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The Conquest of the Old Southwest: The Romantic Story of the Early Pioneers into Virginia, The Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky 1740-1790

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The people of this region have come to realize truly upon what
part of the world and upon which nation their future happiness
and security depend, and they immediately infer that their
interest and prosperity depend entirely upon the protection and
liberality of your government.--John Sevier to Don Diego de
Gardoqui, September 12, 1788.

From the early settlements in the eastern parts of this Continent
to the late & more recent settlements on the Kentucky in the Rest
the same difficulties have constantly occurred which now oppress
you, but by a series of patient sufferings, manly and spirited
exertions and unconquerable perseverance, they have been
altogether or in great measure subdued.--Governor Samuel Johnston
to James Robertson and Anthony Bledsoe, January 29, 1788.

A strange sham-battle, staged like some scene from opera bouffe,
in the bleak snow-storm of February, 1788, is really the prelude
to a remarkable drama of revolt in which Sevier, Robertson,
Bledsoe, and the Cumberland stalwarts play the leading roles. On
February 27th, incensed beyond measure by the action of Colonel
John Tipton in harboring some of his slaves seized by the sheriff
under an execution issued by one of the North Carolina courts,
Sevier with one hundred and fifty adherents besieged Tipton with
a few of his friends in his home on Sinking Creek. The siege was
raised at daybreak on February 29th by the arrival of
reinforcements under Colonel Maxwell from Sullivan County; and
Sevier, who was unwilling to precipitate a conflict, withdrew his
forces after some desultory firing, in which two men were killed
and several wounded. Soon afterward Sevier sent word to Tipton
that on condition his life be spared he would submit to North
Carolina. On this note of tragi-comedy the State of Franklin
appeared quietly to expire. The usually sanguine Sevier, now
thoroughly chastened, sought shelter in the distant settlements--
deeply despondent over the humiliating failure of his plans and
the even more depressing defection of his erstwhile friends and
supporters The revolutionary designs and separatist tendencies
which he still harbored were soon to involve him in a secret
conspiracy to give over the State of Franklin into the protection
of a foreign power.

The fame of Sevier's martial exploits and of his bold stroke for
independence had long since gone abroad, astounding even so
famous an advocate of liberty as Patrick Henry and winning the
sympathy of the Continental Congress. One of the most interested
observers of the progress of affairs in the State of Franklin was
Don Diego de Gardoqui, who had come to America in the spring of
1785, bearing a commission to the American Congress as Spanish
charge d'affaires (Encargados de Negocios) to the United States.
In the course of his negotiations with Jay concerning the right
of navigation of the Mississippi River, which Spain denied to the
Americans, Gardoqui was not long in discovering the violent
resentment of the Western frontiersmen, provoked by Jay's crass
blunder in proposing that the American republic, in return for
reciprocal foreign advantages offered by Spain, should waive for
twenty-five years her right to navigate the Mississippi. The
Cumberland traders had already felt the heavy hand of Spain in
the confiscation of their goods at Natchez; but thus far the
leaders of the Tennessee frontiersmen had prudently restrained
the more turbulent agitators against the Spanish policy, fearing
lest the spirit of retaliation, once aroused, might know no
bounds. Throughout the entire region of the trans-Alleghany, a
feeling of discontent and unrest prevailed--quite as much the
result of dissatisfaction with the central government which
permitted the wholesale restraint of trade, as of resentment
against the domination of Spain.

No sooner had the shrewd and watchful Gardoqui, who was eager to
utilize the separatist sentiment of the western settlements in
the interest of his country, learned of Sevier's armed
insurrection against the authority of North Carolina than he
despatched an emissary to sound the leading men of Franklin and
the Cumberland settlements in regard to an alliance. This secret
emissary was Dr. James White, who had been appointed by the
United States Government as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for
the Southern Department on November 29, 1786. Reporting as
instructed to Don Estevan Miro, governor of Louisiana, White, the
corrupt tool of Spain, stated concerning his confidential mission
that the leaders of "Frankland" and "Cumberland district" had
"eagerly accepted the conditions" laid down by Gardoqui: to take
the oath of allegiance to Spain, and to renounce all submission
or allegiance whatever to any other sovereign or power. Satisfied
by the secret advices received, the Spanish minister reported to
the home authorities his confident belief that the Tennessee
backwoodsmen, if diplomatically handled, would readily throw in
their lot with Spain.

