Years before the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, spontaneous migrations of restless pioneers of the western parts of Virginia and North Carolina had formed a nucleus of civilization in the secluded valley interposed between the Great Smoky mountains on the east and the Cumberland mountains on the west, through which flowed the Watauga and the Nolachucky rivers. This community was destined to play a most important part in the successful termination of the Revolutionary War, and in the winning of the West. It was the germ-cell of the colonization and civilization of the Upper Southwest.
The earliest settlers supposed themselves to be within the jurisdiction of Virginia, but too far removed to have the benefit of the protection of her government. The Watauga pioneers were equal to the emergency. They saw that in their isolation they must depend upon themselves. Accordingly, in the spring of 1772, they formed an Association and promulgated articles for the government of the settlement. This agreement is known as the "Articles of the Watauga Association," and notable in that it was the first written constitution adopted by a community of American-born freemen.1 Lord Dunmore, in reporting to Lord Dartmouth (May 16, 1774) said that they had "to all intents and purposes erected themselves into, though an inconsiderable, yet a separate State."
From this infant settlement, Captain Evan Shelby led a company of fifty volunteers to participate in the battle of Point Pleasant in Lord Dunmore's War of 1774. The following year, by the aid of the settlers on the Watauga, the Cherokee Indians' claim to large portions of the Kentucky and Cumberland regions was purchased p2 by Richard Henderson and his associates. The treaty was held in the heart of the settlement, and Wataugans aided Henderson in opening the trail through Cumberland Gap and in the founding of the Transylvania Colony on Kentucky soil.
In the spring of 1776, a platoon of Wataugans crossed the mountains and gave support to the Carolinians in saving the city of Charleston from the besieging British.2
When the true latitude of the region had been ascertained and showed that the settlements lay within the bounds of North Carolina, the settlers petitioned the North Carolina Assembly to be allowed to come under its protection. The petition, in the handwriting of a brilliant young Englishman on the Watauga, William Tatham, bore date of July 5, 1776 — one day after the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence in far‑away Philadelphia.3
In this petition the inhabitants pledged "that nothing will be lacking or anything neglected that may add weight to the glorious cause in which we are now struggling." This pledge was redeemed by the over-mountain men in many battles of the Revolution, among them that of King's Mountain where a blow was struck that proved to be the turning point in the progress of the war in the South. Hardly less heroic and contributory to the success of the Revolution were the services of the men of this frontier in holding in check the Cherokee Indians who time and again, on British incitement, attacked or threatened to invade North Carolina and Virginia.
Colonel John Montgomery, of the upper reaches of the Holston, recruited men in the Holston Country to go to the succor of George Rogers Clark in his efforts to win the Northwest for the Americans.4
In 1779‑80, James Robertson led an exodus of Wataugans to French Lick (Nashville) and began a settlement of the Cumberland river region which had been included in the bounds of the Transylvania purchase. He was influenced to do so by Richard Henderson, the leading spirit in the enterprise.
p3 To the hardy frontiersmen, who were thus driving an entering wedge and by occupation making surer the claim of the Americans to the West when a treaty of peace with Great Britain should be formulated, it was a matter of grave concern what power should have jurisdiction over and ultimate power to dispose of the trans-Alleghany region — the States or the Union.
The ancient colonial charters of Virginia and North Carolina alike defined jurisdiction as extending as far westward as "to the South sea." The British government, however, had successfully resisted the contention of these Colonies to sovereign power over the territory west of the great mountain barrier and had governed the broad domain as crown lands. A few days before the Declaration of Independence (June 29, 1776) Virginia in adopting her first constitution seized the opportunity formally to restate her contention to jurisdiction over Kentucky and the Northwest. It was declared that no separate government was to be established west of the Alleghany mountains but by act of her Assembly. Within a fortnight (July 12, 1776) an issue was joined in the Continental Congress when John Dickinson, of Pennsylvania, presented a draft of Articles of Confederation which contained a provision that the Congress should have the power to limit the bounds of Colonies "which by charter, or proclamation, or under any pretense, are said to extend to the South seas . . . and to assign territories for new Colonies and ascertain their boundaries." Article 14, as reported by the committee, was more equivocal: "No purchases of lands hereafter to be made of the Indians, by Congress or private persons, before the limits of the colonies are ascertained, to be valid."
Jefferson, in behalf of Virginia, promptly objected on the ground that the italicized words carried an implication that the ascertainment of the limits of the claimant Colonies was within the power of Congress, whereas the western limits of the Southern Colonies were already fixed at the South seas.5
The insistence of the smaller States and those which had no such western claims — "landless States," they were called — was best expressed in the debate by James Wilson of Pennsylvania:
"Every gentleman has heard much of claims to the south sea. They are extravagant. The grants were made upon mistakes. They were ignorant of the geography. They thought the south sea within p4 •one hundred miles of the Atlantic ocean. It was not conceived that they extended •three thousand miles. Lord Camden considers the claims to the south sea as what can never be reduced to practice. Pennsylvania has no right to interfere in those claims, but she has a right to say that she will not confederate unless those claims are cut off. I wish the colonies themselves would cut off those claims."
Harrison, of Virginia, boldly asserted: "By its charter Virginia owns to the south sea. Gentlemen shall not pare away the Colony of Virginia."6
Congress hesitated to bring the issue to a decision. Maryland formally instructed her delegates that "policy and justice require that a country unsettled at the commencement of this war, claimed by the British crown and ceded to it by the Treaty of Paris, if wrested from the common enemy by the blood and treasure of the thirteen States, should be considered as common property, subject to be parceled out with free governments."
North Carolina stood firmly by the side of Virginia in the struggle which well-nigh imperiled the formation of the Union of the Confederation. The weight of these and other claimant States was so great that when the Articles of Confederation were adopted the ownership and control of the West was left unsolved. That instrument incorporated the following provision in relation to the admission into the Union of new States: "No other Colony shall be admitted into the same, unless such admission be agreed to by nine States" The crucial question of sovereign power and jurisdiction was left open to vex and distract Congress and people alike in after years.
1 "One can find no more striking fact in American history, nor one more typical, than the simple ease with which these frontiersmen on the banks of the western waters, on the threshold of the central valley of the continent, finding themselves beyond the reach of eastern law, formed an association and exercised the rights and privileges of self-government." — McLaughlin, The Confederation and the Constitution, 132.
2 Williams, "The First Volunteers of the 'Volunteer State'," in Tennessee Historical Magazine, VIII, No. 1.
3 Williams, William Tatham, Wataugan, 3, also in Tennessee Historical Magazine, VII, 154. Winsor in error says that the instrument is in Sevier's handwriting. Westward Movement, 79.
4 Calendar Virginia State Papers, III, 441‑2.
5 John Adams's Works, II, 492‑502.
6 John Adams's Works, II, 492‑502.
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