By Steve Darden
Editor’s Note: Attorney Steve Darden, managing partner of Hunter, Smith & Davis LLP and former mayor of Johnson City, recently appeared in Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals for the second time and was kind of share his experience with our readers.
This year, I was once again honored to portray one of the characters in Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals, which has the distinction of being the State of Tennessee’s official outdoor drama. This is Liberty!’s 42nd anniversary, and the show wrapped up for the year following last weekend’s performances.
I was drawn to auditioning and participating in Liberty! by our region’s fascinating, and often underappreciated, history. Sycamore Shoals is not only the stage for the drama, but it is also the place where Cherokee and white settlers lived – for several years – in relative harmony, respecting each other’s boundaries and trading with one another. As more and more settlers arrived, the Cherokee lifestyle and independent government was threatened. Liberty! does not flinch from this reality, giving voice to people like Dragging Canoe – who predicted the end of Cherokee culture – while showing the carefully worded negotiations that took place between the two parties.
The 1770s were busy for the Watauga Association, as it established the first free and independent government on our continent. The Sycamore Shoals fort is also the staging area for the Overmountain Men, who came from Virginia, North Carolina, Sullivan County, and the Washington District (present day Carter, Washington, and Greene Counties) to prepare for battle against British General Patrick Ferguson, who threatened to “come across the mountains, hang the leaders, and lay waste the country with fire and sword.” The settlers of what would become Northeast Tennessee, known as the Wataugans, didn’t like that one bit. They decided to take the fight to him.
After mustering at Sycamore Shoals, these Patriots marched to King’s Mountain, South Carolina – armed with their hunting rifles and the blessings of their families – shot Ferguson, and defeated his Tory followers. In his series, The Winning of the West, Teddy Roosevelt wrote that King’s Mountain was the turning point of the Revolutionary War. Yes, all of that significant history and more happened right here!
I serve as a Trustee of the Rocky Mount Historical Society and my ancestors have been in the area since the Revolutionary period, yet I still learned things from the production I didn’t know. For example, Nanye’hi, known as Nancy Ward among the white settlers, was a political leader, a member of the Cherokee Nations’ Council of Chiefs, and a respected diplomat; “Bonny Kate” Sevier, familiar to many because of businesses in downtown Elizabethton that bear her name, was known as a “shining star,” who could “outshoot, outride, and out swear” almost anyone, maybe even her famous husband, Colonel John Sevier, who was the only Governor of the State of Franklin, six-term Governor of the state of Tennessee, and four-term United States Congressman; and Samuel Doak, called “the apostle of learning and religion in the West,” gave the prayer at Sycamore Shoals that rallied the troupes before Kings Mountain, founded Washington College, taught at Tusculum, and became well known for his dedication to the abolishment of slavery.
But Liberty! does not just convey facts. It is drenched with the human drama of freedom and courage and faith and honor, among the settlers and the Cherokee alike. An audience member told me she had witnessed “the Tennessee character…one scene at a time.” Most leave with a better understanding of the people and the fascinating history of Northeast Tennessee. Others identify with the accounts of the frontier women, who banded together to help and support each other while their husbands were fighting in the Revolution.
As part of Liberty!’s dedicated volunteer cast, I’m proud to play Charles Robertson, a Wataugan, who said, “Power and authority come from the will of the people!” That’s an idea that all Americans can get behind.
When Governor Bill Lee kicked off the celebration of Tennessee’s 225thbirthday earlier this month in Jonesborough, the return of Deed Book A was a central part of the proceedings. Deed Book A – which contains records going back to 1775 – had been in Nashville since Tennessee’s centennial in 1897 before its return to Washington County on June 1 of this year.
I’ll admit to getting goose bumps when I read that the first entry in that book is a land transfer from the Cherokee to my character in Liberty!, Charles Robertson.
Come to see Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals next year, and bring your friends and families.