Touching Washington County's valuable history

Washington County Archivist Ned Irwin and Donna Cox Briggs, assistant archivist, open the door to the old jail in the Washington County Courthouse where improvements have been made to hold county records and documents.

The Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition of 1897 was a huge event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the state’s entry into the union and featuring more than 100 buildings spread over 200 acres in Nashville, including an exact replica of the Greek Parthenon which still stands.

Counties contributed in various ways to the event, and Washington County — the state’s first — appropriately lent history to display on this historic occasion. Its documents included the first minutes of the Washington County Court in the handwriting of John Sevier, its first clerk, and Deed Book A, an 1830s copy of the county’s original deed book created between 1717 and 1782.

The state returned these valuable documents, some not initially and some only after the county pressed for the records back. But not the deed book, which should rest where Tennessee’s history began.

In 1772, the Watauga Association, a semi-autonomous government created by settlers, met with and leased lands belonging to the Cherokee at Sycamore Shoals at Elizabethton. Three years later it also was the site of the Transylvania purchase, conducted between the Cherokee and a North Carolina land baron, Richard Henderson, who bought large tracts of land in the area.

The same year the Watauga Association was reorganized as the “Washington District,” allied with the colonies that were declaring independence from Great Britain. Washington, Sullivan and Greene counties were formed as western counties of North Carolina between 1777 and 1788 but were largely ignored by the state. In 1784, they formed the breakaway State of Franklin with John Sevier as governor. That was short-lived, and in 1796 Tennessee became a state.

Considering this tremendous history, it is all but inconceivable that Northeast Tennessee does not have a major historical museum to display it, including the 4,252 boxes and 3,674 bound volumes covering British rule to the early 21st century now being held in the Washington County Archives Building in downtown Jonesborough. The material comprises nearly two linear miles — except for Deed Book A.

Washington County wants it back and has every legal right to it. The region should join in that demand. After 120 years, it’s time Deed Book A was returned home.