Clarksville, TN – History is a fascinating subject, but unfortunately so many find it be to dry and boring. Yet, it so much more than facts and dates.
It truly comes alive the most when reading the very words of those who lived before us – those priceless journals, letters, and testimonies. It is amazing to be able to peak into their minds and hearts for just a moment and experience with them the joys, the struggles, the hopes, and the pain of the experience of life.
That is what we have with the story of the lives of Valentine Sevier, his family, and community – their own words.
Through their correspondence and later also through the stories they shared with historians we can hear the voices of these original Euro-American settlers along the Cumberland River as they share about experiences that occurred over 220 years ago. It’s raw, it’s visceral, and it’s amazing to read.
These invaluable words show the complicated and frustrating politics during the late 18th century of the area that would later become known as Middle Tennessee. The settlers grappled with their own ambitions and dreams, the needs and rights of the Native Americans, and the interests of other foreign powers, particularly the authorities of Spanish Louisiana to the west.
They knew their land claims along the Cumberland River and all their speculating would be worth nothing without access to the Mississippi River, and at this time it was Spain who controlled it. They also knew their ambitions would fail if the Native Americans could not be dominated and controlled. What future did their new settlements and investments have financially without safety and easy access?
Unfortunately, this complicated situation resulted in assault and murder being perpetrated upon the newly arrived settlers along the Cumberland River – scalping and mutilation – women and children, even infants were not spared. Their homes were often burnt and their horses and other possessions continually stolen.
Apparently, most of these crimes were committed by the Native Americans, mostly the Creeks, and also a confederation consisting of members of many tribes in the area called the Chickamauga. What motivation did they have for such atrocities? A common answer has been that they resented the encroachment of settlers upon their hunting grounds. Yet, it is much more complicated than that.
The settlers along the Cumberland firmly believed that the authorities in Spanish Louisiana were responsible and inciting the Native Americans to attack, murder, and plunder their stations in this area, also called the Mero District.
In 1792, they sent a letter to Spanish Commandant Portell of New Madrid stating: “This letter is to prevent murders of the inhabitants of this district, and to prevent the necessity of retaliation…..That horses were stolen by the Indians of your district has been well known amongst us, and now they have been guilty of the murder of some of our most valuable citizens. Can we call it anything less than open war on their side? What can be expected we will do in turn…..We have confidence in our numbers and the passage is easy from our country to yours.” This letter was signed by Valentine Sevier and John Montgomery among others.
The continual push of westward expansion was not just a threat to the Native Americans, but Spanish Louisiana as well. This common goal united the Creeks and the Spanish. Spain then provided guns, ammunition, and other supplies to the Creeks.
This is the hornet’s nest Valentine Sevier and his family stepped into upon their arrival along the Cumberland. They must have had some understanding of the danger of frontier life. If so, why did they come here? Why not just stay at their home in Sycamore Shoals (present day Elizabethton, TN)? Were Valentine and men like him driven blindly by their ambition? Was he ruled by his desire to get out of the shadow of his larger than life and heroic brother, John Sevier? Was he negligent in his lack of concern for the safety of his family? Was he a truly a victim of the tragic events that would befall him and his family – or did he contribute to the state of violence on the frontier?
By the year 1790, Valentine and Naomi Sevier and their large family had arrived in present day Middle Tennessee. Valentine purchased the 640 acres on the bluff above the confluence of the Cumberland and Red Rivers that had actually been granted to a Revolutionary War soldier named George Cook in recognition for his service. The deed to the property reveals that Valentine purchased this land for 100 pounds.
During those first years, the inhabitants of Sevier Station made much progress in the establishment of their new home. There were multiple cabins at the station. They grew crops, raised livestock, and ran a blacksmith shop which was known to maintenance firearms. The blacksmith shop in particular may have been a significant contributor to the problems the family would later experience. This shop was under contract with the newly formed federal government to maintenance the firearms of the Chickasaw, a fact that could be seen as a threat to the Chickasaw’s enemies.
It is also surmised the station was utilized as a trading post. When the property was later sold to William Gordon (1796), the deed also reveals the Seviers owned two ferries, one across the Red River and one across the Cumberland. Due to this fact, this was a property ripe with future possibilities for commerce and Valentine probably knew that. It is hard to imagine this was not a significantly motivating factor in his decision to bring his family west, despite the immense dangers that entailed.
