Knoxville can connect to almost all of American history in one way or another. One of the first occupants of the frontier settlement was a signer of the U.S. Constitution. But we don’t celebrate the signing of the Constitution. We only celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It poses a problem in Knoxville’s Universal Relevance theory. The founding of our country happened 15 years before the founding of our city. Worse, even though the Fourth was the first holiday Knoxvillians ever celebrated in any memorable way—Fourth of July fireworks came decades before Christmas trees in Knoxville—it’s not clear how patriotic Knoxville’s founding fathers were. Several of Knoxville’s earliest citizens were accused of sundry treasonous plots against the interests of the earliest U.S. governments. Among them were John Sevier, who flirted with Spain, and Constitution-signer William Blount, who seems to have tended a flame for his first love, Great Britain. I get the impression that at times, in spite of the fireworks, many of the first Knoxvillians thought of the United States of America as a pointy-headed East Coast thing. The highly principled New Republic could seem pretty theoretical on this side of the mountains.
Tennessee had no delegates at the Declaration signing. Not yet known as such, “Tennessee” was, more or less, Western North Carolina in 1776. The river bluff that would become Knoxville was not unknown; by then, English-speaking flatboatmen had been poling past it for at least 30 years. But the influential patriots were mostly on the coast. A few signers would interact with Knoxville by long distance. John Adams knew some Knoxvillians, and was certainly aware of what was, during his administration, the newest state’s capital. Likewise with Thomas Jefferson, who would later send a letter to a Knoxville address offering advice about establishing a college here. (For one thing, he considered using a lottery to fund higher education to be a crappy idea.) Neither ever visited. Nor did the other famous signers, the John Hancocks and Sam Adamses, except on life-insurance policies and beer labels.
Though Knoxville didn’t exist in 1776, within 15 years it was kind of a big deal, an administrative capital visited by statesmen. If any signer ever had any personal connection to Knoxville, I figured, he might be among those who represented the Southern colonies at the Philadelphia convention.
From the four colonies near the future state of Tennessee—Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia—17 Southerners signed the Declaration. We can be sure that most of them never saw Gay Street, for one pertinent reason. The 18th-century South was not a particularly healthy place to live. Though the 17 Southern delegates were mostly young men, average age 39 in 1776, 10 were dead before the founding of Knoxville just 15 years later. Of the North Carolina delegation who ostensibly represented our region that summer in Philadelphia, none lived to see the age of 50, or to hear of an accumulation called Knoxville.
Likeliest Knoxvillian: "Geo. Walton."
On the actual document, the first name you come to, at the upper right hand of the signers’ space, was also the first signer to die. Button Gwinnett of Georgia was shot less than a year after signing, in a duel with a fellow revolutionary. His was the most dramatic end. Others were dispatched by random fevers. Of the few who survived, all lived in the Atlantic seaboard parts of their respective states. This part of the country was hard to get to unless you had a few weeks to kill, strength to pole a flatboat through the Alleghenies, or the posterior constitution for a long horseback ride—and a compelling reason.
The likeliest Knoxville visitor was the third name down on the left-hand side of that famous parchment, two below Gwinnett’s: “Geo. Walton.” Born to an undistinguished family in central Virginia and originally apprenticed to be a carpenter, he moved to Savannah, studied law, and represented his colony in Philadelphia. In the new state of Georgia, George Walton became a governor, senator, and judge, even though he had enemies who didn’t want to forget his complicated subterfuge in a wartime power struggle that may have played a role in the death of Button Gwinnett.
Walton’s brief stint as a U.S. Senator coincided with the state constitutional convention’s meeting in Knoxville in 1796. Later, he was commissioned to negotiate a new treaty with the Cherokee, who lived in a confederacy of villages along the Little Tennessee, about 30 miles southwest of Knoxville. The U.S. government maintained a fort there, the Tellico Blockhouse. Knoxville was then the capital of the state, and the biggest settlement near Tellico. Most Tellico-bound travelers stopped in Knoxville long enough to say howdy.
Sure enough, on April 23, 1798, Tennessee Gov. John Sevier announced in a circular that among the diplomats who would be arriving imminently to negotiate a treaty with the Cherokee would be one George Walton, of Georgia. He was apparently trying to impress his fellow Tennesseans that the negotiating team members were trustworthy, “gentlemen of high respectability” and of “known patriotism.” You’d think it might have helped his case to mention that one of them was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Maybe Sevier didn’t remember that detail.
On May 18, Sevier jotted, in his terse, businesslike diary, “Colo. Walton arrived escorted into town by the light horse.” No Knoxville newspapers from that time survive to suggest much more about that visit, which probably wasn’t the only one that year.
On July 4 of that year, Sevier wrote a letter to Walton and his colleagues, without making any reference to the significance of the date, or of his addressee.
Walton and another commissioner, Thomas Butler, completed negotiations and signed the First Treaty of Tellico—basically a land purchase, Cherokee land to the U.S. for cash and peace—on Oct. 2, 1798, somewhere near the Tellico Blockhouse, the remains of which are still visible there, near Tellico Lake. It would be remembered, by some, as Walton’s Treaty.