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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 29

This webpage reproduces a chapter of History of the
Lost State of Franklin

Samuel Cole Williams

published by the
Press of the Pioneers,
New York, 1933

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 31

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p235  Chapter XXX

The Spanish Intrigue — 1788

Reports of the increase in the vindictive feeling of the inhabitants of the western waters toward the Spaniards gave concern both to the American government and to the authorities of Spain. It was feared that assertion of their supposed rights might take the form of a military invasion of Spanish Louisiana and a seizure of the port of New Orleans, even in defiance of the Federal government. There already existed in several quarters local movements for separation from the Federal government, itself. In Vermont, under the leader­ship of the Revolutionary hero, Ethan Allen, and his brothers the movement was toward a connection with Great Britain; and in the Valley of the Mississippi it was toward alliance with the government that controlled the navigation of the Mississippi.

The Spanish authorities were aware of their government's weakness and feared the result of a combination of the mounted rifle­men living on the Kentucky, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, and an invasion by them. But they were also aware of elements of strength on the part of themselves in their ability to let loose or restrain the Creeks and other Indian tribes, near neighbors of the western peoples; and to hold out as a temptation the free navigation of the lordly Mississippi.

It had now become the policy of Spain, by the use of these factors of strength, to win over the frontier communities, if not to a political incorporation then to independence and an alliance of some sort with Spain.

The Intendant Navarro, writing to Spain in 1788, urged the necessity of inducing the Westerners to separate from the people of the seaboard by the grant of commercial privileges and of coöperation to hold in check the Indians who were under Spanish influence. Gardoqui, the Spanish minister in this country, gave a ready assent to the policy as did also Miro, governor of Louisiana.

When the shrewd Gardoqui learned of the bitter breach between the old- and new‑state men in Franklin he judged that the time was ripe to avail of the dissatisfaction. In that quarter, as on the Cumberland,  p236 he used as emissary Dr. James White, a resident of the Cumberland Settlement, who was a member of Continental Congress — the only representative Trans-Alleghany Carolina ever had in that body; therefore, the first in any national council. White was at the time also superintendent of the Southern Indians for the general government.

Active intrigue was begun in April, 1788, occasion being afforded by the appeal of Governor Johnston, of North Carolina, through White for Spanish coöperation in restraining the Indians. On the 18th, Gardoqui wrote letters to Governor Johnston, James Robertson and John Sevier. In the letter to Sevier he adroitly said: "His Majesty is very favorably inclined to give the inhabitants of that region all the protection they ask for; and, on my part, I shall take very great pleasure in contributing on this occasion and on other occasions."1

On the 21st, White addressed a communication to Governor Johnston in which he announced his purpose to leave the sittings of Congress for a period; "in the present state of the treasury no services to the United States can be rewarded." He assured Johnston that the Spanish officials were beginning to be convinced that people of the Western Country were to be restrained rather by benevolence than violence; and that the attitude of the Eastern States was based on jealousy of additional weight and influence to the southward. "If their partial views are indulged, affection, fear nor interest will not long hold the trans-mountain people dependent on the Atlantic States."2

This accords with what Gardoqui wrote home to Floridablanca, on the 18th: that the future policy of Spain's representatives would be to treat the Westerners with the greatest generosity; that he did not believe Spain could force the frontiersmen out of Franklin, which was yet actually claimed to be a Spanish territory, but that he had secret advices that by proper treatment they might be brought under Spanish influence.3

At this very time, a special agent of the Secretary of War was in Franklin to investigate how much truth there was in the representations  p237 of Captain John Sullivan and others, which had been given wide publicity by the press: that preparations for an armed conquest of Louisiana were going forward in Franklin.4

Lieutenant John Armstrong, of the First Regiment, U. S. Army, arrived in Franklin April 8th, 1788, and visited the counties of Sullivan, Washington and Greene, interviewing the most intelligent men. He reported his conviction that "there is not, and has not been, any design formed or forming of the nature mentioned in the letter signed John Sullivan, nor has he ever been in that settlement. I could not learn that any British agents had been in the settlements of Holston." Armstrong, commenting on the division of sentiment and the Sevier-Tipton battle of February 29th, states that from the nature "of this dispute, had any such design been on foot, I should have been informed by one party or another." He expressed the opinion that "the interposition of the United States will be necessary to put a stop to the effusion of blood in this quarter."5

Sevier, as has been seen, was in the spring and summer of 1788 on the frontier of Franklin struggling valiantly to defend the settlers south of the French Broad against the Indians; and there Dr. White found him, a proscribed man, but still holding to the vestiges of the State of Franklin in hope that by some fortuity at this critical and changeful period in governmental structures, the State might yet be securely established. In near-desperation and seeing the national situation as it was painted by White, Sevier wrote to Gardoqui about June 1st, and again on July 18th. Of these communications no trace seems to have been found. Doubtless by them Sevier sought, without compromising committal, to procure much needed supplies of ammunition from the Spaniards and to secure their influence in curbing the Indians, particularly the Creeks and the Chickamaugas.

