Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
This spring season marks the 200th anniversary of the Town of Franklin’s official birth. In 1820, Native Americans still occupied areas along the Little Tennessee River, where there is now a greenway, a park, a brewery, and more. In 1820, states were beginning to battle it out through legislation, such as the Missouri Compromise, to establish where everyone stood on the tense issue of slavery. And, the population in America had grown by 33 percent in 10 years; close to 10 million people resided in the United States in 1920.
And, in 1920, more Europeans (especially of Irish and Scottish descent), as well as families who formerly resided in Charleston, S.C., and the Northeast, were moving into this soil-rich and visually beautiful area. It is because of the increase in population that prompted in 1920 local commissioners Jesse Franklin and James Meabin to undergo the task of “organizing” the new territory into a true town. These two men appointed Robert Love, (1760-July 1845), a Patriot in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, as chief of the survey party that mapped the land in late spring 1820. The first land sale took place on Sept. 20, 1820, and after that, the settlement proceeded rapidly for what became known as Franklin, named for Jesse Franklin, who served as a N.C. senator (1799-1805; 1807-1813) and as the state’s 20th governor (1820-1821).
The original survey included the courthouse and public square forming the center of the Town of Franklin, with 20 narrow, one-acre lots lined up along Main Street. Land was set aside throughout another 400 surrounding acres for churches, schools, and commercial and residential use.
Other than the town’s oldest existing buildings dating back to the late 1800s, instead of the 1820s, not much about the original plan for the Town of Franklin has changed. The town square and courthouse continue to be central to entertainment and government activities. Most business spaces on Main Street are occupied.
In the early 1900s, the Tallulah Falls Railroad established a 58-mile line that ran from Cornelia, Ga., through Rabun County – past Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School – to end on what is now Depot Street in Franklin. The train line brought residents and visitors, but passenger service ended in 1946. Prior to the automobile becoming commonplace, people traveled to and from Franklin on horseback, by horse-drawn wagon or carriage, or on foot. After the automobile, wagon trails and footpaths from the coast, Northeast, and West became established roads to Franklin.
Thus, while there were only a few dozen families who established homes and livelihoods in the 1820s in Franklin, the population of the town grew to 335 by 1900, and by 1930 surpassed 1,000. The current population of the Town of Franklin is more than 4,000.
In 1920, areas just outside of Franklin, in what would become Macon County eight years after the surveying of the town, were also formerly established. For example, Samuel Smith, a pioneer to the area, purchased a tract roughly 10 miles outside of Franklin, known as the Tesenta Town (Tessentee), which was an old Cherokee village site. It was there that he and his family established a significant farm and what was known as the Smithbridge Township. Other families followed suit; and, although they did not live inside the original surveyed lands of the Town of Franklin, they traveled to Franklin for goods, services, trading, and to keep up with state and world news.
Of course, before being named Franklin in 1820, the area for centuries was called Nikwasi by the Cherokee. Nikwasi means “center of activity,” and the mound protruding upwards at the entrance of Franklin at the bridge that crosses the Tennessee River is where the hub of activity took place for many generations. According to NChome.com, the area of Franklin was officially part of the Cherokee Nation until 1819, when the Cherokees signed the Treaty of Washington and rights to lands as far west as the Nantahala Ridge were ceded.
During the surveying of the Town of Franklin, aspects of the treaty were not respected; yet, many of the names of roads and waterways and mountains and trails throughout Franklin and Macon County maintain Native names so that residents in modern times will remember that prior to 1820, the landscape and culture was entirely different.