Gordon Belt, author of a new biography on Tennessee hero John Sevier was at Barnes and Noble recently to promote his book. (John Thompson/Johnson City Press)
A new biography of John Sevier is always interesting to anyone attracted to Tennessee history, and especially those people of Upper East Tennessee who care about the history of the lost state of Franklin.
That alone makes Gordon T. Belt’s latest work, “John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero” a valuable contribution. But Belt’s book, published by The History Press, is not just a retelling of the extraordinary exploits of the frontier leader who became Franklin’s only governor and the first governor of Tennessee.
The book is also a historiography of the Sevier story, from his contemporaries to the state’s earliest historians to Theodore Roosevelt to the recent outdoor dramatists.
Belt is well-equipped for the task. A native Tennessean who holds a master’s degree in history from Middle Tennessee State University, he is the director of public services for the Tennessee State Library and Archives. He previously worked as the library manager for the First Amendment Center. Belt is also past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists and holds memberships in the Society of American Archivists, the National Council on Public History and the Tennessee History Society.
His wife, Traci Nichols-Belt, is coauthor of the book. She also holds a master’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University and is an ordained minister. She is a public speaker whose primary research is in religion in the Civil War.
Belt has been writing about John Sevier’s history for a long time through his Internet blog, The Posterity Project, at http://posterityproject.blogspot.com. In the blog, Belt has worked to cut through the myths and legends told by the early settlers and try to understand Sevier.
In an interview with Belt conducted last month at a booksigning session at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Johnson City, Belt said he obtained the titles for the three divisions of the autobiography from the monument to Sevier at the Knox County Courthouse. The monument refers to Sevier as a “pioneer, soldier and statesman.”
Belt said it is the earliest part of Sevier’s life, the pioneer part, that is most filled with myth and legend. Early historians of the state, including Judge John Haywood and J.G.M. Ramsey, used this oral history derived from surviving contemporaries of Sevier to tell the story of Sevier’s early life.
His career as a soldier, from Kings Mountain to his 35 victories over the Cherokee in 35 campaigns, were so noteworthy that there are plenty of comments, even from George Washington.
Naturally, Sevier’s career as a politician is well-documented, Belt said.
Sevier’s role as the state’s first hero has been uneven, Belt said during the interview. Certainly, he was admired by his contemporaries, who elected him governor six times and sent him to Congress in his final years.
But Sevier’s story quickly became overshadowed by the success of Andrew Jackson. Sevier died in Alabama in 1815, the same year as Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans.
Belt said Sevier remained in his Alabama grave for 74 years, until the state needed its first hero once again.
Belt’s biography is unusual in that much of it tells about a time much after the hero’s death. It was the time after the Civil War, when the nation was looking for ways to heal the breach and bring a divided people back together.
Belt has written a biography in which he wanted to present a “warts and all” description of an important man. He has also written about a hero who has been and continues to be an inspiration to Tennesseans.