Middle Tennessee History Coalition

7 minutes reading time (1363 words)

Cumberland Compact: Beginnings of Democracy or a simple contract?

The Cumberland Compact has long been portrayed romantically as the beginning of democratic government in the early settlements in middle Tennessee. It is even viewed by some as the glue that held the settlements together under great duress and others as the foundation of the Tennessee State Constitution.  There is much to be admired about the early settlers of middle Tennessee. They were hardy, self-reliant, people who gambled everything for a chance at prosperity.   So it is not surprising that anything they did would be looked on with some reverence.

In-depth research of the early Middle Tennessee settlements began, and for the most part, ended between 1823 and 1928. Much of it was conducted without the formal conventions of professional research adhered to today. Authors such as Henderson, Abernathy, and Putnam held these early settlers in reverence that they were unable to conceal in their writing. Henderson was a mathematician by trade, historian by hobby, and he didn’t even try to conceal his admiration. Chapter seventeen of his book The Conquest of the Old Southwest is full of phrases like “undimmed courage”, “bold foray”, and “indomitable backwoodsmen.” Much of the resource material I have encountered shares similar bias. Accounts of the settlement of the Cumberland abound with romantic accounts of brave pioneers surviving the wilderness and savages to carve out a life for their families.  

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I admire the determination and tenacity of these settlers. They persevered under extremely austere conditions. However, I believe the Cumberland Compact was simply a legal document. It put in writing a business agreement between Richard Henderson and 256 settlers, and most of its words are dedicated to handling land claims. Yes, it calls for the common defense.[1] This makes sense considering the hardships they faced, but this by itself hardly represents government. Yes, it allowed for the election of judges.[2]   This may be considered a rudimentary form of representation, and it clearly would have helped to maintain order and handle land disputes, thus providing a stable environment and encouraging additional settlement. This, I believe, was the true motivation for forming the Cumberland Compact; organization and structure in the settlement would lead to more profit for Richard Henderson and the Transylvania Company.

Many books and articles on the Cumberland settlements fail to do a detailed investigation of the land speculation during the period of settlement that led hundreds if not thousands of settlers to move to the area beginning in 1778. They also neglect the workings of the Transylvania Company, the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, and the inability of the Colonial and subsequently State governments, to keep settlers out of Indian lands (what we know as Middle Tennessee was claimed by several American Indian tribes as hunting grounds). All of these factors played a role in the settlement of the area and the subsequent admission of Davidson County into the State of North Carolina in 1783. It stands to reason that they had a significant impact on the decisions of the settlers.

When reviewing the Cumberland Compact itself as well as first-hand accounts of events provided by Lyman Draper, John Carr, and others, and North Carolina state records, the following questions came to mind: How closely was organization of the Cumberland settlements modeled after the Watauga settlements? What percentage of settlers present at the time of the signing of the Cumberland Compact actually signed it? How many settlers arriving in the months between the signing in May of 1780 and the state of North Carolina establishing the city of Nashville in June of 1784 signed the Cumberland Compact? How did the settlers themselves view the Cumberland Compact? These are hard questions to answer, but the evidence might be found in the lack of evidence itself.

The Transylvania Company is important to this story. The Cumberland Compact was in fact a Transylvania Company document with its primary intent being to administer the purchase of land by the Cumberland settlers from the Transylvania Company. Directly linked to this is the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals and its impact on the Cherokee Indians. The President of the Transylvania Company, Richard Henderson, is the same man who orchestrated this treaty, ostensibly purchasing 20 million acres of land from the Cherokee Indians encompassing most of present day Kentucky and part of present day Tennessee. It is an important foundation when studying the Cumberland settlements as this treaty opened the flood gates of settlement. However, many historians have looked at it in a simplistic fashion rather how it was interpreted by settlers bent on moving west as well as the response to it by the royal and then state governor.

 Richard Henderson first began his land speculation efforts in 1774, and in 1775, he concluded the aforementioned Treaty of Sycamore Shoals with the Cherokee Indian nation. In the same year, then Royal Governor Josiah Martin declared the purchase null and void.[3] With the beginning of the American Revolution perhaps colonists decided that the royal office could be ignored, perhaps they were willing to risk the consequences to escape the conflict. Either way, settlers began to flock to the region.

Shortly after arriving, 256 settlers signed the Cumberland Compact. The Compact made several stipulations. First, it established the “rules” for acquiring, claiming, and inheriting land. This was its primary function. Secondly, it established a rudimentary court system. Some say this was the beginnings of democratic government in the area as the judges were elected by the settlers. I believe it was merely a means to keep order as more and more settlers arrived. It makes sense that the fair and orderly acquisition of land would encourage more settlers to come. This in turn would lead to more profit for Richard Henderson’s Transylvania Company. The Cumberland Compact states “we think it reasonable and just that the twenty pounds, thirteen shillings and four pence current money per hundred acres, the price proposed by Richard Henderson, be paid…..”[4] It also calls for a petition to the North Carolina State government asking for aid and protection.[5] Finally, it is signed by 256 adult, white men. Included in the list of signees were Richard Henderson, Nathaniel Hart, John Donelson, and John Blackmore; each a partner in the Transylvania Company. Not a single signature was added after the original date of the signing. This in spite of the fact that the Compact explicitly states; “no person shall be admitted to make an entry for any land…or permitted to hold the same unless such person shall sign his name and conform to this our association…”[6]

Most writers on the subject assign to the Cumberland Compact the intent of establishing government. Clearly, there was value to the settlers. Only through working together would they be able to survive the hardships they faced. I believe there was other motivation behind the compact. Henderson wanted to encourage recognition by the state of North Carolina. With that recognition would come protection from Indian attacks, solidification of the legal aspects of the Cumberland Compact, and more settlers. Settlers equate to more profit for the Transylvania Company. Additionally, Henderson and company could pursue legal action against those who received land under the agreement should it become necessary.

So, maybe it was a little bit of both. Whatever the intent, I believe that it provided a sense of normalcy for the settlers. Maybe it provided the thin veil of civilization that they needed to survive. Whatever Henderson’s intent, the Cumberland Compact was the first attempt by the settlers to work together; submitting themselves to the jurisdiction of their peers and coming together for the common defense. Either way, we cannot argue with the results.


[1] Tennessee Historical Commission, Comp. Cumberland Compact. ( Nashville: Benson Printing Company, 1964) 5

[2] Tennessee Historical Commission, Comp. Cumberland Compact. ( Nashville: Benson Printing Company, 1964) 2

[3] Martin, Josiah. Proclamation by Josiah Martin concerning an agreement between the Transylvania Company and the Cherokee Nation (February, 1775)

[4] Tennessee Historical Commission, Comp. Cumberland Compact. ( Nashville: Benson Printing Company, 1964) 3

[5] Tennessee Historical Commission, Comp. Cumberland Compact. ( Nashville: Benson Printing Company, 1964) 8

[6] Tennessee Historical Commission, Comp. Cumberland Compact. ( Nashville: Benson Printing Company, 1964) 7

The Great Indian Warpath


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