one gallons of whiskey at seventy-five cents a gallon; sells a slave woman for $333.33. Cannon were fired in 1797, celebrating Washington's birthday, and also, with other marks of respect, on his death. He goes hunting and kills a wild turkey. Has a dispute with Andrew Jackson near Kingston, Tenn. Dines with the President of the United States numerous times. Dines with Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Attends Mrs. Madison's levees at the President's mansion. Takes tea with James Monroe, Secretary of State. Buys two gallons of cherry​a wine for $2.50. Is pall bearer at the funeral of Vice President George Clinton, and again pall bearer at the funeral of Vice President Elldridgeº Gerry. Received February 1, 1808, a gold medal from the Secretary of the Navy. Left his daughter Ruth's likeness with a silversmith at Georgetown to be set in gold. Had fodder pulling; slaughtered hogs and beeves; went to ball games; loaned money to friends. Gives hundreds of details of travelling expenses, hotel bills, shoeing and feeding horses and buying clothes for Mrs. Sevier and family. Paid $100 to wagoners for hauling goods from Richmond, Va. Notes the arrival of the French Orleans Princes at Knoxville. Notes that Francis Baker was whipped at Jonesboro, Bealer whipped, cropped, branded and pilloried for horse-stealing, Robert Baker​b executed for burglary and Stevens burned in the hand for larceny. p544

The Gambling of the Period.

The gambling of early Tennessee was mostly confined to the games of whist and billiards, and to horse-racing and cock-fighting.  p510 Andrew Jackson supported the last two. It is certain that Sevier sported whist and billiards and bet on horse-racing. We find no mention of draw poker in the early days, although that game and whist and billiards could look back some three or four centuries to their birth; and in other parts of the world draw poker was recognized as a standard sporting game. In the absence of that game our ancestors were not quite up to the advancement of other parts of the world.

Sevier seems to have been successful in his gaming. He tells that he went to Georgetown and won $80.00 from John Gale, editor of The Intelligencer, by betting on Mr. Stewart who was playing cards with Mr. Gale. He adds a plaintive little ending to this entry saying "the money is not yet paid." He says that he spent the evening of November 17, 1812,​c with Col. Dawson and won $5.00 of the Colonel's money. On another occasion he won $2.00 from Dr. Blake, and $5.00 from the Honorable John Dawson — which was not paid when the diary was written. The only winning of any substantial amount was from Captain McCormack on December 20, 1814, of $160 at a faro bank. He nowhere tells of any losses.​d

On November 1, 1812, he received from Andrew Ross, merchant, 3 jugs containing 2 gallons of sherry, 2 gallons of Maderia,º 2 gallons of whiskey, half an ounce of nutmeg and one loaf of sugar.º

Gaps in the Diary

The reader will find many gaps in the diary and many references which are not clear. These may arise from the imperfect writing in Governor Sevier's "little pocket books," or from defective copying or decay or blotting or fading of the ink which was originally used. We believe, however, that with all its imperfections, the reader — especially those of a real historical turn of mind — will say that it is amply worth reading and studying, and that it affords, as above stated, a very fine picture of the life of that day. Sevier does not lessen in our estimation by his diary. We have heretofore always thought of him as a knight on horse-back, a fearless leader and a military genius who did more than any other man to erect the white man's government. We are surprised at his indefatigable attention to details and money matters, and everyday, commonplace affairs, but this only demonstrates him as a fully rounded man and increases our estimate of his intrinsic worth, strength and caliber.

Thayer's Notes:

a Sic. Not cherry, however, but sherry (May 1, 1812). In general Heiskell's editing and proofreading are even more slipshod than that of the Tennessee Historical Magazine; the following notes, not meant to be exhaustive, provide other examples.

[decorative delimiter]

b Sic — but should be Parker, not Baker (Apr. 28, 1797), even according to Heiskell's own edition, p544.

[decorative delimiter]

c Sic — but December, actually (as transcribed by Heiskell himself on p602).

[decorative delimiter]

d Not so: in an entry dated Mar. 31, 1814 (transcribed by Heiskell himself on p608) Sevier reports losing $10.

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