Short URL for this page:
After King's Mountain, Sevier reached home just in time to fend off a Cherokee attack on Watauga. Again warning had come to the settlements that the Indians were about to descend upon them. Learning from his scouts that the Indians were near he went into ambush with his troops disposed in the figure of a half-moon, the favorite Indian formation. He then sent out a small body of men to fire on the Indians and make a scampering retreat, to lure the enemy on. The maneuver was so well planned and the ground so well chosen that the Indian war party would probably have been annihilated but for the delay of an officer at one horn of the half-moon in bringing his troops into play. Through the gap thus made the Indians escaped, with a loss of seventeen of their number. The delinquent officer was Jonathan Tipton, younger brother of p227 Colonel John Tipton, of whom we shall hear later. It is possible that from this event dates the Tiptons' feud with Sevier, which supplies one of the breeziest pages in the story of early Tennessee.
Not content with putting the marauders to flight, Sevier pressed on after them, burned several of the upper towns, and took prisoner a number of women and children, thus putting the red warriors to the depth of shame, for the Indians never deserted their women in battle. The chiefs at once sued for peace. But they had made peace often before. Sevier drove down upon the Hiwassee towns, meanwhile proclaiming that those among the tribe who were friendly might send their families to the white settlement, where they would be fed and cared for until a sound peace should be assured. He also threatened to continue to make war until his enemies were wiped out, their town sites a heap of blackened ruins, and their whole country in possession of the whites, unless they bound themselves to an enduring peace.
Having compelled the submission of the Otari and Hiwassee towns, yet finding that depredations still continued, Sevier determined to invade the group of towns hidden in the mountain fastnesses near the headwaters of the Little Tennessee where, p228 deeming themselves inaccessible except by their own trail, the Cherokees freely plotted mischief and sent out raiding parties. These hill towns lay in the high gorges of the Gr Smokey Mountains, •150 miles distant. No one in Watauga had ever been in them except Thomas, the trader, who, however, had reached them from the eastern side of the mountains. With no knowledge of the Indians' path and without a guide, yet nothing daunted, Sevier, late in the summer of 1781 headed his force into the mountains. So steep were some of the slopes they scaled that the men were obliged to dismount and help their horses up. Unexpectedly to themselves perhaps, as well as to the Indians, they descended one morning on a group of villages and destroyed them. Before the fleeing savages could rally, the mountaineers had plunged up the steeps again. Sevier then turned southward into Georgia and inflicted a severe castigation on the tribes along the Coosa River.
When after thirty days of warfare and mad riding, Sevier arrived at his Bonnie Kate's door on the Nolichucky, he found a messenger from General Greene calling on him for immediate assistance to cut off Cornwallis from his expected retreat through North Carolina. Again he set out, p229 and with two hundred men crossed the mountains and made all speed to Charlotte, in Mecklenburg County, where he learned that Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. Under Greene's orders he turned south to the Santee to assist a fellow scion of the Huguenots, General Francis Marion, in the pursuit of Stuart's Britishers. Having driven Stuart into Charleston, Sevier and his active Wataugans returned home, now perhaps looking forward to a rest, which they had surely earned. Once more, however, they were hailed with alarming news. Dragging Canoe had come to life again and was emerging from the caves of the Tennessee with a substantial force of Chickamaugan warriors. Again the Wataugans, augmented by a detachment from Sullivan County, galloped forth, met the red warriors, chastised them heavily, put them to rout, burned their dwellings and provender, and drove them back into their hiding places. For some time after this, the Indians dipped not into the black paint pots of war but were content to streak their humbled countenances with the vermilion of beauty and innocence.
It should be chronicled that Sevier, assisted possibly by other Wataugans, eventually returned p230 to the State of North Carolina the money which he had forcibly borrowed to finance the King's Mountain expedition; and that neither he nor Shelby received any pay for their services, nor asked it. Before Shelby left the Holston in 1782 and moved to Kentucky, of which State he was to become the first Governor, the Assembly of North Carolina passed a resolution of gratitude to the overmountain men in general, and to Sevier and Shelby in particular, for their "very generous and patriotic services" with which the "General Assembly of this State are feelingly impressed." The resolution concluded by urging the recipient of the Assembly's acknowledgments to "continue" in their noble course. In view of what followed, this resolution is interesting!
For some time the overhill pioneers had been growing dissatisfied with the treatment they were receiving from the State, which on the plea of poverty had refused to establish a Superior Court for them and to appoint a prosecutor. As a result, crime was on the increase, and the law-abiding were deprived of the proper legal means to check the lawless. In 1784 when the western soldiers' claims began to reach the Assembly, there to be scrutinized by unkindly eyes, the dissatisfaction increased. p231 The breasts of the mountain men — the men who had made that spectacular ride to bring Ferguson to his end — were kindled with hot indignation when they heard that they had been publicly assailed as grasping persons who seized on every pretense to "fabricate demands against the Government." Nor were those fiery breasts cooled by further plaints to the effect that the "industry and property" of those east of the hills were "becoming the funds appropriated to discharge the debts" of the Westerners. They might with justice have asked what the industry and property the Easterners were worth on that day when the overhill men drilled in the snows on the high peak of Yellow Mountain and looked down on Burke County overrun by Ferguson's Tories, and beyond, to Charlotte, where lay Cornwallis.
The North Carolina Assembly did not confine itself to impolite remarks. It proceeded to get rid of what it deemed western rapacity by ceding the whole overmountain territory to the United States, with the proviso that Congress must accept the gift within twelve months. And after passing the Cession Act, North Carolina closed the land office in the undesired domain and nullified all entries made after May 25, 1784. The Cession Act also enabled p232 the State to evade its obligations to Cherokees in the matter of an expensive consignment of goods to pay for new lands.
