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County's Namesake - Joseph McMinn

Updated: Jun 30, 2022

In 1819, as Governor Joseph McMinn was serving his third term, the treaty of 1819, or The Hiwassee Purchase, was negotiated in Washington.

This treaty ceded all remaining Cherokee claims north of the Tennessee and Hiwassee River, except a narrow strip in the mountains along the North Carolina Line, between the Hiwassee and the Little Tennessee Rivers. After 1819, the Cherokee Nation in Tennessee was restricted to the extreme southeast corner of the state, which is the present Polk and Bradley counties, plus that part of Hamilton County south and east of the Tennessee River. In order to organize the lands acquired by this treaty, Hamilton, Monroe, and McMinn Counties were established in 1819.

Joseph McMinn, as a member of the convention of 1796 to frame the constitution of Tennessee, insisted a Bill of Rights be incorporated into the document. He carried a copy of the new Tennessee constitution to President Washington.

It was only fitting that one of the new counties be named McMinn, after the present governor and the man who had himself negotiated the treaty by which the Cherokees ceded vast tracts in East Tennessee.

Tennessee Constitution

Joseph McMinn was born on June 22, 1758 in West Marlborough Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, the fifth of ten children of Robert and Sarah (Harlan) McMinn. Early in life he settled as a farmer in the region that was to be Hawkins County, Tennessee. He served in public office for more than a quarter of a century, being a member of the territorial legislature of 1794 and a member of the convention of 1796 which met in Knoxville to frame the constitution of the State of Tennessee. It was upon McMinn's insistence that a bill of rights was incorporated in this document. It was McMinn who carried a copy of the new constitution to President Washington.

McMinn served almost continuously in the first eight general assemblies of the state and was speaker of the Senate for three times. He defeated four other candidates for governor in 1815, and was re-elected to the gubernatorial post in 1817 and 1819.

Some historians are not kind to the gentleman, and in one volume he is described as "not particularly suited for carrying out the duties and responsibilities of Governor. He was painstaking, but without the ability to foresee political events ...His personal honesty and integrity have never been questioned, but he lacked foresight and business judgment."

One of McMinn's major problems as governor was the presence of Indians within the borders of Tennessee. McMinn felt it "an justice to withhold lands from out fellow citizens - to serve Cherokees and Chickasaws for a hunting ground". While he was governor, the Chickasaws ceded their claims to the Western third of the state and later came the treaty with the Cherokees in the East.

Financial Panic of 1819

Another problem of great magnitude which McMinn faced was the financial panic of 1819. The years following the War of 1812 were boom years for Tennessee as well as in other Southern states. Also, as Indian territory was ceded, more land was available for cultivation and more cotton was produced. The price of land soared and land was purchased on credit at high prices. Paper money was in abundance and new, "wild cat" banks sprang up in great number, and were subject to few restrictions.

Suddenly, in 1819, the price of cotton dropped, and about everything else dropped also.

McMinn suggested that the state issue treasury certificates and put them in use by means of a loan office. In 1820, a bill was passed to establish a Bank of the State of Tennessee (the second Bank of Tennessee to be established). This new bank became known as the "Saddle Bags Bank" on account of there being one in each county. The "Saddle Bags Bank" had trouble from the first, for the people of Tennessee felt no confidence in it. Old state banks refused to cooperate with the new loan office institution.

Finally, after several years, the Union Bank, a sound, well-organized institution was established, under Governor William Carroll in 1831.

McMinn as Governor

Governor McMinn was the first executive to suggest the establishment of a state penitentiary. He was strong in his support of improved education in the state and river improvement, as and advancement to navigation, was another of his proposals.

He was married three times, to Hannah Cooper of Pennsylvania; to Rebecca Kincaid of Hawkins County and to Nancy Williams of Roane County, Tennessee, whom he sought unsuccessfully to divorce.

At the close of his third term as Governor, McMinn purchased a farm at Rogersville and became the proprietor of a small grocery store and tavern.

It has been reported in some histories compiled concerning McMinn that following his governorship he moved to Calhoun, where on the Hiwassee River he farmed and operated a trading post and tavern. However, this apparently is in error. In 1823 he was appointed United States agent to the Cherokees, a position that he retained until his death.

In that capacity he came to Calhoun, where he was in charge of the Cherokee agency across the Hiwassee River.

During his stay at Calhoun, McMinn joined the membership of the Presbyterian Church there, and had requested that he be buried in the cemetery near the church.

According to records from the McMinn family Bible, the ex-governor was "afflicted with dropsy and suffered a great deal."

At the time of his death, November 17, 1824, McMinn, while writing at his desk at the Indian Agency where Charleston now is located, "fell back stricken with dropsy of the heart...His faithful body servant Dave, was the only person present when he died."

The state of Tennessee erected a marker at his grave site, on a little knoll near the old Presbyterian Church, which reads:

"Erected by the State of Tennessee in memory of Governor Joseph McMinn, born in West Chester, PA, June 22, 1758."

It was said of Governor McMinn after his death that he had many public friends and professed admirers, and perhaps, his leading foible was too great anxiety to preserve them and increase their numbers. In private life, he was mild, his manners conciliating, his integrity undisputed.


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