What happened to the Lost State of Franklin?

Lost State of Franklin

The State of Franklin was almost the 14th state of the union (photo compilation by TheSmokies.com from public domain image of John Sevier and stock photos)

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We remember the broadest strokes of history. We remember the large, landscape-changing tidal waves of time and the people at the top who navigated them. 

Washington. Jefferson. Adams. Franklin. 

Those are names we know. We know the men. We know the deeds. 

However, there are other names that we know, but we are not always certain why.

Sevier, Blount, and Cocke are names that fit the bill.  

For example, did you know John Sevier – who would become the first Governor of Tennessee – tried to broker a deal to make most of Northeast Tennessee Spanish-controlled land? 

No? Well, my friends, buckle up.

What was the State of Franklin movement?

This is the somewhat insane story of the State of Franklin, which was almost the 14th state of the union, an independent state.

In the years following the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Congress was struggling to operate under the Articles of Confederation. Proceeding as 13 separate colonies, they faced massive debt. 

In an effort to cede its western lands, North Carolina gave 29 million acres in the western Appalachian Mountains known as the Cumberland River Valley. The settlers in the region were worried that the land would be sold to Spain or France to pay off some of the government’s war debt.

The gift wasn’t entirely magnanimous.

Read Also: The Ogles vs the Gatlins: The family feud that built Gatlinburg

Why was the lost State of Franklin important?

Overall, this interesting bit of history could have changed the 50 states as we know them today.

At the time, North Carolina’s governance of the land was, in many ways, theoretical. It was populated by the Overmountain men who wanted to form their own state.

Native Americans, specifically Cherokee, had already lived on that land for generations. As a result, they declined to recognize North Carolina’s claim of ownership. 

A push had already been underway by political and military leader Arthur Campbell, of Washington County, Virginia, to create a separate state. Campbell’s vision was a massive state, embarrassingly called Frankland, that would take parts of Virginia, modern-day Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

Onboard with a separate state was Revolutionary War veteran and future governor of Tennessee, John Sevier. However, the idea of Frankland was not popular with everyone.

The push against Frankland

Virginia Governor Patrick Henry wasn’t about to give up Virginia territory or the land he owned.

Instead, Henry spearheaded a Virginia law that forbade even an attempt at the cession of Virginia land. Henry was a Kentucky land speculator. Of course, this was in no way a conflict of interest (sarcasm intended).

Furthermore, congress took no action on the donated land, and North Carolina’s new legislature had a change of heart. No one at that time outlawed take-backsies.

As a result, Carolina’s newly elected legislature rescinded its offer and reasserted its claim to the land. Judges were ordered to hold court in the counties, and John Sevier was appointed to create a brigade of soldiers for defense.

However, the Frontiersmen didn’t like that at all and formed their own government, voting in Governor Sevier. The government first met in 1784, in the Overmountain town of Jonesborough.

Greeneville was declared the capital in 1785.

Greeneville, Tenn
Above is a replica of the original capitol building of the short-lived State of Franklin in Greeneville, Tennessee (photo by nolichuckyjake/shutterstock.com)

Why did the Lost State of Franklin not make it?

In the spring of 1785, State of Frankland officials submitted documents for admission to the Union. However, the movement fell short of the nine states needed for a two-thirds majority.

With an eye toward rebranding, Sevier renamed the proposed state to “Franklin” instead of “Frankland”. This was an attempt to bring famed patriot and noted lover of French excess Benjamin Franklin on board.

Franklin related that he was flattered. Ultimately, he declined to take a position. 

With the attempt at statehood floundering, Franklin began operating as an independent republic alongside and in competition with North Carolina. Franklin leaders set up a monetary system based on bartering. For example, they used skins, liquor, corn and tobacco to settle debts.

In an effort to aid the citizens of Franklin, a two-year reprieve was granted on taxes. Without a financial structure, progress was slow. 

The Franklin legislature made peace treaties with the tribes in the area and tried to conduct the business of government even as North Carolina tried to quash its operation. 

How did the State of Franklin disappear?

By 1786, things were falling apart. Franklin lacked the troops and military support of the U.S. government and the North Carolina Militia. A potential for skirmishes with the Chickasaw, Chickamauga, and other Native American tribes was looming. Key supporters of the movement were going back to Carolina – and not just in their minds. 

Late that year, North Carolina offered to forgive all back taxes in an attempt to lure the Franklinites back into the fold. Not easily dissuaded, the Overmountain men expanded westward by seizing native lands through force. 

Later, in February of 1788, the North Carolina sheriff of Washington County was ordered to seize Sevier’s property, which was sent to the home of Col. John Tipton. He was an anti-Franklinite and Sevier’s great rival.

Read Also: Gatlinburg history: When did Gatlinburg become a tourist attraction?

The Battle of the State of Franklin

The news of the seizure reached a furious Sevier, who led a force of 100 Franklinites to Tipton’s cabin. Colonel George Maxwell quickly backed Tipton with an equal force. As a result, a 10-minute skirmish forced Sevier to withdraw and left a number of men wounded.

Ultimately, three died in the Battle of Franklin.

Broke and desperate, Sevier turned to the Spanish for a loan. He enlisted the help of James White, who had been a North Carolina delegate (and paid agent for Spain) to the Continental Congress.

Sevier and White tried to place the State of Franklin under Spanish rule. Presumably, this was an effort to draw military support and fend off attacks from native tribes trying to drive settlers off native lands.

Opposed to Spain ruling the area, North Carolina officials captured Sevier and placed him under arrest. Supporters quickly broke him out of jail, and he ended up in an area known as Lesser Franklin, modern-day Sevier County. 

Sevier’s term as governor of Franklin expired in the spring of 1788. For all practical purposes, the state came to an end.

What is the State of Franklin now?

In February of 1789, Sevier took an oath of allegiance to North Carolina and was elected to the State Senate. 

North Carolina happily accepted the prodigal founding father back into the fold and sent its militia to slaughter the native tribes, driving them out of their lands … again. 

With the territory firmly back under its control, North Carolina again ceded land to the federal government which formed the Southwest Territory, the precursor to what is now East Tennessee.

The territory sent Sevier to the U.S. Congress in 1790, just two years after he’d tried to essentially sell East Tennessee to the Spanish. Sevier became Tennessee’s first governor in 1796, presumably much to the chagrin of Col. John Tipton. 

So, did you know the history of the State of Franklin? What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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