After the fiasco of his siege of Tipton's home, Sevier had seized
upon the renewal of hostilities by the Cherokees as a means of
regaining his popularity. This he counted upon doing by rallying
his old comrades-in-arms under his standard and making one of his
meteoric, whirlwind onslaughts upon their ancient Indian foe. The
victory of this erstwhile popular hero, the beloved "Nolichucky
Jack of the Border," over the Indians at a town on the Hiwassee
"so raised him in the esteem of the people on the frontier,"
reports Colonel Maxwell, "that the people began [once more] to
flock to his standard." Inspirited by this good turn in his
fortunes, Sevier readily responded to Dr. White's overtures.

Alarmed early in the year over the unprovoked depredations and
murders by the Indians in several Tennessee counties and on the
Kentucky road, Sevier, Robertson, and Anthony Bledsoe had
persuaded Governor Samuel Johnston of North Carolina to address
Gardoqui and request him to exert his influence to prevent
further acts of savage barbarity. In letters to Governor
Johnston, to Robertson, and to Sevier, all of date April 18th,
Gardoqui expressed himself in general as being "extremely
surprised to know that there is a suspicion that the good
government of Spain is encouraging these acts of barbarity." The
letters to Robertson and Sevier, read between the lines as
suggestive reinforcements of Spain's secret proposals, possess
real significance. The letter to Sevier contains this dexterously
expressed sentiment: "His Majesty is very favorably inclined to
give the inhabitants of that region all the protection that they
ask for and, on my part, I shall take very great pleasure in
contributing to it on this occasion and other occasions."

This letter, coupled with the confidential proposals of Dr.
White, furnished a convenient opening for correspondence with the
Spaniards; and in July Sevier wrote to Gardoqui indicating his
readiness to accede to their proposals. After secret conferences
with men who had supported him throughout the vicissitudes of his
ill-starred state, Sevier carefully matured his plans. The
remarkable letter of great length which he wrote to Gardoqui on
September 12, 1788, reveals the conspiracy in all its details and
presents in vivid colors the strong separatist sentiment of the
day. Sevier urgently petitions Gardoqui for the loan of a few
thousand pounds, to enable him to "make the most expedient and
necessary preparations for defense"; and offers to repay the loan
within a short time "by sending the products of this region to
the lower ports." Upon the vital matter of "delivering" the State
of Franklin to Spain, he forthrightly says:

"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 equally disposed and ready as I am to accept
your propositions and guarantees. You may be sure that the
pleasing hopes and ideas which the people of this country hold
with regard to the probability of an alliance with, and
commercial concessions from, you are very ardent, and that we are
unanimously determined on that score. The people of this region
have come to realize truly upon what part of the world and upon
which nation their future happiness and security depend, and they
immediately infer that their interest and prosperity depend
entirely upon the protection and liberality of your government. .
. . Being the first from this side of the Appalachian Mountains
to resort in this way to your protection and liberality, we feel
encouraged to entertain the greatest hope that we shall be
granted all reasonable aid by him who is so amply able to do it,
and to give the protection and help that is asked of him in this
petition. You know our delicate situation and the difficulties in
which we are in respect to our mother State which is making use
of every strategem to impede the development and prosperity of
this country . . . . Before I conclude, it may be necessary to
remind you that there will be no more favorable occasion than the
present one to put this plan into execution. North Carolina has
rejected the Constitution and moreover it seems to me that a
considerable time will elapse before she becomes a member of the
Union, if that event ever happens."

