Smith County History: Creation of the County

October 29, 2020

The following is an excerpt from the Smith County History Book. The book was published in 1986 by Smith County Homecoming ’86 Heritage Committee. To purchase a digital copy of the Smith County History Book, contact the Smith County Chamber of Commerce or the Smith County Heritage Museum. 

Article by Sue W. Maggart

The great population explosion that surged eastward up the Cumberland from the old settlements grouped around Fort Nashborough as well as the mass migration westward from the older states began to create a problem. By 1799 the eastern portion of Sumner County, which had been sub-divided from Davidson County by the General As­sembly of North Carolina in 1786 and included all of what is now Smith County and much of the Upper Cumberland, had become heavily populated as all of the good lands were taken up. All able-bodied men were required to attend the monthly muster of militia, and all taxes and court business had to be transacted at the county seat which was located in now Sumner County. Many people resided over one hundred miles away, and traveling by horseback on the poor roads and trails created a hardship for those who had business in “town.”

Petitions began to be circulated in the out­ lying areas asking the Tennessee State Legislature to establish a new county. The petition circulated in the area that was to become Smith County begged leave “to state some of the hardships labored under in our Constitution, many of us having to attend Courts and General Assembly and other Public Meetings at the distance of sixty and seventy miles.” Some of those signing the petition with names identified with Smith County were: T. Dixon, Grant Allen, P. Turney, Will Sanders, Dan Burford, David Cockron, Isam Beasley, Thomas Bowman, William Haynie, Henry McKinney, Matthew Harper, John Fisher, Henry Sadler, Joel Dyer, John Chambers, Michael Murphy, Josiah Payne, William Anderson.

Consequently, a legislative act passed October 26, 1799, created the new county of Smith. The county was named for General Daniel Smith, a native o f Virginia and one o f the commissioners who surveyed the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina. He subsequently served as a United States Senator from Tennessee. His home, Rock Castle, still stands on a point overlooking Old Hickory Lake near Hendersonville.

When first established Smith County covered a large territory. As first laid out by the legislature in 1799, the line began on the “ south bank of the Cumberland River at the south end of the eastern boundary of Sumner County, thence north with the said eastern boundary, to the northern boundary of the state, thence east to where it is intersected by the Cherokee boundary as established by the Treaty of Holston, thence with that boundary to the Caney Fork following its meanders to the south thereof, thence down the south bank of the Cumberland River according to its meanders to the mouth thereof to the beginning.” Thus, Smith County originally contained portions o f what later became Trousdale, Dekalb, Putnam, Jackson, Clay, and most of Macon counties. The same Act that created Smith also established Wilson County, and all of the land west of the Caney Fork and south of the Cumberland River was in that county.

The boundaries have been changed num­erous times over the years to reduce Smith County to its present size. On November 6, 1801, Jackson County was cut off from Smith, reducing the eastern portion, but a legislative Act extended the western boundary to include those lands lying south of the Cumber­ land that were previously in Wilson County. The same session of the legislature extended the county southward to the Tennessee/Alabama line, causing its borders to extend from the northern to the southern boundaries of the State. By the Act of 1805 the county was reduced to Constitutional limits of six hun­dred and twenty-five square miles when the boundary line between Smith and Jackson was moved west approximately five miles. This caused Fort Blount to then become a part of Jackson County. In 1836 the county of Cannon was established and fifteen square miles of the southern portion of Smith was attached to the new county. A year later in 1837, when DeKalb County was created, this portion was incorporated into that county. Macon County was created in 1842, reducing the northern border of Smith County from the Kentucky line “south to Wartrace Creek thence west, crossing the head of Defeated Creek near John Carter’s and thence to the West Fork of Goose Creek.” In 1870 a tract in the northwestern part of the county was cut off to form a portion of Trousdale County.

Smith County boundaries in 1804 which included the area from the Kentucky border, south to Liberty, and from Hartsville to the western borders of present-day counties of Clay, Jackson, Putnam, and White. (Courtesy of Vernon Roddy).

