Southwest Territory
Map of the Tennessee Government, 1794, part of the Southwest Territory.

Southwest Territory

The Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio, often called the Southwest Territory, was created by an act of Congress on May 26, 1790. The State of North Carolina had ceded the lands and waterways encompassed by the act to the national government on December 22, 1789, and the cession represented the total area of the territory, although its name suggested the possible inclusion of other lands south of the Ohio not yet in federal hands. Congress specified that the territory would be governed under the provisions of the Ordinance of 1787, the statute establishing the vast Northwest Territory. The lawmakers made one important exception, however. They permitted slavery in the new territory, although they had prohibited the practice in the Northwest Territory.

Establishing a federal territory was a political mechanism by which the people of a specific area of the country outside the bounds of the states could be placed under federal authority until such time as its population increased to levels adequate to support the organization of state government. A newborn territory, at its first level, was virtually a fiefdom for the governor. The settlers achieved a voice in government at the second level when the population reached 5,000, a number that permitted them to elect the lower house of a general assembly and nominate the members of the upper house for appointment by the president. The third and final progression was the step to statehood, authorized when the population exceeded 60,000.

The creation of the new territory was the result of the dynamics of four separate but related interests. First, land speculators and expansionists coveted stable government for the region because it was part of the nation’s next logical growth area. Secondly, the State of North Carolina could sharply reduce the demand on its drained treasury and find relief from the responsibility of protecting western settlers by ceding the overmountain domain and waiving to Congress the potential revenues from future sales of its public lands. Next, the western settlers wanted territorial status and lobbied vigorously for it, believing that the national government would offer better protection against the Indians. Finally, the federal government was anxious to establish control over western lands England had yielded in the Treaty of 1783 but from which the king had not yet totally evacuated his troops.

The Southwest Territory contained 43,000 square miles of surface area, less than one-sixth of the area of the Northwest Territory. In 1791, however, the populations were of inverse ratio: 35,691 reported in the Southwest to the estimated 3,200 in the Northwest. The western district of Virginia, lying immediately south of the Ohio River, constituted the most heavily populated transmontane area. Yet it was a part of neither territory. After a series of conventions that began in 1784 and ended in 1790, the inhabitants negotiated an agreement with Virginia and Congress to provide statehood for the region. Congress admitted Kentucky as an equal member state of the Union on February 4, 1792.

Nowhere was the role of the speculator more directly involved with the development of the overmountain West than in the Southwest Territory. In 1790, when President George Washington appointed North Carolina businessman William Blount as territorial governor, Blount and his brothers claimed title to approximately one million acres of the land inside its boundaries. Earlier, in the latter 1770s, William Henderson, another North Carolinian, had made colossal purchases of western lands from the Indians only to have them invalidated later by the states of North Carolina and Virginia. He succeeded, nonetheless, in promoting settlements in separate areas that later became parts of Central Kentucky and Middle Tennessee.

The cession of the western half of the state was a difficult decision for the leaders of North Carolina. Although the general assembly had passed an act to cede the lands beyond the mountains in 1784, the same body repealed its action before Congress could accept it. Five years later, with a treasury that was virtually empty, the state faced an assessment for its share of the national debt incurred during the American Revolution. Its portion was determined by a formula that related the assessment to the land area of the state; consequently, by reducing the size of the state, the tax share would be cut proportionately. That option guaranteed the votes to pass the cession act. Other support came from many North Carolinians living east of the mountains who were eager to be relieved of the burden of protecting western settlers from the Indians. The frontier folk in North Carolina’s western lands had lobbied passionately for cession because they believed that by accepting the area as a federal territory, the national government would be honor-bound to defend them.

President Washington gave Governor William Blount a second responsibility: superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Southern Department, an office that placed him in contact with the neighboring Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Creek nations. Relations with the latter two were so difficult that Blount had to devote more time to Indian matters than to the office of governor. The combined duties of both offices did not prevent him from taking an active role in land purchases and sales, however.

