No one individual played so
large a role in the formation of Tennessee statehood as did
William Blount. For many people, however, he was regarded as
an eccentric and little was known about his life and times.
That he originated from "Continental stock" and a
good family was well known and he did seem to command the respect
of some of the nations early leaders, including President
George Washington. His life, however, was a mystery to all,
but a select few and would remain such for many years after
Following the ending of the American Revolution, a new economy
and way of life began sweeping over the nation. For a family
like the Blounts, who had faithfully served under British rule
for generations, it meant huge changes in their way of thinking
and William Blount was a man who could change with the times.
His story could eventually be called a tragedy in American history,
but, for those who knew him, William Blount was a man whose
leadership would inspire a generation and help give birth to
the official state of Tennessee.
William Blount was born on March 26, 1749 in Bertie County,
NC in the Palmico Sound region near the coastal town of Wilmington.
His family was one of the oldest in America and could even trace
their roots back to William The Conqueror in England. His parents
Jacob and Barbara Gray Blount were wealthy for the time and
young Blount received one of the best educations available in
Both William Blount and his father enlisted as soldiers in 1771
and fought for the British under Gov. William Tryon at the Battle
of Almance. As Revolution began sweeping the colonies, the Blounts
sensed an opportunity in the new American government. When war
broke out between the two nations; both took jobs as paymasters
in the Continental Army.
The family was always ambitious and established themselves as
leaders in business. William, his father Jacob, and both of
his brothers enjoyed success in shipping and mercantile enterprises.
William was also a land speculator who, at one time, owned more
than one million acres in western North Carolinas Appalachian
region, which included land in present-day Tennessee.
In 1778, William Blount married Mary Grainger, who was also
from a well established family in Wilmington. She had been brought
up in the old school and instructed in managing household affairs
and the social graces. With few exceptions, the couple were
a perfect match and Marys background helped her husband
find his calling in life in politics.
In 1780, with war raging all around them, the Blounts
gave birth to their first daughter, Nancy, and William Blount
was elected to his first seat in the North Carolina state house.
Two years later, Mary gave birth to their second daughter Mary
Louisa, and the North Carolina statesman served as a delegate
to the Continental Congress. In his status as a representative
of the state, William Blount became one of the most influential
men of his time in helping a young America establish itself
as a nation. In 1787, he served as a delegate to the Constitutional
Convention where he played a large role in its writing and influencing
of other representatives. His work soon caught the attention
of President George Washington, who immediately took a liking
to him. William Blount tossed his hat into the ring for the
seat of U.S. Senator from North Carolina, but lost the seat
and returned to his comfortable home in the state and his four
children a son, named William Grainger Blount, was born
in 1784 and an infant named Richard.
Although his political career was short-circuited, Blount saw
an opportunity in a new governors post rumored to be available
in the Southwest territory, where his vast land holdings were
located. When Congress created The Territory of the United States
South of the River Ohio, Blount lobbied hard and got the support
of the North Carolina Congressional delegation to support him
as a candidate for the post of territorial governor. His favorable
impression on President George Washington is said to have carried
a lot of weight and the President appointed the 42-year-old
statesman to a three year term as governor beginning in June
When he informed his wife they would be moving to the new territory
becoming known as Tennessee, it is said she cried for days.
Mary Blount had become accustomed to the continental lifestyle
of North Carolina and did not relish the idea of leaving her
beloved home for a wilderness of frontiersmen and Indians, especially
with an infant on her hip. She feared for the safety of herself
and her family and was truly frightened by the prospect of moving.
Governor Blount, on the other hand, was ecstatic with the move.
"The salary is handsome," he said in a letter to a
friend, "and my western lands had become so great an object
to me that it had become absolutely necessary that I should
go to the western country..."
Unlike John Sevier and Andrew Jackson, William Blount was no
frontiersman nor did he aspire to be one. He was a cultivated,
educated gentleman from North Carolina and knew his limitations.
The frontier families in the region were unsure about the government
as they had five times previously tried to form their own governments
and, with America so young a nation, they didnt know if
the new territorial government would hold for any length of
time. One job that was thrown on Blount was that of Superintendent
of Indian Affairs a trumped up title that meant he tried
to resolve the numerous conflicts between the various tribes
and keep America out of a full-scale Indian war that would cripple
the government and probably hand it back over to the British.
Blounts regal composure and reputation as a "government
man" among the settlers gave him a unique perspective that
allowed him to open negotiations with the various tribal leaders
and successfully begin building a working relationship with
After a brief stay at Rocky Mount in upper East Tennessee, Gov.