This clever stroke of the Assembly's brought about immediate consequences in the region beyond the hills. The Cherokees, who knew nothing about the Assembly's system of political economy but who found their own provokingly upset by the non-arrival of the promised goods, began again to darken the mixture in their paint pots; and they dug up the war hatchet, never indeed so deeply patted down under the dust that it could not be unearthed by a stub of the toe. Needless to say, it was not the thrifty and distant Easterners who felt their anger, but the nearby settlements.
As for the white overhill dwellers, the last straw had been laid on their backs; and it felt like a hickory log. No sooner had the Assembly adjourned than the men of Washington, Sullivan, and Greene counties, which comprised the settled portion of what is now east Tennessee, elected delegates to convene for the purpose of discussing the formation of a new State. They could assert that they were not acting illegally, for in her first constitution North Carolina had made provision for a State beyond the mountains. And necessity p233 compelled them to take steps for their protection. Some of them, and Sevier was of the number, doubted if Congress would accept the costly gift; and the majority realized that during the twelve months which were allowed for the decision they would have no protection from either North Carolina or Congress and would not be able to command their own resources.
In August, 1784, the delegates met at Jonesborough and passed preliminary resolutions, and then adjourned to meet later in the year. The news was soon disseminated through North Carolina and the Assembly convened in October and hastily repealed the Cession Act, voted to establish the District of Washington out of the four counties, and sent word of the altered policy to Sevier, with a commission for himself as Brigadier General. From the steps of the improvised convention hall, before which the delegates had gathered, Sevier read the Assembly's message and advised his neighbors to proceed no further, since North Carolina had of her own accord redressed all their grievances. But for once Nolichucky Jack's followers refused to follow. The adventure too greatly appealed. Obliged to choose between North Carolina and his own people, Sevier's hesitation p234 was short. The State of Frankland, or Land of the Free, was formed; and Nolichucky Jack was elevated to the office of Governor — with a yearly salary of two hundred mink skins.
Perhaps John Tipton had hoped to head the new State, for he had been one of its prime movers and was a delegate to this convention. But when the man whom he hated — apparently for no other reason except that other men loved him — assented to the people's will and was appointed to the highest post within their gift, Tipton withdrew, disavowing all connection with Frankland and affirming his loyalty to North Carolina. From this time on, the feud was an open one.
That brief and now forgotten State, Frankland, the Land of the Free, which bequeathed its name as an appellation for America, was founded as Watauga had been founded — to meet the practical needs and aspirations of the people. It will be remembered that one of the things written by Sevier into the only Watauga document extant was that they desired to become "in every way the best members of society." Frankland's aims, as recorded, included the intent to "improve agriculture, perfect manufacturing, encourage literature and every thing truly laudable."
p235 The constitution of Frankland, agreed to on the 14th of November, 1785, appeals to us today rather by its spirit than by its practical provisions. "This State shall be called the Commonwealth of Frankland and shall be governed by a General Assembly of the representatives of the freemen of the same, a Governor and Council, and proper courts of justice. . . . The supreme legislative power shall be vested in a single House of Representatives of the freemen of commonwealth of Frankland. The House of Representatives of the freemen of the State shall consist of persons most noted for wisdom and virtue."
In these exalted desires of the primitive men who held by their rifles and hatchets the land by the western waters, we see the influence of the Reverend Samuel Doak, their pastor, who founded the first church and the first school beyond the great hills. Early in the life of Watauga he had come thither from Princeton, a zealous and broadminded young man, and a sturdy one, too, for he came on foot driving before him a mule laden with books. Legend credits another minister, the Reverend Samuel Houston, with suggesting the name of Frankland, after he had opened the Convention with prayers. It is not surprising to learn that this glorified p236 constitution was presently put aside in favor of one modeled on that of North Carolina.
Sevier persuaded the more radical members of the community to abandon their extreme views and to adopt the laws of North Carolina. However lawless his acts as Governor of a bolting colony may appear, Sevier was essentially a constructive force. His purposes were right, and small motives are not discernible in his record. He might reasonably urge that the Franklanders had only followed the example of North Carolina and the other American States in seceding from the parent body, and for similar causes, for the State's system of taxation had long borne heavily on the overhill men.
The whole transmontane populace welcomed Frankland with enthusiasm. Major Arthur Campbell, of the Virginian settlements, on the Holston, was eager to join. Sevier and his Assembly took the necessary steps to receive the overhill Virginians, provided that the transfer of allegiance could be made with Virginia's consent. Meanwhile he replied in a dignified manner to the pained and menacing expostulations of North Carolina's governor. North Carolina was bidden to remember the epithets her assemblymen had hurled at the Westerners, which they themselves had by p237 no means forgotten. And was it any wonder that they now doubted the love the parent State professed to feel for them? As for the puerile threat of blood, had their quality really so soon become obliterated from the memory of North Carolina? At this sort of writing, Sevier, who always pulsed hot with emotion and who had a pretty knack in turning a phrase, was more than a match for the Governor of North Carolina, whose prerogatives he had usurped.
