The first permanent white settler in what is now Tennessee was William Bean, who settled in 1769 on Boone’s Creek, near where it flowed into the Watauga River. Within a year there were several more families in three adjoining communities: Nolichucky, Carter’s Valley, and North Holston. Most had arrived by way of the Great Valley, coming down through Virginia, although some passed through the gaps in the Unaka Range from North Carolina after the failed Regulator movement of 1771.
The inhabitants of these settlements believed, or at least claimed to believe, they had settled within the boundary of Virginia. A survey revealed, however, that all except the North Holston community were situated south of the boundary part of North Carolina’s western claims—the same land that had been guaranteed to the Cherokee Nation. Thus, the new settlements were told to disband and relocate to the north of the boundary. Instead, they consolidated in the Watauga settlement and approached the Cherokee with a request to lease land along the Watauga River. The Cherokee agreed.
The Wataugans were still beyond the bounds of any organized government, and to address this problem, they created the Watauga Association in 1772. Based on the Virginia legal system, a panel of five commissioners regulated all judicial activities in the settlement, including court cases, legal documents, and land titles. The primary focus of the Watauga Association was the practical needs of routine government; it made no claims to independence from Great Britain. Even so, Wataugans were under the authority of no other government and thus represent the first autonomous white government in the British colonies.
In 1775 the Watauga settlement was the site of a most remarkable real estate transaction: the Transylvania Purchase. For several days in mid-March, Richard Henderson of North Carolina negotiated with leaders of the Cherokee Nation. He eventually secured an agreement by which the Cherokee exchanged their claim to all of the Cumberland River Valley and most of Kentucky in exchange for 10,000 pounds of trade goods.
Virginia and North Carolina eventually negated the Transylvania Purchase, but it still had significant repercussions for the Wataugans. In the aftermath of the transaction, Watauga leaders approached the Cherokee to ask that their lease be converted into a purchase, and once again, the Cherokee agreed. But the Transylvania Purchase created serious dissension within the Cherokee Nation. In hopes that their lost lands could be regained, the militant faction of the tribe soon afterward garnered enough support to form an alliance with the British during the American Revolution.
With the threat of a Cherokee attack imminent, the Wataugans appealed to both Virginia and North Carolina for assistance. North Carolina eventually agreed and created the Washington District to include all of its lands west of the Unaka Mountains. The Cherokee still launched an attack against the Watauga settlements in 1776, but the Wataugans retreated to their fort and withstood the siege.
In the following year, North Carolina created Washington County from what had been Washington District, and the Watauga Association was no longer necessary. The settlement, however, witnessed one more important event associated with the Revolution, when the “Overmountain Men” met at the Sycamore Shoals of the Watauga River before they crossed the mountains to attack and defeat British Colonel Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780.
Thomas Perkins Abernathy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee: A Study of
Frontier Democracy (Chapel Hill, 1932); Paul Bergeron, Steven Ash and Jeanette Keith, Tennesseans and Their History (Knoxville, 1999); Carl S. Driver, John Sevier: Pioneer of the Old Southwest (Chapel Hill, 1932); John R. Finger, Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition (Bloomington, 2001); J. G. M. Ramsay, The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Johnson City, TN, reprint, 1999); Malcom Rohrbaugh, The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1850 (New York, 1976); Samuel Cole Williams, ed., Early Travels in the Tennessee Country, 1540-1800 (Johnson City, TN, 1928), Tennessee during the Revolutionary War (Knoxville, reprint, 1974); Grace Steele Woodward, The Cherokees (Norman, 1963).