The Territory South of the River Ohio, more commonly known as the Southwest Territory, was an organized incorporated territory of the United States that existed from May 26, 1790, until June 1, 1796; when it was admitted to the United States as the State of Tennessee. The Southwest Territory was created by the Southwest Ordinance (enacted on May 26, 1790) from lands of the Washington District that had been ceded to the U.S. federal government by the State of North Carolina. The land had previously been claimed by North Carolina.
During the colonial period, land that would become the Southwest Territory was part of North Carolina's land patent. The Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains hindered North Carolina from pursuing any lasting interest in the territory; so initially trade, political interest, and settlement came mostly from Virginia and South Carolina; and only after the Regulator War, North Carolina.
The Watauga Association (sometimes referred to as the "Republic of Watauga") was a semi-autonomous government created in 1772 by frontier settlers living along the Watauga River in what is present day Elizabethton, Tennessee. The colony was established on Cherokee-owned land in which the Watauga and Nolichucky settlers had negotiated a 10-year lease directly with the Indians. Fort Watauga was established on the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals as a trade center of the settlements.
In March 1775, land speculator and North Carolina judge, Richard Henderson, met with more than 1,200 Cherokees at the shoals. Included at the gathering were Cherokee leaders such as Attacullaculla, Oconostota, and Dragging Canoe. In the "Treaty of Sycamore Shoals" (also known as the "Treaty of Watauga"), Henderson purchased from the Cherokee all the land situated south of the Ohio River and lying between the Cumberland River; the Cumberland Mountains; and the Kentucky River. The land thus delineated—20 million acres (80,000 km²)—encompassed an area half as large as the present state of Kentucky; and became known as the Transylvania Purchase. However, Henderson's land deal was found to be in violation of North Carolina and Virginia law, as well as the Royal Proclamation Act of 1763, which had prohibited the private purchase of American Indian land. (Henderson may have believed that a recent British legal ruling, the "Camden-Yorke Opinion", had made such purchases legal.)
Boone's help 
Before the Sycamore Shoals treaty, Henderson had hired Daniel Boone, an experienced hunter who had explored the Kentucky/Transylvania area, to travel to Cherokee towns and inform them of the upcoming negotiations. Afterward, Boone was hired to blaze what became known as the "Wilderness Road", which ran from Fort Chiswell, in southwest Virginia; through the Cumberland Gap; and into what would become central Kentucky. Along with a party of about thirty workers, Boone marked a path to the Kentucky River, where he founded the intended capital of Transylvania, Boonesborough (near present-day Lexington). Other settlements, most notably Harrodsburg, were established at this time. Many other settlers in the region, however, had come to the wilderness area on their own initiative, and did not recognize Transylvanian authority.
During the Revolutionary War 
In 1776, during the American War for Independence, Fort Watauga was attacked by Dragging Canoe and his faction of Cherokee opposed to the Wautauga lease and Transylvania purchase. These Indians were to become known as the Chickamauga Cherokee, who vigorously fought the westward expansion of the frontier settlers during the Chickamauga Wars.
North Carolina organized some of the territory of the Washington District into counties between 1777 and 1778, but continued to neglect the demands of frontier settlers for basic services and defense against American Indians.
Gunpowder and the Overmountain Men 
Fort Watauga served as the September 26, 1780 staging area for the Overmountain Men, who were preparing to cross the Appalachian Mountains to engage the British. They fought the advancing army and Loyalist colonials several times, most notably at: Musgrove Mill in South Carolina; Kings Mountain on the North Carolina–South Carolina border; and, in January 1781, Cowpens in South Carolina.
Prior to the American Revolutionary War, very little gunpowder had been made in the United States. As a British Colony, most had been imported directly from Britain. In October 1777, Parliament banned the exportation of gunpowder to America. Five hundred pounds of black powder was manufactured for the western settlements by Mary Patton and her husband at their Gap Creek powder mill. The Overmountain Men stored the Patton black powder in a dry cave, known as Shelving Rock, that is located near present day Roan Mountain, Tennessee.
