My review of "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin"...

It's been a while since my last blog post about John Sevier, so I thought I would take a moment to revisit one of my favorite historical subjects.

I recently had a look at the historical documentary, "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin," for the purpose of evaluating the film for nomination to the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) Leadership in History Award of Merit. "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin" is a 30-minute documentary film produced by Nolichucky Pictures which originally aired on East Tennessee PBS stations in May of last year.

Re-enactors cast in "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin"
Image source: Nolichucky Pictures
To the uninitiated, the State of Franklin arose from the foothills of the Appalachian mountains following the Revolutionary War on territory that would eventually become part of present-day East Tennessee. That land was claimed by the state of North Carolina, which briefly ceded it to Congress in an attempt to pay off that state's war debt. Land speculators, however, opposed the statehood movement of the Franklinites, eventually leading to a complex and violent conflict between two factions led by the region's most dynamic leaders - John Sevier and John Tipton.

I'll touch on these two individuals in a moment, but first, I wanted to approach this review with a keen eye towards how archives and local history museums were used in the making of this film -- a particular point of emphasis for me as President of the Society of Tennessee Archivists, and as an information professional and archives advocate. On this count, "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin" does not disappoint.

I was particularly impressed with the film’s emphasis on the importance of courthouse records in the lives of those who lived in the region at the time. The “Courthouse Wars” between loyalists of John Sevier and John Tipton was an important part of the four-year history of the State of Franklin. At this time within the three-county region of Upper East Tennessee, possession of county records determined how you maintained control of county government, and with two parallel governments competing for control of the region -- one backed by the State of Franklin, and the other supported by North Carolina -- the “Courthouse Wars” were a vital part of the story of the State of Franklin which was depicted in this film.

In the film’s “Special Features” section, the producers also note the painstaking efforts to include advice and information from the foremost scholars and historians familiar with Franklin’s rise and fall from statehood. Records from archival institutions and six area museums were also consulted in the making of this film. Additionally, scholarly interview transcripts were made available for free to the public for education and research purposes, providing an important supplement to the film to those seeking further information. Producers of the film also reached out to the local community of cultural heritage organizations to gather an accurate account of this era, and cooperated with area museums and historic sites by airing public service announcements benefiting heritage tourism in the region. Additionally, over 120 volunteer re-enactors participated in this film, making it a truly local production. The authentic wardrobe and props supported by extensive background research made "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin" an accurate portrayal of the people and events of the time.

I was also impressed with the way in which "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin" emphasizes the importance of civic education by highlighting how governments work and how the State of Franklin influenced the U.S. Constitution. The State of Franklin very nearly became the 14th state of the United States, but fell just two votes short of ratification in Congress. Yet the State of Franklin’s four-year rebellion laid the foundation for the way in which we would build our nation in the years that followed. Article IV, Section III of the U.S. Constitution specifically addresses the formation of new states from territories claimed by existing states. It was the State of Franklin rebellion that led to the inclusion of this clause in the U.S. Constitution.

The two key protagonists in this four-year rebellion were John Sevier and John Tipton. I have written extensively about John Sevier and the subject of historical memory, pointing out the ways in which depictions of John Sevier’s life are often embellished by myths and legends. John Sevier’s biography was initially chronicled by antiquarians, attorneys, and individuals who had an unusual admiration for their subject. I was quite pleased to see that this film makes a concerted effort to present a fair and accurate account of John Sevier – chronicling his heroics and leadership skills as well as his personal flaws and political failings. Sever was initially skeptical of this secessionist movement, but after seeing momentum for a separate state building amongst the locals, his ambition to lead the State of Franklin became blinding.

John Sevier’s own political ambitions, for example, led him to conspire with Spain to preserve what little hope there was left to hold together the State of Franklin, and this film makes note of that conspiracy with scholarly commentary, and a note by the narrator that records of these transactions exist in archives in Seville, Spain. This powerful narrative emphasized by evidence of historical fact found in the archives leaves no doubt that this film does not embellish its subject, but rather shows John Sevier’s own personal motives for the State of Franklin, “warts and all.”

John Tipton is less well-known than his more famous rival, John Sevier, but his historical significance was not overlooked in this film. A popular judge, legislator, and political leader, John Tipton was originally in support of statehood, and even served as a delegate to the State of Franklin Convention, but he opposed Sevier and his State of Franklin movement, ultimately declaring his loyalty to the parent state of North Carolina in 1785. A feud between Tipton and Sevier erupted, eventually leading to an armed confrontation between both men and their supporters at John Tipton's farm. Tipton and his men held off Sevier's army of loyalists just long enough to call for reinforcements. Sevier eventually surrendered and was arrested on a charge of high treason, a charge that was later dropped.

Information about the State of Franklin and its historic significance to the State of Tennessee and to the nation has been largely lost over time. As a result, many people in this state are not familiar with this story, so "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin" fills an important void in recent scholarship. This film provides an accurate and engaging portrayal of the historically important events that led to the creation of the State of Franklin, and brings to life the key individuals whose actions and conflicts gave rise to a new form of government within the borders of our new nation. For all of these reasons, I believe that "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin" is very deserving of the AASLH Leadership in History Award of Merit. I certainly hope that the AASLH will consider my nomination letter and this personal endorsement.

While "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin" has long since aired on public television, it is available for purchase on DVD. If you missed its broadcast last summer, I would encourage you to watch the DVD. For those with an interest in early Tennessee history, civics, government, and the complex -- and often violent -- relationships between the major historical figures of this four-year conflict, "The Mysterious Lost State of Franklin" should not be missed.


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.