Yet, one would think if such risks were to be taken that the Seviers would make an effort to do everything possible to protect their family from the continuous threat of Native American raids. But, they did not. They did not stockade their station; a detail which later proved to be extremely significant. Local lore holds the belief that the old limestone building on Walker Street in the New Providence area is all that remains of the station today. In this theory, the stone building was to be used as a refuge for the inhabitants in the event of an attack.
It is not known exactly how many persons were living at the station, but some clues are provided. It is certain that Valentine and his wife Naomi resided there along with their young children. Also, their two adult daughters (Ann King and Elizabeth Snyder) along with their husbands (John King and Charles Snyder) were living at the station. Both of these couples each had a young son (John Montgomery Snyder and James King). There were at least a couple men living at the station that were not family; a teen-aged apprentice at the blacksmith shop and multiple slaves. Later records show that Valentine owned at least 7 slaves, whom he sold to his son John shortly before his death.
The family had only been living at the station a short time (1791) when the first of several tragedies struck. There was the incident concerning Valentine Sevier’s first son-in law, Thomas Grantham. Rebecca Sevier, daughter of Valentine later shared, “Thomas Grantham, just then settled in a cabin on the Cumberland, a little below the mouth of the Red River, went out one morning to a pond to kill a deer. He was shot by Indians.” (To Lyman Draper, 1844).
Then another heart-breaking loss occurred the next year, in 1792. Valentine and Naomi’s teenaged sons were travelling in canoes on the Cumberland River and were also attacked by Native Americans.
The twins, Robert and William (age 16) were murdered about eighteen miles from Sevier Station near Blooming Grove Creek as well as their older brother, Valentine IV (age 18).
“William and Robert, sixteen-year-old twins of Colonel Valentine Sevier, were paddling along at dusk, close to the southern shore, directly opposite Blooming Grove Creek. A party of Indians fired, killing the two young Seviers. The only person with them jumped into the water and made for shore, which had a steep, high bank. He clambered up the bank in the water. The Indians clambered up the other, but his ascent being easiest, he got up first. The Indians then tried to head him and prevent him from reaching the cane. They aimed to keep him between them and the river. However he escaped. In swimming he had kicked off his shoes and lost his hunting shirt, and he ran off in his stocking feet. In his 15 mile race in the night – snow two inches deep – he was not in the least frostbitten.” – Hugh F. Bell, 1844
Despite these heart-breaking losses the family amazingly and inexplicably continued to live on the frontier. In May of 1794, Valentine wrote to his brother and future governor of Tennessee, John Sevier, of the continuous problem the Native Americans were for the settlers of the Red River and the Cumberland, “Seven of my neighbors have been killed in three or four days…and a number of horses taken. As for my part, the Indians took every horse I had, have not left me one to pull my plow or go to mill….the whole lower part of Red River is removed and every soul of the West Fork of Red River. I am entirely the frontier of that part. I intend not to move with the times so desperate that I can’t stay at home. I have men allowed me sometimes to stay with me, sometimes two months, sometimes, four. The officers is neglectful of their duties in this part, or the savages could not play on us in the manner they do.”
At the time of this writing, his perseverance is evident, but it is waning. And this was all before the most tragic events had occurred for the Sevier family. Yet, the devastating losses the Seviers were facing had become very common in the Cumberland region; in fact they were an epidemic. The testimony of surviving settlers collected by Lyman Draper in the mid-19th century reveal heart-breaking accounts of continuous attack and murder perpetrated by the Native Americans upon the settlers.
It is true the situation was horrific, yet it is also true there was an epidemic for decades of disrespect towards the Native Americans that precipitated this situation. It did not appear overnight and without provocation.
Reading the words of the Cherokee in the decades previous show their frustration of the incredibly invasive and disrespectful attitudes of the land hungry Euro-Americans. In 1769 Chief Oconostato declared, “The white people pay no attention to the talks we have had. They are in bodies hunting in the middle of our hunting grounds. The whole nation is filling with hunters, the guns rattling up and down the river.” That same year Chief Attakullakulla lamented, “The Great Being above gave us the land, but the white people seem to want to drive us from it. I pity the white people, but the white people do not pity me.”
By 1792 the situation that had been created by everyone had become intolerable. Andrew Pickens stated, “I found the Cumberland in a most pitiable and distressed situation – almost continually harassed by the Creeks and four lower towns of the Cherokees….all agree the Spaniards are using all their influence with the Southern Indians to engage them against the United States.” Despite threatening the Spanish with retaliation the violence continued.
