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william blount american patriot and land speculator

William Blount: American Patriot and Land Speculator

The Preamble to the United States Constitution reads:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The constitution was signed by 39 delegates from 12 American states on September 17, 1787. Among the signers was 38-year-old William Blount, one of the three delegates from North Carolina.

Blount was born in Bertie County, North Carolina in 1749. Growing up he learned business practices from his father who owned a tar and turpentine company. Based on his business and accounting ability, during the Revolutionary War, he was made paymaster for the North Carolina militia. Also showing a talent for politics, Blount was elected to the North Carolina legislature, and in 1780 at the age of 31, was appointed a delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Then a few years later, as a show of respect for his leadership and negotiating abilities, he was chosen to be a delegate to the US Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787.

In the spirit of the times, land ownership was paramount. For many years, the Indians, who wanted to hold on to their home lands and hunting grounds, had been pushed further and further west by English, French, and Spanish intrusion into territory that the Indian tribes considered to be theirs. Although a series of treaties were made that were meant to be important legal documents, the exact treaty boundaries were often poorly marked and ignored by both settlers and Indians. Territorial conflicts were frequent and often bloody. Land speculation also became an increasingly important activity. Speculators who had the financial means could buy cheap land and hold on to it until the Indians left and the settlers moved in.

During the American Revolution, many of the American soldiers could not be adequately paid. The fledging United States government just did not have the money to cover all of its debts. To help ease the problem in North Carolina, William Blount proposed a bill that would cover the money owed to soldiers who had served in the North Carolina militia for at least two years by compensating them with land. Qualified veterans would be given a grant of land west of the Appalachian Mountains instead of money.

The plan worked well in two ways. First, residents of North Carolina who wanted to settle in the newly opened lands were free to do so, as long as they did not stir up trouble with the Indians. Those who wanted to stay where they were, could sell their land grant to others. William Blount and a few other speculators who had money bought thousands of acres of western land this way.

At this time the state of North Carolina included all of what is now Tennessee, and by the late 1770s there were settlements already being established in both the eastern and central parts of the territory. These settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains were several hundred miles from Raleigh, Fayetteville and other North Carolina government centers making them problematic to govern. This was a lot of land to oversee, so in 1790, North Carolina ceded its western land to the United States. Thus, a tract of land some 440 miles east to west and 112 miles north to south that ran from from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River became the United States Territory South of the River Ohio, or as more commonly known, the Southwest Territory.

Based on his service in the Revolution as well as his work in the North Carolina government and the US Constitutional Convention, President George Washington appointed William Blount to be governor of the new territory as well as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the United States Southern District. Blount was delighted. The governorship would put him closer to his western land holdings and give him the authority to establish treaties with the Cherokees and other Indian tribes in the area.

Blount chose as his territorial capital a small settlement called White’s Fort that had been established by pioneer James White and his family in 1786. White was from Rowan County North Carolina and had served as a militia captain during the Revolutionary War. It is an interesting coincidence that the site of Blount’s territorial capital was part of a 1,000-acre grant to James White for his war service, a direct result of Blount’s proposal to the North Carolina legislature to pay soldiers in land rather than money.  

Although it consisted of only a small fort, a few cabins, and a few acres of tilled ground, it was well located on a ridge near the confluence of the French Broad River which flowed out of western North Carolina and the Holston River which flowed out of Virginia. It was also at the edge of Cherokee territory and not far from some of the major Cherokee towns such as Tanasi and Chota. The river that flowed by the settlement was at that time called the Holston and is now the Tennessee River.

Although William was pleased with the wilderness location, his wife, Mary, who was used to the finery of an older, more refined culture found in the eastern part of North Carolina, was a bit apprehensive about the move. In order to appease her, one of the first things William did was to have built a home suitable for the gracious lifestyle Mary was accustomed to. The two-story dwelling had many features not found in most frontier cabins, such as glass in the windows, heart-of-pine flooring, and clapboard siding instead of hand-hewn logs. Some of of the building materials and most of the furnishings had to be hauled across the mountains from the East.

Completed in 1792, William and Mary’s home was notably different from most of the dwellings surrounding it, and was dubbed Blount Mansion. At that time, it was probably one of the finest structures west of the Appalachian Mountains. The building served not only as a home for the Blount’s and their six children, but the territorial capital as well. It turned out that Mary became not only a gracious hostess for William’s many notable visitors, but a respected member of the community as well. Today the Blount home is well maintained and open for visitors.

When Blount established his headquarters at White’s Fort, the town began to grow rapidly. In a political move to make White’s Fort sound less like a frontier settlement and more like a real town, Blount gave it the name Knoxville after his supervisor Major General Henry Knox, Secretary of War under George Washington. Knox was appreciative, but died in 1806 before he had a chance to visit his namesake.

