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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

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 5

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p19  Chapter IV

The First Cession Act — 1784

Little or no heed was given by North Carolina to the earlier calls of the Continental Congress for a cession of her western territory.

Hugh Williamson had written Governor Martin from Congress, in August, 1782, that the public prints were holding up to shame the States that were backward; and that North Carolina had long been viewed in an unfavorable light.1

During the debate in Congress (October, 1782) on the status of the transmontane territory, Hugh Williamson and William Blount had written to Governor Martin from Philadelphia a long letter in which were expressed their views as to the policy the state should pursue: It was to the interest of North Carolina to retain the provision of article 8 of the Articles of Confederation, which was to the effect that in the payment of expenses of the war, the quota of each State should be fixed according to the value of all lands in the several States "granted to, or surveyed for any person together with the buildings and improvements thereon." The provision was more favorable to their State than to most any other in the Union. Other States must pay for their cities and highly improved lands, while North Carolina had few towns and much land. The retention by the State of her western lands would swell her quota to nearly double what it would be otherwise. Since the valuation would probably be made by impartial officials, "we may be assured that the western lands, located but not improved, will be rated at their full value since land jobbers are not a very popular set of men in any country."

The delegates then ventured the suggestions that, if North Carolina could be induced to cede her western territory at all, she should at least impose as part of the conditions, the following:

(a) The whole expense of the State's Indian expeditions should pass to her account in the quota of the Continental expenses.

 p20  (b) Actual valuation of all lands and improvements claimed by any State should be made before the cession should be confirmed.

(c) If any separate State should ever be erected on any of those lands, part of the public debt should be transferred to such State according to the value of the lands therein.2

The sentiment of the leading men of the State was distinctly in opposition to a cession; and, again, the method adopted was that of postponement. Governor Alexander Martin, as early as January, 1783, wrote to the delegates in Congress expressing opposition and asking them to influence a postponement of the discussion of the subject as long as possible. "It will not be our interest or policy to make a cession of our western lands on any terms yet proposed by Congress . . . To insist that the State should cede her vacant lands which are daily settling up with numerous inhabitants and from which she expects to derive considerable advantage . . . is the same as to urge an individual to give up to a stranger without compensation part of his land he is daily improving with husbandmen and husbandry to his own enrichment and that of his family. This is, in short, endeavoring to carry into effect, a vile agrarian law the Romans anciently made in vain respecting their conquered lands."3

One of the purposes of the delay is disclosed in a letter of Martin to the delegation in Congress, of date December 8, 1783:

"Perhaps Congress may be dissatisfied with the mode of our land office being opened, as we have made no cession of any part of our western lands. We have made provision for our continental line on Cumberland,​4 and a territory reserved for the purpose is erected into a county by the name of Davidson; the residue of the lands to the northwest [southward] and westward is opened for entry of any citizen of this or the United States, who will pay to the entry taker ten pounds per hundred in specie, specie certificate of this State, or currency at 800 for one, restricted however to 5,000 acres . . . No doubt we are railed at for want of generosity, but I know not for what reason . . . I can venture to say there will be no cession of  p21 any land worthy of acceptance, as the principal lands will be entered before this reaches you."​5

In this correspondence of the chief executive of North Carolina there is no hint of any equities of the national government or of the western settlers. The western domain was to be looted of the best lands by the land jobbers of the State. Thereafter a cession might be made. As a part of this plan, not merely lands cleared of Indian title, but also the Chickasaw country, west of the Tennessee river, was, by act of 1783, ch. 185, opened for settlement. Thereunder there became subject to entry the immense domain south of the Virginia line and west of the Tennessee river to the Mississippi, then down the latter stream to the 35th parallel of north latitude; thence due east to the Appalachian mountains; thence with them to the ridge between the French Broad and the Nolachucky rivers; thence with the same until it strikes the line of the Indian hunting ground as set forth in act of 1778.​6 The full meaning of this step, and the cupidity it evidenced, more clearly appears from the fact that it disregarded and was in violation of the unquestionable rights of the friendly Chickasaw Indians, and preceded by a generation the acquisition on purchase by the general government of the title of the Chickasaws in the Jackson-Shelby treaty of 1818.

