The Conquest of the Old Southwest, the; the Romantic Story of the Early Pioneers Into Virginia Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, 1740– 1790

Author: Archibald Henderson

Chapter XIX. The State of Franklin

Designs of a more dangerous nature and deeper die seem to glare in the western revolt .... I have thought proper to issue this manifesto, hereby warning all persons concerned in the said revolt . . . that the honour of this State has been particularly wounded, by seizing that by violence which, in time, no doubt, would have been obtained by consent, when the terms of separation would have been explained or stipulated, to the mutual sat’isfaction of the mother and new State . . . . Let your proposals be consistent with the honour of the State to accede to, which by your allegiance as good citizens, you cannot violate and I make no doubt but her generosity, in time, will meet your wishes.—Governor Alexander Martin: Manifesto against the State of Franklin, April 25, 1785.

To the shrewd diplomacy of Joseph Martin, who held the Cherokees in check during the period of the King’s Mountain campaign, the settlers in the valleys of the Watauga and the Holston owed their temporary immunity from Indian attack. But no sooner did Sevier and his over-mountain men return from the battle-field of King’s Mountain than they were called upon to join in an expedition against the Cherokees, who had again gone on the war-path at the instigation of the British. After Sevier with his command had defeated a small party of Indians at Boyd’s Creek in December, the entire force of seven hundred riflemen, under the command of Colonel Arthur Campbell, with Major Joseph Martin as subordinate, penetrated to the heart of the Indian country, burned Echota, Chilhowee, Settiquo, Hiawassee, and seven other principal villages, and destroyed an immense amount of property and supplies. In March, suspecting that the arch-conspirators against the white settlers were the Cherokees at the head waters of the Little Tennessee, Sevier led one hundred and fifty horsemen through the devious mountain defiles and struck the Indians a swift and unexpected blow at Tuckasegee, near the present Webster, North Carolina. In this extraordinarily daring raid, one of his most brilliant feats of arms, Sevier lost only one man killed and one wounded; while upon the enemy he inflicted the loss of thirty killed, took many more prisoners, burned six Indian towns, and captured many horses and supplies. Once his deadly work was done, Sevier with his bold cavaliers silently plunged again into the forest whence he had so suddenly emerged, and returned in triumph to the settlements.

Disheartened though the Indians were to see the smoke of their burning towns, they sullenly remained averse to peace; and they did not keep the treaty made at Long Island in July, 1781. The Indians suffered from very real grievances at the hands of the lawless white settlers who persisted in encroaching upon the Indian lands. When the Indian ravages were resumed, Sevier and Anderson, the latter from Sullivan County, led a punitive expedition of two hundred riflemen against the Creeks and the Chickamaugas; and employing the customary tactics of laying waste the Indian towns, administered stern and salutary chastisement to the copper-colored marauders.

During this same period the settlers on the Cumberland were displaying a grim fortitude and stoical endurance in the face of Indian attack forever memorable in the history of the Old Southwest. On the night of January 15, 1781, the settlers at Freeland’s Station, after a desperate resistance, succeeded in beating off the savages who attacked in force. At Nashborough on April 2d, twenty of the settlers were lured from the stockade by the artful wiles of the savages; and it was only after serious loss that they finally won their way back to the protection of the fort. Indeed, their return was due to the fierce dogs of the settlers, which were released at the most critical moment, and attacked the astounded Indians with such ferocity that the diversion thus created enabled the settlers to escape from the deadly trap. During the next two years the history of the Cumberland settlements is but the gruesome recital of murder after murder of the whites, a few at a time, by the lurking Indian foe. Robertson’s dominant influence alone prevented the abandonment of the sorely harassed little stations. The arrival of the North Carolina commissioners for the purpose of laying off bounty lands and settlers’ preemptions, and the treaty of peace concluded at the French Lick on November 5 and 6, 1783, gave permanence and stability to the Cumberland settlements. The lasting friendship of the Chickasaws was won; but the Creeks for some time continued to harass the Tennessee pioneers. The frontiersmen’s most formidable foe, the Cherokees, stoically, heroically fighting the whites in the field, and smallpox, syphilis, and drunkenness at home, at last abandoned the unequal battle. The treaty at Hopewell on November 28, 1785, marks the end of an era—the Spartan yet hopeless resistance of the intrepid red men to the relentless and frequently unwarranted expropriation by the whites of the ancient and immemorial domain of the savage.

