A Look Back at Franklin, America’s Lost State
It existed for a brief and treasonous four years.
The first time I made it to the top of Viking Mountain in the Great Smokies, fog slowly faded out the mountains and valleys until the horizon was a slate of gray. Below, my hometown of Greeneville, Tennessee, was hidden in the haze. But even on a clear day, I’ve never been able to see the little mountain town with clarity. My family moved away from Greeneville and hopped to foreign and domestic military bases before I could get acquainted with the land. And so began my fascination with the hometown in the Appalachian foothills that I left behind.
Turns out, Greeneville wasn’t just lost to me. It was once the capital of America’s Lost State.
Beyond covering my hometown, that lingering fog hid the boundaries of America’s 14th state: Franklin. If you’ve never heard of Franklin, it’s probably because it existed for a brief and treasonous four years and was never recognized as a true state by Congress. Regardless, during its struggle for legitimized statehood, Franklinites would live, fight, and die for the principles the State of Franklin represented.
In 1784, before Tennessee’s slender shape had ever been imagined and drawn on a map, there were rumblings of discontent in three counties in western North Carolina : Washington, Sullivan, and Greene. These small counties were isolated from the rest of North Carolina and their governing representatives, separated by the formidable Southern Appalachian mountain range. Residents were all too aware of how the mountains they lived in and around disenfranchised their lives. “There is a sort of political marginalization being so far away from the seat of state power and not having your political interests represented,” says Dr. Kevin Barksdale, history professor at Marshall University and author of The Lost State of Franklin: America’s First Secession.
One of the primary political concerns of the Franklinites was that the North Carolina government and the federal government would sell their land from beneath their feet. That fear was grounded in reality, as North Carolina had ceded the territory west of the Appalachians to the United States for the purpose of resale just months before the formation of Franklin.
In 1784, the United States owed massive debts to its allies from the Revolutionary War. Without the power to levy taxes, the Continental Congress, which was the federal governmental body in charge before the U.S. elected its first president and ratified its Constitution, had to get creative in how they compensated their lenders. One way the U.S. did this was by accepting land ceded from the 13 states and selling land titles to settlers. North Carolina’s cession of the territory on the other side of Appalachia threatened to make the Franklinites trespassers on the land on which they lived and worked. When North Carolina changed its mind about giving up the territory in November 1784, it was too late. Washington, Sullivan, and Greene representatives met in Jonesborough, a city in Washington County, and declared their sovereignty in the form of the brand new State of Franklin.
At its conception, the 14th state was about as defined as the Great Smoky Mountain fog that clouded the land. Franklin’s boundaries were nebulous and even the name was not agreed upon unanimously. One draft of the state constitution referred to the state as “Frankland”— meaning free land or land of the free. “Franklin” made it to the final version of the constitution, in honor of Benjamin Franklin.
In historical context, Franklin was formed just one year after the official conclusion of the Revolutionary War. The U.S. was an infant country with a collective personality based on rebellion, independence, and self-governance. The war heroes from the American Revolution who fought and killed for these principles were now leaders in local government roles. Such was the case for celebrated war veteran John Sevier, elected governor of Franklin. It’s plausible that the same values he fought for a few years prior inspired his leadership and passion for Franklin’s separation.
Franklin represents the early American concept that “if your government is not representing you, then it’s your right and your duty to throw off that government and establish a new government,” Barksdale says. “Franklin demonstrates how the statehood movement in the heart of Appalachia was [of] central [importance] to our new nation immediately after the American Revolution.”
Despite the Franklinites’ self-determination, their boundaries were never respected by the neighboring state from which they separated. The North Carolina government ignored Franklin’s secession and set up courthouses in its territory, leading to both states claiming the same parcel of land. This pocket of Appalachia was taxed by two state governments, two court systems enforced two sets of laws, and two state militaries marched on the same ground.