A rush to the entry taker's office followed. It may be instanced, by way of example, that the site of the present city of Memphis, on one of the Chickasaw Bluffs, was entered by John Rice and John Ramsey on October 23, 1783, (5,000 acres each) and Isaac Roberts was sent to survey it in 1786, the land later passing to grant. The State of North Carolina received ten pounds per hundred acres for  p22 lands which were, in substance and in fact, paid for and made vendible by the national government — denominated by Governor Martin "a stranger" to whom no cession should be made "without compensation."

Other surveyors were sent into the same section to locate entries of 1783‑4. Continental Congress James Robertson was called upon to go from the Cumberland settlement to aid in locating the entries; he and E. Harris going to the Wolf and Loosahatchee waters, while Henry Rutherford went to the Forked Deer, Obion and Reelfoot rivers.7

One of the surveyorsº located three hundred and sixty-five thousand acres of land; the total of choice lands put under entry in West Tennessee must have been a staggering one. The statement of Governor Martin, that the principal lands would be entered before any cession would be made, was not an idle one. Surveys for speculators and leading politicians of North Carolina were being hastened in 1783 from the French Broad to the Mississippi. General Caswell, who succeeded Martin as governor, with Colonel John Donelson was feverishly locating desirable lands on the French Broad.8

North Carolina had, as seen, delayed a response to the repeated requests by Congress that her western lands be ceded to the general government, but the views of the Virginia leaders and the steps  p23 taken by that State were soon to affect sentiment and action in the neighbor State to the south.

Jefferson wrote to Madison from Annapolis (February 20, 1784) "We hope that North Carolina will cede all beyond the meridian of Kanawha, and Virginia also. For God's sake push this at the next session of the Assembly."

On the 29th of April Congress voted to urge again the States which had made no cessions to do so.​9 Williamson, from Annapolis, on March 19th wrote Governor Martin that Virginia had completed her cession of territory to Congress, and in the letter he insisted that a large national debt was a chain of slavery and he "presumed it is North Carolina's duty to leave no honest measure unattempted by which we may pay off that debt."10

Spaight, the other delegate in Congress, had written in February approving a cession as the best means of paying the State's quota of the national debt.11

The attitude of Virginia and her delegates had no inconsiderable influence on the North Carolina delegates in Congress.

The General Assembly of North Carolina met at Hillsborough on April 19, 1784. General, and former Governor, Richard Caswell was speaker of the senate and Thomas Banbury presided over the house of commons. The ablest men of the Commonwealth had seats in the legislature. Among those with previous experience in public life were: Samuel Johnston, afterward governor; William Hooper, who had signed the Declaration of Independence and served in the Continental Congress; William Blount, who had served in Congress; Nathaniel Macon; A. Maclaine; Alexander Mebane; and William Lenoir and Thomas Person, both of whom had been officers in the Revolutionary War.

A number of new members of unusual ability appeared in the legislature for the first time — William R. Davie,​12 John Hay, John Baptist Ashe and Stephen Cabarrus among them.

 p24  An act to cede the western lands was introduced by William Blount, but the Kanawha meridian was not even proposed for adoption. The watershed of the mountains, which had been fixed as the eastern boundary of Washington county, was wisely chosen, instead. The bill in the house of commons met with stubborn opposition, led by William R. Davie and General Thomas Person. The first defensive step was a motion to postpone consideration to the succeeding session of the Assembly, and it failed by only one vote — forty‑six to forty-seven. The act was then passed by a vote of fifty‑two ayes and forty-three nays. Ramsey, followed by Phelan, says that the "members from the four western counties were present at Hillsborough, and voted for the act of cession." This is an error. The western members were divided in opinion. Charles Robertson, of Washington county, Joshua Gist, of Greene, and David Looney, of Sullivan, voted in favor; and Landon Carter, of Washington, and William Cage, of Sullivan, cast their votes in opposition. Elijah Robertson, the only member present from Davidson county, voted against the measure. The delegates of the trans-montane counties were, therefore, evenly divided on the question.13

The cession act​14 contained a preamble which referred to the resolutions of Congress of September 6-October 10, 1780​15 in which the States which asserted claims to western lands were urged to cede same "as a further means of extinguishing the debt and establishing the harmony of the United States."

