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Friday Interview: The State of Franklin

The N.C. History Project's Troy Kickler discusses the breakaway state

For nearly five years, in the 1780s, western North Carolina was actually a separate autonomous state. It was called the State of Franklin. Carolina Journal Radio’s Donna Martinez discussed recently this fascinating piece of North Carolina history with Dr. Troy Kickler, director of the North Carolina History Project. (Go to http://www.carolinajournal.com/cjradio/ to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Martinez: This is such an interesting story, Troy. North Carolina was established in 1766, right?

Kickler: Yes, correct.

Martinez: Okay, so what happened in just eight short years that already people who were part of North Carolina were so upset that they wanted to break away?

Kickler: Well, you have to remember the 1770s and the 1780s were a time of rapid change for the former colonies, and so was the case in North Carolina as well. Well, first of all, North Carolina was under the Articles of Confederation. And so that is going to be scrapped, essentially, for the federal Constitution, so the government is changing in that way. But you have to remember, too, that the state is very large at the time. It didn’t stop at the border that it has now. The state went all the way to the Mississippi River.

Martinez: Oh, that’s right.

Kickler: So people in the state capital claim that it went all the way to the Mississippi River. And there were the people in the mountains of what is now western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, [who] had complaints. They thought the state government always looked eastward, never looked westward, and always took care of the interests that were in the east. And they were fed up with it. Simply put, they were fed up with it, and they tried to secede from the State of North Carolina.

Martinez: Troy, that is really interesting, because if you fast forward to today’s times and our discussion of public policy, we kind of hear that same complaint sometimes from the people who live in western North Carolina, saying that everybody looks to the east — Raleigh and eastward — for what needs to be done.

Kickler: Right, right. I think the story, the State of Franklin, just proves that, well, as you said, regionalism in the state still exists, and it has been in the state, like many other states. It has been there for a long, long time.

Martinez: Troy, let’s talk about some of the complaints of the folks who wanted to break away. You write about them in an article that is on your Web site. Give us the Web site address, if you would.

Kickler: It is northcarolinahistory.org.

Martinez: Well, the complaints — you talk about several. First of all, the folks felt that they really didn’t have any protection. I mean, this was kind of the wild and wooly days, so to speak. So it sounds like that is a valid complaint.

Kickler: Right, right. That goes back to what I was saying. The people in the western part of the state thought that the government always looked eastward and took care of the eastern interests. And one of the problems that citizens in the western part of the state had is that they needed protection from the dangers of the frontier, whether that be … from the wildlife or from the Native Americans, the tribes there that didn’t like their presence. And they thought that the state did not offer them the protection that they needed. So that is one of the complaints that they had.

Martinez: They weren’t real happy about the tax issue either. What was going on there?

Kickler: Oh, the tax. Well…

Martinez: They basically thought they were being taxed and weren’t getting representation and help.

Kickler: Right. The reasons that they were upset — there were three or four reasons, and they were kind of intertwined. One, as I said, they always thought the government looked eastward, which means there was no protection. And then they were taxed for the land that they had to essentially protect themselves. The militia, the state government’s forces, did not protect them. And then also, the seat of the state government was too far away. It would take them days to go to the seat of government in North Carolina. And they just thought, well, you know, it is so far away, it is so distant from us, not only ideologically speaking, but in physical distance as well. We might as well…

Martinez: Just break away.

Kickler: Yes, just break away.

Martinez: Troy, you also talk in your piece about the role of the Land Grab Act in this whole discontent. Tell us about that.

Kickler: Yes, it was a controversial topic at the time. That is the way a lot of states paid off their war debt after the Revolutionary War — by selling western land. And the western North Carolinians complained that there were many North Carolina businessmen who were in cahoots with the North Carolina government. So the Land Grab Act basically opened western land for sale. And there were four million acres that were — approximately four million acres — that were available for sale. And there were certain individuals in the State of North Carolina that claimed to own three million of those four million acres. So they stood to profit from this Land Grab Act, and a lot of those businessmen were also the legislators that pushed this Land Grab Act through.

Martinez: So a little conflict of interest perhaps there.

Kickler: Right. And this is in 1783, and the State of Franklin is born one year later.

Martinez: Interesting. Well, Troy, the State of Franklin, it was completely autonomous, and it was out there doing the things that states do. You write in your piece about how they actually were negotiating treaties with the Cherokee. What other things did they do?

Kickler: Right, they actually, they tried to negotiate with the country of Spain.

Martinez: Really?

Kickler: Now, we must remember that it was a de facto government. It was never recognized by the United States government, it wasn’t recognized by the North Carolina government, or other states. Obviously though, the Cherokee recognized the citizens as Franklinites, the citizens of Franklin. Spain was negotiating with Franklin because Spain had an interest in the New World. And, at this time, they are losing the race with England, France, and some of the other countries. So, if Spain could have successfully negotiated with Franklin, they could have possibly gained a stronghold in the eastern North America, which is a place that they never — they tried several times — but they never really gained a stronghold.

Martinez: The State of Franklin lasted for five years. How did this end up breaking up again?

Kickler: Well, it was basically a civil war in the mountains. As we said before, they were negotiating treaties — the Franklinites were negotiating treaties with the Cherokee. And what happened is, the governor and the influential leaders in the State of Franklin — including John Sevier, who became the first governor of the State of Tennessee — North Carolina arrested them and brought them back to jail in Morganton. Some of the Franklinites went to rescue their leaders from Morganton. They did so. And those leaders tried to set up another state, which they called Lesser Franklin, and it was south of the State of Franklin. And they tried…simply put, [to secede] through force, because secession is a way for people to make sure that their political demands are met. So people started compromising in the state government. So, through force, through compromise, and then the fact that Lesser Franklin wasn’t as successful, people were just getting tired of this idea, of that. And then people in Tennessee — well, it was not Tennessee at the time — but people in Tennessee are starting to form their own state, their own identity.

Martinez: So, today, Troy, is it North Carolina land, or is it Tennessee land?

Kickler: It is mainly Tennessee land — the counties in eastern Tennessee, around Knoxville, Sevierville, Newport, that area.

Martinez: Well, it is a great piece of North Carolina history, and if you would like to read more about what was known as the State of Franklin, you can go to the Website of the North Carolina History Project — northcarolinahistory.org.