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The Old Southwest Territory and the Origins of Tennessee

An Act for Government of the Southwest Territory

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the territory of the United States, south of the river Ohio, for the purposes of temporary government, shall be one district; the inhabitants of which shall enjoy all the privi­leges, benefits and advantages, set forth in the Ordinance of the late Congress, for the government of the territory of the United States, north-west of the river Ohio; and the government of the said ter­ritory, South of the Ohio, shall be similar to that which is now exercised in the territory north-west of the Ohio; except so far as is otherwise provided in the conditions expressed in an Act of Congress of the present session, entitled, “An Act to accept a cession of the claims of the State of North Carol­ina, to a certain district of western territory.”

Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the salaries of the Officers, which the President of the United States shall nominate, and with the advice and con­sent of the Senate, appoint by virtue of this Act, shall be the same as those, by law established, of similar Officers in the government north-west of the river Ohio. And the powers, duties, and emol­uments of a Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southern department, shall be united with those of the Governor.

The Territory South of the River Ohio, more commonly known as the Southwest Territory, was an organized incorporated territory of the United States that existed from May 26, 1790, when Congress passed, and President Washington signed, the Southwest Ordinance referenced above, until June 1, 1796, when it was admitted to the United States as the State of Tennessee.

The Colonial Period

During the colonial period, land that would become the Southwest Territory was part of North Carolina's land patent. The Blue Ridge Mountains, arrayed along the modern Tennessee-North Carolina border, discouraged North Carolina from pursuing any lasting interest in the territory. Initially trade, political interest, and settlement came mostly from Virginia and South Carolina, due to easier access to the area from those colonies.

Recreation of Fort Watauga
Recreation of Fort Watauga

The Watauga Association, a semi-autonomous government created in 1772 by frontier settlers living along the Watauga River, was based out of what is present day Elizabethton, Tennessee. The association was set up on Cherokee-owned land for which the Watauga and Nolichucky settlers had negotiated a 10-year lease directly with the Indians. Fort Watauga was set up on the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals as a trade center for the settlements.

On 27 August 1774, Richard Henderson, a judge from North Carolina, along with several other prominent North Carolinians. organized a land speculation company. Originally called Richard Henderson and Company, the company name was first changed to the Louisa Company, and finally to the Transylvania Company on January 6, 1775. The Transylvania Company investors hoped to establish a British proprietary colony by purchasing the Kentucky lands from the Cherokee who had earlier settled much of the south and southeastern Kentucky areas and still claimed hunting rights in the abandoned Shawnee lands. In March 1775, with the assistance of Daniel Boone, whom he had hired to help establish a “Transylvania Colony”, Henderson met with more than 1,200 Cherokees at Sycamore Shoals. Included at the gathering were Cherokee leaders such as Attakullaulla, Oconostota, and Dragging Canoe. Henderson wanted to buy a tract of land in what is now Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, where he planned to establish a fourteenth colony.

The Sycamore Shoals Treaty
The Sycamore Shoals Treaty

The venture posed several problems: while the Cherokees held the strongest among competing claims to the region, there were other tribes who also claimed portions of the land. There was also the question of the legality of the purchase. Additionally, the purchase was in violation of both Virginia and North Carolina law, and there was no guarantee of British recognition of the purchase, since it represented a violation of the Proclamation of 1763. Regardless of these issues, Henderson had spent the previous year organizing the Transylvania Company and conducting negotiations with the Cherokees. Four days after the conference began, the Cherokees agreed to the Sycamore Shoals Treaty, whereby they transferred, to the Transylvania Company, a tract of twenty million acres lying north of the Cumberland River, southeast of the Ohio River, and west of the Cumberland Mountains, with a narrow access route extending from Sycamore Shoals to the Cumberland Gap. In exchange, the Cherokees received trade goods valued, according to some scholars, at approximately ten thousand British pounds ($1.5 million in 2016 dollars).

Henderson moved quickly to consolidate his claim, constructing a road to the proposed settlements, and initiating a system of government under the authority of the Transylvania Company. Unfortunately for Henderson and his investors, his land deal was found to be in violation of North Carolina and Virginia law, as well as the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which had prohibited the private purchase of American Indian land. Both North Carolina and Virginia considered the trans-Appalachian settlements illegal and refused to annex them.

The American Revolution

At the onset of the American War for Independence in 1776, the settlers, who vigorously supported the Patriot cause, organized themselves into the "Washington District" and formed a committee of safety to govern it. In July 1776, Dragging Canoe and the faction of the Cherokee opposed to the Transylvania Purchase (later called the Chickamauga) aligned with the British and launched a campaign against the Watauga settlements, particularly targeting Fort Watauga at modern Elizabethton and Eaton's Station near modern Kingsport. After the settlers thwarted the attacks, North Carolina agreed to annex the settlements as the Washington District.

