Namesake: Bonny Kate in South Knoxville

9:57 AM, May 14, 2011   |    comments
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The community known as Bonny Kate in South Knoxville appropriately features an intersection between Bonny Kate Drive and Governor John Sevier Highway.  At nearby Bonny Kate Elementary School, an unavoidable connection with the school's namesake is forged around nearly every corner.

"We have several portraits of Bonny Kate.  There is also a larger mural of her on one of our walls," said Linda Norris, principal of Bonny Kate Elementary School.  "We also make learning about Bonny Kate part of our curriculum in the classroom for our third and fourth graders."

"Bonny Kate is named after Katherine Sherrill.  She was the second wife of Governor John Sevier," said Olivia Snapp, a fifth grade student at Bonny Kate Elementary School.

"Bonny Kate is the nickname that Governor John Sevier gave Katherine Sherrill.  One of our parents wrote a poem that we show our students that tells the story.  I love the legend of Bonny Kate and how she got the name," said Norris.

Katherine Sherrill married John Sevier in 1780 after the death of his first wife.  When Sevier became Tennessee's first governor, Sherrill subsequently became the Volunteer State's first First Lady.  Bonny Kate earned her nickname and John Sevier's heart in the heat of battle, long before they moved to Knoxville.

"Sherrill and John Sevier were both at Fort Watauga in Northeast Tennessee.  She was a young woman and was known to have a lot of spirit," said Anna Chappelle with Marble Springs, the historic John Sevier home in Knoxville.  "One account said Sherrill was tending to cattle outside the fort when she noticed a band of Cherokee approaching to attack.  She sounded the call to warn the fort and ran back to the main gates, but they were locked shut."

Several historical accounts consistently indicate that John Sevier noticed Katherine Sherrill's predicament and helped her over the fort's fence and used the term "bonny" to describe her escape.

"It is reported that he said something like, 'That was a bonny fine leap.'  Another version says he told her the way she escaped the Cherokee was a bonny fine foot race," said Chappelle.  "The first account we know of that they [Sevier and Sherrill] had met was when she fell into his arms during this attack." 

"The word 'Bonny' is a Scottish term that can mean something pretty, beautiful, or striking.  It can also be used to describe a fast runner.  She was an incredibly beautiful woman and also a fast runner, so in either case the word bonny is fitting," said Norris.  "Kate is obviously short for Katherine, so that's where she got the name Bonny Kate."

"She was just a bonny runner and that's where we got our name," said Snapp.

The name Bonny Kate became associated with the region that is now in South Knoxville because this area became Bonny Kate's backyard.

"When John Sevier became governor, they had to move to Knoxville because it was the capital at that time.  They obtained some property south of town, probably through a land grant due to his service in the Revolutionary War, and built a farm house," said Chappelle.  "The main cabin at our site is the original building where Katherine Sherrill and John Sevier lived in from around 1800 to 1815."

Bonny Kate and John Sevier had eight children in addition to the ten children from his previous marriage.

"The thing that strikes me about Bonny Kate is her strength," said Chappelle.  "It is said that she was not someone that you wanted to mess with.  She could shoot a gun as well as a man and could ride a horse as well as a man.  For her to take care of all of those children out in the wilderness is just remarkable."

Bonny Kate moved to a few locations after residing in Knoxville and eventually died in Alabama.  Her grave was relocated from Alabama to downtown Knoxville, where she is now buried beside John Sevier at the Old Courthouse on the corner of Main Street and Gay Street.

"There are a couple of very large markers in honor of Bonny Kate and John Sevier at the courthouse," said Chappelle.  "Her original tombstone from Alabama is actually built into the corner of the courthouse building's wall and you can still see it."

Bonny Kate is also the namesake of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Her legacy lives on in civic groups, at the courthouse, at her historic home, and in the community that bears her name in South Knoxville. 

"The Bonny Kate community is just a hidden diamond here in South Knoxville.  People say our school has a family feel to it," said Norris.  "I think part of that may go back to the way we try to honor our namesake."

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