The Republic of Franklin: Appalachia’s Lost Country

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JPGFranklin Map

In the days following the American Revolution, the united States found themselves deeply in debt from the heavy price of conducting a full-out military war with the British Empire.

Though the States had successfully secured their political independence, the economic burden felt in the thirteen statehouses scattered along the East Coast made many question whether the struggling nation would make it out of infancy.

In an effort to help the struggling nation repay war debts, the State of North Carolina voted “to give Congress the 29,000,000 acres lying between the Allegheny Mountains (as the entire Appalachian range was then called) and the Mississippi River” in April 1784.

In essence, the Tarheel State agreed to give the United States Congress all of what would become the State of Tennessee –back then known simply as North Carolina’s Washington District.

Carolina leaders may not have been totally pure in their motivations, however, as the vast expanse of land was proving too costly for the state to govern; Though the British had prohibited Indian settlements east of the Appalachians and white settlements west of the mountain ridge, an estimated 30,000 settlers had already moved to this area by 1784 and frequent skirmishes with local Indian tribes was becoming all too frequent for the Carolina government.

According to historian John A. Caruso, these developments were not welcomed by the frontiersmen, who had pushed even further westward, gaining a foothold on the western Cumberland River at Fort Nashborough (now Nashville), or the Overmountain Men, many of whom had settled in the area during the days of the old Watauga Republic. Inhabitants of the region feared that the cash-starved federal Congress might even be desperate enough to sell the frontier territory to a competing foreign power such as France or Spain.

Within a matter of months, a newly elected North Carolina Legislature opted to ungift the expanse of land to the Congress, choosing instead to develop the land as marketable real estate on a vast scale.

In his book, “History of Western North Carolina,” John Preston writes, “The North Carolina lawmakers ordered judges to hold court in the western counties and arranged to enroll a brigade of soldiers for defense, appointing John Sevier to form it.”

Unfortunately for the settlers of what would eventually become Tennessee, the State of North Carolina simply lacked the resources to administer such as vast territory and western pioneers quickly grew critical of the state government hundreds of miles to their east.

Feeling that his government in Richmond had neglected to protect his community, too, Washington County, Virginia, (far Southwestern Virginia) resident Arthur Campbell presented a plan to John Sevier: Form an entirely new nation-state along the mountain and valley of the Appalachians.

Word of the idea quickly spread among the Overmountain towns until it eventually reached the desk of Virginia Governor Patrick Henry. Angered by the idea, Henry prompted the state’s General Assembly to pass a law which forbade anyone from attempting to create a new territory from the Commonwealth.

Unable to include Virginia in their plan, Campbell and Sevier pressed forward in their attempts to create a new state out of North Carolina’s western frontier. They selected to call their new state, the State of Franklin, in an attempt to solicit support from Benjamin Franklin.

The State of Franklin movement had little success on the Kentucky frontier, as settlers there wanted their own state (which they achieved in 1792).

On August 23, 1784, delegates from the North Carolina counties of Washington (which at the time included present day Carter County), Sullivan, Spencer (now Hawkins County) and Greene—all of which are in present-day Tennessee—convened in the town of Jonesborough. There, they declared the lands to be independent of the State of North Carolina.

Leaders were duly elected. John Sevier reluctantly became governor. The delegates were called to a constitutional convention held at Jonesborough in December of that year. They drafted a constitution that excluded lawyers, doctors, and preachers as candidates for election to the legislature – the constitution was defeated in referendum. Afterward, the area continued to operate under tenets of the North Carolina state constitution.

The following May a delegation submitted a petition for statehood to Congress. Eventually, seven states voted to admit what would have been the 14th federal state under the proposed name of Frankland.

This was, however, less than the two-thirds majority required under the Articles of Confederation to add additional states to the confederation. The following month, the Franklin government convened to address their options. In an attempt to curry favor for their cause, Sevier tried to persuade Franklin to support their cause by letter, but he declined, writing:

“I am sensible of the honor which your Excellency and your council thereby do me. But being in Europe when your State was formed, I am too little acquainted with the circumstances to be able to offer you anything just now that may be of importance, since everything material that regards your welfare will doubtless have occurred to yourselves. … I will endeavor to inform myself more perfectly of your affairs by inquiry and searching the records of Congress and if anything should occur to me that I think may be useful to you, you shall hear from me thereupon.” — Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Governor John Sevier, 1787

Still upset with North Carolina over taxation, protection, and other issues, leaders in Franklin began operating as a de facto independent national republic after the failed statehood attempt.

Greeneville was declared the new capital. The first legislature met in Greeneville in December 1785. The delegates adopted a permanent constitution, known as the Holston Constitution, which was modeled closely upon that of North Carolina. John Sevier also proposed to commission a Franklin state flag, but it was never designed.

Franklin opened courts, incorporated and annexed five new counties and fixed taxes and officers’ salaries.

The Republic’s primary currency was barter with anything in common use among the people allowed in payment to settle debts, including corn, tobacco, apple brandy, and skins. (Sevier was often paid in deer hides.) Federal or foreign currencies were accepted. All citizens were granted a two-year reprieve on paying taxes, but the lack of hard currency and economic infrastructure slowed development and often created confusion.

By 1786 the tiny Appalachian state was nearing its final demise. Because they were claiming to be an independent republic, neither the federal army or the North Carolina militia served to protect the settlers from increasing Indian attacks.

In late 1786, North Carolina offered to waive all back taxes if Franklin would reunite with its government. When this offer was popularly rejected in 1787, North Carolina moved in with troops under the leadership of Col. John Tipton and re-established its own courts, jails, and government at Jonesborough.

The September 1787 meeting of the Franklin legislature, however, was its last.

At the end of 1787, loyalties were divided among the area’s residents, and came to a head in early February 1788. Jonathan Pugh, the North Carolina sheriff of Washington County was ordered by the county court to seize any property of Sevier’s to settle tax debts North Carolina contended was owed to them. The property seized included several slaves, who were brought to Tipton’s home and secured in his underground kitchen. On February 27, Governor Sevier arrived at the Tipton house leading a force numbering more than 100 men. During a heavy snowstorm in the early morning of February 29, Colonel George Maxwell arrived with a force equivalent to Sevier’s to reinforce Tipton. After ten minutes of skirmishing, Sevier and his force withdrew to Jonesborough. A number of men were captured or wounded on both sides, and three men killed.

Following the battle, Sevier attempted to form an alliance with the Spanish government. Opposed to any foreign nation gaining a foothold in Franklin, North Carolina officials arrested Sevier in August 1788. Sevier’s supporters quickly freed him from the local jail and retreated to “Lesser Franklin”.

In February 1789, Sevier, and the last holdouts of the “Lost State,” swore oaths of allegiance to North Carolina after turning themselves in. North Carolina sent their militia to aid in driving out the Cherokee and Chickasaw.

Ultimately, however, John Sevier succeeded in seeing the mountains that he loved so dearly free from North Carolina rule. On September 23, 1803, Sevier was sworn in as the State of Tennessee’s first governor.

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