Advanced Search | Search A!:
Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

Liberty! celebrates frontier history with pageantry

The pioneers gather to defend themselves in
The pioneers gather to defend themselves in "Liberty!"
Additional photos below »

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | July 01, 2015

"Along the Watauga Old Fields, the first democratic government on this continent came to pass the Watauga Association in 1772. It is impressive knowing these early settlers developed a plan for law and order on the frontier, coupled with the concept that "every free man would have a vote.' Their rules and regulations came to pass four years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776," says Jennifer Bauer, park manager at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area.

"The Transylvania Purchase, deemed the largest private real estate transaction on this continent, between the Cherokee and Judge Richard Henderson, took place on the grounds of Sycamore Shoals in 1775. By 1776, Fort Watauga was constructed to protect the settlement from Cherokee attack, as they resisted the influx of settlers to their lands.

"Sycamore Shoals is also well known for the Muster of the Overmountain Men in 1780, during the American Revolution. From Sycamore Shoals, a militia moved forth in search of British Major Patrick Ferguson, in response to his threat to destroy their homes west of the mountains. Their successful defeat of Ferguson at Kings Mountain was deemed by many historians an event which ultimately "turned the tide of the American Revolution.'

"We consider these actions of our ancestors to be not only of regional significance, but also of importance on a state and national level."

This history forms the basis for "Liberty!," which became the official outdoor drama of the state of Tennessee in 2009.

The outdoor drama is performed beside the waters of the Watauga River with Fort Watauga as the backdrop on the grounds of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, Elizabethton, Tennessee.

The story begins as long hunters (who made expeditions in the frontier wilderness for as much as six months at a time) and settlers begin leaving the protection of the English colonies, crossing the Appalachian Mountains, in violation of the British Proclamation of 1763.

"Our goal is to relate to our guests the history of Sycamore Shoals and the Watauga Settlement based on primary source information and earlier research," Bauer says. "The important parts of the play are the re-enactments of the three major historic events: The Watauga Association, The Transylvania Purchase and The Overmountain Men.

"The story flows from event to event with stories that illustrate the lifestyles of people living on the frontier, their struggles, happiness and fears. Eighty five percent of the characters represent real people — for instance, John and Elizabeth Carter, Landon and Elizabeth Carter, John Sevier, William Bean, Charles Robertson, Ann Robertson, and so forth," Bauer says.

The play captures historically significant events. "In "Liberty!,' Ann Robertson helps to defend the fort by throwing water on a Cherokee warrior, just as she did in 1776. Bonnie Kate (Catherine Sherrill's nickname), leaps over the fort wall into the arms of John Sevier, just as she did in 1776. British Major Patrick Ferguson falls on Kings Mountain, just as he did in 1780 . . . and so forth.

"The other 15 percent of the characters tie the story together from beginning to end. Some are those who correctly demonstrate the folkways of people in the late 18th century. Another example would be the ladies, with their children, at the settlement after their men have left to find British Major Patrick Ferguson — their scene shares the uncertainties and fears that they may have experienced in such an unknown situation.

"Chester is a fictitious character, representing an older veteran who has served in many skirmishes and wars. His story is woven through the play. Ultimately, we see him step up, as an older man, and fight one more fight at Kings Mountain to defend his principles and beliefs for freedom and liberty from Great Britain. In a more subtle sense, Chester represents all veterans from all wars, and their sacrifices given to protect and preserve the principles of our nation."

Putting on this drama takes a huge cast. It ranges from 75 to 100 people every night; 40 of those are speaking roles. All the actors are volunteers who are committed to sharing the history of Sycamore Shoals. "Many of our adult cast members began as young children participating with their family and ultimately grew into major roles," Bauer says.

"As far as the history of the site goes, the play is basically the same each year as it is important that we relate those primary stories," Bauer says. "The back stories do change, and we are continually tweaking the way all the parts of the play are presented to keep it fresh and flowing in an interesting manner. An interesting note is many of the people in the play are related to many of the important people whose stories we share. They have become a part of "Liberty!' to honor their ancestors and their contributions. We try to adjust the script to accommodate those individuals and their stories as best we can."

Volunteers are also the core of the behind-the-scenes activities. The Friends of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area wrote the play and raise funds throughout the year in order to support the drama. The drama is supported throughout the Tri-Cities by the media, the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce, local businesses, city and county government and the State of Tennessee.

"John and Susan Kubenka and sons joined us just when our theatrical lighting system was aging and failing. John successfully acquired grant money to upgrade this system and took on the task of running all of the light cues during the play.

"Andrew and Chenoa Patton run the sound board and all of the music cues. Stage managers Lisa Worley and Rachel Bennett take care of stage props, microphones, weaponry and the like. Donna Horowitz manages the wardrobe department and cares for all of the clothing assigned to those who are in the production.

"Dr. C. Keith Young and his son Marshall Andrew Young wrote original scores and arranged and produced music performed by the Watauga Valley Fife and Drum Corps.

"Volunteer Sarah Kolseth directs a wonderful group of a capella vocalists, The Liberty Singers, who sing historic tunes during the play. During the wedding scene of John Sevier and Bonnie Kate Sherrill, Taylor Moorefield, Juli Blue Lewis, Chad Bogart and Julie Williams Gabel provide live acoustic music," Bauer says.

Since "Liberty!" is an outdoor drama, there is one factor producers have to keep in mind that traditional theaters can ignore rain. At Sycamore Shoals they encourage guests to bring umbrellas and be prepared for rain, since they perform rain or shine. In the event of lightning or unsafe weather situations — depending on how far into the play they are — they break for an intermission and continue when the storm passes.

Their audiences come from the Tri-Cities, from across the country; and sometimes they have international guests. "Last year, we had guests from Washington state who had planned their vacation around "Liberty!' and visiting Sycamore Shoals. This happens often," Bauer says.

The 2015 season makes the 37th season and the sixth year for Carter's Trading Post, a venue named in honor of the original store opened by pioneers John Carter and partner William Parker shortly after they arrived on the frontier in 1771. The trading post offers concessions and opens at 6:30 p.m. on show nights.

"I believe the play has lasted 37 years due to the commitment of our Friends group and our volunteers. None of the cast members are paid (as in other outdoor dramas across the country), but yet they return. A few thoughts that come to my mind are pride, love of country, love of the story, personal connections to patriots from the 18th century, and knowing the importance of freedom and what it meant to people in the 18th century and to us today.

"The folks in the cast are like a family who welcome others into the cast. They become good friends, develop relationships outside of the drama and look forward to the get-togethers we plan outside of the play. Not to mention, it is fun," Bauer says.

"Liberty!" is performed Thursdays though Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., for three weekends beginning July 9. Tickets are $12 for adults; $10 for seniors (55 and older); $5 students (6-17) and free for children younger than 5. Dinner theater tickets are advanced reservation only and tickets are $25 for adults, $23 for seniors (55 and older), $18 for students (6-17) and children younger than 5 are free with a paying adult. A sign language interpreter brings the drama to life each Friday night. For more information call 423-543-5808; tickets can be purchased at the gate or in advance at


Topics: Theatre

Actors celebrate a jolly good time in "Liberty!"