The final blow for Valentine Sevier’s family occurred in the fall of 1794. It was November 11th and from all accounts a typical day at the station. At least three of the men were out in an adjacent field shucking corn while the others seemed to be busy about their duties at the station. Below are the words of those pioneers from centuries ago relaying their accounts of that terrible day:
A letter from Valentine Sevier to his brother John, December 18, 1794:
“The news from this place is desperate with me. On Tuesday, November 11, about twelve o’clock, my station was attacked by about 40 Indians. They were in almost every house before they were discovered. All the men belonging to the station were out but Mr. Snyder and myself. The Indians shot and tomahawked Snyder in a barbarous manner, but did not get his scalp. Snyder, his wife Betsy, his son John (Valentine’s daughter and grandson), and my son Joseph were killed in Snyder’s house. They also killed Ann King and her son James (also Valentine’s daughter and grandson), and also scalped my daughter, Rebecca – I still hope she will recover. The engagement, commenced by the Indians at my house, continued about an hour. Such a scene no man ever witnessed before. Nothing but screams and roaring of guns, and no man to assist me for some time. The Indians have robbed all the goods out of every house, and have destroyed all my stock. My health is much impaired. I am so distressed in my mind that I can scarcely write.”
Recollections of Hugh Bell, a neighbor who lived several miles away upon the Red River:
“Another party had already gone to Snyder’s house and killed his wife, Elizabeth, and child, John. The child, John Montgomery Snyder, was nearly cut in two with a tomahawk. They went to John King’s house, also a son-in-law of Colonel Sevier. King was a short distance away, shucking corn. His wife, Ann, shut and fastened the door, and she was shot between the logs of the house, killed, and they threw the child into the fire. Soon after it was taken out with life, but was so shockingly burned that it soon died. They went to Colonel Sevier’s house, caught his daughter, Rebecca, a young lady, knocked her down with a war club, scalped her, and left her for dead. Colonel Sevier barred his door – and he and his wife all alone, except perhaps for a child…..Colonel Sevier never resettled at his old place.”
Recollections of Rebecca Sevier Rector, daughter of Valentine Sevier and 12 years old at the time of the attack. She was knocked down and scalped, but survived:
“Snyder was at work at the fire, with Benjamin Lindsey, an apprentice boy of 15, at the bellows. Little Joseph Sevier was in the shop, and in the fight he ran under the work bench and was killed there. Snyder was shot through the body and much mangled with the tomahawk. Lindsey dashed out of the shop, broke through the Indians, jumped the yard fence, and fell upon and broke his elbow joint. The Indians then killed Mrs. Snyder and child, then Mrs. King and child, James – both children of some (five)years old.
Colonel Sevier was then suffering from rheumatism, but fired his old brass blunderbuss at a crowd of Indians by a large sugar tree in the yard, not over 20 steps from the house. One Indian toppled over and the others dropped their plundered guns, scrambled them up again, and got their wounded companion. For a second load, Colonel Sevier not having bullets, Mrs. Sevier broke up some pewter spoons and glass, loaded, and Colonel Sevier shot a second time, with no effect except to deter them from any further attempt upon the blockhouse. That morning Sevier had lent his gun to a young man who lived at the station, who had taken off nearly all the bullets. At the fire of the blunderbuss, which was understood as a signal of attack or danger, Amos Bird and Anthony Crutcher mounted their horses and dashed over – swimming the river – and reached there shortly after the Indians left.”
During the autumn of 1794 not only was Sevier Station attacked, but just 6 days prior the Titsworth family was attacked upon the Red River. At least 9 persons belonging to the Titsworth family were murdered, with the majority of them being women and children. Two of the Titsworths were taken prisoner, presumably for ransom.