The overmountain men no longer needed to complain bitterly of the lack of legal machinery to keep them "the best members of society." They now had courts to spare. Frankland had its courts, its judges, its legislative body, its land office — in fact, a full governmental equipment. North Carolina also performed all the natural functions of political organism, within the western territory. Sevier appointed one David Campbell a judge. Campbell held court in Jonesborough. •Ten miles away, in Buffalo, Colonel John Tipton presided for North Carolina. It happened frequently that officers and attendants of the rival law courts met, as they pursued their duties, and whenever they met they fought. The post of sheriff — or sheriffs, for of course there were two — was filled by the p238 biggest and heaviest man and the hardest hitter in the ranks of the warring factions. A favorite game was raiding each other's courts and carrying off the records. Frankland sent William Cocke, later the first senator from Tennessee, to Congress with a memorial, asking Congress to accept the territory North Carolina had offered and to receive it into the Union as a separate State. Congress ignored the plea. It began to appear that North Carolina would be the victor in the end and so there were defections among the Franklanders. Sevier wrote to Benjamin Franklin asking his aid in establishing the status of Frankland; and, with a graceful flourish of his ready en, changed the new State's name to Franklin by way of reinforcing his arguments. But the old philosopher, more expert than Sevier in diplomatic calligraphy, only acknowledged the compliment and advised the State of Franklin to make peace with North Carolina.
Sevier then appealed for aid and recognition to the Governor of Georgia, who had previously appointed him Brigadier General of militia. But the Governor of Georgia also avoided giving the recognition requested, though he earnestly besought Sevier to come down and settle the Creeks for him. There were others who sent pleas to Sevier, the p239 warrior, to save them from the savages. One of the writers who addressed him did not fear to say "Your Excellency," nor to accord Nolichucky Jack the whole dignity of the purple in appealing to him as the only man possessing the will and the power to prevent the isolated settlements on the Cumberland from being wiped out. That writer was his old friend, James Robertson.
In 1787, while Sevier was on the frontier of Greene County, defending it from Indians, the legal forces of North Carolina swooped down on his estate and took possession of his negroes. It was Tipton who represented the law; and Tipton carried off the Governor's slaves to his own estate. When Nolichucky Jack came home and found that his enemy had stripped him, he was in a towering rage. With a body of his troops and one small cannon, he marched to Tipton's house and besieged it, threatening a bombardment. He did not, however, fire into the dwelling, though he placed some shots about it and in the extreme corners. This opéra bouffe siege endured for several days, until Tipton was reinforced by some of his own clique. Then Tipton sallied forth and attacked the besiegers, who hastily scattered rather than engage in a sanguinary fight with their neighbors. Tipton p240 captured Sevier's two elder sons and was only restrained from hanging them on being informed that two of his own sons were at that moment in Sevier's hands.
In March, 1788, the State of Franklin went into eclipse. Sevier was overthrown by the authorities of North Carolina. Most of the officials who had served under him were soothed by being reappointed to their old positions. Tipton's star was now in the ascendant, for his enemy was to be made the vicarious sacrifice for the sins of all whom he had "led astray." Presently David Campbell, still graciously permitted to preside over the Superior Court, received from the Governor of North Carolina the following letter:
Sir: It has been represented to the Executive that John Sevier, who styles himself Captain-General of the State of Franklin, has been guilty of high treason in levying troops to oppose the laws and government of the State. . . . You will issue your warrant to apprehend the said John Sevier, and in case he cannot be sufficiently secured for trial in the District of Washington, order him to be committed to the public gaol.
The judge's authority was to be exercised after he had examined the "affidavits of credible persons." Campbell's judicial opinion seems to have been that any affidavit against "the said John p241 Sevier" could not be made by a "credible person." He refused to issue the warrant. Tipton's friend, Spencer, who had been North Carolina's judge of the Superior Court in the West and who was sharing that honor now with Campbell, issued the warrant and sent Tipton to make the arrest.
Sevier was at the Widow Brown's inn with some of his men when Tipton at last came up with him. It was early morning. Tipton and his posse were about to enter when the portly and dauntless widow, surmising their errand, drew her chair into the doorway, plumped herself down in it, and refused to budge for all the writs in North Carolina. Tipton blustered and the widow rocked. The altercation awakened Sevier. He dressed hurriedly and came down. As soon as he presented himself on the porch, Tipton thrust his pistol against his body, evidently with intent to fire if Sevier made signs of resistance. Sevier's furious followers were not disposed to let him be taken without a fight, but he admonished them to respect the law, and requested that they would inform Bonnie Kate of his predicament. Then, debonair as ever, with perhaps a tinge of contempt at the corners of his mouth, he held out his wrists for the manacles which Tipton insisted on fastening upon them.
p242 It was not likely that any jail in the western country could hold Nolichucky Jack overnight. Tipton feared a riot; and it was decided to send the prisoner for incarceration and trial to Morgantown in North Carolina, just over the hills.
Tipton did not accompany the guards he sent with Sevier. It was stated and commonly believed that he had given instructions of which the honorable men among his friends were ignorant. When the party entered the mountains, two of the guards were to lag behind with the prisoner, till the others were out of sight on the twisting trail. Then one of the two was to kill Sevier and assert that he had done it because Sevier had attempted to escape. It fell out almost as planned, except that the other guard warned Sevier of the fate in store for him and gave him a chance to flee. In plunging down the mountain, Sevier's horse was entangled in a thicket. The would‑be murderer overtook him and fired; but here again fate had interposed for her favorite. The ball had dropped out of the assassin's pistol. So Sevier reached Morgantown in safety and was deposited in care of the sheriff, who was doubtless cautioned to take a good look at the prisoner and know him for a dangerous and a daring man.
p243 There is a story to the effect that, when Sevier was arraigned in the courthouse at Morgantown and presently dashed through the door and away on a racer that had been brought up by some of his friends, among those who witnessed the proceedings was a young Ulster Scot named Andrew Jackson; and that on this occasion these two men, later to become foes, first saw each other. Jackson may have been in Morgantown at the time, though this is disputed; but the rest of the tale is pure legend invented by some one whose love of the spectacular led him far from the facts. The facts are less theatrical but much more dramatic. Sevier was not arraigned at all, for no court was sitting in Morgantown at the time.1 The sheriff to whom he was delivered did not need to look twice at him to know him for a daring man. He had served with him at King's Mountain. He struck off his cuffs and set him at liberty at once. Perhaps he also notified General Charles McDowell at his home in Quaker Meadows of the presence of a distinguished guest in Burke County, for McDowell and his brother Joseph, another officer of militia, quickly appeared and went on Sevier's bond. Nolichucky Jack was p244 presently holding a court of his own in the tavern, with North Carolina's men at arms — as many as were within call — drinking his health. So his sons and a company of his Wataugans found him, when they rode into Morgantown to give evidence in his behalf — with their rifles. Since none now disputed the way with him, Sevier turned homeward with his cavalcade, McDowell and his men accompanying him as far as the pass in the hills.
