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THE POLITICAL SITUATION IN THE WEST BEFORE 1789
WHILE the western lands were being settled and the pioneers were taking possession in little groups or in larger ones, they were not without a government. Legally, they were a part of the home colony, but often a long distance intervened between the two; so that the control of one over the other could at the best be only nominal. No matter how willing the parent colony might be to give help, the distance was too great to make that help effective in any sudden emergency; and it often happened that the home colony had too many troubles of its own to care for the distant offshoot. Each community needed a strong and simple government, for several reasons. One reason was the nature of the settlers. While there were many, perhaps the majority, who joined in the westward movement with a sincere purpose to better their conditions, there were always others,―ne'er-do-wells who found the older settlements uncomfortable for them, men whose sense of right and wrong had not been very clearly developed, or had become obscured. Regulations were necessary also for land surveying and land holding and for the common defence of the settlers against the Indians. To the student of institutions the natural way in which these frontiersmen governed themselves is very interesting. They simply took the laws and customs with which they were familiar and adapted them to their own uses. There is a fine illustration of this
self-government in the Watauga settlement, comprising the
little villages on Watauga River and in the neighboring valleys.
In 1769, by a treaty with the Indians, Virginia extended its western boundary to what is now in the main the eastern line of Kentucky. It was believed at the time that the Watauga region was by this extension within the bounds of Virginia; and so, when the settlers went there, they supposed that they were under the rule of the Virginia colony. But when the land was surveyed, it was found that Carter's Valley, Nollichucky, and Watauga were in North Carolina. The settlers were displeased at the discovery, because many of them had come there to escape the turbulence and misrule in North Carolina; and further, this colony did not care to exercise authority over this distant territory, because it would mean the obligation to protect these remote settlements from Indian attacks—a matter that might easily be one of great expense and difficulty and without any adequate return; this, too, at a time when it was occupied with affairs within colonial limits. Thus neglected by North Carolina, and beyond the jurisdiction of Virginia, these Watauga settlers were forced to govern themselves as if they were independent. Their condition was something like that of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. They were where no one recognized colonial law, and their little communities were in a fair way to become refuges for the criminals and vagabonds who had committed offences in the colonies, and would on the frontier be in security because beyond the reach of justice. These desperadoes, whom Roosevelt calls "merely beasts of prey who plundered whites and Indians alike," were among the early arrivals in the colony, and here, as always, were the curse of frontier civilization.
In order to protect themselves, the three settlements of Carter's Valley, Nollichucky, and Watauga entered into association; and articles were drawn up to which they agreed, and thus was formed the first civil government by Anglo-Saxons beyond the mountains, and the first written
constitution adopted by American-born freemen. Unfortunately, these articles of association have been lost; but it is evident from the application of the laws that the simple rules applying to the circumstances in which they found themselves, were drawn from the laws of Virginia. For legislative purposes a committee of thirteen was elected, and these chose from their number five, who were to be a committee for executive and judicial business. They also had the necessary officers for enforcing and recording their decisions. These five men had control of the little confederacy in external and internal matters. They conducted their affairs as independently as if North Carolina did not exist, securing their lands by treaties with the Indians, establishing land claims, punishing evildoers, and attending to all other legal and judicial matters. They did this work well. In 1776 they petitioned the North Carolina Assembly to be allowed to come under its protection, in order "that they might have their share in the glorious cause of liberty." In 1778 the settlements were organized as Washington County, North Carolina, but the change did little to alter the form of government. That this experiment was successful for six years and then quietly changed its name without being compelled essentially to change its nature is due largely to the fact that the settlers were accustomed to Anglo-Saxon institutions and were, as a whole, law-abiding men. An equal number of French or Spaniards would quickly have founded a monarchy, with Sevier or Robertson at its head. These two men were trusted by the pioneers, and they easily became the leaders. Watauga only claimed to be a self-governing settlement, and at its own wish became a part of the State of North Carolina.
When the existence of the vast, fertile, and unoccupied country in the Mississippi valley became known, there arose a class of men who had visions of sudden wealth by the acquisition of these vast tracts and their sale to settlers. These plans failed, because, however rich and abounding in natural resources the land might be, there the settler was