The first capital of the territory was the home of William Cobb, since called Rocky Mount, in Washington County near the Watauga River. Governor Blount and Daniel Smith, a Mero District leader appointed by the president to be secretary of the territory and acting governor in Blount’s absence, set up the territorial office there in 1790. They relocated the capital to Blount’s residence in the newly laid-out town of Knoxville in 1792. The three other principal officers of the government were Judges John McNairy, David Campbell, and Joseph Anderson. Generals John Sevier and James Robertson commanded the militia of Washington and Mero Districts respectively. Before the area was certified as populous enough to elect its own house of representatives, the judges and the governor constituted the general assembly with authority to enact statutes.

Early in 1791 the governor enumerated the population and reported more than enough free white adult males to qualify the territory for the election of a lower house, its next step toward statehood. Blount did not call for elections until December 1793, however, nearly three years later, and only then under pressure from an impatient populace. He clearly preferred to rule without dealing with an elected house but joined the popular cry for elections when he could put it off no longer.

President Washington assigned Blount the task of clarifying provisions of the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell and, if possible, purchasing some of the Cherokee land south of the French Broad since occupied by settlers. When the governor sought to treat with them, the Cherokees responded hesitantly, but their chiefs came to the treaty grounds after Blount sent James Robertson, formerly a respected agent among them, to urge their attendance.

The Indians’ interests would have been better served if they had remained at home. Blount enticed them to give up the right-of-way for a road to connect Southwest Point with the Cumberland settlements and browbeat them into signing over most of the land he sought for an annual payment by the federal government of one thousand dollars. There was no longer a need for clarification of the Treaty of Hopewell.

The following year of 1792 was marked by both Cherokee and Creek raids into the territory. The national government, already involved in Indian wars in the Northwest Territory, would not participate in a war against the southern Indians; neither would it permit the frontiersmen to make preemptive strikes, nor to pursue attacking Indians across the line into their own territory. The settlers could take defensive measures only.

Such a response from the War Department and Congress infuriated the territorial settlers. Separate groups of unauthorized volunteers from the Holston and Cumberland leveled Cherokee and Creek villages and killed a number of warriors. On one of the few occasions when strikes against the Indians were authorized, acting governor Daniel Smith, in Blount’s absence, sent General John Sevier with a regiment of militia into Cherokee territory in pursuit of a large body of Indians that had approached Knoxville but turned back after massacring the family of Alexander Cavett a few miles from town. Smith’s action, though upheld by Blount, was not approved by the War Department. Pay for the militia, a federal obligation, was withheld until long after Tennessee became a state.

Other large groups of warriors also invaded the territory. On September 30, 1792, a group of more than 500, principally Creek and Cherokee Indians, marched on Nashville and unsuccessfully laid siege to Buchanan’s station. A force of an estimated 260 Creeks and Cherokees attacked Greenfield station in Sumner County on April 28, 1794, but a few alert defenders drove them off.

After elections for the territorial house were held in December 1793, the representatives chosen met at Knoxville on February 24, 1794, to nominate ten councilors. President Washington appointed Sevier, James Winchester, Stockley Donelson, Parmenas Taylor, and Griffith Rutherford from the group to make up the legislative council, or upper house, of the general assembly.

The full General Assembly of the Southwest Territory convened its first session at Knoxville on August 26, 1794, and elected a nonvoting representative to Congress. The territory had reached its second level of progression toward statehood, and there was only one remaining.

In a special session that began on June 29, 1795, the general assembly voted to make an enumeration of the population and authorized Blount to recommend that each county elect five delegates to be convened by him for the purpose of determining the permanent form of government for the area and adopting a constitution.

When Governor Blount tied the pay of the sheriffs taking the census to the totals reported, even skeptics joined those who believed the population would exceed 60,000. It was a very straightforward arrangement; the larger the total reported from each county, the larger the sheriff’s pay for counting them.

On November 28, 1795, the collected census reports from all eleven counties indicated that there were 77,262 inhabitants in the Southwest Territory, a total comfortably exceeding the minimum required for statehood. The governor called for the election of delegates to meet in convention on January 11, 1796, to begin work on a constitution and form a state government.

Once the qualifying enumeration had been made, the final progression under the Ordinance of 1787 had been reached. But it was not clear what was yet to be done to bring the state into existence and into the Union. Blount and his political allies decided on a bold initiative. They would establish the new state, adopt a constitution for it, elect its officials, and petition the national government to accept it on an equal basis with the other states.

