The State of Franklin never existed, at least not officially, but it came amazingly close. Its territory extended across a swath of northeastern Tennessee and its borderlands along western North Carolina.
The United States got off to a rocky start with burdensome debts remaining from the Revolutionary War and a weak central government formed under the Articles of Confederation. Concurrently, settlers pushed further west beyond the Appalachians into lands that were wilderness only a few years earlier. In North Carolina this happened as adventurers migrated down from Virginia to form the Watauga Settlement. These people did not intend to be separatists but they valued their freedom and held no specific loyalties to North Carolina.
North Carolina had a similar feeling for the frontiersmen settling along the Watauga River. These lands over the mountains were distant, isolated and difficult to administer. People in these remote areas traded largely through barter and had little money even if a tax collector managed to find them. The inhabitants were a drain upon the distant state government. Realizing such, North Carolina agreed to cede its western territory to the Congress of the Confederation in 1784. This vast domain stretched all the way from the Allegheny Mountains (as the Appalachian Range was called at the time) to the Mississippi River, some 29 million acres, intended as a contribution to help relieve the war debt.
Settlers of these distant lands viewed the decision unfavorably. They wondered how it would affect the future they were trying to create. States controlled the real power under the Articles of Confederation and the settlers no longer belonged to one. It created fear and doubt as people found themselves suddenly under the control of a feeble central government that was not even in a position to accept or govern the territory. There was also an underlying fear that their land might be sold to Spain or France, an undesirable prospect for people who thought of themselves as Americans. North Carolina further compounded the confusion when it rescinded its offer a few months later when it still had not been acted upon by the central government.
The settlers took control of the situation by declaring their independence from North Carolina in August 1784. The following May they submitted a petition of statehood to the Congress of the Confederation and received seven votes. Although a simple majority, it was not the two-thirds majority required for statehood. They even tried switching the name of their state from Frankland ("land of free men") to Franklin in a calculated attempt to curry favor from Benjamin Franklin. It didn’t work.
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Meanwhile back in the proto-State of Franklin, the settlers began to lay the groundwork for governance in anticipation of statehood. They formed a legislature and courts, established formal relationships with nearby Native Americans, and annexed additional territory. John Sevier became governor.
North Carolina watched these developments with increasing concern, but started first with a soft approach by inviting Franklin back into the fold with favorable conditions. When that didn’t work they moved troops under the command of Colonel John Tipton into the disputed territory to establish sovereignty. This caused divided loyalties and ongoing disagreements as the two governments operated and competed side-by-side.
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The Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site, location of the "Battle of the Lost State of Franklin," now situated near a nondescript suburban strip mall and a trailer park.
North Carolina issued a writ against John Sevier and the sheriff seized his slaves, bringing them to Col. Tipton’s residence for safekeeping. Sevier and 150 of his men marched over to Tipton’s place and the two sides traded shots for a couple of days. The battlefield has been preserved at the Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site in Johnson City, Tennessee. It was the only "battle" in the history of Franklin. In spite of all the shooting only a handful of people were actually injured or killed. It seemed to be more for show.
By 1790 the State of Franklin collapsed under its own weight and returned to North Carolina’s control. Its legitimacy remained in question, its barter dependency couldn’t pay the bills, its relationships with Native American communities deteriorated, and its lack of state militia forces left it vulnerable. Franklin quickly turned to North Carolina for protection when nearby tribes started attacking its settlements with impunity.
But did Franklin really lose? North Carolina once again ceded the lands over the mountains, but this time to a vastly stronger Federal government formed under the Constitution of the United States of America. In 1796 it became the state of Tennessee. The first governor? John Sevier.
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The State of Franklin lives on in Johnson City, Tennessee. Here is N. State of Franklin Rd. There are also a number of local businesses that incorporate the name.