In the spring of 1768, a few adventurers, from the neighborhood of Raleigh, in North Carolina, crossed the mountains, westwardly, in search of a new place of residence. And, having explored the country on the Watauga River, they selected a spot there, made some preparations, returned, and, the same year, moved over their families, ten in number, to live in the interminable wilderness. At the head of this little colony was James Robertson, afterwards so extensively known by the title of General; whose name the early history of Tennessee, if ever written in detail, will exhibit on many a page.This now became a place of rendezvous to all who followed their footsteps over the same stupendous heights. And so many gathered in, from the Carolinas and Virginia, that, within three years, they could muster nearly three hundred soldiers. But , in the very infancy of the settlement, by a treaty with the Cherokees, held under the authority from the government of the last mentioned province, a boundary was established to run from the White Top Mountain in a west direction to Holston River, on a parallel of latitude of about 36 1/2 degrees. The inhabitants of Watauga were, consequently, left on Indian ground, in no better condition than that of trespassers. And it was not long before they were ordered by Alexander Cameron to move off. Cameron was deputy agent for the government of England, resident among the Cherokees. But part of the Cherokees, notwithstanding his zeal, expressed a desire that the trespassers might be permitted to remain, provided they would make no further encroachments.This favorable symptom was not long neglected. But Robertson and John Bean we re deputed by these tenants at will, in 1771, to treat with their landlords, and agree upon articles of accommodation and friendship. The attempt succeeded. For, though the Indians refused to give up the lands gratuitously, they consented, for a stipulated amount of merchandise, muskets, and other articles of convenience, the value of the whole estimated at five or six thousand dollars, to lease for eight years all the country on the waters of the Watauga. After this the settlement increased with still greater rapidity than before. The property paid to the Indians in fulfillment of these covenants was compensated for, in both cases, by sales of the lands. Those who advanced it reimbursed themselves from the settlers.Thus a nursery of population was planted in East Tennessee never to be eradicated.But, far removed from the parent provinces, separated not only by trackless forests, but by numerous ranges of mountains, they were as little protected, controlled, or recollected, by any government whatever, as their co-tenants, the bears. What people ever approached nearer to the imaginary state of nature? Yet they lived in extraordinary harmony among themselves, and in perfect amity with the Cherokees, the only power by which they were recognized.The political history of Tennessee begins with a convention of the settlers on the Watauga River, 1772, which organized the Watauga Association, and appointed a court consisting of five members, which was entrusted with the entire administration of its laws. And, accordingly, a code of laws was drawn up to be signed by every individual. If any one should refuse he was to be debarred from its benefits. But there was no recusant. This became known as the Watauga Association. Its military history commences some three years later, when a joint convention of the Watauga and Nollichucky settlements met in 1775, and unanimously declared for the American cause, and appointed a committee of safety of thirteen members, authorized to pledge the settlements for their part of the continental expenses, to cooperate with the United Colonies, and to direct and control the military affairs of the settlements. The members of the committee of thirteen were:
John Carter, chairman
Thus organized, their affairs continued prosperous, till the commencement of the Revolutionary war. And so great had been the augmentation, that, in 1776, they could have raised seven or eight hundred riflemen.But , when it appeared that this great conflict would inevitably become universal, Cameron sent very enticing letters to them, endeavoring with many fine promises of protection in case of their loyalty, to attach them to the British interest. The peril of their situation was too obvious; but they unanimously resolved, whatever the issue should be, to participate in the struggle for independence. As soon as Cameron had ascertained this determination, a project was devised to spread desolation over the whole settlement at once, by making a sudden incursion, and attacking it on all sides by surprise. But the barbarous design was happily frustrated. The electrical flame of liberty, so spontaneous, so efficacious, was not confined to the atmosphere of civilization. Four white men, having long sojourned among the Cherokees, were entrusted with the bloody secret. But, true to the cause of humanity and freedom, they made escape, and gave seasonable notice of the meditated invasion.These tidings produced no inconsiderable terror. A large proportion of the people recrossed the Allegheny, and fled back for shelter to the several places of their nativity.But the panic was not universal. Enough remained to man and maintain a garrison, situated on the Holston, near the Sycamore Shoals. Yet so sensible were they of their comparative weakness, that they delegated John Carter and Geo rge Russell, to repair to North Carolina, make a representation of matters, and solicit the interposition of that state, and the necessary assistance. The application was attended to, and measures adopted preparatory to their relief. All this country was erected into a county by the name of Washington. And the little republic, which originated not in opposition, but convenience, now became an integral part of the great commonwealth, within the chartered limits of which it was situated.The Act of Assembly for this purpose bears date in December, 1777. But the settlers at the suggestion of Robertson, had called their territory Washington District several years before.In the fall of the same year, troops arrived from North Carolina and Virginia, who were joined by Robertson and seventy men from the garrison; the whole amounting to about eighteen hundred. They marched rapidly, struck home upon the Cherokees, vanquished wherever they came, ruined many towns, and destroyed