Tensions escalated to open fire in February 1788. The Battle of the State of Franklin was ignited when North Carolina Sheriff John Pugh seized Governor Sevier’s property under the pretense that the Franklin governor had failed to pay taxes to North Carolina. Sevier responded with 100 Franklinites at Col. John Tipton’s residence to take back his belongings. Tipton held fast and demanded that Sevier and all Franklinites submit to North Carolina law.
A days-long stalemate resulted, during which North Carolina loyalists gathered to defend Tipton. Ultimately, the long wait came to an end with 10 minutes of gun fire, three dead, several wounded, and a humiliating retreat for the Franklinites.
While Franklin clashed with North Carolina, the new state also battled with regional Native Americans. Franklin leaders met with Overhill Cherokee leaders at the conjunction of Dumplin Creek and the French Broad River to establish a land treaty. As Barksdale notes in his book, the meeting was named, ironically, “a Treaty of Amity and Friendship.” The exploitative treaty would soon be illegitimate when the Hopewell Treaty, established among the Cherokee and the federal U.S., contradicted its boundaries. Come spring 1786, blood would spill in the Tennessee Valley as the Cherokee executed a series of raids against the Franklinites in defense of their land.
Still, Franklin’s largest barrier to statehood came from the top level, Congress. The statehood movement that grew out of a tiny community in Southern Appalachia reflected a larger, national conversation about how American representative democracy would work going forward, Barksdale explains. To what degree would independence be revered? How would the United States go about creating states in the uncharted Western territory? As Barksdale asks, “How committed were Americans to the basic American Revolution principles of self-determination?”
Not committed enough to allow Franklin its self-determined statehood. The Confederation Congress rejected Franklin’s request and denied state sovereignty; perhaps, under the trepidation of how the ideas of self-determination in this tiny portion of Appalachia could spread to the rest of the country. “Appalachia becomes a testing ground immediately after the revolution for the principles of the revolution,” Barksdale says. “The chaos surrounding Franklin becomes a major player in shaping how the frontier in the Western territories will be integrated into the United States.”
The violent battles and lost lives in the Cherokee raids weren’t enough to make Franklin give up statehood. It wasn’t until 1788, when Governor Sevier was forced into handcuffs by an arresting squad out of North Carolina, that Franklin’s dissolution became imminent. Each step of the governor’s trek through the Appalachian wilderness led him closer to his trial for treason in Morganton, North Carolina. Sevier’s arrest marked the end of Franklin and the beginning of its designation as “America’s Lost State.”
When I sought a connection with Greeneville, the hometown I barely knew, I obsessively researched facts and data about the place. I discovered how Viking Mountain pierces the sky at 4,844 feet, that a cannonball fired in an 1864 Civil War battle remains lodged in the side of Greeneville Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and that my Papaw Jack was a member of a group open to people who descended from Franklinites.
I come from Franklin, but simply knowing its facts and history didn’t give me that “at-home” feeling. My best sense of home came when I stopped researching, sat quietly creek-side in the mountains that straddle the Tennessee–North Carolina border, in the good company of nettle and wild violets, and listened to the mountains. For now, getting lost in the fog in the land of the Lost State is enough for me.
After Franklin dissolved, Greeneville was demoted from state capital of Franklin to a mostly unheard of town in the Appalachian foothills of Tennessee. Today, a modest log cabin replica of Franklin’s capitol stands in downtown Greeneville. Only a replica remains because, like the State of Franklin, the original building was lost. It mysteriously vanished en route to Nashville for Tennessee’s centennial celebration in 1897.
As for Governor Sevier, he never made it to his trial for treason. The county sheriff had fought alongside Sevier during the American Revolution and helped his old battle buddy escape the cuffs and jail cell. According to one account, by the time Sevier’s rescue party arrived from Franklin, their governor was already drunk in the local Morganton tavern. Sevier didn’t mourn Franklin’s dissolution for too long, and the public quickly forgave him for treasonously running an unofficial state. He was elected into the North Carolina state senate the year after his arrest and would eventually serve as Tennessee’s first governor.
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