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The Story Behind America's 'Lost State' Of Franklin Has Been Buried For Years

Sep 20, 2020

Image: Map of the State of Franklin within North Carolina -
Even the youngest American student knows that the country has exactly 50 states — plus the territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands according to this article from On the surface, U.S. history seems like a narrative of growth and expansion from sea to shining sea.
But that's not quite the case. What if we told you that one forgotten state was left behind by the Americans? You might not believe it, but this is the truth. And this now-defunct state might be a lot closer than you'd realize.
A New Battle
From the moment that the American Patriots emerged victorious from 1781's Battle of Yorktown, it was clear that the United States would live on as an independent nation. The people of the 13 colonies prepared for life after war, though they weren't the only Americans looking to the future.
Frontier Life
Thousands of newly anointed Americans lived not in established states, but in loosely organized territories to the west. Contending with Native American tribes, European colonists, and dangers of the wilderness, these frontier people feared being left out.
A Precarious Situation
Worried whispers carried throughout communities around the Smoky Mountains — collectively known as the Western Counties — near present-day eastern Tennessee. The new union was already in dire straits, and these frontier folk believed they would be forced to carry the burden.
Empty Vaults
In carrying out a years-long campaign against a world superpower, the fledgling federal government cleaned out its reserves. They had to dig themselves out of this hole, and there were only so many ways to amass that kind of money.
For Sale
The most frightening possibility, for these mountain communities, was the United States selling off its territories. People in the Appalachians lived with the very real threat of waking up one morning and realizing they now lived in a French or Spanish colony.
No Representation
Because the Western Counties weren't a state, they couldn't pass laws of their own or even represent themselves in Congress. They'd been under the nominal control of North Carolina, but that arrangement came to an abrupt halt in 1784.
State of Disarray
North Carolina tired of looking after this territory, so they officially ceded the land to the federal government. This process could take two years — perhaps more if Congress pushed back on the state legislature's decision. The mountain folk could be left in no-man's-land.
Cabin Meeting
So they convened in the small town of Greeneville and made a startling declaration. The West Counties announced that they would form a new and independent state, one named after one of America's most essential Founding Fathers.
The Birth of Franklin
They called themselves Franklin, after famed diplomat and innovator Benjamin Franklin. Of course, the new state wouldn't go anywhere if two-thirds of the union didn't approve its entry. The frontiersman hoped to get the endorsement of their namesake.
Nationwide Rejection
After pleading with Franklin to support their cause, he graciously turned them down. Making matters worse, only seven other states — two short of what they needed — voted to ratify this new Appalachian entity. But these communities refused to abandon the fight.
Severing Ties
Franklin chose to go forward as an autonomous state, basically free of the grip of any state or federal government. They chose John Sevier, a hero from the Revolutionary War, to act as their first President. He certainly had his hands full.
Native Clashes
For starters, a number of indigenous Americans asserted that Franklin was their land. The frontiersmen secured peace treaties with a number of tribes, but others, like sects of the Cherokee, engaged in skirmishes with the settlers.
Money Problems
Problems abounded within Franklin's communities too. They lacked any kind of standardized currency, so all economic transactions took place through bartering. While not the most advanced system, these people were hardy enough to persevere.
A Frontier Hero
With their ability to fight off hostile forces and provide for themselves in the harsh Appalachians, maybe it should come as no surprise that American hero Davy Crockett was born in Franklin. Unfortunately, he was only one-year-old when his home faced its greatest challenge.
Out for Revenge
North Carolina was itching to get Franklin back under its control. After diplomatic efforts went nowhere, Colonel John Tipton led a regiment of troops into Franklin in 1787. President Sevier was dismayed that the town of Jonesborough gave in without any resistance.
The Final Stand
In a last-ditch attempt, Sevier formed a militia and charged Tipton's residence in the middle of a snowstorm. The 100 Franklinites were prepared, it seemed, to instigate a civil war against their former countrymen.
A Swift Defeat
But their military campaign ended in a matter of minutes. The Franklin forces surrendered, and the rogue territory was absorbed back into North Carolina. Rather than being punished, Sevier was elected to Congress and later became the first Governor of Tennessee.
Moving On
The former Franklin capital of Greeneville moved on without too much nostalgia. It became best known as the home of future president Andrew Johnson, and industrial changes soon made the small community unrecognizable.
A Scant Legacy
Today, barely any traces of Franklin's four-year existence remain. All its buildings were torn down long ago, and only the odd historical marker here and there hints at its tumultuous history. But unlike another lost colony, at least we know what happened to Franklin.


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