Carter County is a wee bit older than Tennessee
Published 11:45 am Friday, June 11, 2021
Tennessee is celebrating its 225th birthday – so is Carter County!
While it is not a known fact to most Carter Countians and no celebration is planned, Carter County is just a wee bit older than Tennessee. On April 9, 1796, the Tennessee General Assembly – almost two months before Tennessee was admitted to the Union – recognized the county of Carter, which was formed from Washington County. Carter County is the parent of two other Tennessee counties – Johnson and Unicoi Counties.
The vicinity of Watauga River in Carter County is one of the most historic spots in the state of Tennessee since it was along this river that settlers formed a new government.
Part of that history is being told in the outdoor drama – “Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals,” which is being performed on Friday and Saturday nights this month at the Fort Watauga Amphitheater at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area.
After Carter County was created out of part of Washington County, the first county court met at the home of Samuel Tipton on the Doe River and appointed a commission to choose a site for the county seat. The town of Elizabethton was laid off from a tract of land which was owned by Samuel Tipton, and part of his estate.
Elizabethton celebrated its 200th birthday in 1999.
One could say that Tennessee began here along the shores of the Watauga. Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River was the site of three important events that shaped the history of this region. It was here in 1772 that the first majority-rule system of American democracy, the Watauga Association was established. The Articles of the Watauga Association, established an independent government four years before the Declaration of Independence was written.
The Watauga Association was born out of the need for both government and protection. Neither North Carolina nor Virginia would or could provide the East Tennessee settlers with the protection they needed. There was much lawlessness, bought about by people migrating to East Tennessee to escape the law of the other two states.
Very little is known about the first court except that five magistrates and 13 commissioners were chosen. That court handled both criminal and civil matters and can be accurately said was the forerunner of the judicial system in America, and from it came the old Justices of the Peace, the County Court, and later the system of trial courts to handle civic and criminal matters.
This government existed until 1776, acting as the cradle that was to merge into the state of Tennessee – thus, this is where Tennessee began.
History tells us that the Watauga Association functioned. Its people were God-fearing, but feared nothing else. They chose a preacher to tell them of God; a general to tell them of war; a judge to tell them of law; a constable to enforce the law; a teacher to tell them of knowledge.
On March 17, 1775, the Transylvania Company, led by Major Richard Henderson, was involved in the largest private real estate transaction in the United States’ history. For the price of 2,000 pounds sterling and 8,000 pounds of goods, he purchased 20 million acres of land from the Cherokee Indians. During these dealings, the local settlers purchased the right to remain on the Cherokee land that they were living on in the Watauga Settlement. Dragging Canoe, a Cherokee Indian chief, opposed the selling of the tribe’s ancestral hunting grounds, and he and his band of warriors would wage war against the settlers for the next 20 years.
Fort Watauga was built here and used as a base to defend the frontier against the Indians as well as the British. In late September 1780, the Overmountain Men mustered here for their march to King’s Mountain, S.C. to wage battle against Col. Ferguson, who had threatened to march over the mountains and lay was to their land with “fire and sword.” Ferguson was killed and most of his army captured. The battle was the turning point of the Revolutionary War in the South. It saved the Patriot cause and set off the events that led to the surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown the next year.
The replica of Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals State Park allows visitors living in this era of history to step back in tie to the turn of the 18th Century. The park museum and fort interpret this part of 18th Century history as the Watauga Settlement in the expansion of America’s western boundary.
The outdoor drama “Liberty!’ tells the story of the Overmountain Men and their quest for freedom as well as many of the events surrounding the settlement of the Wataugans.
HOME TO MANY GREATS
Carter County has been the stomping ground for many great men, some of whom spent a lifetime here, others for only a brief time. Carter County was familiar ground to the likes of Daniel Boone, John Sevier, and President Andrew Johnson, whose daughter lived on the banks of the Watauga River. Johnson also held court in Carter County under a large Sycamore tree on the Doe River, and spent his last days in the home of his daughter, Mrs. Daniel Stover. Govs. Bob and Alf Taylor called Elizabethton home, and Gov. Parson Brownlow began his newspaper “The Whig” in Elizabethton.
Elizabethton was also home to Samuel Carter, a Navy Admiral who joined the United States Army and led the Yankee Calvary in a raid from Kentucky into East Tennessee.