Through Miro, Gardoqui was simultaneously conducting a similar
correspondence with General James Wilkinson. The object of the
Spanish conspiracy, matured as the result of this correspondence,
was to seduce Kentucky from her allegiance to the United States.
Despite the superficial similarity between the situation of
Franklin and Kentucky, it would be doing Sevier and his adherents
a capital injustice to place them in the category of the corrupt
Wilkinson and the malodorous Sebastian. Moreover, the
secessionists of Franklin, as indicated in the above letter, had
the excuse of being left virtually without a country. On the
preceding August 1st, North Carolina had rejected the
Constitution of the United States; and the leaders of Franklin,
who were sorely aggrieved by what they regarded as her
indifference and neglect, now felt themselves more than ever out
of the Union and wholly repudiated by the mother state. Again,
Sevier had the embittered feeling resultant from outlawry.
Because of his course in opposing the laws and government of
North Carolina and in the killing of several good citizens,
including the sheriff of Washington County, by his forces at
Sinking Creek, Sevier, through the action of Governor Johnston of
North Carolina, had been attainted of high treason. Under the
heavy burden of this grave charge, he felt his hold upon Franklin
relax. Further, an atrocity committed in the recent campaign
under Sevier's leadership--Kirk's brutal murder of Corn Tassel, a
noble old Indian, and other chieftains, while under the
protection of a flag of truce--had placed a bar sinister across
the fair fame of this stalwart of the border. Utter desperation
thus prompted Sevier's acceptance of Gardoqui's offer of the
protection of Spain.

John Sevier's son, James, bore the letter of September 12th to
Gardoqui. By a strangely ironic coincidence, on the very day
(October 10, 1788) that Gardoqui wrote to Miro, recommending to
the attention of Spain Dr. White and James Sevier, the emissaries
of Franklin, with their plans and proposals, John Sevier was
arrested by Colonel Tipton at the Widow Brown's in Washington
County, on the charge of high treason. He was handcuffed and
borne off, first to Jonesborough and later to Morganton. But his
old friends and former comrades-in-arms, Charles and Joseph
McDowell, gave bond for his appearance at court; and Morrison,
the sheriff, who also had fought at King's Mountain, knocked the
irons from his wrists and released him on parole. Soon afterward
a number of Sevier's devoted friends, indignant over his arrest,
rode across the mountains to Morganton and silently bore him
away, never to be arrested again. In November an act of pardon
and oblivion with respect to Franklin was passed by the North
Carolina Assembly. Although Sevier was forbidden to hold office
under the state, the passage of this act automatically operated
to clear him of the alleged offense of high treason. With affairs
in Franklin taking this turn, it is little wonder that Gardoqui
and Miro paid no further heed to Sevier's proposal to accept the
protection of Spain. Sevier's continued agitation in behalf of
the independence of Franklin inspired Governor Johnston with the
fear that he would have to be "proceeded against to the last
extremity." But Sevier's opposition finally subsiding, he was
pardoned, given a seat in the North Carolina assembly, and with
extraordinary consideration honored with his former rank of

When Dr. White reported to Miro that the leaders of "Frankland"
had eagerly accepted Gardoqui's conditions for an alliance with
Spain, he categorically added: "With regard to Cumberland
district, what I have said of Frankland applies to it with equal
force and truth." James Robertson and Anthony Bledsoe had but
recently availed themselves of the good offices of Governor
Johnston of North Carolina in the effort to influence Gardoqui to
quiet the Creek Indians. The sagacious and unscrupulous half
breed Alexander McGillivray had placed the Creeks under the
protection of Spain in 1784; and shortly afterward they began to
be regularly supplied with ammunition by the Spanish authorities.
At first Spain pursued the policy of secretly encouraging these
Indians to resist the encroachments of the Americans, while she
remained on outwardly friendly terms with the United States.
During the period of the Spanish conspiracy, however, there is
reason to believe that Miro endeavored to keep the Indians at
peace with the borderers, as a friendly service, intended to pave
the way for the establishment of intimate relations between Spain
and the dwellers in the trans-Alleghany. Yet his efforts cannot
have been very effective; for the Cumberland settlements
continued to suffer from the ravages and depredations of the
Creeks, who remained "totally averse to peace, notwithstanding
they have had no cause of offence"; and Robertson and Bledsoe
reported to Governor Caswell (June 12, 1787): "It is certain, the
Chickasaws inform us, that Spanish traders offer a reward for
scalps of the Americans." The Indian atrocities became so
frequent that Robertson later in the summer headed a party on the
famous Coldwater Expedition, in which he severely chastised the
marauding Indians. Aroused by the loss of a number of chiefs and
warriors at the hands of Robertson's men, and instigated, as was
generally believed, by the Spaniards, the Creeks then prosecuted
their attacks with renewed violence against the Cumberland