Dragging Canoe
Dragging Canoe

While all this went on, Henderson turned his attention to the middle Tennessee part of this region. In the winter of 1779-80 he had a proprietary interest in setting up a settlement at Nashborough (modern day Nashville). In February 1779, Overmountain leader James Robertson set out with a nine-man exploration party to the same area. Robertson had been a member of the Regulator Movement, as well as a founding leader of the Watauga settlement. A 3,000-acre land grant was negotiated with Richard Henderson, a North Carolina land speculator, and arrangements were made for the movement of the group's families to the area. Robertson charged three of his men to stay behind and plant corn in preparation for the arrival of the much larger group, which had remained behind in the Washington District.

James Robertson
James Robertson

On 1 November 1779, Robertson led about two hundred settlers from Fort Patrick Henry, on Long Island, Kingsport, Tennessee toward Fort Nashborough. These settlers were to prepare for the later arrival of the party's women and children and were led by John Donelson out of the east over waterways. Their journey ended on Christmas Day, due to delays caused by the winter. Starting out in early 1780, Donelson's group, after many delays and hardships due to the winter weather and Indian attacks, finally arrived and Robertson and Donelson were reunited. The group cleared the land, building a settlement which they named in honor of General Francis Nash, who had won acclaim fighting in the American Revolution. Additionally, these frontiersmen built other fortified "stations" in the vicinity which were named for members of the party. Robertson drew up a constitution, signed by 256 settlers, called the Cumberland Compact. It was based on the earlier Articles of the Watauga Association, and it established a contract and relationship between the settlers of the Cumberland region. It allowed that only limited the punishment could be meted out by the judicial system. Serious capital crimes were to be settled by transporting the offending party to a location under the direct authority of the State of North Carolina for a proper trial.

This constitution called for a governing council of 12 judges who would be elected by the vote of free men 21 years of age or older. Unique to the times, the Compact included a clause that these judges could be removed from office by the people. Government salaries were to be paid in goods. Governors were paid 1,000 deer skins, secretaries 450 otter skins, county clerks 500 raccoon skins, and the constables were paid one mink skin for every warrant served. All males sixteen or older were subject to militia duty. This compact remained in effect until the state of North Carolina nullified Henderson’s claim, taking possession of the area and creating Davidson County in 1783.

Overmountain Men at King's Mountain
Overmountain Men at King's Mountain

In September 1780, a large group of trans-Appalachian settlers, led by William Campbell, John Sevier, and Isaac Shelby, assembled at Sycamore Shoals in response to a British threat to attack frontier settlements. Known as the Overmountain Men, the settlers marched across the mountains to South Carolina, where they engaged and defeated a loyalist force led by Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Overmountain Men would also take part in the Battle of Musgrove Mill and the Battle of Cowpens.

Cumberland Valley and the “State of Franklin”

In 1784, North Carolina ceded its western land claims between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to the United States Congress. The settlers in this area, 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. As a result, North Carolina retracted its cession and began to organize an administration for the territory.

Simultaneously, representatives from Washington, Sullivan, Spencer (modern-day Hawkins) and Greene counties (located in what would become Tennessee) declared their independence from North Carolina. The following May, the counties petitioned the United States Congress for statehood as “Frankland”. A simple majority of states favored acceptance of the petition, but it fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass, even after the counties’ changed their proposed name to “Franklin” to curry Benjamin Franklin’s and others’ favor.

John Sevier
John Sevier

In defiance of Congress, Franklin survived as an independent nation for four years with its own constitution, Indian treaties, and legislated system of barter in lieu of currency. After two years, North Carolina set up its own parallel government in the region. In the end, Franklin’s weak economy forced its governor, John Sevier, to even approach the Spanish for aid. Following the Battle of Franklin between North Carolina loyalists and Franklin loyalists, support for Sevier and the State of Franklin collapsed among settlers in areas north of the French Broad River. North Carolina Governor Samuel Johnston, terrified of having a Spanish client state on his border and no longer willing to tolerate the conflict between Franklinites and North Carolina loyalists, issued a warrant for Sevier’s arrest in July 1788. 

In October, after Sevier attacked David Deaderick, a Jonesborough store owner, for refusing to sell him liquor, North Carolina loyalists captured Sevier, who was sent to Morganton, North Carolina, to stand trial for treason. Burke County Sheriff William Morrison (who had served with Sevier at Kings Mountain) released Sevier before the trial began. In February 1789, Sevier took the oath of allegiance to North Carolina. He was pardoned by North Carolina Governor Alexander Martin and elected to the North Carolina State Senate. When the Senate convened the Fayetteville Convention in November 1789, Sevier was a delegate from Greene County and worked to gain North Carolina's ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

The Southwest Territory is Formed

North Carolina ratified the United States Constitution on November 23, 1789. On December 22, the state legislature voted to cede the Overmountain settlements as payment of its obligations to the new federal government. Congress accepted the cession during its first session on April 2, 1790, when it passed "An Act to Accept a Cession of the Claims of the State of North Carolina to a Certain District of Western Territory". On May 26, 1790, Congress passed an act organizing the new cession as the "Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio", which consisted, apart from later minor boundary changes, of modern Tennessee. However, most of the territory was under Indian control, with territorial administration initially covering two unconnected areas—the Washington District in what is now northeast Tennessee, and the Mero District around Nashville. The act also merged the office of territorial governor with the office of Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southern Department.

