You may be familiar with the Civil War story of the Free State of Jones and Newton Knight. The 2016 movie popularized the account. But have you heard of the 1780s “Lost” State of Franklin?
Before North Carolina’s borders became what they are today, the state claimed land all the way to the Mississippi River. During the 1780s, there were two primary western settlement areas. One was in the Cumberland River area. There, many North Carolina veterans of the American Revolution hoped to acquire land. Another more populated settlement area was near the Wautauga and Nolichucky rivers. Approximately 5,000 people lived there.
As bonds with North Carolina were becoming more and more tenuous, a strong sense of regionalism existed in this part of North Carolina that later became eastern Tennessee.
In 1784, North Carolina tried to cede much of its land to the United States. Communication traveled slowly, however. The inhabitants of Washington, Greene and Sullivan counties had formed The State of Franklin. The name Franklin (originally Frankland) was chosen in honor of Benjamin Franklin. The statesman disproved of the regional independence movement in Appalachia, however.
Amidst the different and in-depth debates regarding state or national control of western land, the Franklinites essentially ignored the North Carolina General Assembly and formed their own state. In 1785, the State of Franklin General Assembly had elected John Sevier as its first governor.
The Virginia Gazette reported on June 4, 1785, that Franklinites had “declared themselves independent of the state of North Carolina … the people of the western country found themselves taxed to support government, while they were deprived of all the blessings of it.” Other news outlets reported that the westerners had “revolted … under the pretense that the extent of the territory renders a fair and equal government totally impracticable.” These stories were reprinted in the London Chronicle.
A couple years after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the independence movement in the Appalachian Mountains undoubtedly intrigued the British. Some British were amused that some Americans expressed alarm that the Franklinites might join forces with disaffected “Vermonteers and New Hampshire Grants.”
In its declaration of independence from North Carolina, Franklinites had a list of grievances. They had three primary complaints: the far distance from the state capital, a lack of protection on the frontier and the General Assembly’s disregard for their concerns.
The State of Franklin also had a state constitution. The initial proposal was rejected. It called for a unicameral legislature. Citizens would have approved legislation. Property qualifications to vote would have been barred. Ministers, lawyers and doctors would have been excluded from holding public office. In the end, the State of Franklin modeled its constitution after the North Carolina Constitution.
During the State of Franklin’s existence (1784-1789), the U.S. was drafting and ratifying the Constitution. Unsurprisingly, Article 4, Section 3 states: “New states may be admitted by the Congress into this union; but no new states shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state.” State legislature and congressional approval were needed.
Gov. Alexander Martin avoided sending militia to quell the “revolt.” The state lacked the funds to do so, and Martin doubted the will of many North Carolinians to fight other North Carolinians. Diplomacy was his “best weapon.” His successor, Richard Caswell, shrewdly appointed westerners to positions; they divided loyalty among the Franklinites.
In time, Sevier’s term expired, and the Franklin legislature never reconvened. In 1789, Franklinites appealed to North Carolina as the authority. Charged with treason, imprisoned, yet never tried, Sevier later took an oath of allegiance. Shortly afterward, he served in the N.C. Senate.
Eventually in 1796, a new state was formed: Tennessee. John Sevier was its first governor.