Fifty-five representatives from the eleven counties of the territory met in convention at Knoxville on January 11, 1776. They elected Blount to be the presiding officer and Daniel Smith to be chairman of the committee to draft a constitution and bill of rights. Consideration of a bill of rights was apparently of the highest priority. Smith’s draft was debated and adopted before the full constitution was brought to the floor. Containing thirty-two separate provisions, the bill was entitled “A Declaration of Rights.” The delegates incorporated it into the constitution later as its last section, Article XI.

The Declaration of Rights closely paralleled the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States, but in its final form it was marked by two distinctly western concerns. Section 29 proclaimed: “That an equal participation of the free navigation of the Mississippi, is one of the inherent rights of the citizens of this state: it cannot, therefore, be conceded to any prince, potentate, power, person or person whatever.” Mirroring the westerners’ passion for land, Section 31 declared: “That the people residing south of French Broad and Holston between the Rivers Tennessee and the Big Pigeon, are entitled to the right of pre-emption and occupancy in that tract.”

Providing for executive, legislative, and judicial departments, the constitution drew heavily upon the work of the constitution makers of North Carolina and, to a lesser extent, Pennsylvania. It broke with the North Carolina tradition by sanctioning no single church or religion. It prohibited seating ministers of the gospel and priests in either house of the bicameral legislature but simultaneously barred from any office in the civil department of the state anyone who denied “the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishment.” The constitution departed from the ways of some of the older states by providing universal manhood suffrage. All white males and all free black males twenty-one years of age or older were permitted to vote.

On February 6, 1796, the convention approved the constitution and the name of the new state–Tennessee–by a unanimous vote. Before adjourning, the delegates instructed Governor Blount to send a copy of the constitution by express to the secretary of state at Philadelphia so that it could be brought before Congress before the end of its session. Governor Blount issued writs of election to the sheriffs of the several counties in order that the first election for members of the general assembly and governor of the new state could be held.

The adjournment of the convention left the constitution firmly in place. There was no requirement for further approval or review, except by the Congress of the United States, and that only for the purpose of determining that it and the government to be formed under its provisions were truly republican.

At the March elections, the voters chose John Sevier to be the new state’s first governor and elected members of the House and Senate of the first general assembly. Although Sevier was probably the most popular man in the state, his election reflected decisions by territorial leaders to promote him for governor, Blount and William Cocke for the U.S. Senate, Andrew Jackson for Congress, and James Winchester for Speaker of the state Senate and de facto lieutenant governor. The most powerful offices went to those living in East Tennessee, where the population was larger, but the western, or Mero District, residents were mollified by the inclusion of Jackson and Winchester.

When the general assembly certified Sevier’s election, Governor Blount announced to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering that the government of the State of Tennessee was organized and established and that the government of the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio “has terminated.” President Washington placed the question of statehood for Tennessee before Congress on April 8 when he submitted (without recommendation) the constitution of the state, the enumeration of the inhabitants, and other pertinent documents to both houses.

The House of Representatives took up the issue and after considerable debate voted forty-three to thirty on May 6 to admit Tennessee to the Union. In the Senate it was a different matter. There the Federalists, who rightly expected the new state would vote against their candidate in the upcoming presidential election, delayed admission until the last day of the session, June 1, 1796. Yielding in conference committee to House pressure to admit, the Senate was able to force the new state to elect their United States senators anew, to reduce their electoral college votes from four to three, and to accept a single congressman instead of the two contemplated until the next federal census.

Although temporarily crippled politically by the Senate’s provisions, Tennessee had become the sixteenth state of the Union and the first state to be developed from a federal territory. The Southwest Territory existed no more, but its leaders had charted a way for other territories evolving under the provisions of the Ordinance of 1787 to become equal states of the Union. They had tested and established a method by which those in succeeding westward migrations would be able to achieve full citizenship and enjoy the blessings of representative government.

Suggested Reading

Clarence E. Carter, comp. and ed., The Territorial Papers of the United States, Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio, 1790-1796, vol. 4 (1936); Walter T. Durham, Before Tennessee: The Southwest Territory, 1790-1796 (1990) and “The Southwest and Northwest Territories, A Comparison, 1787-1796,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 49 (1990): 188-96; William H. Masterson, William Blount (1954)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Southwest Territory
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018