The territory was to be governed, with some exceptions, under the same provisions as the Northwest Ordinance, a 1787 act enacted for the creation of the Northwest Territory north of the Ohio River. One major difference was that the Northwest Ordinance's provision outlawing slavery was not applied to the Southwest Territory. Along with rules of governance, the Ordinance outlined steps a territory could take to gain admission to the Union. The first step involved the organization of a territorial government. The next step, which would take place when the territory had at least 5,000 adult males, was to organize a territorial legislature, with a popularly elected lower chamber and an upper chamber appointed by the president. The final step, which would take place when the territory had a population of at least 60,000, was to write a state constitution and elect a state government, at which time the territory would be admitted to the Union.

William Blount
William Blount

Several candidates were put forth for governor of the territory. William Blount, a Constitutional Convention delegate, former state legislator, and aggressive land speculator with extensive land holdings in the territory, championed the causes of western settlers. He was supported by key North Carolina politicians such as Hugh Williamson, Timothy Bloodworth, John B. Ashe and Benjamin Hawkins.

Virginia's Patrick Henry called for his friend, General Joseph Martin, or Virginian George Mason, to be appointed governor. A small group of ex-Franklinites met in Greeneville to push for the appointment of John Sevier. Due to Blount’s extensive political connections, and his service to the patriot cause during the Revolution, on June 8, 1790, President George Washington chose Blount as the territory's new governor.

In September 1790, Blount visited Washington at Mount Vernon, and was sworn in by Supreme Court justice James Iredell. He then moved to the territory, where he set up a temporary capital at Rocky Mount, the home of William Cobb in Sullivan County. He recruited North Carolina publisher George Roulstone to set up a newspaper, the Knoxville Gazette (initially published at Rogersville). He spent most of October and November issuing appointments to lower-level administrative and militia positions. In December, he made the dangerous trip across Indian territory to the Mero District, where he likewise issued appointments, before returning to Rocky Mount by the end of the year.

Original Territorial Capital at Rocky Mount
Original Territorial Capital at Rocky Mount

Blount initially wanted the permanent territorial capital to be located at the confluence of the Clinch and Tennessee rivers (in the vicinity of modern Kingston), where he had extensive land claims, but was unable to convince the Cherokee to give up ownership of these lands. He therefore chose James White's Fort, an outpost located further upstream along the Tennessee. In 1791, White's son-in-law, Charles McClung, platted the new city, and lots were sold in October of that year. Blount named the new city "Knoxville" after his superior in the War Department, Henry Knox.

As the middle of his term approached, Blount began implementing the steps stipulated in the Northwest Ordinance for a territory to gain statehood. One of these steps was to call for the election of a legislature and submit nominees for appointments to a territorial council, which Blount did in 1794. On September 15, 1795, he directed county sheriffs to conduct a census. The census placed the territory's population at 77,000, substantially more than the 60,000 required for statehood. Blount ordered a state constitutional convention to be held at Knoxville in January 1796, which he personally attended as part of the Knox County delegation. The government of the new state of Tennessee convened in late March 1796, before it had been officially admitted to the Union.

Blount realized he had little chance of defeating Sevier in a race for governor of Tennessee, so he instead sought one of the state's two United States Senate seats. He received this appointment (along with William Cocke) on March 30, 1796, and headed to Philadelphia to campaign for Tennessee's statehood. As an interesting side note, William Blount is the only US Senator ever expelled from the Senate due to his alleged conspiracy with the British to help them gain control of Florida and Louisiana. This was discussed in more detail in an earlier blog post. 

Blount's brother, Thomas (a Congressman from North Carolina), along with James Madison, convinced the House of Representatives to vote for Tennessee's admission to the Union on May 6, 1796. The Senate voted to admit Tennessee on May 31, 1796.

We hope you enjoyed today’s post on the Old Southwest Territory and the Origins of Tennessee. Hopefully, this article will spark interest in learning more about this subject and visiting some of the locations mentioned. Please join us again in two weeks when we will look at Salt in 18th and early-19th century America – where it came from and its vital importance.

Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


Downes, R. C. (1937, January). Indian Affairs in the Southwest Territory, 1790-1796. Tennessee Historical Magazine, pp. 240-268.

Durham, W. T. (2018, March 1). Southwest Territory. Retrieved from Tennessee Encyclopedia:

Folmsby, S. J. (1979). Blount, William. Retrieved 09 10, 2019, from NCPEDIA:

Fowler, R. (02 02 2019). Blount on the Run. Retrieved 09 09, 2019, from Tennessee Bar Association:

Masterson, W. H. (1954). William Blount. New York: Greenwood Press.

Ramsey, J. G. (1853). The Annals of Tennessee to the end of the Eighteenth Century. Charleston, SC: Walker and James.

Skinner, C. L. (1919). Pioneers of the Old Southwest. New Haven, CT: Oxford University Press.

Turner, F. J. (1905, April). Documents on the Blount Conspiracy 1795-1797. American Historical Review, Vol 10, Nr. 3, 10(3), 574-606. Retrieved 09 10, 2019, from*.html


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