The Territory South of the River Ohio, more commonly known as the Southwest Territory, was an organized incorporated territory of the United States that existed from May 26, 1790, until June 1, 1796, when it was admitted to the United States as the State of Tennessee. The Southwest Territory was created by the Southwest Ordinance from lands of the Washington District that had been ceded to the U.S. federal government by North Carolina. The territory's lone governor was William Blount.
The establishment of the Southwest Territory followed a series of efforts by North Carolina's trans-Appalachian residents to form a separate political entity, initially with the Watauga Association (1772–1776), and later with the failed State of Franklin (1784–1789). North Carolina ceded these lands in April 1790 as payment of obligations owed to the federal government. The territory's residents welcomed the cession, believing the federal government would provide better protection from Indian hostilities. The federal government paid relatively little attention to the territory, however, increasing its residents' desire for full statehood.
Along with Blount, a number of individuals who played prominent roles in early Tennessee history served in the Southwest Territory's administration. These included John Sevier, James Robertson, Griffith Rutherford, James Winchester, Archibald Roane, John McNairy, Joseph McMinn and Andrew Jackson.
During the colonial period, land that would become the Southwest Territory was part of North Carolina's land patent. The Blue Ridge Mountains, which rise along the modern Tennessee-North Carolina border, hindered North Carolina from pursuing any lasting interest in the territory. Initially trade, political interest, and settlement came mostly from Virginia and South Carolina, though refugees from the Regulator War began arriving from North Carolina in the early 1770s.
The Watauga Association was a semi-autonomous government created in 1772 by frontier settlers living along the Watauga River in what is present day Elizabethton, Tennessee. The colony was established on Cherokee-owned land in which the Watauga and Nolichucky settlers had negotiated a 10-year lease directly with the Indians. Fort Watauga was established on the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals as a trade center of the settlements.
In March 1775, land speculator and North Carolina judge, Richard Henderson, met with more than 1,200 Cherokees at Sycamore Shoals. Included at the gathering were Cherokee leaders such as Attacullaculla, Oconostota, and Dragging Canoe. The meeting resulted in the "Treaty of Sycamore Shoals", in which Henderson purchased from the Cherokee all the land situated south of the Ohio River and lying between the Cumberland River, the Cumberland Mountains, and the Kentucky River. This land, which encompassed roughly 20 million acres (80,000 km²), became known as the Transylvania Purchase. Henderson's land deal was found to be in violation of North Carolina and Virginia law, as well as the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which had prohibited the private purchase of American Indian land.
Both North Carolina and Virginia considered the trans-Appalachian settlements illegal, and refused to annex them. Nevertheless, at the onset of the American War for Independence in 1776, the settlers, who vigorously supported the Patriot cause, organized themselves into the "Washington District" and formed a committee of safety to govern it. In July 1776, Dragging Canoe and the faction of the Cherokee opposed to the Transylvania Purchase (later called the Chickamaugas) aligned with the British and launched an invasion of the Watauga settlements, targeting Fort Watauga at modern Elizabethton and Eaton's Station near modern Kingsport. After the settlers thwarted the attacks, North Carolina agreed to annex the settlements as the Washington District.
In September 1780, a large group of trans-Appalachian settlers, led by William Campbell, John Sevier and Isaac Shelby, assembled at Sycamore Shoals in response to a British threat to attack frontier settlements. Known as the Overmountain Men, the settlers marched across the mountains to South Carolina, where they engaged and defeated a loyalist force led by Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Overmountain Men would also take part in the Battle of Musgrove Mill and the Battle of Cowpens.
In 1784, North Carolina ceded control of the Overmountain settlements following a hotly-contested vote. The cession was rescinded later that year, but not before some of the settlers had organized the State of Franklin, which sought statehood. John Sevier was named governor and the area began operating as an independent state not recognized by the Congress of the Confederation. Many Overmountain settlers, led by John Tipton, remained loyal to North Carolina, and frequently quarreled with the Franklinites. Following Tipton's defeat of Sevier at the "Battle of Franklin" in early 1788, the State of Franklin movement declined. The Franklinites had agreed to rejoin North Carolina by early 1789.
North Carolina ratified the United States Constitution on November 23, 1789. On December 22, the state legislature voted to cede the Overmountain settlements as payment of its obligations to the new federal government. Congress accepted the cession during its first session on April 2, 1790, when it passed "An Act to Accept a Cession of the Claims of the State of North Carolina to a Certain District of Western Territory". On May 26, 1790, Congress passed an act organizing the new cession as the "Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio," which consisted of modern Tennessee, with the exception of later minor boundary changes. However, most of the new territory was under Indian control, with territorial administration initially covering two unconnected areas— the Washington District in what is now northeast Tennessee, and the Mero District around Nashville. The act also merged the office of territorial governor with the office of Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southern Department.
The new territory was essentially governed under the same provisions as the Northwest Ordinance, a 1787 act enacted for the creation of the Northwest Territory north of the Ohio River. The Ordinance's provision outlawing slavery was not applied to the Southwest Territory, however. Along with rules of governance, the Ordinance outlined steps a territory could take to gain admission to the Union. The first step involved the organization of a territorial government. The next step, which would take place when the territory had at least 5,000 adult males, was to organize a territorial legislature, with a popularly-elected lower chamber and an upper chamber appointed by the president. The final step, which would take place when the territory had a population of at least 60,000, was to write a state constitution and elect a state government, at which time the territory would be admitted to the Union.
Several candidates were put forth for governor of the new territory. William Blount (1749–1800), a Constitutional Convention delegate and former state legislator who had championed the causes of western settlers, was supported by key North Carolina politicians such as Hugh Williamson, Timothy Bloodworth, John B. Ashe and Benjamin Hawkins. An aggressive land speculator, Blount had extensive land holdings in the new territory. Virginia's Patrick Henry called for his friend, General Joseph Martin, to be appointed governor. A small group of ex-Franklinites convened in Greeneville to push for the appointment of John Sevier.
On June 8, 1790, President George Washington chose Blount as the territory's new governor. He also appointed Daniel Smith (1748–1818) the territory's Secretary, and named two of the territory's three judges, John McNairy and David Campbell (Joseph Anderson would eventually be chosen as the third judge). John Sevier was appointed brigadier general of the Washington District militia, and James Robertson was appointed brigadier general of the Mero District militia.
In September 1790, Blount visited Washington at Mount Vernon, and was sworn in by Supreme Court justice James Iredell. He then moved to the new territory, where he set up a temporary capital at Rocky Mount, the home of William Cobb in Sullivan County. He recruited North Carolina publisher George Roulstone to establish a newspaper, the Knoxville Gazette (initially published at Rogersville). He spent most of October and November issuing appointments to lower-level administrative and militia positions. In December, he made the dangerous trip across Indian territory to the Mero District, where he likewise issued appointments, before returning to Rocky Mount by the end of the year.
Blount initially wanted the permanent territorial capital to be located at the confluence of the Clinch and Tennessee rivers (in the vicinity of modern Kingston), where he had extensive land claims, but was unable to convince the Cherokee to relinquish ownership of these lands. He therefore chose James White's Fort, an outpost located further upstream along the Tennessee. In 1791, White's son-in-law, Charles McClung, platted the new city, and lots were sold in October of that year. Blount named the new city "Knoxville" after his superior in the War Department, Henry Knox.