The Brief Existence of Franklin, America’s Craziest State

Originally published for America Fun Fact of the Day

Americans (ourselves absolutely included) are garbage at geography.  Our hypothesis for this is that we’ve had to learn the name and (relative) location of 50 states, and that’s just a lot of names and places to process.  America’s pretty big, you know.  People from other countries should learn to give us a break.  But this is not an article about geography (thank God), but rather, about how we very nearly had 51 states that we would have been forced to memorize in grade school.

This is the story of Franklin, the almost-14th state of the United States of America, who paid government officials in deer pelts.


To say that the years immediately following the end of the American Revolutionary War were trying times for the nation is about as much of an understatement as “George Washington was known to have a drink every now and then.”  The country faced massive war debts, and as of 1784 we were less than a year removed from war and still a few years away from figuring out that whole “Constitution” thing.  America was, essentially, thirteen colonies with loosely defined borders and a massive chunk of area to the west that basically had the words “???? Native Americans For Now???” written on official maps.  It was in this setting, where settler was still a viable and oft-pursued profession, that the State of Franklin came to exist.

Even before the war was over, Arthur Campbell, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and John Sevier, the future first Governor of Tennessee, believed that a new Western State should be formed of American territories west of the Appalachian Mountains.  It was tricky, however, to figure out how to actually form the state, as Campbell’s initial suggestion involved, in part, taking some territory away from Virginia.  Virginia’s Governor, Patrick Henry, didn’t like this idea so he pushed back and passed a law making it illegal to form a state out of Virginia, which clearly didn’t do the job considering that West Virginia is now a thing.

Sevier, in turn, had the more practical approach of limiting the amounts of states they’d anger, instead looking at a much smaller chunk of land in the Washington District of North Carolina in what is now modern-day Tennessee.  On paper, it made a lot of sense.  The Overmountain Men, many of whom had fought valiantly in the Revolutionary War, were constantly skirmishing with the Native tribes out in that area, which was remote enough that North Carolina didn’t really want to devote the resources that far west.  North Carolina even tried to give the land to Congress to pay off their war debt to the nation, and pulled away their military support for the Overmountain Men with the mindset of, “Eh, Congress will take care of it.”  But, this debt relief included the provision that Congress accept full responsibility for the area in two years, which was a bit much to ask for a group of people trying to figure out how to form, you know, the very basis of our government systems.

A few months after making the offer, North Carolina decided to break the “no givesies backsies” part of their deal, and rescinded their offer.  By this point, the frontiersmen out west were frustrated, and sick of being ignored by North Carolina, so they decided to take matters into their own hands.  A group of delegates from about four different counties convened, declared their independence from the state of North Carolina, and named John Sevier their governor.

john sevier

John Sevier, a man who…m..might not know how to hold a sword?  Can that be right?

At this point, it’s our duty to remind you that most of the people involved in this process were frontiersmen.  These are men who were looking to move out to unfamiliar land and face all sorts of hardships and violence so they can grab some free land for themselves (well, practically free).  What we mean to say is…these were not politically minded people.  These were people used to living off the land, and it showed in some of their governing methods.

First, they attempted (unsuccessfully) to draft a constitution.  It only vaguely hinted at the state’s borders, meaning it could potentially be read to encompass all of modern-day Tennessee, which could ruffle some feathers.  It also didn’t let lawyers or doctors take office…for reasons?  Either way, the constitution never got enacted, so they just operated under the North Carolina state constitution when they submitted their petition for statehood to Congress on May 16th, 1785.

Now, in order to be named a state, they needed to have nine out of thirteen of the current states to vote in favor.  But how could they try garner some support from states that weren’t, say, the same North Carolina who was aggressively trying to make sure their own territory did not leave to become their own state?  Well, we may have failed to mention one important detail.  The state was originally formed as “Frankland,” named after, who knows, let’s say Frank?  Either way, they thought, if they changed their name to Franklin, after Benjamin Franklin, they might get an endorsement from a founding father that could get them some legitimacy.  The state of Franklin was essentially America’s first stab at celebrity marketing.   Franklin responded to their letter of, “Hey, we’re gonna name a state after you, neat, huh?” with a polite, but ultimately useless, note essentially saying, “Hey guys, I’m very flattered, but I’ve been in Europe the whole time you’ve been forming this state, so I don’t know if it’s good or bad, so I can’t vouch for you either way.  But good luck my dudes.”