Unprotected either by the mother state or by the national
government, unable to secure free passage to the Gulf for their
products, and sorely pressed to defend their homes, now seriously
endangered by the incessant attacks of the Creeks, the Cumberland
leaders decided to make secret overtures to McGillivray, as well
as to communicate to Miro, through Dr. White, their favorable
inclination toward the proposals of the one country which
promised them protection. In a letter which McGillivray wrote to
Miro (transmitted to Madrid, June 15, 1788) in regard to the
visit of Messrs. Hackett and Ewing, two trusty messengers sent by
Robertson and Bledsoe, he reports that the two delegates from the
district of Cumberland had not only submitted to him proposals of
peace but "had added that they would throw themselves into the
arms of His Majesty as subjects, and that Kentucky and Cumberland
are determined to free themselves from their dependence on
Congress, because that body can not protect either their
property, or favor their commerce, and they therefore believe
that they no longer owe obedience to a power which is incapable
of protecting them." Commenting upon McGillivray's communication,
Miro said in his report to Madrid (June 15, 1788): "I consider as
extremely interesting the intelligence conveyed to McGillivray by
the deputies on the fermentation existing in Kentucky, with
regard to a separation from the Union. Concerning the proposition
made to McGillivray by the inhabitants of Cumberland to become
the vassals of His Majesty, I have refrained from returning any
precise answer."

In his long letter of reply to Robertson and Bledsoe, McGillivray
agreed to make peace between his nation, the Creeks, and the
Cumberland settlers. This letter was most favorably received and
given wide circulation throughout the West. In a most
ingratiating reply, offering McGillivray a fine gun and a lot in
Nashville, Robertson throws out the following broad suggestion,
which he obviously wishes McGillivray to convey to Miro: "In all
probability we cannot long remain in our present state, and if
the British or any commercial nation who may be in possession of
the mouth of the Mississippi would furnish us with trade, and
receive our produce there cannot be a doubt but the people on the
west side of the Appalachian mountains will open their eyes to
their real interest." Robertson actually had the district erected
out of the counties of Davidson, Sumner, and Tennessee given the
name of "Miro" by the Assembly of North Carolina in November,
1788--a significant symbol of the desires of the Cumberland
leaders. In a letter (April 23, 1789), Miro, who had just
received letters from Robertson (January 29th) and Daniel Smith
(March 4th) postmarked "District of Miro," observes: "The bearer,
Fagot, a confidential agent of Gen. Smith, informed me that the
inhabitants of Cumberland, or Miro, would ask North Carolina for
an act of separation the following fall, and that as soon as this
should be obtained other delegates would be sent from Cumberland
to New Orleans, with the object of placing that territory under
the domination of His Majesty. I replied to both in general

Robertson, Bledsoe, and Smith were successful in keeping secret
their correspondence with McGillivray and Miro; and few were in
the secret of Sevier's effort to deliver the State of Franklin to
Spain. Joseph Martin was less successful in his negotiations; and
a great sensation was created throughout the Southern colonies
when a private letter from Joseph Martin to McGillivray (November
8, 1788) was intercepted. In this letter Martin said: "I must beg
that you write me by the first opportunity in answer to what I am
now going to say to you . . . . 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." The general assembly of Georgia
referred the question of the intercepted letter to the governor
of North Carolina (January 24, 1789); and the result was a
legislative investigation into Martin's conduct. Eleven months
later, the North Carolina assembly exonerated him. From the
correspondence of Joseph Martin and Patrick Henry, it would
appear that Martin, on Henry's advice, had acted as a spy upon
the Spaniards, in order to discover the views of McGillivray, to
protect the exposed white settlements from the Indians, and to
fathom the designs of the Spaniards against the United States.

