As the oldest town in Tennessee, Jonesborough, has a story to tell. Or two. In fact, Jonesborough is known for storytelling and claims to be the “Storytelling Capital of the World.” But this small town is more than an annual festival, and its real story starts centuries before. It’s a tale of presidents, a state most people have never heard of, and a whole lot of firsts. Here’s Jonesborough’s real story.
Long before Tennessee became the sixteenth state, settlers were crossing the Appalachians into what was then considered the wild frontier. Many of these settlers, known as “over-mountain” men, formed communities throughout what is now northeast Tennessee. By 1770, the Watauga Settlement was one of the largest of these, and Theodore Roosevelt referred to them as the “first free and independent community on the continent.”
The territory the Watauga Settlement (or Association) had occupied was tied up in a dispute as to whether it belonged to Virginia or North Carolina. Needing to handle their own affairs due to the distance of either government, the settlers created their own constitution. This set of written articles was the first attempt by a group of settlers at self-government on American soil. For several years the settlers were able to govern themselves despite the fact that it violated King George’s Proclamation.
But it wasn’t their government that would draw the attention of the British. During the Revolutionary War, the British were making their way through South Carolina. Aiming to divide and conquer the Revolutionaries, they sent couriers ahead to discourage rebellion. Upon crossing the Appalachians, the settlers were threatened that if they aided the Continental Army, their villages would be burned. But the Redcoats underestimated these over-mountain men. The ensuing battle, the Battle of Kings Mountain, became what Thomas Jefferson called the turning point of the War in the South.
The day after the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the Watauga Association notified North Carolina that they had formed a district court and militia and were requesting to become an official territory of the state. So in 1777, Washington County, named for whom else but George himself, became the first county west of the Appalachians. Jonesborough, named for North Carolina representative Willie Jones, was established just two short years later to serve as the county seat.
But a new name didn’t bring with it the respect or representation the Association had expected. In 1784, leaders of the new territory met in Jonesborough to form a new state—the state of Franklin, named for none other than Benjamin Franklin. Jonesborough served as the capital temporarily, and John Sevier was elected as the first governor of Franklin. The state lasted roughly four years before it was once again under the authority of North Carolina. And while it was never recognized by Congress as a state, it was the first attempt at statehood outside of the
thirteen original colonies.
In 1789, North Carolina yielded its counties in modern-day Tennessee to the federal government. For the next seven years, Jonesborough was part of the Territory of the United States South of the Ohio River. Not exactly what the Watauga Settlement had envisioned years before, but it seemed to work for the time being. Then on June 1, 1796, Tennessee became the sixteenth state and elected John Sevier (once again) as governor. The constitution was drawn up with the help of future-President Andrew Jackson, who had spent five months in Jonesborough a decade earlier. In the original constitution it called for universal male suffrage, including free black males. With this, Thomas Jefferson referred to it as the “least imperfect and most republican” constitution of any state. And, unlike Franklin, it was fully recognized by Congress.
But this is just the beginning of Jonesborough, Tennessee’s history. There are also stories of abolitionist movements started in the town situated in Confederate territory. The personal stories that literally waged brother against brother. There are also the stories behind the buildings that make up the town. It’s no wonder that Jonesborough, adding to the long list, was also the first town in Tennessee to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s thanks to all the stories this town has to tell. And in a town like Jonesborough, more stories are yet to come.