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Jonesborough History, Part II: The Watauga Association

A portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart Williamstown


As the settlers were in Indian country, they could not be governed by either Virginia or North Carolina. Therefore, in 1772, representatives from these four settlements [Watauga River; Bristol, then called Sapling Grove; Carter’s Valley & Nolichucky River] held a meeting and entered into an agreement called the Watauga Association. It was intended to provide a government. A group of five men were chosen to govern the settlements. A sheriff and a clerk were also chosen. This was the first organized government west of the Appalachian Mountains and the first independent government organized by men born in what was later to be the United States.

There was a great deal of trouble from attacks by the Cherokee Indians. A treaty was finally made in 1775 when Richard Henderson’s Land Company bought a large tract of land from the Indians at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River.

Considering themselves to be outside the bounds of both Virginia and North Carolina, the Wataugans organized themselves into Washington District in 1775. This was the first political subdivision named for George Washington. During Indian attacks, they petitioned North Carolina to make them a part of that colony. (It was not a state until the following year.)


This North Carolina did, and, in 1777, all of the Tennessee country became Washington County, North Carolina. Willie Jones of Halifax, North Carolina, urged the North Carolina legislature to pass the necessary laws to establish the county. For this reason, the county seat was named Jonesborough in his honor. An interesting note is that John Paul Jones of Revolutionary War fame got his last name from this same Willie Jones who had befriended him.

The act establishing Washington County appointed seven prominent citizens to “lay off and appoint the place where the courthouse, prison, and the stocks for the said Court of Washington shall be built, and then to erect or cause the same to be erected;” for defraying the expense of said buildings, “that a tax of two shillings sixpence per hundred pounds be laid on all” and that “the Commissioners appointed are hereby empowered to employ workmen to build the courthouse, prison, and stocks and immediately after the same be built shall stand adjourned to the courthouse.”

A controversy arose over which settlement, Watauga or Nolichucky, would be the county seat. After quite an argument, it was decided to select a site midway between the two. The county seat was to be on Little Limestone Creek, equally distant between the two settlements, the exact site being determined by a great number of free-running springs, assuring an abundant water supply for the town.

Ramsey, in his Annuals of Tennessee History, tells that the courthouse “was built of round logs, fresh from the adjacent forest. Was covered in the fashion of the cabins of the pioneers, with clapboards.” The first courthouse was built in the middle of Main Street and evidently stayed there until a second one was built four years later. Foundation logs and a cornerstone of the first courthouse were unearthed when ditching for sewers in 1930. These have been preserved by Mr. Paul Fink.


As the town was certain to grow at the site, the founding fathers took steps to see it would not be a haphazard cluster of rude cabins. In 1778, a tract of 100 acres was secured, a part of a 600 acre grand to David Hughes. It was evidently purchased by the commissioners, but there is no record of a deed having been made by Hughes, the cost or by whom paid. It is known that when Hughes sold the remaining 500 acres to James Allison in 1783, he excepted “one hundred acres as the same is now laid off for the use of the Town of Jonesborough.”

Major Jesse Walton was sent to Tennessee Country to fight the Cherokee Indians. In 1777 Walton bought a plantation in the neighborhood of Fort Williams on the Nolichucky River, not far above the early settlement of Jacob Brown. In November 1778, Walton was on a committee “appointed to lay off the place for erecting courthouse and stocks.” He introduced the bill to lay out a town in Washington County. The act named Walton, John Woods, George Russell, James Stuart and Benjamin Clark as Commissioners “to lay out and direct the building in said town and to cause to be made a fair plan of said town.”

The survey of the town site was made by John Gilliland who was paid $1,115.00 in part for his services in laying out the town. Records in the Registrar’s Office at Jonesboro show that Jesse Walton was the leading spirit and an active commissioner.

The act of the North Carolina assembly provided that a plot of ground sufficient for public building be set aside, that 50 other lots of 1 acre each be laid off, with necessary streets, and that the balance would be commons for the use of the town.


This done, subscriptions for the lots were to be taken at a price of $75.00 each. When all were subscribed for, they were to be awarded by ballot. The commissioners were to give titles for the lots drawn, and each grantee was required within three years to build thereon “one brick, stone or well-framed house, 26 feet long and 16 feet wide, and at least 10 feet in the pitch, with a brick or stone chimney” under penalty of forfeiting the lot.

The act calling for “well-framed houses” was evidently made by someone who did not realize that sawmills to cut timbers for “well-framed houses” were in short supply on the frontier, if existing at all. This error was remedied by an act of the legislature of the Southwest Territory in 1794, which amended this requirement to read “well-framed, square-logged, brick or stone houses.”

(To Be Continued in Part III, Town First Planned Community)