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The Rebirth of Jonesboro

An Exert from:
The Rebirth of Jonesboro
By Paul M. Fink

In 1970, Jonesboro, a small town in Upper East Tennessee, was honored by having a part of it chosen as the first historic district in Tennessee to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a distinction coming to it after a thorough survey made by members of the staff of the Tennessee Historical Commission. That study took into consideration not only the architecture of the old buildings still standing on the streets of the town but also their relation to the town and to their own neighborhood, as well as the historical background of the town itself, a story that reaches back to within a decade of the coming settlers. The story also involves the early days of Washinton County, which was the first political entity in America to bear the name of the Father of His country.
When Washington County was formed in 1777, its borders embraced all of what is now Tennessee, though there were no towns and only two small settlements within it: the Watauga settlement on the Watauga and Holston rivers, and the Jacob Brown colony on the Nolickhucky River.
The act of the North Carolina Assembly creating Washington County provided that a committee choose a suitable location for a courthouse, and see that it was built. A contest arose as to where it should be located, each settlement desiring that the county seat is in its midst. The problem was resolved by a compromise, the site chosen being almost on the watershed between the two rivers, equally distant between them and only a short distance from the headspring of Little Limestone Creek. Tradition says that the exact spot was determined by the presence of several free-flowing springs, a dependable source of water for the town that was certain to follow. The historian, Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey, tells that here was built the first courthouse in Tennessee, “Built of round logs fresh from the adjacent forest, covered, in the fashion on pioneers, with clapboards.”
The people were determined that the tow was not to be a disorderly cluster of rude cabins about the courthouse, but that it grow in a well-regulated manner. So, provisions for urban planning and building restrictions were written into the act authorizing its establishment. The tract of one hundred acres secured for the purpose was to be laid out in lots one acre each, with suitable streets and alleys. Sixty-Four lots were first to be subscribed for and then awarded by lottery. Under penalty of losing his property, each new owner was obliged to build thereon, within three years, a brick, stone, or well-framed house, of prescribed dimensions. Later the requirements were modified to permit the houses to be made of squared logs. The act also specified that the new town be called Jonesborough, in honor of Williw (pronounced Wiley) Jones, a wealthy citizen of Halifax, North Carolina, statesman, patriot, and always a firm friend of the people on the western waters.
The only town in the West, Jonesboro began to grow and assume a position of importance in the new country. A trading center for the surrounding region, in its early stores, was found an amazing variety of wares, wagoned down from Baltimore and Philadelphia. Jonesboro was long the judicial capital of Washington District, comprising the counties of Washington, Sullivan, Greene, Hawkins, and (until 1788) Davidson as well.
When, in 1784, North Carolina ceded her western territory to the federal government, it was with the proviso that the lands be accepted within a year. No jurisdiction was retained over the ceded territory, and its people were left entirely on their own, with no form of government to depend upon for protection from hostile Indians, or any judicial authority for their own regulation.
They were independent folk, already accustomed, under the Watauga Association, to care for themselves, without outside help. A convention was called in Jonesboro in August 1784, to consider the situation and decide what to do about it. Shortly they formed themselves into a new state, to be named Franklin, complete with a governor, a General Assembly, courts, and a militia established. John Sevier, who had come from Virginia ten years before, was elected governor and remained in that office throughout the years of Franklin’s existence.
The new state applied to the Continental Congress for admission into the Union of the thirteen original colonies under the Articles of Confederation. The petition was given favorable consideration in committee, but when voted on by the whole body, was rejected by the margin of a single vote. So nearly did Franklin come to being the fourteenth state.
…To be Continued.

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