The skill in self-government of the isolated people beyond the mountains, and the ability they had already demonstrated in the organization of "associations," received a strong stimulus on June 2, 1784, when the legislature of North Carolina ceded to the Congress of the United States the title which that state possessed to the land west of the Alleghanies. Among the terms of the Cession Act were these conditions: that the ceded territory should be formed into a separate state or states; and that if Congress should not accept the lands thus ceded and give due notice within two years, the act should be of no force and the lands should revert to North Carolina. No sooner did this news reach the Western settlers than they began to mature plans for the organization of a government during the intervening twelve months. Their exposed condition on the frontiers, still harassed by the Indians, and North Carolina’s delay in sending goods promised the Indians by a former treaty, both promoted Indian hostility; and these facts, combined with their remote location beyond the mountains, rendering them almost inaccessible to communication with North Carolina—all rendered the decision of the settlers almost inevitable. Moreover, the allurements of high office and the dazzling dreams of ambition were additional motives sufficiently human in themselves to give driving power to the movement toward independence.

At a convention assembled at Jonesborough on August 23, 1784, delegates from the counties of Washington, Sullivan, and Greene characteristically decided to organize an "Association." They solemnly declared by resolution: "We have a just and undeniable right to petition to Congress to accept the session made by North Carolina, and for that body to countenance us for forming ourselves into a separate government, and to frame either a permanent or temporary constitution, agreeably to a resolve of Congress . . . ." Meanwhile, Governor Martin, largely as the result of the prudent advice of North Carolina’s representative in Congress, Dr. Hugh Williamson, was brought to the conclusion that North Carolina, in the passage of the cession act, had acted precipitately. This important step had been taken without the full consideration of the people of the state. Among the various arguments advanced by Williamson was the impressive contention that, in accordance with the procedure in the case of other states, the whole expense of the huge Indian expeditions in 1776 and the heavy militia aids to South Carolina and Georgia should be credited to North Carolina as partial fulfilment of her continental obligations before the cession should be irrevocably made to the Federal government. Williamson’s arguments proved convincing; and it was thus primarily for economic reasons of far reaching national importance that the assembly of North Carolina (October 22 to November 25, 1784) repealed the cession act made the preceding spring.

Before the news of the repeal of the cession act could reach the western waters, a second convention met at Jonesborough on December 17th. Sentiment at this time was much divided, for a number of the people, expecting the repeal of the cession act, genuinely desired a continued allegiance to North Carolina. Of these may well have been John Sevier, who afterward declared to Joseph Martin that he had been "Draged into the Franklin measures by a large number of the people of this country." The principal act of this convention was the adoption of a temporary constitution for six months and the provision for a convention to be held within one year, at the expiration of which time this constitution should be altered, or adopted as the permanent constitution of the new state. The scholars on the western waters, desiring to commemorate their aspirations for freedom, chose as the name of the projected new state: "Frankland"—the Land of the Free. The name finally chosen, however, perhaps for reasons of policy, was "Franklin," in honor of Benjamin Franklin. Meanwhile, in order to meet the pressing needs for a stable government along the Tennessee frontier, the North Carolina assembly, which repealed the cession act, created out of the four western counties the District of Washington, with John Haywood as presiding judge and David Campbell as associate, and conferred upon John Sevier the rank of brigadier general of the new district. The first week in December Governor Martin sent to Sevier his military commission; and replying to Joseph Martin’s query (December 31, 1784, prompted by Governor Martin) as to whether, in view of the repeal of the cession act, he intended to persist in revolt or await developments, Sevier gave it out broadcast that "we shall pursue no further measures as to a new State."

Owing to the remoteness of the Tennessee settlements and the difficulty of appreciating through correspondence the atmosphere of sentiment in Franklin, Governor Martin realized the necessity of sending a personal representative to discover the true state of affairs in the disaffected region beyond the mountains. For the post of ambassador to the new government, Governor Martin selected a man distinguished for mentality and diplomatic skill, a pioneer of Tennessee and Kentucky, Judge Richard Henderson’s brother, Colonel Samuel Henderson. Despite Sevier’s disavowal of any further intention to establish a new state, the governor gave Colonel Henderson elaborate written instructions, the purport of which was to learn all that he could about the political complexion of the Tennessee frontiersmen, the sense of the people, and the agitation for a separate commonwealth. Moreover, in the hope of placating the leading chieftains of the Cherokees, who had bitterly protested against the continued aggressions and encroachments upon their lands by the lawless borderers, he instructed Colonel Henderson also to learn the temper and dispositions of the Indians, and to investigate the case of Colonel James Hubbardt who was charged with the murder of Untoola of Settiquo, a chief of the Cherokees.