The sensational disclosures of Martin's intercepted letter had no
deterrent effect upon James Robertson in the attempted execution
of his plan for detaching the Cumberland settlements from North
Carolina. History has taken no account of the fact that Robertson
and the inhabitants now deliberately endeavored to secure an act
of separation from North Carolina. In the event of success, the
next move planned by the Cumberland leaders, as we have already
seen, was to send delegates to New Orleans for the purpose of
placing the Cumberland region under the domination of Spain.

A hitherto unknown letter, from Robertson to (Miro), dated
Nashville, September 2, 1789, proves that a convention of the
people was actually held--the first overt step looking to an
alliance with Spain. In this letter Robertson says:

"I must beg your Excellency's permission to take this early
opportunity of thanking you for the honor you did me in writing
by Mr. White.

"I still hope that your Government, and these Settlements, are
destined to be mutually friendly and usefull, the people here are
impressed with the necessity of it.

"We have just held a Convention; which has agreed that our
members shall insist on being Seperated from North Carolina.

"Unprotected, we are to be obedient to the new Congress of the
United States; but we cannot but wish for a more interesting

"The United States afford us no protection. The district of Miro
is daily plundered and the inhabitants murdered by the Creeks,
and Cherokees, unprovoked.

"For my own part, I conceive highly of the advantages of your

A serious obstacle to the execution of the plans of Robertson and
the other leaders of the Cumberland settlements was the prompt
action of North Carolina. In actual conformity with the wishes of
the Western people, as set forth in the petition of Robertson and
Hayes, their representatives, made two years earlier, the
legislature of North Carolina in December passed the second act
of cession, by which the Western territory of North Carolina was
ceded to the United States. Instead of securing an act of
separation from North Carolina as the preparatory step to forming
what Robertson calls "a more interesting connection" with Spain,
Robertson and his associates now found themselves and the
transmontane region which they represented flung bodily into the
arms of the United States. Despite the unequivocal offer of the
calculating and desperate Sevier to "deliver" Franklin to Spain,
and the ingenious efforts of Robertson and his associates to
place the Cumberland region under the domination of Spain, the
Spanish court by its temporizing policy of evasion and indecision
definitely relinquished the ready opportunities thereby afforded,
of utilizing the powerful separatist tendencies of Tennessee for
the purpose of adding the empire upon the Western waters to the
Spanish domain in America.

The year 1790 marks the end of an era the heroic age of the
pioneers of the Old Southwest. Following the acceptance of North
Carolina's deed of cession of her Western lands to the Union
(April 2, 1790) the Southwest Territory was erected on May 26th;
and William Blount, a North Carolina gentleman of eminence and
distinction, was appointed on June 8th to the post of governor of
the territory. Two years later (June 1, 1792) Kentucky was
admitted into the Union.

It is a remarkable and inspiring circumstance, in testimony of
the martial instincts and unwavering loyalty of the transmontane
people, that the two men to whom the Western country in great
measure owed its preservation, the inciting and flaming spirits
of the King's Mountain campaign, were the unopposed first choice
of the people as leaders in the trying experiment of
Statehood--John Sevier of Tennessee and Isaac Shelby of Kentucky.
Had Franklin possessed the patient will of Kentucky, she might
well have preceded that region into the Union. It was not,
however, until June 1, 1796, that Tennessee, after a romantic and
arduous struggle, finally passed through the wide-flung portals
into the domain of national statehood.

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