Many chroniclers of early Tennessee history have proclaimed James Robertson as the “Father of Tennessee.” As a leader of both the Watauga and Cumberland settlements, Robertson is credited with establishing the first frontier settlements in what would later become the state of Tennessee. In 1779, he and John Donelson founded Fort Nashborough, which later became Nashville. Robertson defended his settlements from frequent attacks by the Chickamauga Cherokees, and he paid dearly for the defense of this land. According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, “Robertson's brothers, John and Mark, were killed, as were his sons, Peyton and James Jr. Another son, Jonathan, was scalped. Robertson narrowly escaped death on two occasions.” George Washington, considered the father of our country, appointed Robertson brigadier general of the United States Army of the Territory South of the River Ohio. Under Robertson’s leadership, that territory prospered, thereby establishing the foundation for what would become the state of Tennessee.
|Portrait of Gen. James Robertson (1742-1814), "Founder of Nashville."|
Other writers, however, contend that John Sevier is our state’s founding father and deserves recognition as the “Father of Tennessee.” Sevier stood alone as a towering figure in early Tennessee politics. As a celebrated frontiersman, a revered military leader of the Revolutionary War and a respected and feared Indian fighter, Sevier earned the trust of his electorate and became Tennessee’s first governor in 1796. He served six two-year terms as governor. During his terms as governor, Sevier negotiated a series of treaties to clear Indian claims to territory in Tennessee and facilitated the establishment of trade routes throughout the newly formed state. His mark on the landscape can be clearly felt in East Tennessee, where schools, roadways, and historic landmarks still bear his name. Sevier, however, is a forgotten figure in Tennessee history, frequently overshadowed by the long branches of “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson, whose own reputation looms large across the state and the nation.
Portrait of John Sevier (1745-1815) in military uniform.
So who do you think appropriately deserves the moniker, “Father of Tennessee” – James Robertson or John Sevier? In celebration of Father’s Day, we invite your comments on this ongoing historical debate.
The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.