“Two brothers, Isaac and John Titsworth, were going from the Sulphur Fork settlement on Red River to the Kentucky settlement at the Red Banks. The first night they camped on a small branch of West Whipporwill. All had gone to sleep except a young Titsworth man and a young negro, who were up card playing. The cattle were belled, and gave the Indians notice. A party of Indians crept up along a bank of the branch within some ten paces, and fired upon the party – those asleep as well as awake. Young Titsworth was shot dead. The negro ran some 50 yards and fell dead. Isaac Titsworth snatched up his wife in his arms, but finding she was dead, dropped her and escaped. John Titsworth was grabbed before he got up, had a terrible scuffle, and was finally overpowered and killed. Mrs. John Titsworth was also killed. Isaac Titsworth soon overtook a negro woman, wounded in the arm. The two fled back to the Sulphur Fork settlement. A party was raised and pursued the Indians. Getting wind of the pursuit the Indians scattered and left three small boys all scalped – but one recovered. One young girl of thirteen, the daughter of Isaac Titsworth, together with a negro lad, was taken prisoner. The Indians took the horses and other light articles, leaving the cattle, sheep, and hogs. Nine were killed altogether.” – Robert Henderson, circa 1844
Also, during this time several other murders occurred in the vicinity. Thomas Reasons and his wife were attacked and killed; a woman named Betsy Roberts was murdered in her father’s cow pen, an unnamed man and his son, as well as Evan Shelby and his slave. On November 26th, just fifteen days after the attack on Sevier Station, John Montgomery, the man for which our county is named, was killed by this same group.
The group of Creeks who seemed to be guilty of these atrocities were later found to be bragging about the large amount of horses they had stolen from their victims and also commenting on the handsomeness of one of the boys they had killed. According to the testimony of Isaac Titsworth, the scalps and belongings of the Seviers, the Titsworths, Evan Shelby, and Colonel John Montgomery were found in the possession of a group of Creeks who were associated with the Chickamauga Chief named Doublehead. It is theorized that the notorious Doublehead, who was the leader of the resisting confederation of Native Americans, was with the Creeks and participated in the attack upon Sevier Station.
After years of being assaulted, murdered, and plundered the Euro-Americans had two options at this point. They could release their land claims and return east to relative safety or they could fight to neutralize the Native American threat and hold onto their investments. After all the suffering and bloodshed some did leave, but many stayed and chose to fight.
A group of 20 men, headed by Captain Nathaniel Evans, were selected to pursue the attackers in order to end the continuous massacres. Unfortunately, once they had located the party the Captain would not give the order to strike for fear they had accidentally located a group of peaceful Chickasaws. The guilty party was able to escape, leaving behind Colonel John Montgomery’s scalp in a knapsack.
The conflict was eventually neutralized by the Chickasaw and a contingent of Euro-American settlers who were their allies. Although there were pleas with the newly formed federal government that assistance arrive as soon as possible, the request was denied. President George Washington had little sympathy for their plight. He strongly felt that the violence was due to the disrespect of previous treaties with the natives by the settlers. In short, he felt they brought it all upon themselves.
His secretary of war, Henry Knox, echoed these opinions in a letter to Governor Blount, “…it is not to be supposed that the United States will support the expenses of a war brought on the frontiers by the wanton blood thirsty disposition of our own people.” The Knoxville Gazette also claimed that those in the east are “….not disposed to believe that the necessity of justice really exists, and if it does, that it is the Indians that should be protected and not the whites.”
The settlers’ suspicion that the source of their woe was in fact the Spanish and that Spain was inciting the natives to attack them seemed validated.
Also, 1795 was the same year Doublehead’s 25 years of attacks on the Euro-American settlements came to an end. He had met with President George Washington in June of 1794 and signed a peace treaty in Philadelphia. While there two of Doublehead’s Chickamauga towns, Nickajack and Running Water, were attacked and devastated thus greatly diminishing the raids that were originating from and through the Chickamauga Confederacy.
Yet, it seems that Valentine never recovered and from all signs did not find peace. He continued to suffer financially and his health was terrible as well. He suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and at times wrote of how he could not even walk. He abandoned the station above the rivers, lived a short time in Nashville, and then the rest of his life in Clarksville. He died in Clarksville in 1800 and his grave is marked in the Riverview Cemetery.
His wife Naomi, even after the great suffering she experienced, went on to live to be over 100 years old and moved back to present day eastern Tennessee with her children. The continued stories of their children, their grandchildren, and also descendants beyond can be found in the book, “The Sevier Family”, by Nancy S. Madden.
Part 3: What Kind of Man Was Valentine Sevier?
The artwork by David Wright used by permission. To see more of Wrights work, visit his website at www.www.davidwrightart.com
For more on the series, see: Clarksville Beginnings: The Early History of Sevier Station – Part 1