No further attempt was made to try John Sevier for treason, either west or east of the mountains. In November, however, the Assembly passed the Pardon Act, and thereby granted absolution to every one who had been associated with the State of Franklin, except John Sevier. In a clause said to have been instigated by Tipton, now a senator, or suggested by him, John Sevier was debarred forever from "the enjoyment of any office of profit or honor or trust in the State of North Carolina."
The overhill men in Greene County took due note of the Assembly's fiat and at the next election sent Sevier to the North Carolina Senate. Nolichucky Jack, whose demeanor was never so decorous as when the ill-considered actions of those in authority had made him appear to have circumvented the law, considerately waited outside until p245 the House had lifted the ban — which it did perforce and by a large majority, despite Tipton's opposition — and took his seat on the senatorial bench beside his enemy. The records show that he was reinstated as Brigadier General of the Western Counties and also appointed at the head of the Committee on Indian Affairs.
Not only in the region about Watauga did the pioneers of Tennessee endure the throes of danger and strife during these years. The little settlements on the Cumberland, which were scattered over a short distance of •about twenty-five or thirty miles and had a frontier line of •two hundred miles, were terribly afflicted. Their nearest white neighbors among the Kentucky settlers were •one hundred and fifty miles away; and through the cruelest years these could render no aid — could not, indeed, hold their own stations. The Kentuckians, as we have seen, were bottled up in Harrodsburg and Boonesborough; and, while the northern Indians led by Girty and Dequindre darkened the Bloody Ground anew, the Cumberlanders were making a desperate stand against the Chickasaws and the Creeks. So terrible was their situation that panic took hold on them, and they would have p246 fled but for the influence of Robertson. He may have put the question to them in the biblical words "Whither shall I flee?" For they were surrounded, and those who did attempt to escape were •"weighed on the path and made light." Robertson knew that their only chance of survival was to stand their ground. The greater risks he was willing to take in person, for it was he who made trips to Boonesborough and Harrodsburg for a share of the powder and lead which John Sevier was sending into Kentucky from time to time. In the stress of conflict Robertson bore his full share of grief, for his two elder sons and his brother fell. He himself was often near to death. One day he was cut off in the fields and was shot in the foot as he ran, yet he managed to reach shelter. There is a story that, in an attack during one of his absences, the Indians forced the outer gate of the fort and Mrs. Robertson went out of her cabin, firing, and let loose a band of the savage dogs which the settlers kept for their protection, and so drove out the invaders.
The Chickasaws were loyal to the treaty they had made with the British in the early days of James Adair's association with them. They were friends to England's friends and foes to her foes. p247 While they resented the new settlements made on land they considered theirs, they signed a peace with Robertson at the conclusion of the War of Independence. They kept their word with him as they had kept it with the British. Furthermore, their chief, Opimingo or the Mountain Leader, gave Robertson his assistance against the Creeks and the Choctaws and, in so far as he understood its workings, informed him of the new Spanish and French conspiracy, which we now come to consider. So once again the Chickasaws were servants of destiny to the English-speaking race, for again they drove the wedge of their honor into an Indian solidarity welded with European gold.
Since it was generally believed at that date that the tribes were instigated to war by the British and supplied by them with their ammunition, savage inroads were expected to cease with the signing of peace. But Indian warfare not only continued; it increased. In the last two years of the Revolution, when the British were driven from the Back Country of the Carolinas and could no longer reach the tribes with consignments of firearms and powder, it would have been evident that the Indians had other sources of supply and other allies, for they lacked nothing which could aid p248 them in their efforts to exterminate the settlers of Tennessee.
Neither France nor Spain wished to see an English-speaking republic based on ideals of democracy successfully established in America. Though in the Revolutionary War, France was a close ally of the Americans and Spain something more than a nominal one, the secret diplomacy of the courts of the Bourbon cousins ill matched with their open professions. Both cousins hated England. The American colonies, smarting under injustice, had offered a field for their revenge. But hatred of England was not the only reason why activities had been set afoot to increase the discord which should finally separate the colonies from Great Britain and leave the destiny of the colonies to be decided by the House of Bourbon. Spain saw in the Americans, with their English modes of thought, a menace to her authority in her own colonies on both the northern and southern continents. This menace would not be stilled but augmented if the colonies should be established as a republic. Such an example might be too readily followed. Though France had, by a secret treaty in 1762, made over to Spain the province of Louisiana, she was not unmindful of the Bourbon motto, "He who attacks p249 the Crown of one attacks the other." And she saw her chance to deal a crippling blow at England's prestige and commerce.