When Colonel Henderson arrived at Jonesborough, he found the third Franklin legislature in session, and to this body he presented Governor Martin’s letter of February 27, 1785. In response to the governor’s request for an "account of the late proceedings of the people in the western country," an extended reply was drafted by the new legislature; and this letter, conveyed to Governor Martin by Colonel Henderson, in setting forth in detail the reasons for the secession, made the following significant statement: "We humbly thank North Carolina for every sentiment of regard she has for us, but are sorry to observe, that as it is founded upon principles of interest, as is aparent from the tenor of your letter, we are doubtful, when the cause ceases which is the basis of that affection, we shall lose your esteem." At the same time (March 22nd), Sevier, who had just been chosen Governor of the State of Franklin, transmitted to Governor Martin by Colonel Henderson a long letter, not hitherto published in any history of the period, in which he outspokenly says:

"It gives me great pain to think there should arise any Disputes between us and North Carolina, & I flatter myself when North Carolina states the matter in a fair light she will be fully convinced that necessity and self preservation have Compelled Us to the measures we Have taken, and could the people have discovered that No. Carolina would Have protected and Govern’d them, They would have remained where they were; but they perceived a neglect and Coolness, and the Language of Many of your most leading members Convinced them they were Altogether Disregarded."

Following the issuance of vigorous manifestos by Martin (April 25th) and Sevier (May 15th), the burden of the problem fell upon Richard Caswell, who in June succeeded Martin as Governor of North Carolina.

Meantime the legislature of the over-mountain men had given the name of Franklin to the new state, although for some time it continued to be called by many Frankland, and its adherents Franks. The legislature had also established an academy named after Governor Martin, and had appointed (March 12th) William Cocke as a delegate to the Continental Congress, urging its acceptance of the cession. In the Memorial from the Franklin legislature to the Continental Congress, dealing in some detail with North Carolina’s failure to send the Cherokees some goods promised them for lands acquired by treaty, it is alleged:

"She [North Carolina] immediately stoped the goods she had promised to give the Indians for the said land which so exasperated them that they begun to commit hostalities on our frontiers in this situation we were induced to a declaration of Independence not doubting we should be excused by Congress . . . as North Carolina seemed quite regardless of our interest and the Indians daily murdering our friends and relations without distinction of age or sex."

Sympathizing with the precarious situation of the settlers, as well as desiring the cession, Congress urged North Carolina to amend the repealing act and execute a conveyance of the western territory to the Union.

Among the noteworthy features of the Franklin movement was the constitution prepared by a committee, headed by the Reverend Samuel Houston of Washington County, and presented at the meeting of the Franklin legislature, Greeneville, November 14, 1785. This eccentric constitution was based in considerable part upon the North Carolina model; but it was "rejected in the lump" and the constitution of North Carolina, almost unchanged, was adopted. Under this Houston constitution, the name "Frankland" was chosen for the new state. The legislature was to consist of but a single house. In a section excluding from the legislature "ministers of the gospel, attorneys at law, and doctors of physics," those were declared ineligible for office who were of immoral character or guilty of "such flagrant enormities as drunkenness, gaming, profane swearing, lewdness, Sabbath-breaking and such like," or who should deny the existence of God, of heaven, and of hell, the inspiration of the Scriptures, or the existence of the Trinity. Full religious liberty and the rights of conscience were assured—but strict orthodoxy was a condition for eligibility to office. No one should be chosen to office who was "not a scholar to do the business." This remarkable document, which provided for many other curious innovations in government, was the work of pioneer doctrinaires—Houston, Campbell, Cocke, and Tipton—and deserves study as a bizarre reflection of the spirit and genius of the western frontiersmen.