The Private Act was often used as a means for transferring parcels of land from one county to another. In many instances bound­ary lines would bisect an individual landown­er’s property, placing him under the jurisdic­tion of two counties. Numerous changes of this type have affected the lines of Smith County. The Acts of 1845-1850 moved the farms belonging to Nicholas Smith, Andrew Vantrease, John Robinson, and John F. Goodner out of Smith and into Dekalb. In 1851-1852 the line was moved to include wholly within DeKalb the lands of H.H. Sullivan, John Corley, and William H. Chris­tian. The farms belonging to J.F.Goodner, James Goodner, Louisa D. Dowell, William Floyd, Lucy Preston, Jacob Measles, William Grindstaff, and Martin Foutch were moved out of Smith and into the first district of Dekalb County, in Acts of 1857-1858. The boundary between Putnam and Smith was changed by Acts of 1867-1868 to include the lands of M.M. Crowell, Mary Brown, Susan Cardwell, J.C. Apple, and G.W. Apple into Smith County. This land was originally in Smith then Jackson then Putnam and back into Smith. In 1895 all the lands of W.R. and D.E. Seay and E.C. Harris were detached from Smith and attached to Wilson County. As late as 1939 an Act moved forty acres of a farm owned by D.E. Seay, Sr. out of Smith and into Wilson, it being known as the “old Hinson or Seay place.” The foregoing illus­trate only a few of the adaptations to the boundaries of the county. Reference is made to the Private Acts of the State of Tennessee which document all boundary changes since 1799.

As directed by the legislative Act of 1799 which created Smith County, a court of pleas and quarter sessions was to be held on the third Monday of December, March, June and September. The court continued under this name until 1836 when it was succeeded by the Quarterly Court. The first court was to meet at the house of Major Tilman Dixon and after that “ at such place as the court shall adjourn to.” As decreed, on December 16, 1799, the first court convened at the home of Major Dixon near Dixon Springs: the justices of the peace were Garrett Fitzgerald, William Alex­ander, James Gwinn, Tilman Dixon, Thomas Harrison, James Hibbitts, Peter Turney, and William Walton. Garrett Fitzgerald was elected chairman and Moses Fisk Clerk pro tempore. The next day the following officers were elected: Sampson Williams, clerk; John Martin, sheriff; Charles F. Mobias, coroner; James Gwinn, trustee; Daniel Burford, regis­ter; Bazel Shaw, ranger; Benjamin Sewell, State’s attorney. Amos Lacy, Silas Jonokin, Robert Cotton, James Strain, James Wright, William Levington, and Henry Huddleston were appointed as constables. One of the first acts of the court was to set the rates to be charged by tavern keepers: good whiskey and brandy, 12 1/2 cents per half pint; for corn and oats 12 1/2 cents by the gallon; two bundles of fodder 2 pence; pasturage for twenty-four hours, 12 1/2 cents; lodging 6 1/4 cents. The court then granted a license to Tilman Dixon for keeping a tavern at his house. The first license for keeping a ferry issued by the Smith County court was at this session when Edmond Jennings was granted leave to operate a ferry at the mouth of Jennings’ Creek.

The court next conducted business in March, 1800, again at the dwelling house of Tilman Dixon. At this term the bounty on wolf scalps was set at one dollar. (By 1804 the bounty had risen to two dollars per scalp). Several persons came forth and had their stock marks recorded, a custom that allowed owners to identify their stock as it ran with that of his neighbors on the unoccupied lands. David Venters was granted the right to build a mill on Goose Creek, and William Saunders a saw and grist-mill on Dixon’s Creek. The county was divided into military rather than civil districts, and these divisions were also used for tax purposes. Assessors were appointed to list the taxable property in each Captain’s company of the militia. For the year 1800 Garrett Fitzgerald was appoint­ ed for the Flinn Creek company; Charles Hudgspath for the Obed and Roaring River company; William Walton for Captain Vance’s company; Peter Turney for the Peyton Creek company; Thomas Harmand for Captain Pate’s company, Tilman Dixon for Captain Bradley’s company; James Hibbitts for Captain Gwinn’s company.

Also at the March 1800 term, the first grand jury in Smith County was impaneled. Those appointed to serve were: Grant Allen, Willis Haynie, John Barkley, James Draper, William Pate, Anthony Samuel, James Ballow, William Kelton, Daniel Mungle, John Crosswhite, Thomas Jamison and Nat Rid­ley.