stocks and provisions, and so crippled those savage enemies that they were obliged to submit to terms. A treaty was agreed upon; and poor Cameron hurried himself to Pensacola.Th e treaty was held in the spring following, at a place in the Holston called Long Island, under joint authority of Virginia and North Carolina. Peace was mutually promised and Robertson was appointed agent, to reside at some central place in the Cherokee Nation, in behalf of the two associated states.A powerful Cherokee chief had refused to join in the treaty, persisting in his attachment to the British; and, with a few adherents, went down the Tennessee River, dissatisfied, and commenced a new settlement at a place called Chickamauga. Numbers followed him, prompted by a disposition to plunder and carnage. Discord ensued; and injuries to the whites, perpetrated by this mischievous party, became so frequent, following almost in contact with each other, that chastisement could no longer be delayed. Accordingly, in 1779, an expedition for that purpose was undertaken commanded by Isaac Shelby, the late governor of Kentucky, then a resident of Washington County. It was directed especially against Chickamauga. Peaceable Indians were not to be molested. It proved effectual. Chickamauga fell; and the hostile wretches, partly disabled and partly intimidated, were for the present innocuous.Th e Watauga Association was semi-autonomous government established in 1772 by pioneer settlers in what is now northeastern Tennessee. The settlers, having leased their lands from the Cherokee, were beyond the bounds of an organized government. They organized a homespun authority under what was called the Watauga Compact; it is believed to be the first written constitution adopted by native-born Americans. The document was not preserved but seems to have provided for a court of five judges, a clerk, and a sheriff. In 1775 the Wataugans were able to transform the lease of their lands into an outright purchase. With the beginning of the American Revolution that year, they supported the patriot cause and created a 13-member committee of public safety. Faced with the threat of attack by Native Americans in 1776, the Wataugans asked for and obtained annexation by North Carolina. They were thus included in Washington County, which was created the next year for all of the state’s western claim. Washington County was erected by the General Assembly of North Carolina, in November, 1777. It was formed from Washington District which had been detached from Wilkes and Burke counties and included all the present State of Tennessee, although a part of it, as we have seen, was thought at the time to belong to Virginia. This county has the distinction of being the first political division in the United States which was named in honor of George Washington. From it all the other counties in Tennessee have been carved. It is, therefore, the oldest county in the state and was the theatre of the important events which occurred in its early history.At this session of the Legislature, provision was also made for opening a land office in Washington County, permission being given that each head of a family might take up six hundred and forty acres, his wife and his children one hundred acres each, all at the rate of forty shillings per hundred acres. The facility with which settlers might obtain lands caused a large influx of pioneers immediately, although no wagon road had been opened across the mountains.John Carter, who had been chairman of the court of the Watauga Association, appointed colonel of Washington County.The county was organized on February 23, 1778, with the following named magistrates in attendance: John Carter, chairman, John Sevier, Jacob Womack, Robert Lucas, Andrew Greer, John Shelby, George Russell, Wm. Been, Zachariah Isbell, John McNabb, Thomas Houghton, William Clark, John McMahan, Benjamin Gist, John Chisholm, Joseph Willson, Wm. Cobb, Jas. Stuart, Michael Woods, Richard White, Benjamin Wilson, James Robertson, and Valentine Sevier. On the next day the officers were elected as follows: John Sevier, clerk; Valentine Sevier, sheriff; James Stuart, surveyor; John Carter, entrytaker; John McMahan, register; Jacob Womack, stray-master; and John McNabb, coroner.When that claim was ceded and then taken back in 1784, the Wataugans took the lead in organizing the short-lived state of Franklin.The State of Franklin was an autonomous state, now included in the eastern part of Tennessee, formed in 1784 and dissolved in 1788. In 1784 North Carolina ceded to the U.S. government the western lands, a portion of which had originally been governed by the self-constituted Watauga Association. The cession was to be accepted within one year, but North Carolina repealed the cession before the year expired. Before learning of the repeal, however, the settlers in the eastern counties had organized the state of Franklin, named in honor of Benjamin Franklin, and elected John Sevier as governor. North Carolina attempted to conciliate the westerners by creating a Washington District with Sevier as brigadier general and David Campbell as judge, thus removing the necessity of taking court cases across the mountains for trial; the settlers, however, decided to continue the separate-state movement. The U.S. Congress failed by two votes to gain the two-thirds majority necessary for passage of a resolution to accept the North Carolina cession. North Carolina refused, until 1789, to remake the cession and encouraged opponents of Sevier, led by John Tipton, to maintain North Carolina government in the Franklin area. For three years the governments of North Carolina and Franklin attempted to govern the same people and region. The government of Franklin had a constitution providing for the payment of taxes and salaries in the produce of the country. An even more democratic constitution, which would have renamed the state Frankland, was rejected through the influence of Sevier. The feud between Sevier and Tipton reached the point of hostilities, and Sevier was arrested by North Carolina on a charge of high treason. The charge was later dropped, and Sevier was seated in the North Carolina legislature and in Congress. The legislature ceded the Tennessee country a second time; Congress accepted the cession in 1790 and created The Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio (commonly known as the Southwest Territory), which became the state of Tennessee in 1796.