The Story Behind the Lost Southern State of Franklin
Did you know that for four years the South had one more state? Here’s the wild story of the state of Franklin, the so-called lost state of America.
At the end of the American Revolution, the colonies didn’t all rush to form the United States as we now know it. Some communities including the residents of a chunk of land west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi were given “the option of creating jurisdictions within existing states, forming new states within the union, or creating their own sovereign republics,” Jason Farr wrote in The Tennessee Historical Quarterly.
While it’s hard to imagine now, the settlers in the region, which was known as the Cumberland River Valley, “were concerned that Congress would sell the territory to Spain or France as a means of paying off some of the government’s war debt,” writes History.com. It wasn’t that hard to believe: Just months before North Carolina had ceded the region to the federal government, but had then changed its mind and wanted to re-claim the territory and make it part of the state.
While the higher powers weighed the fate of the region, four counties decided that they didn’t want to wait and see what would happen. They decided to take their fate into their own hands and form their own state, instead. They named the new state Franklin, named after Benjamin Franklin, picked what is now Greeneville, Tennessee as its capital, and chose John Sevier, a Revolutionary War veteran, as their leader. They officially declared independence in 1784 and set about setting up the 14th state in the United States.
There was just one problem: North Carolina. The state regretted giving up the land and wanted it back. In fact, when Franklin declared itself an independent state in December 1784, as noted in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, North Carolina had already agreed to take it back just the month before, a fact that Franklin didn’t seem to know. That meant that while Franklin was doing the hard work of setting up its own government, North Carolina simply ignored the secession. They went about absorbing the Appalachian region back into North Carolina, setting up courthouses, making laws, and charging taxes.
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Eventually, that lead to a face-off between Franklin and North Carolina, when N.C. sent its state military to seize land owned by Sevier for not paying taxes in a state he did not believe he lived in. Sevier responded with a hundred of his own state troops resulting in a “days-long stalemate” as both sides waited for the other to flinch. “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,” Atlas Obscura reports. North Carolina wasn’t the only one with a claim to the land as the Cherokee Nation also claimed the territory, as they were there first and had a strong claim to the land. Ultimately Franklin signed a treaty with the Cherokee and tried to sign with Spain.
The fights with North Carolina didn’t dampen Franklin’s determination. What ultimately did them in was when the Confederation Congress of the still-nascent United States denied Franklin’s claim to state sovereignty putting them at odds with the federal government. They kept fighting until 1788, when Sevier was arrested by North Carolina on charges of treason. “America’s Lost State” lasted for four years. While Franklin was ultimately unsuccessful as a state, it did change the U.S. by getting the federal government to include a clause in the U.S. Constitution regarding the formation of new states, writes PBS.
These days folks who want to walk in the footsteps of Franklin residents can trek out to Tennessee, which is what the area became in 1796. Not much remains of Franklin, but there is a log cabin replica of the lost state’s capitol in Greenville. According to Atlas Obscura, it’s a replica, 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.”