After he learned of the failure of the North Carolina convention (August 1st) to ratify the Federal Constitution, there was presented to Sevier, outlawed by that State, no alternative to yielding allegiance to it as a State out of the Union but continued resistance. He thought that the refusal to enter the new Federal Union was probably final. The majority in convention against ratification was so large as apparently to be thus far decisive.

 p238  One chance of securing for Franklin federal recognition was perceptible. With North Carolina out of the Union the Congress might conclude to admit the State of Franklin on the basis of the irrepealability of the first cession act. On the other hand should North Carolina later on reconsider and become a State of the Union then one of the provisions of the new Federal Constitution would acknowledge that State's ultimate sovereignty over the western lands, and give her the power to veto the admission of a new State in the West.

By reason of his successful campaigning against the Indians Sevier had now "regained his influence to a great degree" and "put himself at the head of the Federalists, and menaces the State of North Carolina for putting themselves out of the Union by rejecting the new Constitution."6

On September 12th, Sevier in the changed circumstances, adopted a radical course, more with intent to defy the old State than to swing Franklin to a new allegiance. He wrote two letters to the Spanish minister. In one, he solicited the good offices of that official to prevent an alliance of the Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws with the Cherokees who "continued the war with all liberty." He suggested that the inhabitants of Franklin might form a new settlement in the Great Bend of Tennessee; and intervention to obviate opposition was sought.

Two historians who have made a close study of this period and phase, James and Whitaker, are in agreement that aid in carrying out the long-cherished project of settlement of the Great Bend was the chief motive that prompted both White and Sevier. Indeed, White's disclosures to Gayoso were full enough to convince the latter that the Franklinites' desire was for that region, and Gayoso was convinced that it was not compatible with the real interests of Spain. In May, 1789, Gayoso wrote to Valdes a letter which sheds valuable light on the men and their motives:

"White is thoroughly republican at heart. The movement that is taking place in the State of Franklin has as its object the establishment of independence rather than a rapprochement with Spain. The Franklinites know that it is to their interest to form a connection with this province [Louisiana] and they wish to do so, but they are extremely ambitious and their principal object is to extend their territory so that it may draw near the Mississippi  p239 and Mobile Rivers, in the hope that this advantage will attract many immigrants from other places, and enable them to build up an opulent State."​6a

The second letter should be read in the light of the fact that the original of it does not exist. A copy of it, translated into Spanish, is preserved in the Gardoqui manuscripts; and this translation was made by Spanish officials who were interested in placing upon the original the construction that would be the more likely to bring favorable action from the home government in behalf of the plan which Gardoqui had formulated and sponsored. The translation of this letter back into English is that of Henderson:

Franklin, September 12, 1788.


Since my last, of the 18th of July, upon consulting with the principal men of this country, I have been particularly happy to find that they are as well disposed and willing as I am in respect to your proposals and guarantees. You may be sure that the favorable hopes and ideas that the people of this country maintain with respect to the future probability of an alliance and concession of commerce with you in the future are very ardent and that we are unanimously determined to that effect. The people of this country have come to realize truly upon what part of the world and upon what nation depend their future happiness and security, and they readily infer that the interest and prosperity of it depend entirely upon the protection and liberality of your government. We must expect it of our situation and circumstances that they will lead us on in the most effective manner to look for the long security and prosperity of your government in America, and, being the first to resort in this way to your protection and liberality from this side of the Appalachian Mountains, we feel encouraged to maintain the greatest hope that we shall be granted all reasonable helps by him who is so amply able to do it and give the protection and help that is asked in this our petition. You know our delicate situation and the difficulty in which we are in respect to our mother State, which makes use of all stratagems to impede the development and prosperity of this country. In spite of the fact that we possess some of the most fertile lands on this continent and easy means of exportation, yet we cannot dispose of a single article of its products (which would be almost innumerable) unless we have authority to make use of our rivers toward the ports below. Seeing us in these embarrassments, it is easy for you to realize the great scarcity of specie  p240 in this country, of which there is very little among us. Nothing else is lacking in order to assure our mutual interests but a small sum of this article (the quantity of which I leave to your prudent judgment) and such other, military, assistance as your understanding deems it necessary and convenient to supply us with. All that is needed to attain what we want will not be more than a few thousand pounds. We are further encouraged to make this application because of your knowledge that we can pay promptly for whatever you may be able to supply, by sending the products of this country to the ports below. I hope that the payment of this (i.e. of the loans) will be made with all convenience and that the pledges and receipts of our friend James Sevier (who is our secretary) will obligate both myself and the State of Franklin until they are entirely repaid and satisfied. I do not doubt that the help which is asked will be considered a trifle that is taken out of the treasury, especially when it is compared with the important object to which it is directed, and when we can repay so soon the sum that is advanced and when it will leave us under the greatest obligation of gratitude and perpetual friendship. We are determined, in so far as it is possible for us, that you shall so regard us; and when you see the advantages that will regularly arise from this connection, you will consider that our interests, which run in the same channel, will last and be inseparable. It behooves us to make the most prompt and necessary preparations for defence. If any break should happen, we must be prepared in time — the reason for which will necessarily be very obvious to you. Therefore, it is not necessary for me to say anything else about the subject and I beg of you to inform me from time to time, whenever opportunity offers and circumstances require it. I leave to you the choice of any other, more easy mode of communication than the present one, and for other matters I refer you to my son James, who is a competent person to give a perfect account of whatever concerns the Western Country. Before finishing, it may be necessary to inform you that there will be no more favorable occasion than the present one to put the plan into action. North Carolina has rejected the Constitution, and at the least a considerable time will pass before it becomes a member of the Union, if this ever happens. I beg you to supply James with whatever you think will be useful to us. If perchance you could get a passport, it would be of great profit to this country, because it is probable that some of us will find it convenient to go down to the Spanish ports; and if we are allowed to ship products of this country it will be a matter of great importance for us. I have the honor to be, Sir, with great esteem and consideration, your most respectful servant,

