TENNESSEE: From Territory to Statehood

In the days before statehood, Tennesseans struggled to gain a political voice and suffered for lack of the protection afforded by organized government. Six counties--Washington, Sullivan and Greene in East Tennessee and Davidson, Sumner, and Tennessee in the Middle District--had been formed as western counties of North Carolina between 1777 and 1788.

 

After the Revolution, however, North Carolina did not want the trouble and expense of maintaining such distant settlements, embroiled as they were with hostile tribesmen and needing roads, forts and open waterways. Nor could the far-flung settlers look to the national government, for under the weak, loosely constituted Articles of Confederation, it was a government in name only. The westerner's two main demands-- protection from the Indians and the right to navigate the Mississippi River-- went largely unheeded during the 1780s. North Carolina's insensitivity led frustrated East Tennesseans in 1784 to form the breakaway State of Franklin. The ever-popular John Sevier was named governor, and the fledgling state began operating as an independent, though unrecognized, government. At the same time, leaders of the Cumberland settlements made overtures for an alliance with Spain, which controlled the lower Mississippi River and was held responsible for inciting the Indian raids. In drawing up the Watauga and Cumberland Compacts, early Tennesseans had already exercised some of the rights of self-government and were prepared to take political matters into their own hands. Such stirrings of independence caught the attention of North Carolina, which quietly began to reassert control over its western counties. These policies and internal divisions among East Tennesseans doomed the short-lived State of Franklin, which passed out of existence in 1788.

When North Carolina finally ratified the new Constitution of the United States in 1789, it also ceded its western lands, the Tennessee country, to the Federal government. North Carolina had used these lands as a means of rewarding its Revolutionary soldiers, and in the Cession Act of 1789 it reserved the right to satisfy further land claims in Tennessee. Congress now designated the area as the Territory of the United States, South of the River Ohio, more commonly known as the Southwest Territory. The Territory was divided into three districts--two for East Tennessee and the Mero District on the Cumberland--each with its own courts, militia and officeholders.

President George Washington appointed as territorial governor William Blount, a prominent North Carolina politician with extensive holdings in western lands. Land grant acts passed in North Carolina created a booming market in Tennessee land before actual settlers had ever arrived. Land speculation was based upon cheaply amassing large amounts of western land, or claims to it, in hopes that increased immigration would raise the Gov. Blount summons Tennessee's price of these lands. Most of Tennessee's first territorial legislature. early political leaders--Blount, Sevier, Henderson, and Andrew Jackson, among others--were involved in land speculation, making it difficult sometimes to tell where public responsibility left off and private business began. The sale of public land was closely linked to Indian affairs, because settlers would not travel to the new land until it was safe and could not legally settle on lands until Indian title was extinguished. The business of the territorial government, therefore, centered on land and Indian relations.


[Text taken from Tennessee Blue Book, a publication of the State of Tennessee]

Map Illustrations by. L. Polk Denmark,
courtesy of the NC Dept of Cultural History, from their book:
The Formation of the North Carolina Counties, 1663-1943


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Derick S. Hartshorn - 2008
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