After the war 
In 1784 several counties in the northeastern Washington District formed the State of Franklin. John Sevier was named governor and the area began operating as an independent state not recognized by the Congress of the Confederation. At about the same time, settlers in the other parts of the district were making overtures for a possible alliance with Spain, which controlled the lower Mississippi and was seeking inroads into the area. North Carolina reacted by re-asserting active control over the area, and Franklin ceased to exist by December 1788.
Territory formation 
North Carolina ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1789. As a condition of joining the Union, the North Carolina General Assembly ceded its claim to territory west of the Smoky Mountains. The deed to the land was submitted to the 1st U.S. Congress on February 25, 1790; and was accepted by Congress on April 2, 1790. On May 26, 1790, the territory was formally organized as the "Territory South of the River Ohio". President George Washington appointed William Blount territorial governor, and Rocky Mount was named its first capital. It was here, in late 1791, that Blount encouraged George Roulstone to publish Tennessee's first newspaper, The Knoxville Gazette, headquartered in Rogersville, Tennessee.
Even though Kentucky was also south of the Ohio River, it was a part of Virginia when the Southwest Territory was organized, and it would stay so until it became a state in 1792. The lands south of modern-day Tennessee were either still claimed by Georgia, or disputed with the Spanish colonial powers. Most of that area would be organized as the Mississippi Territory in 1798 (two years after the Southwest Territory had passed from existence).
In 1791, Blount moved the territorial capital to White's Fort; renaming it Knoxville. Land speculation was a booming business in the new territory and most of the prominent politicians had a stake in land ownership. Expanding frontier settlements inevitably encroached upon the Indian lands, despite government regulations. In 1792, Cherokee and Creek warriors attacked settlements in the Cumberland area near Fort Nashborough. The settlers formed a local militia, and during the Nickajack Expedition of 1794 took it upon themselves to raze several Chickamauga villages. Threats of similar actions against the Creek brought a period of rapprochement with the native tribes.
When Congress organized the Southwest Territory, it had legislated that all of the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance (except those restricting slavery) should apply mutatis mutandis to the new territory. In particular, section 12 stated that once a territorial legislature was formed, it could elect a non-voting delegate to the United States Congress. So, on September 3, 1794, the territorial government chose James White to be its delegate to Congress. This posed procedural difficulties because the Northwest Ordinance had been passed by the unicameral Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Under the new U.S. Constitution, it was not obvious whether the delegate from the Southwest Territory would be a member of the House, Senate, or both. Moreover, there were doubts about the constitutionality of such a delegate. Nonetheless, on November 18, a week after White's credentials were presented to the House (and after two days of debate), White became the territory's first delegate to the House of Representatives.
End of territorial status and statehood 
A 1795 census revealed there were enough people to petition for statehood. A popular referendum indicated a three-to-one majority was in favor of becoming a state. Governor Blount convened a constitutional convention, and delegates drafted a state constitution. Voters elected Sevier as governor. The new legislature selected Blount and William Cocke as U.S. Senators, and Andrew Jackson as the U.S. Representative.
The Southwest Territory had been the first federal territory to petition to join the Union and there had been some confusion in Congress about how to proceed. Nonetheless, Tennessee was admitted to the Union on June 1, 1796 as the 16th US state, and the Southwest Territory ceased to exist.
Land details 
- US state that ceded territorial claim that would become the Southwest Territory:
- State of North Carolina, 1789–1790
- US state created from the Southwest Territory:
- State of Tennessee, 1796
See also 
- Historic regions of the United States
- History of Tennessee
- Territorial evolution of the United States
- "Southwest Territory; 1790–1796" at Tennessee GenWeb.com
- "Journal of the proceedings of the Legislative council of the territory of the United States of America, South of the river Ohio: begun and held at Knoxville, the 25th day of August, 1794"; at archives.org.