East Tennessee schoolchildren start hearing about John Sevier – the state’s first governor and the only governor of the state of Franklin – from an early age. His home in South Knox County – 30 acres known as the Marble Springs State Historic Site – is a popular destination for field trips and history buffs.
Marble Springs, as we know it, is only about one-tenth of Sevier’s original holdings, but it hosts many events throughout the year. Most focus on interpreting life around the time of Sevier’s ownership of the property, 1796 to his death in 1815. Sevier was gifted the land as thanks for his military services during the Revolutionary War era.
But Sevier didn’t actually spend that much time at Marble Springs, according to Kyle Dickson, executive director of the site since September.
“When you look at his diary, he was always traveling,” says Dickson, who says he’s been doing a “crash course” on Sevier since he started at Marble Springs in the fall, just after new program coordinator Joel Girt arrived. Both have been “diving into” the question of what kind of man Sevier was.
“We know all the facts, the years, the things he’s done,” says Dickson, who tends to talk about Sevier in present tense. “But what we’re really trying to do in our curriculum now is talk about what kind of person he was, what were the feelings about him. … We’re doing tons of stuff about him.
“He certainly has quite the cult of personality. We kind of joke here; we call him the first hero of Tennessee. He’s kind of been labeled with that, like with a hash tag.
“But he really could be Tennessee’s first hero in the sense of his political dealings and even with his personal dealings. He’s very complicated. He clearly has opponents, Andrew Jackson, specifically. But the local area seems to love him.
“And he’s very well respected especially even among Native American groups. I found some nice letters from Native American groups writing to him and basically asking him to step in to talk to other Native American groups to get their slaves back. He writes to them and something actually stuck out to me pretty importantly – I don’t know if this is how they were speaking back then – but he mentions one of the chiefs, and he says ‘Brother Chief Little Turtle,’ I believe it is. He calls him ‘brother,’ and I don’t know much about Native American history, but I have a feeling that’s kind of more of a personal term; I could be wrong.
“I thought that was so interesting that here’s one of those tribes that couldn’t just run over and say, ‘Hey, give us our slaves back,’ but basically he’s writing to Chief Little Turtle and saying, ‘I just wanted to let you know that our future’s at play, everything in your area. Please remember. Bring them back. They’re their property.’ It’s a terrible thing that they’re talking about human lives here. But he must be at least respected enough, which is very odd because he has a very controversial opinion about Native Americans in the first place. He’s constantly fighting with them.
“Now I know every tribe is different, and every tribe has its own local politics and things like that. But … from what I understand he wasn’t very – I don’t want to say he wasn’t educated – but he wasn’t as posh as, say, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. He was very plainspoken.”
Sevier, who was born in Virginia, married Sarah Hawkins (1746-1780) in 1761. After her death, he married Catherine “Bonny Kate” Sherrill (1754-1846), whom he had saved from an attack by a Native American tribe years earlier. He had 10 children with his first wife and eight with his second, and all survived until at least 18, which was unusual for the time, Dickson says.
It also ensured that he had plenty of help with his various enterprises. Sevier was “very business oriented,” says Dickson. There’s little to indicate that he was much of a religious man, but he loved his horses.
His strong record as a military leader from the late 1770s to the early 1790s, along with a recommendation from territorial governor William Blount, made Sevier a natural for public office. He served six two-year terms as Tennessee’s governor. He also was elected to three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
He and rising politician Andrew Jackson became enemies early on, and they actually set up a duel, but it didn’t take place because Sevier’s entourage became stuck in mud near Campbell’s Station.
Dickson enjoys sharing slice-of-life stories with kids who visit Marble Springs.
“It seems to be particularly from the third to fifth grade Sevier is part of the curriculum. We have lots of things about Bonny Kate and Sarah Hawkins. They don’t know everything, but they know a lot, which makes sense because I was a kid in California, and we learned about Padre Serra and the missions and the Donner party and regional history as well. It’s ingrained here, especially in Knoxville.”
After the Sevier family sold off the property, it was in private hands for more than 100 years. The state bought a large parcel, and the historic site was incorporated in 1980.
Dickson wants to build on Marble Springs’ popularity and create new events to bring in more visitors. Winter hours are in effect now, with visits by appointment only, but a Spring Craft Fair is planned for noon-5 p.m. Sunday, April 5, with more than 20 local vendors offering not only crafts but also food and other goodies. There’ll be open-fire cooking, Easter egg hunts and spring craft-making.
Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.