Franklin: The Appalachian Mountains’ Lost State

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1280px-8FranklinCountiesBy TN Department of Tourist Development

Davy Crockett, that famous frontiersman from history and legend, was born August 17, 1786, in the state of Franklin.

Never heard of it? Except for an interesting progression of events, this “Lost State,” which is celebrating its bicentennial in 1984-88, would be the 51st state on the map of the United States. Its boundaries would incorporate 14 counties in what is now northeastern Tennessee.

Franklin’s brief appearance on the world stage occurred in the turbulent period immediately following the Revolutionary War, between 1784 and 1788, a time before America had either president or constitution. The factors that led to its formation began in the 1760’s, before the Revolutionary War.

Following the French and Indian War, free-spirited settlers pushed across the high Appalachian Mountains into the fertile valleys of the Holston, Watauga and Nolichucky Rivers, a part of the vast territory of what was then North Carolina. They found themselves far away from the seat of their formal government and virtually cut off by the mountain barrier.

The British prohibited Indian settlements east of the Appalachians and white settlements west of the mountains, so these settlers were actually there illegally, but they came in droves – an estimated 30,000 settlers by 1784.

The federal government was preparing to carve the western lands into new states, but the future of the area was uncertain. Land speculation and land grab schemes were rampant, and frontier politics fanned the flames of dissatisfaction and insecurity.

The first independent government in America was the predecessor for the statehood effort. These new settlers, called the overmountain people, formed the Watauga Association in 1772 for their general defense and negotiated a lease with the Cherokees for the land they occupied.

These overmountain men joined forces with mountaineers from Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina to beat British regulars during the Battle of Kings Mountain, North Carolina, in late 1780. This battle was the turning point for the war in the South. After the Revolution, the Westerners perceived North Carolina as abdicating all responsibility when the governor of North Carolina gave these lands to the federal government in conjunction with paying off the state’s war debt.

In 1784 delegates from several militia companies convened in the town of Jonesborough. A chairman was elected, John Sevier, and a bill of rights “to form a separate and distinct state independent of North Carolina” was approved for this new state which they called Frankland, Anglo-Saxon for “land of the free.” The convention declaring that new states could be created whenever agreed to by the original state.

Land speculators and other special interests convinced the North Carolina government to repeal the cession of lands to the federal government, and the state agreed to establish a judicial system and a militia district in the west.

However, the movement to establish the new state continued and John Sevier was made the governor in 1785. Sevier was a hero for the early frontiersmen, with a 20 year record of service as a military commander winning more than 30 engagements against the Indians. As governor, Sevier negotiated a treaty with the Cherokee which opened up white settlement across the French Broad River.

In a letter to Benjamin Franklin to request Congressional recognition for the state, Sevier, as an astute politician, changed the name of the new state to Franklin. Since North Carolina had withdrawn its needed consent, however, Sevier did not receive Franklin’s support nor was formal recognition given.

A power struggle developed as both Franklin and North Carolina attempted to levy taxes, elect officials and establish their government in the disputed area, thus leading to hostilities between the two factions. Sevier himself was a target in a battle with North Carolina tax collectors.

A skirmish between Sevier’s followers and a group of North Carolina loyalists, led by John Tipton, occurred in January, 1778. This engagement, at what is today the Tipton-Hayes Historical Farm in Johnson City, is said to be the only battle Sevier ever lost.

With Sevier’s term ending in March 1788 and no other candidates stepping forward to lead a new term, the quasi-state died. For Sevier, however, it was the beginning of a long political career. After swearing allegiance to the state of North Carolina, he continued in a leadership capacity for the area as a North Carolina state legislator.

As the drama of American history unfolded and the question of the western lands was again being addressed on a national scale, the federal government established the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio. Its first capitol was in a large log cabin at Rocky Mount, in the area that was part of the state of Franklin.

When Tennessee was formed in 1796 as the 16th state, incorporating the former boundaries of Franklin as well as lands west to the Mississippi, Sevier was elected as its first governor. He served six terms as governor and four terms in Congress representing Tennessee before his death in 1815.

A 60 mile self-guided tour includes sites related to the state of Franklin. The tour includes Jonesborough, where the meetings of the state were first held in 1784; the replica of the capital building in Greenville; the remnant of Plum Grove (two chimneys are still standing), once the home of Franklin Governor John Sevier on the Nolichucky; and, the Tipton-Hayes Farm, once the home of Col. John Tipton, chief adversary of the state of Franklin.

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