Blount decided to go on a tour of the country and search for
a place he and his family could settle. He wanted to settle
on the Clinch River, where he owned property, but was impressed
with the region surrounding James Whites Fort and its
location on a river, which was a major traffic artery in those
The strain of his office started taking effect almost immediately,
especially in regards to the Cherokee Nation. The tribal government
wanted to settle a dispute over the increasing number of white
settlers living on land that legally belonged to the Cherokee
Gov. Blount decided to negotiate a settlement with the Cherokee
Nation near a place where the Holston enters the Tennessee River
and to end the growing dispute that would have definitely ended
in war. This brought him once again to the growing settlement
around James Whites Fort. The political nature of Blount
shone through at what became known as the "Treaty of the
Holston". More than 1,200 Cherokee watched the signing
of the treaty by 42 tribal chiefs that redrew the boundary lines
separating the Cherokee and the settlers. It was hailed as a
brilliant treaty for its day and credited with leading to the
decision of Gov. Blount to move his family to the Whites
Settlement, which he later named Knoxville, after his immediate
superior who was then-Secretary of War and Chief Administrator
of Indian Affairs Henry Knox. In the land lottery held in 1791,
Gov. Blount acquired lot number 18 and immediately began working
to build a proper city which would serve as the territory capitol.
Gov. Blount sent for his wife and children and the family lived
in a log cabin, while milled lumber and supplies were being
brought down river to begin working on a proper home for the
Governor. The house, which was the first frame home built west
of Southern Appalachia, held the growing community in awe and
people traveled for miles to watch its construction. Mary Blount
ordered flowers, herbs, and plants from North Carolina, in addition
to furniture and needed draperies and linens. Blount himself
worked diligently on his home sending letters to John Sevier
ordering glass windows and asking the future governor of Tennessee
help secure the shipments to Knoxville from Virginia. As the
home started taking shape, it quickly became one of the most
talked about buildings in the territory and Native Americans
throughout the region stood in awe of the two-story building,
which was something most had never seen before then. Numerous
outbuildings were also built to house the kitchen, servants
quarters, and his territorial office. Although Blount conducted
business there, it was his lavish home that became the centerpiece
of Knoxville. Guests from all walks of life visited the governor
and often stayed overnight. Mary Blount almost single-handedly
took hold of the young city and began developing a social life
and establishing a sense of community among its residents. Being
a frontier town, Knoxville was wide-open and there were few
laws in a town where brothels and taverns were the mainstay
of the economy. Her gracious nature fostered an air of respectability
about Knoxville that carried its own political weight and put
the young city in the international spotlight.
Through the years, rugged frontier men such as John Sevier,
future President Andrew Jackson, and Cherokee Chiefs would share
space with other notable historical figures like French botanist
Andre Michaux and future King of France Louis Phillipe to name
a few. The afternoon teas, lavish dinners, and general parties
always featured a whos who list that was the envy of many
east coast governors.
William Blounts work as governor continued and, while
it often put him at odds with the frontiersmen of the region,
Gov. Blount always received Native American leaders with the
pomp and circumstance that would be given a national leader
and issued an order to the territory that local militias could
only be used defensively against the Native American tribes.
Following his reappointment in 1793, Blount sensed an opportunity
to realize one of his lifetime professional goals of serving
as Senator of the United States.
In his first year of office, a governors census revealed
the territory had the 5,000 male population necessary to petition
for statehood, but Blount never organized a representative assembly
and instead focused on developing the region. Following the
opening of a road to Nashville in 1794, however, he did organize
the assembly and began working on statehood for the territory.
Blount took another census and found that more than 60,000 men
lived in the territory. A vote was held and a measure wanting
statehood for Tennessee passed by a two to one margin. In January
1796, Blount called the first Constitutional Convention in Knoxville.
Blount was chosen to preside over the committee and, when the
state constitution was drafted in Blounts office, it was
immediately taken to Philadelphia then serving as the
While national politics challenged the territorys request
for statehood in the Jefferson-Adams presidential election of
1796, Tennessee was admitted to the Union on June 1 of that
year with then-President George Washington signing the proclamation.
Tennessees admission set the standard for future states
and, after seven different names and forms of government, the
territory had achieved the status it long sought.
John Sevier became the first Governor, Andrew Jackson was elected
to represent Tennessee in Congress, William Cocke and William
Blount took the posts of U.S. Senators. Although realizing his
lifetime goal of being Senator, Blounts personal fortunes
started taking a tumble. His business interests began failing
and Blount transferred title of his Knoxville mansion to his
half-brother to avoid losing it to creditors. To make matters
worse, his vast real estate holdings in the western part of
the territory were being threatened by colonial politics on
the Mississippi River.
A rumor began spreading that Spain, which had claims to New
Orleans and Louisiana, was about to cede the holdings to France
in order to pay for its failing war efforts in Europe. Britain
was at war with France and Spain and America was officially
neutral in the conflict. If France and Spain cut a deal, it
could mean Americans would be denied use of the Mississippi,
which would abruptly halt westward expansion.
Across the street in Knoxville, Blounts neighbor, a tavern
keeper by the name of John Chisholm, had come up with a plan
that might protect Blounts land holdings. Chisholm, who
was a master of colonial intrigue, told Blount he could help
organize an expedition of frontiersmen and Indians that could
aid Britain in seizing the City of New Orleans and keep the
Mississippi River region open and secure for settlement
maintain property values in the west.