In 1764, the French Minister, Choiseul, had sent a secret agent, named Pontleroy, to America to assist in making trouble and to watch for any signs that might be turned to the advantage of les deux couronnes. Evidently Pontleroy's reports were encouraging for, in 1768, Johann Kalb — the same Kalb who fell at Camden in 1780 — arrived in Philadelphia to enlarge the good work. He was not only, like several of the foreign officers in the War of Independence, a spy for his Government, but he was also the special emissary of one Comte de Broglie who, after the colonies had broken with the mother country, was to put himself at the head of American affairs. This Broglie had been for years one of Louis XV's chief agents in subterranean diplomacy, and it is not to be supposed that he was going to attempt the stupendous task of controlling America's destiny without substantial backing. Spain had been advised meanwhile to rule her new Louisiana territory with great liberality — in fact, to let it shine as a republic before the yearning eyes of the oppressed Americans, so that the English colonists would arise and cast off p250 their fetters. Once the colonies had freed themselves from England's protecting arm, it would be a simple matter for the Bourbons to gather them in like so many little lost chicks from a rainy yard. The intrigants of autocratic systems have never been able to understand that the urge of the spirit of independence in men is not primarily to break shackles but to stand alone and that the breaking of bonds is incidental to the true demonstration of freedom. The Bourbons and their agents were no more nor less blind to the great principle stirring the hearts of men in their day than were the Prussianized hosts over a hundred years later who, having themselves no acquaintance with the law of liberty, could not foresee that half a world would rise in arms to maintain that law.
When the War of Independence had ended, the French Minister, Vergennes, and the Spanish Minister, Floridablanca, secretly worked in unison to prevent England's recognition of the new republic; and Floridablanca in 1782 even offered to assist England if she would make further efforts to subdue her "rebel subjects." Both Latin powers had their own axes to grind, and America was to tend the grindstone. France looked for recovery of her old prestige in Europe and expected to supersede p251 England in commerce. She would do this, in the beginning, chiefly through control of America and of America's commerce. Vergennes therefore sought not only to dictate the final terms of peace but also to say what the American commissioners should and should not demand. Of the latter gentlemen he said that they possessed "caractères peu maniables!" In writing to Luzerne, the French Ambassador to Philadelphia, on October 14, 1782, Vergennes said "it behooves us to leave them [the American commissioners] to their illusions, to do everything that can make them fancy that we share them, and undertake only to defeat any attempts to which those illusions might carry them if our coöperation is required." Among these "illusions" were America's desires in regard to the fisheries and to the western territory. Concerning the West, Vergennes had written to Luzerne, as early as July 18, 1780: "At the moment when the revolution broke out, the limits of the Thirteen States did not reach the River [Mississippi] and it would be absurd for them to claim the rights of England, a power whose rule they had abjured." By the secret treaty with Spain, furthermore, France had agreed to continue the war until Gibraltar should be taken, and — if the British p252 should be driven from Newfoundland — to share the fisheries only with Spain, and to support Spain in demanding that the Thirteen States renounce all territory west of the Alleghanies. The American States must by no means achieve a genuine independence but must feel the need of sureties, allies, and protection.2
So intent was Vergennes on these aims that he sent a secret emissary to England to further them there. This act of his perhaps gave the first inkling to the English statesmen3 that American and French desires were not identical and hastened England's recognition of American independence and her agreement to American demands in regard to the western territory. When, to his amazement, Vergennes learned that England had acceded to all America's demands, he said that England had "bought the peace" rather than made it. The policy of Vergennes in regard to America was not unjustly pronounced by a later French statesman "a vile speculation."
p253 Through England's unexpected action, then, the Bourbon cousins had forever lost their opportunity to dominate the young but spent and war-weakened Republic, or to use America as a catspaw to snatch English commerce for France. It was plain, too, that any frank move of the sort would range the English alongside of their American kinsmen. Since American Independence was an accomplished fact and therefore could no longer be prevented, the present object of the Bourbon cousins was to restrict it. The Appalachian Mountains should be the western limits of the new nation. Therefore the settlements in Kentucky and Tennessee must be broken up, or the settlers must be induced to secede from the Union and raise the Spanish banner. The latter alternative was held to be preferable. To bring it about the same methods were to be continued which had been used prior to and during the war — namely, the use of agents provocateurs to corrupt the ignorant and incite lawless, the instigation of Indian massacres to daunt the brave, and the distribution of gold to buy the avaricious.
As her final and supreme means of coercion, Spain refused to America the right of navigation on the Mississippi and so deprived the Westerners p254 of a market for their produce. The Northern States, having no immediate use for the Mississippi, were willing to placate Spain by acknowledging her monopoly of the great waterway. But Virginia and North Carolina were determined that America should not, by congressional enactment, surrender her "natural right"; and they cited the proposed legislation as their reason for refusing to ratify the Constitution. "The act which abandons it [the right of navigation] is an act of separation between the eastern and western country," Jefferson realized at last. "An act of separation" — that point had long been very clear to the Latin sachems of the Mississippi Valley!
Bounded as they were on one side by the precipitous mountains and on the other by the southward flow of the Mississippi and its tributary, the Ohio, the trappers and growers of corn in Kentucky and western Tennessee regarded New Orleans as their logical market, as the wide waters were their natural route. If market and route were to be closed to them, their commercial advancement was something less than a dream.
In 1785, Don Estevan Miró, a gentleman of artful and winning address, became Governor of Louisiana and fountainhead of the propaganda. p255 He wrote benign and brotherly epistles to James Robertson of the Cumberland and to His Excellency of Franklin, suggesting that to be of service to them was his dearest aim in life; and at the same time he kept the southern Indians continually on the warpath. When Robertson wrote to him of the Creek and Cherokee depredations, with a hint that the Spanish might have some responsibility in the matter, Miró replied by offering the Cumberlander a safe home on Spanish territory with freedom of religion and no taxes. He disclaimed stirring up the Indians. He had, in fact, advised Mr. McGillivray, chief of the Creeks, to make peace. He would try again what he could do with Mr. McGillivray. As to the Cherokees, they resided in a very distant territory and he was not acquainted with them; he might have added that he did not need to be: his friend McGillivray was the potent personality among the Southern tribes.
