Introduction to the History of Jonesborough

"When the people of the area were imposed or looked down upon, they could and probably would display active resentment, otherwise, they were the soul of kindness and hospitality. I went a stranger and they took me in. I believe the great bulk of the inhabitants to be among the most useful and orderly citizens belonging to the American states." Written by a young Englishman traveling through the Jonesborough area in 1775.

Jonesborough’s Firsts

  • Town in Tennessee – 1779
  • Capital of the State of Franklin-First attempt at statehood after the 13 original states – 1784
  • Government entity named after Gen. George Washington – 1777
  • Publication solely supporting the abolition of slavery- The Emancipator - 1820

picWhen trailblazers and pioneers like Daniel Boone and John Sevier came across the Appalachian Mountains into what is now Tennessee, they thought they had found paradise. These independent minded frontiersmen joined hundreds of others in search of a place to call their own. By 1770, there were an estimated 3000 non-native settlers forging new lives and building communities in the “Over-Mountain” region. One of the largest of these communities was the Watauga Settlement, located in the vicinity of present day Elizabethton, Tennessee. It was here that the Watauga Association was formed, creating written articles for the management of their daily affairs, a necessity given the time consuming and arduous distance from either the North Carolina or Virginia centers of government. It is to these articles that Lord Dunmore, last British governor of Virginia, referred in his letter to the British Secretary of State warning that the Watauga Association “at least sets a dangerous example to the people of America of forming governments distinct from and independent of his majesty’s authority.” In his 1894 history The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt refers to the Watauga Association as the “first free and independent community on the continent”.

During the American Revolution, the British army was coming up through South Carolina trying to split the Continental Army. They sent a courier over the mountains who threatened the future Tennesseans that they would be killed and the villages burned if they tried to help the revolutionaries. Despite the courier’s threat, a thousand Over-Mountain men converged at Sycamore Shoals and rode across the mountains to fight the British frontier style. They kicked their assets at the Battle of Kings Mountain. This battle ended a dismal losing streak for the colonists and prompted Thomas Jefferson to call The Battle of Kings Mountain the turning point of the War in the South.

picThe story of these fearless early settlers in now what is now Northeast Tennessee, and their significant contribution to the independence of our nation, is just one of the great stories of Historic Jonesborough and our region. Another great story of the area is the State of Franklin. Named after patriot Benjamin Franklin, the State of Franklin was formed in Jonesborough in 1784, the first attempt at statehood outside the initial thirteen colonies. Jonesborough was the first capital and John Sevier, who later became the first governor of the State of Tennessee, was the governor of Franklin. Residents were actually governed by two states at the same time because North Carolina still claimed the territory and there were two sets of state offices. There are great stories of the two Sheriffs' trying to arrest each other on Main Street in Jonesborough, the actual battle fought between the State of Franklin and the State of North Carolina, and the escapades of John Sevier who was arrested by North Carolina for treason and then busted out of jail in Morganton, NC by his followers.

Andrew Jackson was first licensed to practice law by the Washington District Court in Jonesborough. Jackson’s colorful personality, swagger and stubbornness have given Jonesborough a legacy of stories, mostly based on actual occurrences, as he made his rounds as a young lawyer during the five months he stayed in the region while awaiting transport to Nashville.

The great stories don’t stop there. The Civil War highlighted the Town’s conflicting loyalties and nowhere does the saying “Brother against Brother” pertain as strongly as in the Mountains of Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. Though the slave population never amounted to more than nine percent of the entire East Tennessee population, slaves were definitely a part of Jonesborough’s daily life. Yet, Jonesborough was also the home to a growing and vigorous anti-slavery movement dating back to well before the war. Elihu Embree, a young Quaker and prominent businessman, championed the anti-slavery cause throughout the first two decades of the 19th century. In 1819, at Jacob Howard’s Print Shop on the corner of First Avenue and Main Street, Embree began publishing the Manumission Intelligencier, mainly as a vehicle disseminating the news of The Tennessee Manumission Society. Based in style upon a Manumission Society newspaper published by Charles Osborne in Mount Pleasant, Ohio in 1816, The Manumission Intelligencer had modest success. Embree, however, quickly tired of devoting precious print to Society procedurals and other news and established The Emancipator in 1820. The Emancipator is the first newspaper whose content was devoted solely to the abolition of slavery. Growing rapidly to a national subscription base of over 200, The Emancipator unfortunately ceased publication when Embree died unexpectedly of a fever. Only eight issues were printed. Elihu Embree was a slave owner.

As the oldest town in Tennessee and the Storytelling Capital of the World, you don’t have to go far in Historic Jonesborough to discover an exciting story about the fascinating history of our region. In Jonesborough there is a wagon full of stories about exciting people and events that shaped the future of Tennessee and our country.