The State of Franklin: Mountain Secession and Independent Thought

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

In North Carolina, regionalism has existed since day one.  In August 1784, western North Carolinians established the State of Franklin—“the only de facto state that functioned in every aspect of statal power,” writes historian Samuel Cole Williams.  After a civil war in the mountains, however, the “Lost State of Franklin” ceased in February 1789.

During the 1780s, North Carolina was under the Articles of Confederation (the Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified by all 13 original colonies by 1789).  At that time, “western North Carolina” stretched from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River.

Soon after the establishment of the state of North Carolina in 1776, North Carolina mountaineers believed the state government always looked eastward.  The irresponsive government of North Carolina angered those in the transmontane region (most lived along the Watauga and Nolichucky rivers); it offered no protection from the dangers of the frontier and used taxes to benefit primarily the eastern part of the state. Plus, Franklinites later argued, its seat was too far away for western North Carolinians to send delegates for timely representation.  

These problems irritated mountaineers more, when they remembered that they shouldered the onerous burden of fighting to secure western land—land that the state sold to pay off its Revolutionary War debt.  In particular, after the “Land Grab Act” (c. 1783) opened western land for sale, western North Carolinians alleged land warrant fraud; legislators and their business partners acquired land warrants for three of the four million acres sold.

The State of Franklin received its first breath in 1784, when the North Carolina legislature ceded its land to the federal government.  Already upset with their state government, Washington, Sullivan, and Greene countians, in what would become Tennessee, decided to start their own state and stretch its borders westward and issue land warrants.   Meanwhile, angry North Carolina voters replaced their representatives with a legislative body that repealed the act of cession.  

Although North Carolina did not recognize its statehood, Franklin operated for almost five years like any other state.   It granted, for example, land warrants and marriage licenses and built roads. Franklin leaders even negotiated treaties with the Cherokee and in the state’s waning days, they sought to be annexed by Spain.  John Sevier, a former leader of the Watauga Association (the first autonomous white government in the British colonies) and leader of the Wataugans at the Battle of King’s Mountain, served as the first governor.

After a series of problems, including a congressional rejection for statehood and warfare with the Cherokee, many in Franklin, under the direction of John Tipton, called for a return to North Carolina.  The denouement in Franklin’s story was in 1788, when a North Carolina sheriff seized Sevier’s property for back taxes.   The Franklin Army marched to Tipton’s home where a skirmish, called the Battle of Franklin, ensued.  Later arrested for treason and jailed in Morganton, Sevier was rescued by his followers who tried to form, south of the French Broad River, what they called Lesser Franklin.

In February 1789 the leaders of Franklin pledged allegiance to North Carolina.  The Tar Heel State, now rid of its competition, ceded its western land to the United States and thereby acquired authority over all legal claims to North Carolina land warrants.  

The State of Franklin provided the nucleus of Tennessee, established in 1796.  John Sevier was its first governor.

Many have criticized the Franklinites and their act of secession.  But they embodied the noble spirit of the American Revolution.  These western North Carolinians tried, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, to “abolish a destructive government” that had abused their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and tried to “institute [a] new Government” that was most likely to “effect their Safety and Happiness.”