In Alexander McGillivray, Miró found a weapon fashioned to his hand. If the Creek chieftain's figure might stand as the symbol of treachery, it is none the less one of the most picturesque and pathetic in our early annals. McGillivray, it will be remembered, was the son of Adair's friend Lachlan McGillivray, the trader, and a Creek woman whose p256 sire had been a French officer. A brilliant and beautiful youth,a he had given his father a pride in him which is generally denied to the fathers of sons with Indian blood in them. The Highland trader had spared nothing in his son's education and had placed him, after his school days, in the business office of the large trading establishment of which he himself was a member. At about the age of seventeen Alexander had become a chieftain in his mother's nation; and doubtless it is he who appears shortly afterwards in the Colonial Records as the White Leader whose influence is seen to have been at work for friendship between the colonists and the tribes. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Lachlan McGillivray, like many of the old traders who had served British interests so long and so faithfully, held to the British cause. Georgia confiscated all his property and Lachlan fled to Scotland. For this, his son hated the people of Georgia with a perfect hatred. He remembered how often his father's courage alone had stood between those same people and the warlike Creeks. He could recall the few days in 1769 when Lachlan and his fellow trader, Galphin, at the risk of their lives had braved the Creek warriors — already painted for war and on the march — and so had p257 saved the settlements of the Back Country from extermination. He looked upon the men of Georgia as an Indian regards those who forget either a blood gift or a blood vengeance. And he embraced the whole American nation in his hatred for their sakes.
In 1776 Alexander McGillivray was in his early thirties — the exact date of his birth is uncertain.4 He had, we are told, the tall, sturdy, but spare physique of the Gael, with a countenance of Indian color though and of Indian cast. His overhanging brows made more striking his very large and luminous dark eyes. He bore himself with great dignity; his voice was soft, his manner gentle. He might have been supposed to be some Latin courtier but for the barbaric display of his dress and his ornaments. He possessed extraordinary personal magnetism, and his power extended beyond the Creek nation to the Choctaws and Chickasaws and the Southern Cherokees. He had long been wooed by the Louisiana authorities, but there is no evidence that he had made alliance with them prior to the Revolution.
p258 Early in the war he joined the British, received a colonel's commission, and led his formidable Creeks against the people of Georgia. When the British were driven from the Back Countries, McGillivray, in his British uniform, went on with the war. When the British made peace, McGillivray exchanged his British uniform for a Spanish one and went on with the war. In later days, when he had forced Congress to pay him for his father's confiscated property and had made peace, he wore the uniform of an American Brigadier General; but he did not keep peace, never having intended to keep it. It was not until he had seen the Spanish plots collapse and had realized that the Americans were to dominate the land, that the White Leader ceased from war and urged the youths of his tribe to adopt American civilization.
Spent from hate and wasted with dissipation, he retired at last to the spot where Lachlan had set up his first Creek home. Here he lived his few remaining days in a house which he built on the site of the old ruined cabin about which still stood the little grove of apple trees his father had planted. He died at the age of fifty of a fever contracted while he was on a business errand in Pensacola. Among those who visited him in his last years, one p259 has left this description of him: "Dissipation has sapped a constitution originally delicate and feeble. He possesses an atticism of diction aided by a liberal education, a great fund of wit and humor meliorated by a perfect good nature and politeness." Set beside that kindly picture this rough etching by James Robertson: "The biggest devil among them [the Spaniards] is the half Spaniard, half Frenchman, half Scotchman and altogether Creek scoundrel, McGillivray."
How indefatigably McGillivray did his work we know from the bloody annals of the years which followed the British-American peace, when the men of the Cumberland and of Franklin were on the defensive continually. How cleverly Miró played his personal rôle we discover in the letters addressed to him by Sevier and Robertson. These letters show that, as far as words go at any rate, the founders of Tennessee were willing to negotiate with Spain. In a letter dated September 12, 1788, Sevier offered himself and his tottering State of Franklin to the Spanish King. This offer may have been made to gain a respite, or it may have been genuine. The situation in the Tennessee settlements was truly desperate, for neither North Carolina nor Congress apparently cared in the least p260 what befell them or how soon. North Carolina indeed was in an anomalous position, as she had not yet ratified the Federal Constitution. If Franklin went out of existence and the territory which it included became again part of North Carolina, Sevier knew that a large part of the newly settled country would, under North Carolina's treaties, revert to the Indians. That meant ruin to large numbers of those who had put their faith in his star, or else it meant renewed conflict either with the Indians or with the parent State. The probabilities are that Sevier hoped to play the Spaniards against the Easterners who, even while denying the Westerners' contention that the mountains were a "natural" barrier between them, were making of them a barrier of indifference. It would seem so, because, although this was the very aim of all Miró's activities so that, had he been assured of the sincerity of the offer, he must have grasped at it, yet nothing definite was done. And Sevier was presently informing Shelby, now in Kentucky, that there was a Spanish plot afoot to seize the western country.
Miró had other agents besides McGillivray — who, by the way, was costing Spain, for his own services and those of four tribes aggregating over p261 six thousand warriors, a sum of fifty-five thousand dollars a year. McGillivray did very well as superintendent of massacres; but the Spaniard required a different type of man, an American who enjoyed his country's trust, to bring the larger plan to fruition. Miró found that man in General James Wilkinson, lately of the Continental Army and now a resident of Kentucky, which territory Wilkinson undertook to deliver to Spain, for a price. In 1787 Wilkinson secretly took the oath of allegiance to Spain and is listed in the files of the Spanish secret service, appropriately, as "Number Thirteen." He was indeed the thirteenth at table, the Judas at the feast. Somewhat under middle height, Wilkinson was handsome, graceful, and remarkably magnetic. Of a good, if rather impoverished, Maryland family, he was well educated and widely read for the times. With a brilliant and versatile intellectuality and ready gifts as a speaker, he swayed men easily. He was a bold soldier and was endowed with physical courage, though when engaged in personal contests he seldom exerted it — preferring the red tongue of slander or the hired assassin's shot from behind cover. His record fails to disclose one commendable trait. He was inordinately avaricious, but p262 love of money was not his whole motive force: he had a spirit so jealous and malignant that he hated to the death another man's good. He seemed to divine instantly wherein other men were weak and to understand the speediest and best means of suborning them to his own interests — or of destroying them.
