Friday, June 19, 2015

A Father’s Day Debate – Who is the “Father of Tennessee”?

With Father’s Day on the horizon, we thought the holiday warranted a look back at the “Father of Tennessee” and the debate over which historical figure properly holds that distinction.

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."
Library Collection

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.
Library Collection

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.


  1. If I remember correctly, James Robertson is responsible for many treaties with the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw. I think all 3 of those tribes different Chief's called him their "White Father", and that would be another reason why he is called the Father of Tennessee. James Robertson also, along with about 8 other men, established the Watauga Association and was the first White Man at the Watauga Old Fields, an old Cherokee planting area. We could say that there were many scouts out in what is today Middle Tennessee, like Michael Stoner (Holsteiner), for whom Stoner Creek is named, but he was under someone's command. Who was that? I'm not sure, but I'd bet Robertson took the full responsibility. To sum it up, if James Robertson had not been able to persuade and convince families to stay out the rough times at Fort Nashborough, then would Middle Tennessee even exist? Or Tennessee for that matter? And if not Tennessee, then Texas? The Western U.S.? If this is true, then James Robertson should take a seat next to George Washington as Father of this country and not just Washington. But there is a good reason for naming Washington that. He started something, he took the initiative, he took a stand and planted the seeds for this country to be built and the same can be said of Robertson, Sevier, and a host of many other men unnamed in the history books. Oh yeah, and speaking of Robertson, with the massive impact he had on this state, why is it that he isn't on that big painting of historical figures that was displayed at the State Capitol once? Oh yeah, didn't make it in a Hollywood movie... yet. That's probably why. They call Davy Crockett "King of the Wild Frontier". Pfft... what a joke, Robertson plowed it and Davy walked in his footsteps and gets all of the credit.

  2. In my biography, James Robertson Father of Tennessee and Founder of Nashville, I write about the issue. Presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt settled the issue long ago by writing and proclaiming that James Robertson is the Father of Tennessee. Some historical revisionists have replaced him with John Sevier, a true historical figure in his own right. My biography profiles Andrew Jackson, John Sevier, William Blount Daniel Boone and many other heroic figures of that era as they all contributed mightily in the settlement of the first American western frontier. The heroic acts each one is presented in detail. Bill Bays, author