Man, poor Frank must have been upset that he lost his namesake without even getting the boost the state was looking for.  In the end, they could only get support from seven states—a majority, but not enough to establish statehood.  But since they were still mad that they were paying taxes to North Carolina, while getting none of the protection they felt it should give them, the residents of Franklin responded to this bad news with a simple, “Screw it, we’re an independent republic now.”  So they went about actually following through with their own constitution, which…well, had some interesting things going for it.  The Governor, for example, was to be elected in a joint session of the Senate and the House of Commons to serve a term of…one year.  It also demanded that every law had to be read three times by both houses before it passed.  And, of course (?), you could not serve in the Senate or the House of Commons if you were a priest, but you also couldn’t hold office if you “deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion.”  Which, sure.

And, most hilariously to us, they decided “who needs money” and just paid everyone with a barter system.  Governor Sevier, for example, got 100 deer hides a year as his salary, which, like, h…how do you live off that?  Who needs that much in deer hides?

It was the ultimate ploy of playing tough to get.  As soon North Carolina was feeling like they were missing out, they took steps to take back their territory.  After Franklin set up their capital in the city of Jonesborough, North Carolina set up their own competing government in the town, meaning that two separate governments were being run from the same small frontier town.  While North Carolina was struggling to re-establish their authority, Franklin was having a hard time with the neighboring Native tribes, many of whom claimed a stake on the land.  Tensions continued to build between the two governments, and eventually blood was shed, though frankly (hah, puns) we’re astonished it took as long as it did to happen in a town with competing militias and prisons run by two different governments.

First, North Carolina decided they were going to take back the taxes owed to them by members of the Franklin government, and sent Colonel John Tipton, who was the main North Carolina military presence in Jonesborough, to seize Sevier’s property.  Sevier was pretty pissed about that, and on February 27th, 1785 marched to Tipton’s home with 100 men to reclaim the property.  Two days later, Tipton received reinforcements of about 100 North Carolina militiamen, and the 10 minute long Battle of Franklin followed, leaving numerous wounded and three dead.  Unlike the Toledo War, bloodshed wasn’t enough to send Franklin back to North Carolina.

No, the two governments stubbornly continued onward, but with constant threat from the Chickasaw and Chickamauga tribes, and an infrastructure that makes one think “hmm, maybe using a barter system in the late 18th century isn’t a really effective way to govern,” Sevier essentially let the state cease exiting in Spring of 1788, with the expiration of his term as governor.  By this point, many supporters of the state had changed allegiances to the North Carolina government, and the great, weird little state’s existence came to an end.

The immediate aftermath of the state did not go great for John Sevier, but he bounced back in fairly impressive fashion.  In July, 1788 a warrant for Sevier’s arrest was drafted by the governor of North Carolina.  The charge?  Treason.  Somehow, because time and distance worked very strangely back then, he was not brought in until October of that year when, and we love this fact, he attacked a store owner in Jonesborough for refusing to sell him alcohol, and was finally taken into custody by Colonel Tipton.  We officially love this guy.  He’s wanted for treason and he A- stays in town for months on end and B- only gets busted because he freaks out on a dude for refusing to give him booze.  What a hero.

And actually, John Sevier is considered a hero.  The sheriff let him out of jail, and he just waltzed back to North Carolina, took an oath of allegiance (which must have taken balls with an active treason warrant hanging over his head) and then immediately was elected to state Senate.  It only took him two months to get his former rank as a brigadier general in the North Carolina militia reinstated.

The entire area was ceded to the federal government by North Carolina just the next year, and Sevier went to work on establishing the statehood of what is now Tennessee, containing all the land of Franklin.  He would serve as the state’s first governor in 1796 until 1801, and again from 1803 to 1809.  And while Franklin’s existence in history would fade away to a curious footnote, it still has an instrumental place in the establishment of Tennessee, the 16th state of these United States, that thankfully decided to do away with the “paying governors in deer” thing.  Probably a good call there, Franklin.

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