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Local author turns pages of history

Daniel Boone escorts settlers through Cumberland Gap.


The Watauga Association (1772) was the outgrowth of a desire for self-government and the craving for law and order. Here in the very forefront of the advance of civilization, it was so far from the authorities of constituted government in North Carolina, that it took weeks of wilderness travel to keep in touch.  For the protection of these brave pioneers, it was necessary that they have some local form of government and this Association was their answer to this need.

    In connection with this settlement we hear of the glowing deeds of James and Charles Robertson and John Sevier.  [The year] 1776 found the inhabitants of Washington District, Watauga Settlement, petitioning the Provincial Council of North Carolina that they be “annexed” to North Carolina.

Ramsey, that renowned historian of our state, makes this statement concerning the District. “The name Washington District, being in the petition itself, must have been assumed by the people petitioning, and was probably suggested by John Sevier, who, during his residence at Williamsburg, had doubtless known Col. George Washington, now the commander-in-chief of the American Army.  It is not known to this writer that the authorities or people of any other province had previously honoured Washington by giving his name to one of it’s towns or districts – a district, too, of such magnificent dimensions, extending from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi … The pioneers of Tennessee were, probably, the first thus to honour Washington.”

In 1777, the North Carolina Assembly changed the district into a county of the same name, still retaining the boundaries of our state.  But these pioneers who had long cherished a dream of independence and entirely separate government began to grow restless and were not quite satisfied with the rule of their mother state.  And again, the close of the Revolutionary War found North Carolina in an impoverished condition.

Congress had offered several plans to help the states, thereby strengthening the national position.  One was to ask the states that held idle lands to cede them to the United States.  Pleas were being presented from the western settlements for military protection in the Indian wars.  North Carolina was not able to meet these and other claims, so in order to boost herself to a more stable foothold in governmental affairs, in May 1784, ceded her lands west of the Alleghenies to the federal government.

The provision was made, however, that it must be accepted by Congress within the space of two years.  This move caused consternation among the settlers in the region.  What did the act of North Carolina mean?  Merely this, that for two years, the people in the ceded territory were neither under the jurisdiction of the United States, nor of any one state.  They were left without outside support or protection, nor with ways of raising revenue, but during this time they were required to pay federal taxes.

Many were being massacred by the Cherokees.  Something had to be done, and the dream of self government began to approach reality.  On August 23, 1784, a convention was held at Jonesboro, at which John Sevier was elected president and Landon Carter, clerk. In this meeting it was decided that the three counties of Washington, Sullivan and Greene should unite into an association, with [a] view to the final formation of a new state.

Their rights were asserted in no uncertain terms.  The convention adjourned to meet again on September 16, 1784, but for some unknown reason the second meeting on this date did not take place.   In the meantime (Oct. 22,1784) the Assembly of North Carolina had repealed the act of cession.  During November, the delegates from the three counties attempted to meet at Jonesboro, but could not agree upon the adoption of the constitution and because of the disputes concerning the repeal of the cession act, broke up in confusion. 

On December 14, 1784, the delegates assembled again at Jonesboro for the consideration of a stable government, public finances and promotion of public spirit.  The formation of a new state still occupied their main attention.  When the vote was taken as regards the formation of a new state, 28 voted for and 15 against. 

The people without the courthouse eagerly awaiting the announcement of the result of the ballot, seemingly were in sympathy with the movement for self government.  John H. Wheeler, a North Carolina historian, states that while these people were together, John Sevier mounted the rude steps of the log court house and read a letter from Joseph Martin, who had just returned from the General Assembly of North Carolina, which informed them that the Legislature had granted to the people of Western North Carolina a general court, formed their militia into a brigade, appointed a brigadier general and repealed the cession act of the last session.  “Our grievances,” said he, “are redressed and we have nothing more to complain of; my advice is to cease all efforts to separate from North Carolina, but remain firm and faithful to her laws.”

Judge Williams tells us that – “The December convention largely devoted itself to the work of preparing a temporary constitution for the new state, which from the outset, was called the State of Franklin and not Frankland, as is sometimes stated.  The document was unique in form in that it was prefaced by a Declaration of Independence, in which was set forth the “reason which impels us to declare ourselves independent of North Carolina,”  — “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” making it proper. “

It recommended the temporary Constitution ”for the serious consideration of the people during six months,” after which period and before the expiration of a year,” another constitution convention should be held to pass upon its adoption as the permanent fundamental law, or to amend it to conform to the popular will.”

The first General Assembly in the Assembly of Franklin met in March 1785 at Jonesboro and John Sevier was elected the first and likewise the only governor of the State of Franklin.  Legislative acts were proposed, including those for the promotion of learning, division of counties and procuring a seal for the new state.  Therefore, we may truly say that Jonesboro was the first capital of the State of Franklin.

Ar Greeneville, the constitution was adopted, the organization of the government completed and the first and last meetings of the Legislature held.  When Sevier’s term as governor terminated in March 1788, the State of Franklin died and North Carolina resumed full control of the state that was formed for self protection.

(In the next installment, the formation of the Town of Jonesboro will be discussed.