The liberal policy of Martin, followed by the no less conciliatory attitude of his successor, Caswell, for the time proved wholly abortive. However, Martin’s appointment of Evan Shelby in Sevier’s place as brigadier, and of Jonathan Tipton as colonel of his county, produced disaffection among the Franks; and the influence of Joseph Martin against the new government was a powerful obstacle to its success. At first the two sets of military, civil, and judicial officers were able to work amicably together; and a working-basis drawn up by Shelby and Sevier, although afterward repudiated by the Franklin legislature, smoothed over some of the rapidly accumulating difficulties. The persistent and quiet assertion of authority by North Carolina, without any overt act of violence against the officers of Franklin state, revealed great diplomatic skill in Governors Martin and Caswell. It was doubtless the considerate policy of the latter, coupled with the defection from Sevier’s cause of men of the stamp of Houston and Tipton, after the blundering and cavalier rejection of their singular constitution, which undermined the foundations of Franklin. Sevier himself later wrote with considerable bitterness: "I have been faithfull, and my own breast acquits myself that I have acted no part but what has been Consistent with honor and justice, tempered with Clemency and mercy. How far our pretended patriots have supported me as their pretended chiefe magistrate, I leave the world at large to Judge." Arthur Campbell’s plans for the formation of a greater Franklin, through the union of the people on the western waters of Virginia with those of North Carolina, came to nought when Virginia in the autumn of 1785 with stern decisiveness passed an act making it high treason to erect an independent government within her limits unless authorized by the assembly. Sevier, however, became more fixed in his determination to establish a free state, writing to Governor Caswell: "We shall continue to act independent and would rather suffer death, in all its various and frightful shapes, than conform to anything that is disgraceful." North Carolina, now proceeding with vigor (November, 1786), fully reassumed its sovereignty and jurisdiction over the mountain counties, but passed an act of pardon and oblivion, and in many ways adopted moderate and conciliatory measures.

Driven to extremities, Cocke and Sevier in turn appealed for aid and advice to Benjamin Franklin, in whose honor the new state had been named. In response to Cocke, Franklin wrote (August 12, 1786): "I think you are perfectly right in resolving to submit them [the Points in Dispute] to the Decision of Congress and to abide by their Determination." Franklin’s views change in the interim; for when, almost a year later, Sevier asks him for counsel, Franklin has come to the conclusion that the wisest move for Sevier was not to appeal to Congress, but to endeavor to effect some satisfactory compromise with North Carolina (June 30, 1787):

"There are only two Things that Humanity induces me to wish you may succeed in: The Accomodating your Misunderstanding with the Government of North Carolina, by amicable Means; and the Avoiding an Indian war, by preventing Encroaching on their Lands . . . . The Inconvenience to your People attending so remote a Seat of Government, and the difficulty to that Government in ruling well so remote a People, would I think be powerful Inducements with it, to accede to any fair & reasonable Proposition it may receive from you towards an Accommodation."

Despite Sevier’s frenzied efforts to achieve independence—his treaty with the Indians, his sensational plan to incorporate the Cherokees into the new state, his constancy to an ideal of revolt against others in face of the reality of revolt against himself, his struggle, equivocal and half-hearted, with the North Carolina authorities under Tipton—despite all these heroic efforts, the star of Franklin swiftly declined. The vigorous measures pursued by General Joseph Martin, and his effective influence focussed upon a movement already honey-combed with disaffection, finally turned the scale. To the Franklin leaders he sent the urgent message: "Nothing will do but a submission to the laws of North Carolina." Early in April, 1788, Martin wrote to Governor Randolph of Virginia: "I returned last evening from Green Co. Washington destrict, North Carolina, after a tower through that Co’ntry, and am happy to inform your Excellency that the late unhappy dispute between the State of North Carolina, and the pretended State of Franklin is subsided." Ever brave, constant, and loyal to the interest of the pioneers, Sevier had originally been drawn into the movement against his best judgment. Caught in the unique trap, created by the passage of the cession act and the sudden volte-face of its repeal, he struggled desperately to extricate himself. Alone of all the leaders, the governor of ill-starred Franklin remained recalcitrant.


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Chicago: Archibald Henderson, "Chapter XIX. The State of Franklin," The Conquest of the Old Southwest, the; the Romantic Story of the Early Pioneers Into Virginia Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, 1740– 1790, ed. Morris, Charles, 1833-1922 in The Conquest of the Old Southwest, the; the Romantic Story of the Early Pioneers Into Virginia Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, 1740–1790 Original Sources, accessed March 22, 2019,

MLA: Henderson, Archibald. "Chapter XIX. The State of Franklin." The Conquest of the Old Southwest, the; the Romantic Story of the Early Pioneers Into Virginia Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, 1740– 1790, edited by Morris, Charles, 1833-1922, in The Conquest of the Old Southwest, the; the Romantic Story of the Early Pioneers Into Virginia Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, 1740–1790, Original Sources. 22 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Henderson, A, 'Chapter XIX. The State of Franklin' in The Conquest of the Old Southwest, the; the Romantic Story of the Early Pioneers Into Virginia Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, 1740– 1790, ed. . cited in , The Conquest of the Old Southwest, the; the Romantic Story of the Early Pioneers Into Virginia Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky, 1740–1790. Original Sources, retrieved 22 March 2019, from