By Jennifer Watts
Can you imagine being 225 years old?! On June 1, 2021, Tennessee celebrated its 225th birthday. To commemorate the event, the Tennessee State Museum is highlighting one hundred artifacts throughout the state’s history. Let’s take a closer look at the story behind one of those artifacts, the pocket watch of Tennessee’s first governor.
John Sevier’s Pocket Watch, TSM Collection
When Tennessee became a state in 1796, the people elected John Sevier as the first governor. He took over for the former territorial governor, William Blount. Blount gave Sevier a new silver pocket watch as a gift for his new job. He had it engraved, “To my esteemed & trusted friend John Sevier.” But who was John Sevier? What was his story? How did he become Tennessee’s first governor?
John Sevier’s Pocket Watch, TSM Collection
John Sevier was born in Virginia in 1745. Historians know very little about his childhood. We do know that he could read and write, so he did get some education. He was living on his own by the time he was sixteen. He married Sarah Hawkins in 1761. They lived in Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, not too far from where he grew up. Sevier worked as a farmer, fur trader, land speculator, and owned a tavern. He was also a soldier. He fought with George Washington during Lord Dunmore’s War in 1772.
Portrait of John Sevier by Charles Willson Peale, TSM Collection
In 1773, he moved his family to the west. They settled near the Holston River in what is now East Tennessee. By 1776, Sevier was living in the Watauga Settlement near the current town of Elizabethton. He became a Congressman of North Carolina for the Washington District. This was his first job in politics. He also became known for his skill and leadership fighting the Native Americans living in the area. Violence between settlers and many Native American groups was common at this time.
When the American Revolution started, Sevier joined the North Carolina militia. His skills as a fighter came in handy protecting frontier settlements. In 1780, he organized a group of militiamen at Sycamore Shoals to fight the British. The battle that followed was called “The Battle of Kings Mountain.” He led his men to victory and became a hero. His fame helped his political career for many years to come.
“Gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals” by Lloyd Branson, TSM Collection
After the war ended in 1783, Sevier joined a group of men that wanted to create a new state in the west. In 1784, they formed the “State of Franklin.” Sevier was elected governor. He worked to get support for this new state. He also negotiated with the Cherokee to get more land for settlers, but nothing worked. By 1788, the “State of Franklin” was no more. North Carolina helped to stop it. They even arrested Sevier for treason. He was never tried and after taking the oath of allegiance was able to return to his military service.
In 1789, North Carolina gave the western lands to the United States. President Washington then used the land to form the Southwest Territory. Sevier was made a member of a five-man council to the new territorial governor, William Blount. He urged Blount to push for gaining statehood. On June 1, 1796, they reached their goal and Tennessee became the sixteenth state. Sevier had already been chosen as governor of the new state. He took the oath of office in Knoxville, the original state Capitol, on March 30, 1796. Historians believe that it was here that Blount gifted Sevier with the pocket watch.
In the 1796 Tennessee Constitution, governors served two-year terms in office. Sevier, however, served from 1796 to 1801 and then again from 1803 to 1809. During his time in office, the population of Tennessee almost tripled from about 85,000 in 1796 to about 250,000 in 1809. In that time, Sevier worked with Native Americans to gain more land and to settle disputes between them and the settlers. He worked to improve and expand roads in the state. He also helped to start the first schools in Tennessee.
After leaving office in 1809, Sevier was elected to the State Senate for Knox County. In 1811, he was elected to the United States Congress. In 1815, he was sent to the Mississippi Territory to meet with the Creek Nation. While there, he became sick and died on September 24, 1815. He was buried near Fort Decatur on the Tallapoosa River in what is now Alabama.
General John Sevier statue, National Statuary Hall, United States Capitol
In 1887, his body was brought back to Tennessee and buried on the grounds of the Knox County Courthouse. A monument created in his memory can still be seen there today. A statue of him can also be found in the National Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol building in Washington D.C. It was donated by Tennessee in 1931. The statue marks his legacy as an early leader in the founding of the state of Tennessee as well as the growth of a new nation.
Commemorate - to remember something or someone with a special event or gift.
Engraved - to cut or carve a picture or words on the surface of an object.
Land Speculator - people who buy land cheaply and then sell it for a higher cost.
Militia - an army or group of fighters who are not soldiers. They are usually citizens.
Frontier - part of a country that is still being settled (people moving to).
Who was the governor of the Southwest Territory?
Where did Sevier organize his men before the Battle of Kings Mountain?
Why do you think it might be important for people today to know about the life of John Sevier?
Imagine that you are starting your own state. What would you make the first rule, or law, for your new state?
For more information about the Battle of Kings Mountain, checkout the Junior Curators’ blog linked here: https://tnmuseum.org/junior-curators/posts/the-turn-of-the-tide-of-success
For more information on the State of Franklin check out the Junior Curators’ blog linked here: https://tnmuseum.org/junior-curators/posts/how-do-you-lose-a-state-the-history-of-the-lost-state-of-franklin
Jennifer Watts is an Educator with the Tennessee State Museum.
Tennessee Social Studies Standard(s):
5.30 Explain the significance of the Watauga Settlement on Tennessee history, including the following: Watauga Compact, Dragging Canoe, John Sevier, and Nancy Ward.
5.32 Explain the importance of Tennesseans (i.e., Overmountain Men) in the Battle of Kings Mountain during the American Revolution.
5.33 Identify the Lost State of Franklin as Tennessee’s first attempt at statehood and explain the reasons for its failure.
5.34 Locate the Territory South of the River Ohio (i.e., Southwest Territory), identify its leaders, and explain how it was the first step to Tennessee’s statehood.
5.36 Identify the year Tennessee became a state, its first governor, and the original capital.
Corlow, Robert E. “John Sevier”. Tennessee Encyclopedia. Tennessee Historical Society, 2017. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/john-sevier/. Accessed July 13, 2021.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "John Sevier". Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Sep. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Sevier. Accessed 13 July 2021.
“The historic Town of New Market”. Town of New Market, Virginia, 2004. https://web.archive.org/web/20120807050832/http://www.newmarketvirginia.com/history.htm. Accessed July 13, 2021.
“John Sevier”. Find a Grave. 2002. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/6364660/john-sevier. Accessed July 13, 2021.
Temple, Oliver Perry. “John Sevier: Citizen, Solider, Legislator, Governor, Statesman, 1744-1815”. The Zi-Po Press: Knoxville, 1910. https://archive.org/details/johnseviercitize00temp/page/n11/mode/2up. Accessed July 13, 2021.
“Exploring the Capitol Campus: John Sevier”. Architect of the Capitol. https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/art/john-sevier. Accessed July 13, 2021.
Toomey, Michael. “John Sevier (1745-1815). North Carolina History Project. John Locke Foundation: Raleigh, 2016.https://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/john-sevier-1745-1815/. Accessed July 13, 2021.