Among the stipulations and conditions of the cession act were the following:

(a) After the cession should be accepted, neither the lands nor the inhabitants of the ceded territory should be estimated in ascertaining North Carolina's proportion of the expenses of the late war.

(b) The lands provided for North Carolina officers and soldiers should inure to their benefit.

(c) The ceded lands should be deemed a common fund, for the benefit of all existing and future States of the Union.

 p25  (d) "The territory so ceded shall be laid out and formed into a State or States, containing a suitable and convenient extent of territory; and that the State or States so formed shall be a distinct State or States and admitted as members of the Federal Union, having the same right of sovereignty as other States; and that the State or States which shall thereafter be erected in the territory now ceded shall have the most full and absolute right to establish and enjoy, in the fullest latitude, the same constitution and the same bill of rights which are now established in the State of North Carolina, subject to such alterations as may be made by the inhabitants at large or a majority of them, not inconsistent with the Confederation of the United States. Provided always, that no regulation made or to be made by Congress shall tend to emancipate slaves, otherwise than shall be directed by the Assembly or legislature of such State or States."​16

(e) If Congress should not accept the cession and give due notice within twelve months, the act should be of no force and the lands should revert to the State.17

At a later day of the same session another act was passed, declaring: "That the sovereignty and jurisdiction of this State in and over the territory aforesaid, and all and every inhabitants thereof, shall be and remain the same in all respects, until the United States in Congress shall accept the cession, as if the act aforesaid had never been passed," and in the same statute the land office for western entries was ordered closed, with minor exceptions having relation to the reservation for the military.18

Not content with opposing this cession in debate and by vote, thirty-seven members of the house of commons, led by Davie, placed of record their protest. They dissented on several grounds. They conceived (erroneously of course) that two‑thirds of the soil of the State was being yielded up to the Confederacy, and thought it too much so long as Virginia and Georgia retained an immense territory. North Carolina, they urged, had been forced to aid South  p26 Carolina and Georgia, when those States had been sorely pressed and weakened in the revolutionary struggle, and allowance of credit for her expenses had been opposed by the Eastern States. It should have been stipulated as a condition of cession that these expenses, and also the whole expense of expeditions against the Indians in aid of the same States should pass to the account of North Carolina along with Continental expenses. Moreover, the western territory was solemnly pledged, by legislative action, as security for the domestic creditors of the State; that debt, due in large part to her own citizens, will be paid first. "They could never consent that the public faith should be violated and the general interest sacrificed to the aggrandizement of a few land-jobbers, who have preyed on the depreciated currency of their country . . . A just regard for the rights of the people have induced us to suspend the passage of the bill until the sense of our constituents could have been collected on this irrevocable step."19

Among the signers of the protest were Landon Carter and Elijah Robertson from the western counties.

Governor Martin promptly notified the North Carolina delegation in Congress of the passage of the act and added: "Whether the cession will be accepted is with some a doubt, as our land office hath been open for some time for entries of these lands, and large quantities have been taken up; but still there remain great tracts undisposed of beyond the Tennessee to the Mississippi claimed by the Chickasaws."20

The Author's Notes:

1 North Carolina State Records, XVI, 288.

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2 North Carolina State Records, XVI, 434. (October 22, 1782)

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3 North Carolina State Records, XVI, 733.

Thayer's Note: For what Gov. Martin had in mind — just how those Roman agrarian laws worked — see the article Agrariae Leges in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
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4 By North Carolina Act 1783, ch. 186, the following boundary of lands was reserved for the soldiers and officers of the continental line: Beginning on the Virginia line where the Cumberland river intersects the same; thence south fifty-five miles; thence west to the Tennessee river; thence down the Tennessee river to the Virginia line; thence with the Virginia line east to the beginning.

[decorative delimiter]

5 North Carolina State Records, XVI, 919. The same thought was expressed by the North Carolina delegation in Congress to Gov. Martin: "The eyes of every State to the northward are now turned towards the Carolinas and Georgia and expecting from them liberal cessions. . . . We are necessitated to declare that the blame lies on Congress for having so long neglected to take up and determine on the Virginia cession. . . . It is probable our State may have gone so far by opening the land office as to put it out of their power, however well inclined they may be, to make a cession worth the acceptance of Congress. . . . You may readily imagine that we are not a little embarrassed." Ib., 888.

