The Overmountain Men were those pioneers who settled on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains during the second half of the eighteenth century. The first group to venture into the region were adventurers, traders, and long hunters–temporary residents who came in search of game or trade and did not create permanent settlements. Some came for a few days, while others stayed for weeks or months. The stories they told about the unspoiled beauty of the land aroused the curiosity of easterners.
The first wave of visitors to the West troubled British government officials. As the French and Indian War drew to a close, King George III issued a proclamation in 1763 to restrict movement across the Appalachian Mountains. The proclamation prohibited government land grants, as well as private land purchases, and reserved the land between the crest of the mountains and the Mississippi River for the Indians.
The proclamation failed to limit interest in the land. Those willing to take on the immediate risks associated with life in the wilderness felt little or no threat from a king who lived so far away. They gathered such belongings as could be carried on horseback, said good-bye to friends who stayed behind, and set out confidently toward their new home. Their reasons for making the journey varied. Some sought a life free from oppressive laws and taxes imposed by fiat. Members of the Regulator Movement in North Carolina, for example, wanted to escape from what they perceived as the tyranny of Royal Governor William Tryon. In their minds, the prospect of freedom outweighed the challenges of the wilderness. Others recognized the enticing opportunities for land acquisition. A few lawbreakers viewed the West as an opportunity to escape from the consequences of their crimes. And the entire scenario was made to order for frontier adventurers.
William Bean of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, became one of the earliest permanent settlers in the Tennessee country. Bean and his wife, Lidia, came into the area in 1769, and settled along Boone’s Creek, a tributary of the Watauga River. In early 1771 James Robertson led a small group of North Carolinians into the area. Other communities developed in Carter’s Valley, Nolichucky, and Holston.
Since they lived outside the boundaries of the British colonial government, the Watauga settlers met in May 1772 to form their own government. Their deliberations produced the Watauga Association, which was based on the Virginia code of laws and primarily operated to protect the property of the settlers through a court of five magistrates, a sheriff, and a militia. The Watauga Association represented the first white government in Tennessee, though it instituted neither a breakaway government nor a renunciation of British sovereignty.