Wilkinson was able to lure a number of Kentuckians into the separatist movement. George Rogers Clark seriously disturbed the arch plotter by seizing a Spanish trader's store wherewith to pay his soldiers, whom Virginia had omitted to recompense. This act aroused the suspicions of the Spanish, either as to Number Thirteen's perfect loyalty or as to his ability to deliver the western country. In 1786, when Clark led two thousand men against the Ohio Indians in his last and his only unsuccessful campaign, Wilkinson had already settled himself near the Falls (Louisville) and had looked about for mischief which he might do for profit. Whether his influence had anything to do with what amounted virtually to a mutiny among Clark's forces is not ascertainable; but, for a disinterested onlooker, he was overswift to spread the news of Clark's debacle and to declare gleefully that Clark's sun of military glory had now forever p263 set. It is also known that he later served other generals treacherously in Indian expeditions and that he intrigued with Mad Anthony Wayne's Kentucky troops against their commander.
Spain did not wish to see the Indians crushed; and Wilkinson himself both hated and feared any other officer's prestige. How long he had been in foreign pay we can only conjecture, for, several years before he transplanted his activities to Kentucky, he had been one of a cabal against Washington. Not only his ambitions but his nature must inevitably have brought him to the death-battle with George Rogers Clark. As a military leader, Clark had genius, and soldiering was his passion. In nature, he was open, frank, and bold to make foes if he scorned a man's way as ignoble or dishonest. Wilkinson suavely set about scheming for Clark's ruin. His communication or memorial to the Virginia Assembly — signed by himself and a number of his friends — Clark, ended Clark's chances for the commission in the Continental Army which he craved. It was Wilkinson who made public an incriminating letter which had Clark's signature attached and which Clark said he had never seen. It is to be supposed that Number Thirteen was responsible also for p264 the malevolent anonymous letter accusing Clark of drunkenness and scheming which, so strangely, found its way into the Calendar of State Papers of Virginia.5 As a result, Clark was censured by Virginia. Thereupon he petitioned for a Court of Inquiry, but this was not granted. Wilkinson had to get rid of Clark; for if Clark, with his military gifts and his power over men, had been elevated to a position of command under the smile of the Government, there would have been small opportunity for James Wilkinson to lead the Kentuckians and to gather in Spanish gold. So the machinations of one of the vilest traitors who ever sold his country were employed to bring about the stultification and hence the downfall of a great servant.
Wilkinson's chief aids were the Irishmen, O'Fallon, Nolan, and Powers. Through Nolan, he also vended Spanish secrets. He sold, indeed, whatever and whomever he could get his price for. So clever was he that he escaped detection, though he was obliged to remove some suspicions. He succeeded Wayne as commander of the regular army in 1796. He was one of the commissioners p265 to receive Louisiana when the Purchase was arranged in 1803. He was still on the Spanish pay roll at that time. Wilkinson's true record came to light only when the Spanish archives were opened to investigators.
There were British agents also in the Old Southwest, for the dissatisfaction of the Western men inspired in Englishmen the hope of recovering the Mississippi Basin. Lord Dorchester, Governor of Canada, wrote to the British government that he had been approached by important Westerners; but he received advice from England to move slowly. For complicity in the British schemes, William Blount, who was first territorial Governor of Tennessee and later a senator from that State, was expelled from the Senate.
Surely there was never a more elaborate network of plots that came to nothing! The concession to Americans in 1796 of the right of navigation on the Mississippi brought an end to the scheming.
In the same year Tennessee was admitted to the Union, and John Sevier was elected Governor. Sevier's popularity was undiminished, though there were at this time some sixty thousand souls in Tennessee, many of whom were late comers who p266 had not known him in his heyday. His old power to win men to him must have been as strong as ever, for it is recorded that he had only to enter a political meeting — no matter where — for the crowd to cheer him and shout for him of "give them a talk."
This adulation of Sevier still annoyed a few men who had ambitions of their own. Among these was Andrew Jackson, who had come to Jonesborough in 1788, just after collapse of the State of Franklin. He was twenty-one at that time, and he is said to have entered Jonesborough riding a fine racer and leading another, with a pack of hunting dogs baying or nosing along after him. A court record dated May 12, 1788, avers that "Andrew Jackson, Esq. came into Court and produced a licence as an Attorney With A Certificate sufficiently Attested of his Taking the Oath Necessary to said office and Was admitted to Practiss as an Attorney in the County Courts." Jackson made no history in old Watauga during that year. Next year he moved to Nashville, and one year later, when the Superior Court was established (1790), he became prosecuting attorney.