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6 Potter's North Carolina Revisal, 435; North Carolina State Records, XXIV, 478. This rash step gave to the Spanish authorities an argument in their attempt to wean to Spanish support the Chickasaws in a conference held with their tribe in May, 1784. Haywood says that with regrets the Chickasaws felt compelled to show the sting of displeasure by attacking the Cumberland Settlements. Haywood, 130.

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7 Glass, "Sketch of Henry Rutherford," 5 American Historical Magazine, 225. Some of the lands surveyed at this time on Reelfoot river, for George Doherty were submerged by the waters of Reelfoot Lake following the earthquake of 1811. Reelfoot Lake Cases, 127 Tennessee, 575.

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8 North Carolina State Records, XVI, 958. In the Recollections of Memucan Hunt Howard, the amount of lands entered in Armstrong's office in 1783‑4 is placed at 3,000,000 acres. American Historical Magazine, VII, 58.

Promptly after the Jackson-Shelby treaty of purchase of the Chickasaws in 1818, North Carolinians sent agents into "the Purchase" to relocate lands. Calvin Jones writing from Raleigh in November 1818, of his visit to West Tennessee (Raleigh Register of December 12, 1818) says: "By this cession many individuals are at once made rich. One gentleman in the lower part of this State owns 123,000 acres, worth at a moderate calculation more than a million dollars."

One of the first Carolina settlers in the Chickasaw Purchase stated "from the most authentic source" that of the 6,000,000 acres purchased from the Indians, after all the Carolina entries and warrants were satisfied, there would remain only 2,000,000 acres of land fit for cultivation. Hoyt, Papers of Archibald D. Murphrey, I, 176‑7. "The truth is, the rich spoil has been divided among a few, very few. It is all a mystery even to the people of Nashville." Ib., 248. The mystery was in the frauds perpetrated in Armstrong's Entry Office, and later on in the inclusion in surveys and grants of larger acreages than were paid and called for.

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9 Journals of Congress (W. & G. ed.) IV, 392.

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10 Bancroft's History Constitution U. S. II, 343.

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11 North Carolina State Records, XVI, 21.

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12 Of these leaders in the Assembly, Caswell and Davie were the only ones perhaps who had visited the Western Country. As a young lawyer Davie had been admitted to practice in the court at Jonesborough as early as 1779. Records of Washington County, American Historical Magazine, VI, 54. And Caswell before 1782 had entered lands on Big Limestone Creek in Washington county. Ib., 90. Visited the Western Country in June, 1781. The Portfolio, of Nashville, I, 218.

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13 North Carolina State Records, XIX, 642, 683. James White, who afterwards removed to the West and founded the city of Knoxville, was a member from one of the eastern counties, and voted against the cession act.

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14 North Carolina State Records, XIX, 642.

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15 Ante, p18.º An able and comprehensive treatment of the North Carolina Cession Act by St. George L. Sioussat appears in Proceedings of Mississippi Valley Historical Association (1908), II, 35, et seq.

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16 Jefferson, a few months before, barely failed of success in imposing prohibition of slavery in the territory "ceded and to be ceded" to the United States in the enactment of the Ordinance of 1784. The effort failed only by the vote of Spaight of North Carolina. The irritation of Jefferson was expressed in a letter to Madison. Jefferson's writings (Ford ed.) IV, 329.

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17 Act 1784, April session, ch. XII; North Carolina St. Records.

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18 North Carolina State Records, XIX, 712.

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19 North Carolina State Records, XVII, 78.

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20 As the Revolution drew to a close North Carolina was in a desperate condition. There was a lack of specie and the State was honeycombed with debts. The members of the Assembly of 1782 were paid in corn, and in January following the call for a session failed. "The poverty of some of the members is urged as the excuse, which perhaps is true." The citizens were in debt to the State, the State to the citizens, and the latter to one another. Issue of paper currency was resumed as an expedient. "The assertion is made that the first call for it came from very respectable citizens who were all greatly in debt." Schoepf, Travels in the Confederation, II, 131‑2. The temptation to retrieve by exploiting the western lands was too great to be resisted. N. C. St. Rec., XIX, 712; ib.XVII, 78.

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