Blount wrote a letter about the plan to a friend, but wind of
the rumor had spread and the letter suspiciously ended up in
the hands of then-President John Adams.
The President was still upset over the fact that Tennessee had
given its three national delegates to Thomas Jefferson in the
presidential election and had no sympathy for anyone west of
the Appalachians. Adams was a supporter of a strong-centralized
government while Jefferson was in favor of less government and
that philosophy appealed to the independent minded Tennesseans,
who overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Virginian. That slap
in the face was enough to earn the political ire of Adams. Rather
than deal quietly with the Blount letter as most Presidents
would have done to avoid a crisis, on July 3, 1797 a day
before Independence Day celebrations President Adams
sent it to Congress where it was read aloud to the entire body,
including William Blount himself. The result was immediate and
five days later the Tennessean was expelled from the Senate
for the "Blount Conspiracy" by a vote of 25 to one
for daring to conspire with Britain in a war where America was
When Blount arrived on the outskirts of Knoxville disgraced,
he did not expect what he saw. A roar went up from a huge crowd
led by James White, who was waiting there for him. A troop of
cavalry joined the cheering crowd in escorting Blount back to
his home in Knoxville. Tennesseans, like everyone else in the
region, were dependent on the Mississippi River for their developing
economy and supported the Chisholm plan for securing the region.
Many felt that President Adams and the majority of the Congress
were too "colony oriented" and cared little for America
west of the Appalachians. A Senate trial was convened in Philadelphia
to officially impeach Blount from office and a warrant for his
arrest was issued. The Sergeant-at-arms was dispatched to Knoxville
to take Blount into custody.
When the sergeant-at-arms arrived, he was welcomed into the
hospitality of the Blount home and stayed for several days enjoying
the comfort of the mansion. The officers unexpected treatment
confused him and he was further disconcerted when he tried to
arrange a posse to help him transport his prisoner back to Philadelphia.
Not one single person would help the sergeant-at-arms with his
task and he was informed there was no way he would leave Knoxville
with Blount. Although seen as over-educated, stuffy, and eccentric
by many in the city, he was one of their own and they would
have no part of taking him back to the nations capitol.
The sergeant-at-arms was forced to return without Blount to
The impeachment trial never truly got underway and was dismissed
on the grounds that Blount was no longer a Senator and thus
not subject to its jurisdiction. While the trial was underway,
Blount was already back in politics serving in the Tennessee
General Assembly replacing James White as Speaker of
the Senate. He continued his political career and was suddenly
struck with a fever in early 1800. On March 21 of that year,
50-year-old William Blount passed away. Although never regarded
in the genre of the colorful frontiersmen of his day, William
Blount had played the most integral role in pushing America
over the Southern Appalachian mountains and beginning a westward
expansion that would soon take the nation to the Pacific Coast.
He had fought in the Revolutionary War, served in the government
of North Carolina, twice been a delegate to the Continental
Congress, helped to write and sign the Constitution of the United
States, and been the driving force in the formation of the first
American state from federal property. His great wealth had dwindled
and, at the time of his death, he was virtually penniless. His
wife, who had never wanted to leave her family home in North
Carolina, remained at their Knoxville mansion until her death
two years later. She was laid to rest in the cemetery of the
First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville.
Mary Grainger Blount was as beloved by the people of the region
as was her husband. Grainger County, Tennessee was named in
her honor as was the city of Maryville. The county of Blount
was named in honor of William. A small college started on a
hill in the city was named Blount College in his honor and evolved
into what is known today as the University of Tennessee.
The Blount Mansion remained in the family for a good number
of years In 1827, following the death of Blounts oldest
son, the home passed out of the family. It still remained the
center of Knoxville social life as it served as the residence
of two city mayors. During the Civil War years, it served as
a hotel and boarding house for such notables as Confederate
spy Belle Boyd.
In 1925, the Blount mansion was slated to be razed by the city
for downtown redevelopment. Citizens of Knoxville rallied around
the home and worked long hours raising money to purchase the
house and lands and begin developing it into a historic site
commemorating the life of William Blount and the birth of Tennessee.
They formed the Blount Mansion Association and began working
to restore the house to its original condition.
Through the years, the Blount Mansion has become regarded as
one of the best historical sites in East Tennessee and was eventually
recognized as a National Historic Landmark. It hosts numerous
annual educational programs showcasing the life and times of
18th century Knoxville. Over the past few years, University
of Tennessee archaeologists have been holding a summer program
where children can help participate in the excavations.
"The Blount Mansion," said Tennessee historian Sylvia
Lynch, " is one of the most underrated historical sites
in the South. Inside its compound lays the true story of Tennessee
that many people have forgotten over the years. From the days
of James Whites Fort to today, it has remained a vibrant
part of the community and is an almost-perfect looking glass
into Tennessees and Knoxvilles past."
The Blount Mansion is open daily for tours. A small admission
is charged with reduced rates for students.
For more information, you can contact the Blount Mansion office
at (865) 525-2375.