By 1772 about seventy homesteads or farms had been established along the Watauga River in northeastern Tennessee (now Carter County). The area lay outside the boundaries of British colonial government and within the recognized boundaries of Cherokee territory. Disregarding the British mandate, the settlers negotiated a ten-year lease with the Indians for “all the country on the waters of the Watauga.”
In 1772 the settlers established the Watauga Association to organize the region. The “constitution” of the association incorporated the Virginia code of laws and outlined the organization of government. Five elected magistrates formed a court and conducted the business of government, including executive, legislative, and judicial matters. A clerk recorded deliberations of the court, and a sheriff executed judgments. The first five commissioners of the court are unknown, but a plausible list can be reconstructed. John Carter likely served as the first chairman. James Robertson was probably a member, and he may have suggested the name “Watauga Association.” Charles Robertson and Zachariah Isbell may have been members, and the fifth member was probably either John Sevier or Jacob Brown.
The court existed for four years, regulating affairs of the Watauga community. The court probably concentrated on judicial business, since the adoption of Virginia laws alleviated the need for legislative action; the only surviving record of the association is a lawsuit handled by the court. The court also conducted negotiations with Indians, agents of the British government, and colonial governments of North Carolina and Virginia. To provide military defense for the area, the court created and directed a militia.
For about two years general peace and order prevailed in the Watauga settlement, before lawlessness and Indian attacks disturbed the peace of the community. After 1775 the Watauga Association participated in the American Revolution. In 1777 the area became a part of North Carolina, and the Watauga Association disappeared the next year.
Since neither Virginia nor North Carolina claimed sovereignty over the area, the Watauga Association represented the first white government in Tennessee. Nevertheless, the association was not intended as a deliberate renunciation of British sovereignty, or an early attempt at independence. The lease of Indian lands specified a ten-year term, and the Watauga constitution was written in conjunction with the lease. The petition of 1776, while affirming allegiance to the rebellion against England, made no claim that the Wataugans had declared independence in 1772.
Ben Allen and Dennis T. Lawson, “The Wataugans and the Dangerous Example,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 26 (1967): 137-47