One of most pressing issues of the day was keeping peace with the Indians while at the same time opening land for pioneer settlement. The obvious answer to the problem was the same as it had been for many years, make a treaty. Blount put out the word that a major treaty would be negotiated at White’s Fort/Knoxville in June of 1791. The Cherokees agreed to come.

Blount had a special pavilion built for the occasion and he and his associates dressed in their finest clothes. Some 1200 Cherokees came, including 48 chiefs, also finely attired. It was a festive and at the same time a solemn and serious occasion. Negotiations concerning the ownership and use of land went on for about a month with an agreement finally signed by Blount and the principle Cherokee chiefs on July 2. The document was then sent to Secretary Knox for his approval. He made a few adjustments and declared it acceptable on February 7, 1792.

The treaty was officially called the Treaty of Holston since it was negotiated on a bluff overlooking what was then the Holston River. An historical marker and a monument have been erected in Knoxville showing where the negotiations took place.

Among the provisions of the treaty were that in return for ceding several thousand acres of land to the United States, the Cherokees would be given an annuity of $1500 a year – a large amount of money in those days – and the US would provide the Indians with plows, tools, and a variety of other farming and cooking implements. Surveyors were sent out to mark the treaty boundaries, which on paper were often designated as large boulders or the watersheds between two creeks.

Based on his successful negotiations with the Cherokees and his favorable attitude toward pioneer settlement, William Blount was considered to be an able and popular governor. Under his leadership and the fact that more Cherokee land was now available and supposedly safe from Indian attack, the Southwest Territory became an attractive area for new settlement. In the next few years thousands of people from Virginia, North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, as well England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany came to the area looking for land and a new way of life. Most of these pioneers had an important and positive impact on making the young town a prosperous and progressive community.

For example, one of the people who moved to the new town of Knoxville from Pennsylvania was Samuel Carrick, an educator and Presbyterian minister. He founded the First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, and in 1792 opened a school in his home which he named Blount College. For a while Carrick was president and the sole teacher. But the school grew, and in 1794 he had to move the classes to larger quarters. The school closed temporarily after Carrick’s death in 1809, but soon reopened and continued to grow. In a few years Blount College became East Tennessee College, and is today the University of Tennessee. It is considered to be the oldest institution of higher learning west of the Appalachians.

A census taken in 1795 showed that the Southwest Territory had a population of over 70,000, which qualified the region for US statehood. So, in June of 1796, largely through Blount’s efforts, the United States government accepted Tennessee as the 16th state in the union. The name Tennessee was taken from the Cherokee town of Tanasi located on the Little Tennessee River. The town site is now covered by Tellico Lake.

In a show of appreciation for his service as territorial governor and leading the move toward Tennessee statehood, the citizens of the new state elected Blount one of the state’s first US senators along with William Cocke. Blount took office in August 1796, but unfortunately, it turned out that his senate tenure was not long.

Along with being an adroit politician, Blount had also become one of the largest land speculators in America. It is reputed that at one time he owned over a million acres in Tennessee and along the eastern shore of the Mississippi River. It was his desire to have his Mississippi River land holdings become more profitable that caused Blount’s political downfall.

During the 1790s the Spanish controlled a large portion of the Mississippi River and were apt to blockade parts of it or shut off the port at New Orleans to American boats when they felt that political or military circumstances warranted such action. Blount, along with fellow Knoxvillian John Chisholm, and other land owners considered the Spanish too unpredictable in their policies and felt that if they were removed, land along the river would become more attractive for settlement and sell for a higher price.

Exacerbating Blount’s situation was that he had bought quite a bit of land on credit and was in debt.  In his overzealousness to see the value of his land increase, Blount became involved in a scheme concerning the Spanish and British that got him expelled from the United States Senate.

In 1794 Spain and Britain went to war. The United States declared neutrality and did not want to get involved in the conflict even though Spain was at times not a good neighbor in its somewhat haphazard control the Mississippi River and New Orleans. Blount felt that Britain would be a more stable nation to work with and would allow unrestricted American shipping to the port at New Orleans and on to the Gulf of Mexico.

Blount’s scheme involved mustering an army of frontiersmen and Indians which would attack New Orleans and other Spanish controlled areas and then turn them over to Britain. Blount himself would lead the military expedition to New Orleans.

The plan created at least two serious problems. For one thing, it violated the United States Neutrality Act of 1794 which was intended to keep America out of the Anglo-Spanish War or any war among European nations that were at peace with America. It would also arm Indians and involve them in an unauthorized military action.

Supposedly in an effort to solicit his help in the scheme, in April 1797 Blount sent a letter to James Carey who was an Indian interpreter for the United States government. Blount apparently thought that Carey would go along with the idea of removing the Spanish from control of the Mississippi River. Perhaps Carey also felt that removing the Spanish was a good idea, but a military operation that went against United States law was not the way to do it.