The feud between Jackson and Sevier began about the time that Tennessee entered the Union. p267 Jackson, then twenty-nine, was defeated for the post of Major General of the Militia through the influence which Sevier exercised against him, and it seems that Jackson never forgave this opposition to his ambitions. By the close of Sevier's third term, however, in 1802, when Archibald Roane became Governor, the post of Major General was again vacant. Both Sevier and Jackson offered themselves for it, and Jackson was elected by the deciding vote of the Governor, the military vote having resulted in a tie. A strong current of influence had now set in against Sevier and involved charges against his honor. His old enemy Tipton was still active. The basis of the charges was a file of papers from the entry-taker's office which a friend of Tipton's had laid before the Governor, with an affidavit to the effect that the papers were fraudulent. Both the Governor and Jackson believed the charges. When we consider what system or lack of system of land laws and land entries obtained in Watauga and such primitive communities — when a patch of corn sealed a right and claims were made by notching trees with tomahawks — we may imagine that a file from the land office might appear easily enough to smirch a landholder's integrity. The scandal was, of course, p268 used in an attempt to ruin Sevier's candidacy for a fourth term as Governor and to make certain Roane's reëlection. To this end Jackson bent all his energies but without success. Nolichucky Jack was elected, for the fourth time, as Governor of Tennessee.
Not long after his inauguration, Sevier met Jackson in Knoxville, where Jackson was holding court. The charges against Sevier were then being made the subject of legislative investigation instituted by Tipton, and Jackson had published a letter in the Knoxville Gazette sustaining them. At the sight of Jackson, Sevier flew into a rage, and a fiery altercation ensued. The two men were only restrained from leaping on each other by the intervention of friends. The next day Jackson sent Sevier a challenge which Sevier accepted, but with the stipulation that the duel take place outside the State. Jackson insisted on fighting in Knoxville, where the insult had been offered. Sevier refused. "I have some respect," he wrote, "for the laws of the State over which I have the honor to preside, although you, a judge, appear to have none." No duel followed; but, after some further billets-doux, Jackson published Sevier as "a base coward and poltroon. He will basely insult but has not the p269 courage to repair the wound." Again they met, by accident, and Jackson rushed upon Sevier with his cane. Sevier dismounted and drew his pistol but made no move to fire. Jackson, thereupon, also drew his weapon. Once more friends interfered. It is presumable that neither really desired the duel. By killing Nolichucky Jack, Jackson would have ended his own career in Tennessee — if Sevier's tribe of sons had not, by a swifter means, ended it for him. At this date Jackson was thirty-six. Sevier was fifty-eight; and he had seventeen children.
The charges against Sevier, though pressed with all the force that his enemies could bring to bear, came to nothing. He remained the Governor of Tennessee for another six years — the three terms in eight years allowed by the constitution. In 1811 he was sent to Congress for the second time, as he had represented the Territory there twenty years earlier. He was returned again in 1813. At the conclusion of his term in 1815 he went into the Creek country as commissioner to determine the Creek boundaries, and here, far from his Bonnie Kate and his tribe, he died of fever at the age of seventy. His body was buried with full military honors at Tuckabatchee one of the Creek towns. In 1889, Sevier's p270 remains were removed to Knoxville and a high marble spire was raised above them.
His Indian enemies forgave the chastisement he had inflicted on them and honored him. In times of peace they would come to him frequently for advice. And in his latter days, the chiefs would make state visits to his home on the Nolichucky River. "John Sevier is a good man" — so declared the Cherokee, Old Tassel, making himself the spokesman of history.
Sevier had survived his old friend, co‑founder with him of Watauga, by one year. James Robertson had died in 1814 at the age of seventy-two, among the Chickasaws, and his body, like that of his fellow pioneer, was buried in an Indian town and lay there until 1825, when it was removed to Nashville.b
What of the red tribes who had fought these great pioneers for the wide land of the Old Southwest and who in the end had received their dust and treasured it with honor in the little soil remaining to them? Always the new boundary lines drew closer in, and the red men's foothold narrowed before the pushing trend of the whites. The day came soon when there was no longer room for p271 them in the land of their fathers. But far off across the great river there was a land the white man did not covet yet. Thither at last the tribes — Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek — took their way. With wives and children, maids and youths, the old and the young, with all their goods, their cattle and horses, in the company of a regiment of American troops, they — like the white men who had superseded them — turned westward. In their faces also was the red color of the west, but not newly there. From the beginning of their race, Destiny had painted them with the hue of the brief hour of the dying sun.
1 Statement by John Sevier, Junior, in the Draper MSS., quoted by Turner, Life of General John Sevier, p182.
2 See John Jay, On the Peace Negotiations of 1782‑1783 as Illustrated by the Secret Correspondence of France and England, New York, 1888.
3 "Your Lordship was well founded in your suspicion that the granting of independence to America as a previous measure is a point which the French have by no means at heart and perhaps are entirely averse from." Letter from Fitzherbert to Grantham, September 3, 1782.
4 Probably about 1741 or 1742. Some writers give 1739 and others 1746. His father landed in Charleston. Pickett (History of Alabama) says, in 1735, and was then only sixteen.
5 See Thomas M. Greene's The Spanish Conspiracy, p72, footnote. It is possible that Wilkinson's intrigues provide data for a new biography of Clark, which may recast in some measure the accepted view of Clark at this period.
a The only likeness of him known to exist is this remarkable drawing by John Trumbull:
He wears the jacket of an American brigadier general combined with Creek ornaments, which, despite the penciled inscription identifying the subject as "Hopothle Mico", is enough to identify him — see Irma Jaffe, "Fordham University's Trumbull Drawings: Mistaken Identities in The Declaration of Independence and Other Discoveries," American Art Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1971, p15 ff.
Alexander McGillivray figures prominently in several other parts of this site: links to them — personality, life, political activity, curious sartorial habits — are collected in my note to Gayarré's account of him.
b James Robertson is buried in Nasvhille City Cemetery, whose website includes a page with photos of his grave and a further link to a very detailed page containing far more than just information on his burial: photos of his log house and of some of his belongings, etc.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Pioneers of the Old Southwest
History of Tennessee
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 1 Feb 20