by Christopher Grisham
When Tennessee became a state on June 1, 1796, it was the end of a long process. The idea to create a state from the land west of the Appalachian Mountains wasn’t new. When the British were in control, the land was reserved for Native American peoples only. No one else was allowed to settler here. So what happened when the British lost the American Revolution? The state of North Carolina claimed all the land between the mountains and the Mississippi River. People began to move in almost right away. Many broke treaties and settled on Native American lands. This resulted in years of warfare.
Conestoga Wagon – Tennessee State Museum collection
The State of Franklin
These new settlers complained that North Carolina was not doing a good job protecting them. North Carolina decided to give their land west of the Appalachians to the Federal Government in New York. They needed to pay off debts from the Revolutionary War. The settlers were excited. They decided to make their own state. The State of Franklin (read more about that here) was the first attempt at making a state on the western side of the mountains. It had a Constitution, a Legislature, and a Governor named John Sevier. But there was a problem. The Federal government really didn’t have a plan to create a new state. Instead, it decided to give the lands back to North Carolina and would not let Franklin become a state. Even though the State of Franklin went on for four years (1785-1788), it never really became a state.
Map of Tennessee printed in 1796 – Tennessee State Museum collection
The Southwest Territory & Statehood
After the State of Franklin failed, the land that is Tennessee today became part of a large territory called “The Territory South of the River Ohio.” Later, it was shortened to the Southwest Territory. George Washington put William Blount in charge of the new territory. For the first time there was an official government close to the people it served. With more people moving into the area, they tried to form a state again. This time the federal government had a new Constitution with clear steps on how to become a state. The first step was for a census to be taken. The census showed that they had enough people to form a legislature and write a new state constitution. The state would be called Tennessee. And this time it worked! On June 1, 1796, President George Washington made Tennessee the 16th state to join the United States. Another Constitution was written. John Sevier was picked to be the first governor. They even made Knoxville the first capital city. Even though the Constitution, the Governor, and even the Capital are all different now, the Tennessee that was formed over 200 years ago is the same one we know today. Today, Tennesseans celebrate June 1 as statehood day. Do your part and tell someone about how Tennessee became a state.
John Sevier became the first governor of Tennessee. Tennessee State Museum collection
Settlers – People that move into a new area to live.
Federal Government - The government that oversees all of the states. Today, it is located in Washington D.C.
Debts – Something that is owed to someone else, usually money.
Constitution – a document that sets up the rules for a government.
Territory - An area of land that is under the rule of a government. It is a step before an area becomes a state.
Census – An official count of a group of people.
Who did the land that would become Tennessee originally belong to?
What was the name of the first attempt to create a state?
What date did Tennessee become a state?
Why would distance between a Capital and new settlers have been such a problem in the late 1700s?
What is one way they could have solved the problem of distance?
Get together with your family to write and vote on a home Constitution. Lay out the jobs of each person or group of people (parents, kids, adults, pets, etc) and the basic rules that everyone should follow. Choose one place in the house to serve as the “Capital” where you can all meet to discuss anything that affects the whole household. Then design a household flag to fly at your Capital.
Tennessee State Social Studies Standard:
5.36 Identify the year Tennessee became a state, its first governor, and the original capital.
For More Information
Tennessee Blue Book Student Edition
Christopher Grisham is the K-12 Education Manager at the Tennessee State Museum.