(Signed) [image ALT: an underscored blank]John Sevier

To Senor Don Diego de Gardoqui, Minister of Spain.​7

 p241  This document has been referred to or quoted by Gayarre​a and Winsor as evidence that Sevier proposed to throw the State of Franklin into the arms of Spain. Even as rendered by the Spaniards, it is not properly susceptible of such a construction. Its writer was intent on procuring prompt aid; to that end he went as far in statement and implication as his ultimate purpose would admit. He proposed an alliance of friendly sovereignties, not an incorporation. He solicited a loan, not a grant. The preparations were for defense, not attack, and against North Carolina. The small amount of aid asked clearly so shows. Roosevelt, fairer to Sevier in this than in some other matters, thus summarizes: "He jumped at Gardoqui's cautious offers; though careful not to promise to subject himself to Spain, and doubtless with no idea of playing the part of Spanish vassal longer than the need of the moment required."8

Sevier did not intend to play the part of vassal at all, in any true sense of the word. Gayoso did not so conceive.

Gilmore, on the authority of the historian Ramsey, in a statement of the facts as Sevier himself had detailed them, says that at the time Sevier wrote the above letter he also communicated by Captain Nathaniel Evans to General Shelby what was being done by himself.​9 The meaning of this is clear when Evans' and Shelby's attitude toward North Carolina is remembered and considered.

Recalling that North Carolina had voted herself out of the Union, what could the western people expect of her in the matter of forcing open, single-handed, the great waterway to New Orleans? James Robertson, who went further than Sevier in treating with the Spaniards, said that he had earnestly endeavored to convince the members of the Carolina Assembly of 1788 who were opposed to ceding the western lands that the Westerners who had the greatest aversion to taking the protection of Spain would be compelled to leave their country or become Spaniards. These members  p242 of the Assembly he says "were indifferent as to what became of us"; and all that was done was the passage of a resolution declaring that the citizens of the State had an indisputable right to the navigation of the Mississippi.

As a spur to cession General Daniel Smith, writing from the Cumberland, gave directly to Governor Johnston the assurance that "many of the settlers have been worn out with war; nothing being done by government for our protection; the Federal Constitution not being agreed to; no cession made to Congress — all these evils operated so forcibly on their minds that had the Spaniards offered us effectual protection, I am persuaded many here would have been for coming under their government in hopes of getting their calamities alleviated."​10 General Smith himself was of the number.

One of these patriots may not be indicted without indicting all. The Cumberlanders did not act without notice to North Carolina and their plans had in contemplation efforts to gain the consent of that State before any other further decisive step should be taken. As for Sevier: North Carolina was out of the Union, and Franklin was out of North Carolina. "If this be treason, make the most of it." In a communication (October 30th) he said, pointedly enough for apprehension of his meaning by the Carolinians addressed:

Can it be that North Carolina is so void of understanding as to think she is so permanently fixed as not to be shaken? Has she not discovered that there are formidable and inveterate enemies around her watching to take advantage of our divisions, which I am sorry to say are numerous? Have you not discovered that those people have it in their power to do as much, at least, if not a great deal more, for the Western Americans than you can yourselves? Have you not seen the most affectionate child become sour and inveterate against the parent when the parental, tender ties of humanity have been refused?​11

As for another, the champion of North Carolina in Franklin, and his connection with Spain: Joseph Martin, then brigadier-general of Carolina on November 8, 1788, wrote to McGillivray, who was in the employ of the Spanish authorities:

I must beg that you write me by the first opportunity in answer to what I am now going to say to you. I am daily applied to by a body of very respectable people to make application to you for  p243 liberty to settle on Tombigby. If you give me proper indulgence, I make no doubt of 500 families removing there under my direction . . . I hope to do honor to any part of the world I settle in, and am determined to leave the United States for reasons that I can assign to you when we meet, but durst not trust it to paper.

