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The Lost Appalachian State of Franklin

How in the hell do you lose a whole state?

Well y’all, I’m about to tell you how. America’s early years after the Revolutionary War were interesting, to say the least. There were only 13 states in the US, America was still shaping its own identity, and within the whole of American identity, pockets of culture were slowly taking shape — some of which can be seen in our modern-day culture. One such subgroup that formed around this time came from frontiersmen who braved the less-than-welcoming terrain of the Appalachian Mountains — cultivating a tough, independent, and scrappy mindset that stubbornly persists in present-day Appalachian culture.

It’s this mindset that led to the short-lived State of Franklin, or should I say, the lost State of Franklin. This independent government in the heart of Appalachia may not have existed for long, but its story sure is fascinating. Let’s take a step back in time, y’all, and learn a little bit more about it. 

The State of Franklin

The concept of the new State of Franklin began shortly after the Revolutionary War in the late 1700’s with John Sevier and Arthur Campbell. These men were two of many Americans living in the frontier at that time, also called the Overmountain towns, which is modern-day East Tennessee. 

Boundaries of the State of Franklin
State of Franklin

Photo Courtesty of Wikipedia

At the time, this land, west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River, was part of North Carolina. North Carolina wanted to cede this land to the federal government to help pay off some of their debt from the Revolutionary War, which was still in many people’s recent memory at this point in time. However, the folks living in this area were concerned that the government might sell the land to Spain or France to help with their war debt. War is expensive, y’all. Wanting to take the fate of the land into their own hands, and being dissatisfied with North Carolina’s governance, Arthur Campbell and John Sevier set about making their own state. 

Campbell and Sevier disagreed on the boundaries of their new state. Sevier preferred a smaller state, while Campbell thought this new state should include parts of modern-day east Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, and Alabama. Sevier acknowledged Campbell’s leadership in this venture, so they began attempting to carve out more land for the future Franklin. 

However, this proved to be an unsuccessful venture. Campbell tried carving out part of Virginia to join Franklin, which upset then Governor of Virginia, Patrick Henry. It’s understandable — he didn’t want to lose any of his territory to a new state, so he passed a law against creating a new state from Virginia's land by the cession of state territory. Without this extra land, Franklin’s unofficial borders encompassed 4 counties in what was then North Carolina. Today, that land is in east Tennessee. So, on August 23, 1784, Franklin declared its independence as a separate state, and they named John Sevier as their governor.

Hooray, new state! What could go wrong? Well, there was a problem that no one could really overlook — North Carolina didn't successfully cede the Overmountain land to the federal government, so they took it back. After the summer of 1785, the independent government of Franklin ruled alongside the re-established North Carolina government. Two governments, one land… it wasn’t great. The officials of Franklin knew that if they wanted to be independent, they needed higher powers on their side. 

Attempts at Franklin Statehood and Schmoozing Ben Franklin

Originally, the State of Franklin was called “Frankland”. In fact, that’s what it was called in May of 1785 when the eager frontiersman submitted a petition of statehood to Congress to become the 14th state in the union. 7 states voted yes, which was not enough for a ⅔ majority vote. 

Though this was a disappointing blow, Sevier had another trick up his sleeve. They renamed their state from Frankland to Franklin, after none other than Benjamin Franklin. John Sevier sent old Ben a letter in late 1785 asking for his support. Sevier and his supporters thought surely that by naming a whole state after the guy that he would be on board. 

But, their flattery got them nowhere. Ben Franklin responded to John Sevier, saying,

“... I am sensible of the honor which your Excellency and your council thereby do me. But being in Europe when your State was formed, I am too little acquainted with the circumstances to be able to offer you anything just now that may be of importance since everything material that regards your welfare will doubtless have occurred to yourselves. ... I will endeavor to inform myself more perfectly of your affairs by inquiry and searching the records of Congress and if anything should occur to me that I think may be useful to you, you shall hear from me thereupon.”

— Benjamin Franklin, letter to Governor John Sevier

Basically, Ben said that although he was flattered, he didn’t have enough information about the new state to give his full support. Alas, the schmoozing did not work as Sevier had hoped.

Franklin’s Downward Spiral

The short-lived endeavor that was the State of Franklin was doomed from the start, and the cracks in their already unstable foundation began to widen as time went on. The September 1787 meeting of the Franklin legislature was its last. In early 1788, tensions over divided loyalties boiled over at the Battle of Franklin. North Carolina wanted to seize property of Sevier’s to settle tax debts that they said were owed to them. Part of this property included several slaves, who were taken to Colonel John Tipton’s home, which is now a historic site ( Side note: the home was built in 1784 by Colonel John Tipton). This led to a fatal skirmish at Tipton’s home. Sevier came with an army of 100+ men, while Tipton was reinforced by Colonel George Maxwell, who also came with an army of 100+ men. After 10 minutes of fighting, Sevier’s army retreated to Jonesborough. Several men were captured or wounded in the attack, and 3 were killed.

1788 proved to be a ruthless year for Franklinites. In late March 1788, settlements in Franklin experienced attacks from Chickamauga, Chickasaw, and other Native American tribes. As one might guess, they were likely not happy that newcomers were inhabiting their native land. Sevier was desperate to keep his state together, so he sought a loan from the Spanish government and attempted to place Franklin under Spanish rule. This did not sit well with the North Carolina government which was vehemently opposed to a foreign having any control in Franklin. Sevier was arrested for this latest stunt, but he was freed by his supporters and high-tailed it to an area known as “Lesser Franklin”, which is modern-day Sevier County. 

By this time, everyone pretty much knew that the gig was up. By early 1789, the State of Franklin (outside of Lesser Franklin) collapsed, and the land was given back to North Carolina. 

Soon, however, North Carolina wanted to give up that land again. They just couldn’t take it, y’all, it had caused them too much trouble. They ceded the Overmountain land west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River to form the Southwest Territory, which was the precursor to the State of Tennessee. In 1790, John Sevier was elected to Congress to represent the territory, and in 1796, he became the first Governor of Tennessee. How’s that for a comeback story?


For more photos and explorations, be sure to follow The Wandering Appalachian on Instagram and Pinterest! Be sure when you're discovering new places to practice Leave No Trace principles. Take only pictures, and leave only footprints. Happy wandering, y'all



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