By June President John Adams had the letter. A senate committee headed by Vice President Thomas Jefferson confronted Blount and demanded an explanation. Blount asked for time to check his records, but by the next day, it was obvious that Blount could not deny that he had written the letter and that he was one of the main perpetrators of the international intrigue.  As a result, on July 8, 1797, less than a year after Blount took his seat in the United States Senate, his fellow senators voted 25 to 1 to expel him from the Senate. 

A few days later, the House of Representatives began putting together impeachment proceedings against Blount, but he did not hang around for the trial. He left Philadelphia, where the US capital was located at the time, and quickly made his way to Knoxville.

Although Blount was considered somewhat of a villain in Philadelphia, back in Knoxville he was treated as a hero. Many of the frontiersmen felt that ridding the Mississippi River of the Spanish and having an open port at New Orleans would be good for them and the Tennessee economy.

In a generous show of friendship, James White, who was at that time a state senator and Speaker of the Tennessee Senate, resigned his seat in that body to allow William Blount to take his place. Blount accepted White’s kind offer and was easily elected to the office.

However, not everyone in Tennessee was as friendly to Blount as White had been. During his term in the state senate Blount quarreled with Indian agent Elisha Hall over the running of a new Cherokee boundary line. The issue was that Hall accused Blount of not keeping his word on exactly where a treaty line should run. Blount then sued Hall for slander. The presiding judge in the area, David Campbell, felt as if Blount was carrying the matter too far and refused to hear the case.

The feud continued when Blount attempted to have Judge Campbell impeached. A trial was held in the Tennessee Senate, and even though Blount presided over the Senate at that time, Campbell was acquitted by one vote.

In the meantime, Blount’s own impeachment trial came up in Philadelphia. Sergeant-At-Arms of the United States Senate, James Matthers, was sent to Knoxville to bring Blount back to Philadelphia for trial. But Blount refused to go. When Matters attempted to raise a posse to help him get Blount back to Philadelphia, no one came forth to join him. The Sergeant-At -Arms returned to Philadelphia without his prisoner. As Tennessee historian J.G.M. Ramsey put it in his book Ramsey’s Annals of Tennessee: “Whatever foundation there may have been for the impeachment of William Blount, and whatever truth there may have been in the charge preferred against him, there was no one in Tennessee who viewed his conduct as criminal, unpatriotic, or unfriendly to the true interests of the State, or the West; and all refused to sanction the proceedings against him.”

In Philadelphia, Blount’s lawyers argued that since Blount had already been expelled from the Senate, he was no longer a federal official and therefore the United States Congress lacked jurisdiction to try the case. After some debate, on January 14, 1799, members of the US House of Representatives dismissed the case.

Blount’s political career had been stressful, and after one term in the Tennessee Senate, he resigned to devote his time to his land speculation business.

By 1799 tensions had eased somewhat along the Mississippi River and land was beginning to rise in value. With most of his political problems behind him and his financial situation improving, things seemed to be going well for Blount. Then in March of 1800 a fever epidemic swept through Knoxville in which several people died, including Blount. He passed away on March 26, 1800 a few weeks short of his 51st birthday. His burial in Knoxville made him the only signer of the United States Constitution buried west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Historians still wonder about the character of William Blount. Considered an American Founding Father, he was certainly an outstanding politician and statesman as evidenced by his terms in the Continental Congress, the North Carolina legislature, and as a delegate to the United States Constitutional Convention. He was appointed by George Washington to be governor of the Southwest Territory, and was instrumental in bringing in Tennessee as the 16th US state, and he was chosen the first US Senator to represent Tennessee. And even though as a member of the United States Senate Blount was punished for his scheme to incite a military conflict against a foreign nation, he was treated as a hero in Tennessee.

Yet, in spite of his statesmanship, Blount became involved in an ambitious plot to conquer what was at that time foreign territory in order to increase the value of land he owned. Did his desire for wealth overcome his obligation to obey the laws of his nation?

In his lifetime he experienced both the achievement of great wealth and political power as well as economic downturn and the humiliation of political ostracism. Vilified in Philadelphia yet considered a hero in Tennessee, he was a man of contrasts and an interesting figure in the history of Tennessee and the United States. 

Today, William and Mary Blount’s legacy is strong in East Tennessee. Blount County, a few miles southwest of Knoxville is named in William’s honor. The principal city in Blount County is Maryville, after Mary Blount. Grainger County northeast of Knoxville is named after Mary whose maiden name was Mary Moseley Grainger. A high school in Maryville is named William Blount High School. A town in Sullivan County northeast of Knoxville, established in 1795, was named Blountville after William Blount. The list goes on with streets, communities and several other William and Mary Grainger Blount namesakes.   

Ted McCormack

One comment

  1. Interesting article about an American founding father I had heard of but knew very little about. You excellent historical essays flesh out and add context and meaning to the story of our country’s past.

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