Early History of Middle Tennessee
By Edward Albright, 1908

Chapter 17
Compact Of Government

     Soon after his arrival colonel DONELSON, together with his son, John DONELSON, Jr., Hugh ROGAN and others, went ten miles up the Cumberland to the mouth of Stones River. There in the midst of a fine body of land, since known as the "Clover Bottom," they built a fort, the location of which was about a hundred and fifty yards northwest of where the Lebanon Turnpike now crosses Stones River. This beautiful tract of rich bottom land took its name from the thick growth of native white clover which covered it at that time. The TURPINS and JOHNS went back down the river to Clarksville and there joined RENFROE in establishing near the mouth of Red River the station which bore his name. The rest of those who had come by water found locations in the various forts already erected at the time of their arrival.

     Thus it appears that the entire population of Middle Tennessee at that time was less than five hundred. These were housed in the eight or nine forts of Davidson and Sumner Counties. The little colony thus constituted was in the heart of a wild and, save their own presence, and uninhabited country several hundred miles from any other settlement and much further from the seat of government. North Carolina, the parent State, was now engaged in the Revolutionary War, and, therefore, could not, or would not, minister to the wants of her colony upon the distant frontier, while the latter, by reason of its seeming security from the legal processes of the States, was fast becoming a rendezvous for murderers, horse thieves, and all other fugitives from justice. From time to time also there arose between members of the colony matters of legitimate controversy which must of necessity be settled at law. In consequence of the above the leading men of the settlement soon set about drafting a form of local self-government. Col. James ROBERTSON and Col. Richard HENDERSON were leaders in the movement. They were not without experience. The former had assisted in launching the Watauga compact some years before. The latter had been a leading spirit in early governmental affairs both at Watauga and at Boonesboro in central Kentucky. By his recent survey HENDERSON had established to his own satisfaction the fact that the Cumberland settlement was within the bounds of the territory belonging to North Carolina. He proposed now to claim his right of purchase by the treaty of Sycamore Shoals. This he did, and afterwards sold to the emigrants the land on which they entered. He took no money from them, however, but simply entered into an agreement by the terms of which the purchase price, which was small, should be paid when the State of North Carolina should declare his title valid. This was never done. Instead, North Carolina followed the example of Virginia by declaring his title void, and in partial payment therefore granted him two hundred thousand acres of fine land in the Holston Valley of East Tennessee. HENDERSON in all things dealt justly with the early pioneers, and left among them when he died an honored name.

     ROBERTSON and HENDERSON probably wrote the articles of agreement establishing the compact of government which was entered into by the settlers on May 1, 1780, and which was finally ratified on May 13, following. This agreement was signed by two hundred and fifty-six of the colonists, only one of whom was unable to write his own name. This number represented nearly the entire male population.

     It provided that as soon as convenient after its adoption the free men of the settlement who were over twenty-one years of age should elect or choose from their number twelve suitable persons to be called Judges, or Triers. The latter should constitute a court having jurisdiction over such matters of a civil or criminal nature as in the future might arise. These judges should serve without salary and were divided among the various stations as follows: The Bluff or Nashborough, three; Eaton's, two; Bledsoe's, one; Asher's, one; Freelands, one; Donelson's, one; and Fort Union, one.

     Other stations at that time located were not recognized as entitled to representation on this court, probably because the number inhabiting each was considered too small. We shall see that some of the latter were soon thereafter abandoned. By the solemnity of an oath these Judges were bound to do equal and impartial justice to all parties to the best of their skill and judgment.

     It was also provided that as often as the people in general became dissatisfied with the acts or decisions of the members of this body they might call a new election and elect others in their stead. This court, having due regard, of course, for the rules and regulations of the government land office, was empowered to settle contests arising from entries upon tracts of land, of which contests there is always an abundance in every newly settled country. Its decisions in such cases were final as to any future claim of the party against whom said judgment was rendered.

     It was further provided that until such time as the State of North Carolina should extend the jurisdiction of its courts beyond the mountains and thereby relieve the settlement from the many evils which had arisen, these Judges, or Triers, should be a proper tribunal for the determination of any suit for debt or damages. Of course, no jurisdiction or authority could be exercised over those who did not subscribe to the agreement, but provision was also wisely made that the latter should neither own land thereabouts nor become citizens of the colony. In all cases where the debt, demand, or damages did not exceed a hundred dollars, any three of the judges might sit as a court of competent jurisdiction to try the cause, and from their decisions in such cases there was no right of appeal. If the amount involved was greater than one hundred dollars, any three should also hear the cause, but from their judgment either party might appeal to the entire court consisting of the twelve judges. In this event nine of their number should constitute a quorum whose decision should be final, provided as many as seven concurred.

     A majority of the court was clothed with power to punish criminal offenses, even those of a capital nature, provided, however, that they should not attempt to authorize the infliction of the death penalty. In accusations calling for the latter punishment, the prisoner should be sent under strong guard to the locality where a legal trial for such an offense might be had.

     All young men over the age of sixteen years who were able to perform military duty were given the right to enter and obtain land, each in his own name as though he were of legal age.

     Provision was also made for calling the settlers to military service for the safety and defense of the stations.

     As above suggested this improvised government was not designed to operate in conflict with the laws of North Carolina. In fact, the latter was urged to speedily organize the Cumberland settlement into a separate county over which it should appoint proper officials for the discharge of public duty. It was intended to last only until such time as the State might extend its protection over the new settlement.

     The local government above described was an Absolute Democracy. We view it now as a foundation stone of a mighty republic, the like of which the world has never seen before, and under the protecting folds of whose flag the oppressed of all lands may find personal and religious freedom. Col. James ROBERTSON was selected as one of the three judges from the Bluff. He became Chief Justice of the court and also commander-in-chief of the military forces of the settlement.

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