My family might have had a more peaceful life if we had stayed in the Shenandoah Valley, but staying put was not in the blood of the Seviers. My ancestors had come from Navarre, that province lodged in the mountains between France and Spain, and, like most of the mountain people I have met since, they did not seem to care overmuch for governments telling them what to do.
Anyhow, my grandfather was a Protestant, in a time and place where to espouse that belief was to court death, but instead of opting for the blessed martyrdom of a public execution, my practical forebear decided to suffer the world a while longer and make his escape from France.
When Louis Quatorze revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had protected the Huguenots from persecution for nearly a century, Monsieur Sevier—or Xavier, as the family name was then—lit out for the more congenial political climate of England. I would have done the same myself, I think. I don’t say I won’t fight for a cause, but I prefer to let the other fellow do the dying.
When Grand-père settled in London, he changed the family name from “Xavier” to the more English-sounding “Sevier,” and then he married an Englishwoman to cement his change of nationality. He prospered in his adopted country, but that prosperity did not prevent my father, Valentine Sevier, from setting out for the colonies, to try his own luck at a new beginning.
I was born, then, on September 23, 1745, cradled by the mountains in the Shenandoah. In this colony of Virginia, I was christened “John,” all trace of the family’s French origins now all but forgotten in the new world, where the telling social distinctions were not country or faith, but skin color: white for station, black for servitude, and red—oh, red for danger.
I wondered if the hill country of my boyhood bore any resemblance to distant Navarre, or if the love of mountains in my blood harked back to those far-off Pyrenees, but perhaps the coincidence was only a matter of expedience: mountain land is more easily had than the fertile flat fields along the seaboard, because fewer people want it. I suppose they think the beauty of the land comes at too dear a price if the fields are steep and stony and the holdings isolated. The mass of humanity seems not to mind living piled in among one another like maggots on a dead crow, but I thought that high hills and elbow room were fine things, and if my people had been cast out of the Pyrenees for their philosophical stubbornness, then we would seek out our mountains elsewhere.
* * *
“You have the bloodline of a saint,” an old priest told me once.
He was passing through the long valley on his way to Charleston, perhaps to take up a posting at a Catholic parish somewhere to the south. Anyhow, he had stopped for the night in our Shenandoah village where my father kept a store. I passed the time of day with him, for I was always interested in talking to people from “away.” Any sort of learning was welcome. He was a little Frenchman, with great liquid eyes and a stillness that made one want to talk to fill up the silence.
I told him my name, and that I shared his French heritage, mentioning that we had once been “Xaviers” of Navarre. To my surprise he knew the name at once, for he nodded sagely and murmured a few words in a foreign tongue—French, or, for all I knew, Latin. Then he said, “St. Francis Xavier, he was. A founder of the Jesuit order and a great missionary in the east.” The old man smiled. “Perhaps you will be called to minister to the Indians one day.”
I said that I should like to help a good many of them into heaven, at any rate.
If the Frenchman took my meaning, he made no comment. At last he said, “Well, it is a good thing to be of such a lineage. Saint’s blood. No doubt you will be blessed in all things. Indeed, you have already the makings of a tall and handsome man. All will go well with you.”
* * *
If I had ambition in this life, I did not catch it from my father. He farmed and kept a country store, or perhaps it kept him, for as time went on, he was content to idle away his time with the drunkards and the gamblers at Culpeper Court House. He sent me to school at the Staunton Academy, though, perhaps hoping that I would make something of myself and keep him in spirits and card money in his dotage, but I had no inclination for the life of a scholar. I felt no call for medicine or the legal profession, so when my schoolfellows passed on to the college of William and Mary to become pillars of society, I made my way home to the Shenandoah, to become a clerk in the family store—well, somebody had to. There were nine young Seviers, but I was the eldest, and I thought I should see to it that the younger ones were kept fed. Perhaps it is a burden to feel responsible for so many mouths at so young an age, but the gift for leadership that was to show later in life may have sprung from those days when I was the oldest of so many. Perhaps I got in the way of thinking that I was elder brother to the world entire, and that it would always fall to me to keep the rest of humanity safe and fed.
You would think that a man who was content to fritter away his time with dice and whiskey would have been satisfied to have his affairs tended to by a hardworking son who shared neither of those vices, but it seemed that I was the star my father wished upon, for in my sixteenth year when I announced my intentions of settling down, he would have none of it.
“Married?” he thundered at me in a spirituous haze. “Why, you are no more than sixteen, boy! I won’t hear of it.”
“You have heard of it,” I said coldly. “For I just told you. And, as for stopping me, there is precious little chance of that. The other boys are old enough now to take my place as breadwinner. Let Joseph or Robert or Valentine keep the store and tend to the farm. Surely, I have done my share.”
“But you are sixteen,” my father said again.
I held my peace, for to tell my father that I felt twice that age would be disrespectful, and he was not a bad man—only a weak one.
In truth I felt that having the responsibility only for the care of Sarah Hawkins would be a great relief—the day I wed her I would have eight fewer burdens than I’d had before. No one could have been less of a child at sixteen than I.
“Well, boy, you know your own mind,” said my father with an ill-concealed sneer. “I only hope you know what a long road you have ahead of you, and if you have chosen badly so soon in life, you will have many years of leisure in which to repent of it.”
I replied that I was more concerned that Sarah would have cause to repent her choice of me. I was too much the dutiful son to add that I should take care to see that I did not turn out to be a likeness of my father, but the thought crossed my mind, then and later. There’s no telling how far you can go if you are outrunning something.
In 1761, I secured a tract of land and called it Long Meadows, and I set to farming and to siring a brood of young Seviers to help me work the land. Our holdings lay along the westward trail in a wide valley, and thus far at least I imitated my father: I farmed and kept a store of my own, but after more than a dozen years, we were all tired of seeing the world pass us by on that westward wagon road, and we decided to go west ourselves. My brother Valentine had left already, and he was homesteading on the frontier near the Shelbys. I made a couple of journeys out to see him, and to see if this wilderness really was the land of plenty that people said it was. When we finally set our minds to moving, the whole family set out together—my parents, my younger brothers Robert, Joseph, and Abraham—all headed for the backcountry. There were hardships, right enough, Indian attacks and backbreaking toil involved in carving a farmstead out of the endless forest, but game was plentiful, and there were land grants to be had. I never regretted the decision to settle on the frontier. Perhaps I was gambling a safe present for the chance of a prosperous future, but the game was worth the candle.
And the land was worth fighting for.
Perhaps the people along the seaboard were fighting the revolution for philosophical reasons—to escape unjust taxes, to choose their own leaders … they had a dozen reasons for wishing to be rid of British dominion. For the most part, those of us in the backcountry had but one reason.
The British wanted to throw us off our land and make us move back east of the mountains. They had made that long-ago treaty with the Indian nation, and they seemed to want to enforce it after all these years. I think they wanted us closer to their town garrisons, so that we could not easily oppose them.
Perhaps that priest from my boyhood meant what he’d said as no more than pleasantry, a social blessing given to a backwoods boy on a summer afternoon, costing him nothing, but I chose to take his words as a prophecy. Many’s the time that the memory of those words has emboldened me to courage and to action. I am blessed, I tell myself. I cannot fail.
And I very seldom do.