General Martin was acquitted of wrongdoing by the Carolina Assembly which could not fail to see that if there were dereliction that body could not itself escape a measure of condemnation.

A new would‑be factor in Spanish intrigues in the West was the mendacious Irishman, Dr. James O'Fallon, of Charleston and later of Kentucky. He was the agent for the South Carolina Yazoo Company. In a letter to Gardoqui, of date May 26, 1788, he outlined an ambitious project for a colony of Catholics, to be mostly Irish, on a grant of land from Spain sufficient to give 857 acres each to 5,000 heads of families to be settled within a period of seven years. The location of the proposed concession was across the debatable northern margin of East Florida. O'Fallon urged upon Gardoqui the need of political relations with the Anglo-Americans living on the western waters, and he mentioned propositions he claimed to have received from Kentucky and Franklin.12

In Kentucky intrigue was taking on the deeper color of conspiracy, under the machinations of Wilkinson. Restless Arthur Campbell was taking it on himself to advise Innes that there should be "a general coalescence of the Western Countries," and Innes in reply bemoaned the eclipse of the State of Franklin. "I have been expecting such an event. In cases of that kind if discord takes place, the whole system becomes distorted and it generally ends in lasting factions." Innes expressed the view that no relief could be expected from the new national constitutional system. "There may be a change of men but their ideas will be the same, and when you reflect that the promoting of the interest of the Western Country will tend to almost a depopulation of the Eastern, we cannot even hope that our interests will be considered."13

There was not lacking some justification for the last statement  p244 when such views obtained in the East as Governor Clinton had openly professed to Gardoqui — that the peopling of the West from the East was a national calamity. When such sentiments were purposely passed on to penetrate the frontiers, irritation and indignation could but result.14

The Author's Notes:

1 Henderson, The Spanish Conspiracy in Tennessee, Tenn. Historical Mag., III, 233, quoting Gardoqui MSS., in Durrett Collection.

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2 N. C. St. Rec., XXI, 465, White to the Governor of North Carolina.

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3 Roosevelt, Winning of the West, IV, 229.

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4 This is the rumor referred to, ante, p138.

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5 State Dept. MSS., Vol. III, 551, April 28, 1788.

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6 Gilmore, Advance Guard of the Western Civilization, 333.

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6a Whitaker, The Muscle Shoals Speculation, Miss. Valley Hist. Review, XIII365, 384, citing the National Archives at Madrid. In 1789 White was dissuading Cumberland people from removing to the Spanish possessions. N. C. St. Rec., XXII, 792.

Thayer's Note: See also Whitaker, The Spanish-American Frontier, 1783‑1795, pp108‑111.
[decorative delimiter]

7 Henderson, The Spanish Conspiracy, 234; Conquest of the Old Southwest, 334.

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8 Winning of the West, IV, 230. Roosevelt represents that Sevier because baffled by the occurrences of October and November, suddenly became a Federalist; and, strangely in the same connection, quotes apt authority to the effect that Sevier had been an advocate of the Federal Constitution in August. "This particular move was fairly comic in its abrupt unexpectedness," he says. It is submitted that the comic role is Roosevelt's own, in this instance. For evidence of prompt advocacy of the work of the constitutional convention of 1787, by Sevier and his followers, see p64, ante.

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9 Advance Guard, 333.

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10 N. C. St. Rec., XXII, 790.

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11 N. C. St. Rec., XXI, 559, and XXII, 697, 787.

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12 Gardoqui Papers, I, 198, Durrett Coll., Univ. of Chicago; Parish, Intrigues of Dr. James O'Fallon, Miss. Valley Hist. Review, XVII, 230; Whitaker, Spanish-American Frontier, 129; Serano y Sanz, España y Los Indios Cherokis y Chactas, 47, 52. O'Fallon twice visited the Franklin region in the interest of his designs, which as time ran took on kaleidoscopic changes.

[decorative delimiter]

13 Innes to Campbell, September 19, 1788, Draper MSS., 9 DD 51.

[decorative delimiter]

14 Hamilton's opinion was that if Spain were allowed to persist in her policy of barring the Mississippi to navigation, the result would be "a war with Spain, or a separation of the Western Country. This country must have an outlet for its commodities. This is essential to its prosperity and if not procured to it by the United States, must be had at the expense of the connection with them." (1790).

Thayer's Note:

a History of Louisiana, Vol. III, p257 f.

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