Tennessee Heritage: Watauga Association new take on American government

9:57 am | September 24, 2012

In the recent columns about the birth of communities on the Doe and Watauga Rivers, deep in the mountain fastness of what would become East Tennessee, we have followed the writing of Theodore Roosevelt from his masterpiece, The Winning of The West, which is continued here, as the narrative is resumed:

“Once arrived at the Watauga, the Carolina newcomers mixed readily with the few Virginians already on the ground; and James Robertson speedily became one of the leading men in the little settlement. On an island in the river he built a house of logs with the bark still on them on the outside, though hewed smooth within; tradition says that it was the largest in the settlement. Certainly it belonged to the better class of backwoods cabins, with a loft and several rooms, a roof of split saplings, held down by weighty poles, a log veranda in front, and a huge fire-place, of sticks or stones laid in clay, wherein the pile of blazing logs roared loudly in cool weather… The furniture was probably precisely like that in other houses of the class; a rude bed, table, settee, and chest of drawers, a spinning-jenny, and either three-legged stools or else chairs with backs and seats of undressed deer hides. Robertson… had much less than even the average backwoods education, for he could not read when he was married, while most of the frontiersmen could not only read but also write, or at least sign their names.”

President Roosevelt’s story has now brought us to the point where strong men have begun to assert leadership in the Watauga community: John Carter, James Robertson, John Sevier and others rose to the occasion… and our historian continues: “Their followers were worthy of them. All alike were keenly alive to the advantages of living in a community where there was neither law nor officer to enforce it. Accordingly, with their characteristic capacity for combination, so striking as existing together with the equally characteristic capacity for individual self-help, the settlers determined to organize a government of their own…”

“They decided to adopt written articles of agreement, by which their conduct should be governed; and these were known as the Articles of the Watauga Association. They formed a written constitution, the first ever adopted west of the mountains, or by a community composed of American-born freemen (this is part of Roosevelt’s famous and oft-repeated quotation about what was accomplished here).”

“It is this fact of the early independence and self-government of the settlers along the head-waters of the Tennessee that gives to their history its peculiar importance… “They were the first men of American birth to establish a free and independent community on this continent (another noted Roosevelt quote)… The first step taken by the Watauga settlers, when they had determined to organize, was to meet in general convention, holding a kind of folk-thing, akin to the New England town-meeting. They then elected a representative assembly… which met at Robertson’s station. Apparently the freemen of each little fort or palisaded village, each blockhouse that was the centre of a group of detached cabins and clearings, sent a member to this first frontier legislature.”

“It consisted of 13 representatives [ERH Note: Those chosen were: John Carter, James Robertson, Charles Robertson, John Sevier, Zach. Isbell, Jacob Brown, James Smith, William Bean, John Jones, Jacob Womack, George Russell, Robert Lucas and William Tatham] who proceeded to elect from their number five — [ERH Note — according to one authority, they were: Carter, Sevier, James Robertson, Charles Robertson and Isbell] to form a committee or court, which should carry on the actual business of government, and should exercise both judicial and executive functions. This court had a clerk (William Tatham) and a sheriff, or executive officer, who respectively recorded and enforced their decrees. The five members of this court, who are sometimes referred to as arbitrators, and sometimes as commissioners, had entire control of all matters affecting the common weal; and all affairs in controversy were settled by the decision of a majority.”

“They elected one of their number as chairman [ERH Note: several authorities indicate that this was John Carter — but the official records have never been located] he being also ex-officio chairman of the committee of thirteen; and all their proceedings were noted for the prudence and moderation with which they behaved in their somewhat anomalous position. They were careful to avoid embroiling themselves with the neighboring colonial legislatures… On behalf of the community itself, they were not only permitted to control its internal affairs, but also to secure lands by making treaties with a foreign power, the Indians; a distinct exercise of the right of sovereignty.”

To be continued.

-Earl Hendry

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