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Sunday, July 29, 2012


Everyone knows about the thirteen original states, but few are aware of what would have been our fourteenth state if not for unusual circumstances. After the end of the Revolutionary War, all of the states were in serious financial debt. North Carolina was almost in collapse for lack of funds; it owed significant revenue to the Federal government to cover war expenses.
At that time, North Carolina’s territory extended all the way to the Mississippi River. Some of the hardier North Carolinians had ventured across the Appalachian Mountains to settle in the state’s western wilderness. But they were met by hostile Cherokee’s and roving bands of outlaws. The settlers demanded that the North Carolina government protect them from these dangers. Since the state was broke, owed money to the Federal government, and considered the settlers no better than outlaws themselves, North Carolina Governor, Alexander Martin, decided to “kill two birds with one stone.” In 1784, he ceded 29 million acres in the Carolina western wilderness to the Continental Congress. The state’s debt would be satisfied and they were no longer obligated to defend the settlers. It was a plan that most Carolinians supported, although the Congress did not immediately accept the lands.
What Governor Martin didn’t expect was the ardent independence of the settlers and the persuasiveness of their appointed leader John Sevier (who was nicknamed “Nolichucky Jack” after the Nolichucky River that flowed through the area). Sevier, who is pictured here, and his supporters voted to secede from North Carolina and formed a provisional government they called The Free Republic of Franklin, named for Benjamin Franklin.
Governor Martin of North Carolina and most of the citizens in the east couldn’t care less. But a separate republic, not part of the United States, on their border was a big concern especially when the Spanish government sought to establish relations with and loan money to the new republic of Franklin. North Carolina withdrew its cession of land to the Federal government and began to raise troops to reclaim the territory. Sevier and the Franklinites raised their own army.
The following year, representatives of Franklin arrived in New York to petition the Continental Congress for admission to the Union as the fourteenth state. North Carolina was caught by surprise. The Franklin delegation sought the help of Benjamin Franklin himself to gain support but he was in France and could do little. He also didn’t want to become involved in an internal struggle in a state where he was not a citizen. A vote was taken and seven states voted to admit it as the State of Franklin (or nominally Frankland). This was two votes short of the required two-thirds majority however.
What followed for the next two years was nothing short of chaos in Franklin. The North Carolina government did not have the power to make the Franklinites behave; and the people in Franklin didn’t have the power to expel the Carolinians. The result was that two parallel governments were set up.
Both Franklin and North Carolina sent delegates to the Continental Congress. Rival court clerks issued duplicate marriage licenses and recorded land transactions. Rival justices handed down conflicting decisions. Some people were willing to pay their taxes but didn’t know whom to pay. The Free Republic of Franklin had no currency and operated under a barter system; Governor Sevier was paid with deer hides. Things were a mess.
In 1788, in a final effort to settle the issue, John Sevier took the Franklin militia and invaded North Carolina, laying siege to the homes if influential Carolinians. The North Carolina militia was ultimately reinforced and met the Franklinites in an event known as “The Battle of the Lost State of Franklin.” It marked the beginning of the end of the Free Republic of Franklin. History records that, because men of both sides were friends and neighbors, most marksmen intentionally missed their shots and few were injured (remember these were sharpshooting mountain men).
Sevier was arrested but was only forced to sign a pledge of loyalty to the State of North Carolina. Everyone was happy that the struggle was over and that normalcy returned.
There were some unusual after effects however. North Carolina, still in deep debt, once again ceded the 29 million acres of western land to the Federal government. This new land was named the “Territory of the United States of America South of the Ohio River” (or just the “Southwest Territory”). Eight years later, this former Free Republic of Franklin was admitted to the Union as the State of Tennessee. Its first Governor was none other than John Sevier (Nolichucky Jack).
Most of us remember the Disney song about American folk hero Davy Crockett which begins, “Born on a mountain top in Tennessee . . .” Well, Davy might have been born on a mountain top but it wasn’t in Tennessee. It was in the Free Republic of Franklin at the time of his birth.

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