Smith County History: Establishment of the County Seat

November 5, 2020

The following is an excerpt from the Smith County History Book. The book was published in 1986 by the 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

No permanent county seat was established during the first years of the county’s exis­tence. The court continued to meet at Tilman Dixon’s at Dixon Springs through the June Term, 1800. The fourth term was held September, 1800, at Michael Murphy’s on Peyton’s Creek at the present Pleasant Shade. In December, 1800, the court moved to Sampson Williams’ place at Fort Blount. Ensuing meetings were rotated among the dwellings of Dixon, William Saunders, Wil­liam Walton, Peter Turney and Murphy.

In 1801 the General Assembly had passed an Act directing that a town to be called Smithfield be established as the county seat of Smith County. For some reason the appointed commissioners failed to take any action. In 1803 two petitions were submitted to the legislature citing the “ inconveniences and disadvantages arising from the moving and unsettled situation of the courts and other public county meetings” and asking that some suitable location be selected as a permanent county seat. As a result, in October 1803, an Act was passed appointing James Draper, James Gwinn, John Gordon, Joseph Collins, and Henry Tooley commis­sioners to establish a county seat to be called Livingston. Forty acres of land was pur­chased for $384 from Henry Tooley on the north side of the river in what is now Cage’s Bend, and the town was duly laid out and lots advertised for sale. Apparently there was dissatisfaction with this location and/or the acts of the commissioners so, in August 1804, an Act was passed repealing the previous Act. The abandonment of Livingston was costly to the tax payers because materials had already been assembled for building the courthouse. The December 1804 term of court allowed Gay Reynolds the sum of $659.61 for materials furnished by him for the construction o f public buildings.

The Act of August 1804 which repealed the establishment of Livingston directed that an election by the general vote was to be held at the house of William Walton “ for the purpose of determining . . . a suitable place for the purpose of erecting a courthouse, prison and stocks; which place shall be either on the tract of land on which Colonel William Saunders lived, immediately previous to his death or on the tract of land on which Colonel William Walton now lives.” The town was to be named Carthage. Thus, the third attempt to locate a permanent seat of government for the county was initiated as the voters were to decide between Walton’s Ferry and the already established Town of Bledsoesborough.

The legend surrounding the election of 1804 that elevated Walton’s Ferry from just another river crossing to the county seat gives an interesting insight into the ribald politics of the time. The opposing parties of perhaps the first serious political contest in the county’s history were led by two prominent men. William Walton, who, naturally, supported the location at the ferry where he owned the land was the leader of one party. William Martin, being a resident and having interest in the development of the area around Bledsoesborough, was the leader of the opposition.

No official record of the election remains, so the most reliable report available is that of Dr. John Bowen as related through his columns in the Carthage newspaper. Dr. Bowen married Fannie, a daughter of John Gordon, one of the chief participants in the election, so it can be presumed that his account came from his father-in-law. The election, which went on for three days, was held at the house of William Walton. Follow­ ing is Bowen’s report of the incidents of that most exciting election:

“Colonel Walton furnished unlimited supplies of venison, beef and barbecued bear meat, nor was a full supply of whiskey lacking. Parties between the two places were nearly equalled divided. The contest was fierce, and for a long time doubtful. The Bledsoesborough people called the Caney Fork men “the Moccasin gang;” they retali­ated by naming their opponents “the pole­ cats.” In the forenoon of the last day, the polecats took possession of the polls and raised the defiant shout of victory. Nothing daunted however, the moccasin gang formed a solid column, pushed the head of it to the voting place and stood while their friends walked over their shoulders to vote. Victory, at the close, was found perched upon the standard of the moccasins, and the county seat of Smith became Carthage.”

Bowen credits the victory to the personal popularity of Colonel Walton and his abun­dant supply of refreshments! However, there may have been some “back room” politics here, too. In reviewing the court minutes for the period, one might suspect that our forefathers were not above a little political intrigue and maneuvering. John Gordon was one of the commissioners appointed to lay off the town of Livingston in 1803, but, for some reason, he refused to work with the commit­ tee. Less than a year later he was aligned with Walton in support of the county govern­ment’s being located at the ferry. Also, he probably had enough influence with voters on his side of the river to persuade many to vote “ right.” About this time his own political star began to rise as he was appointed Deputy Sheriff in December 1804. Across the politi­cal fence among the losing faction, Grant Allen, who lived near Bledsoesborough, was originally appointed one of the commissioners to lay off the town of Carthage when the location was decided upon, resigned his position. Dr. Charles F. Mobias, Coroner, who also lived in the western part of the county, resigned his job in December 1804. Whether the resignations were because “ to the victor go the spoils” or for other reasons will probably never be revealed. However, Dr. Bowen says “ there was ill blood on both sides for years, and many a fight occurred between them in consequence when they would meet at Carthage.”

After the location for the county seat had been chosen by the voters, a definite site for the town of Carthage had to be determined. The Act of August 1804 which decreed the holding of the election had also designated Grant Allen (Willis Jones was appointed after Allen resigned), Benjamin Johns, and Wilson Cage as commissioners to select and purchase a site and to lay out a town thereon, and to sell the lots and appropriate the proceeds for the payment of the land and the erection of public buildings. Goodspeed relates in his History of Tennessee that during the winter of 1805 the commissioners “ laid out the town of Carthage and sold the lots thereof . . .”

Work on the first courthouse which sat on the court square of Carthage, dominating a knoll which overlooks the Cumberland River, was begun in 1805. The building was situated about four feet forward and four feet to the south of the present courthouse. This allowed ample room for the “muster grounds” which dominated every court square. The house was constructed of brick and was about fifty feet square, with four offices and a hall on the first floor, and two offices and the courtroom on the second. There were large wood-burning fireplaces in all the rooms. In March, 1806, the court of pleas and quarter sessions assembled for the first time in the new building. Not only was the house used for court business but also for religious services. In 1834 the court granted permission to the Carthage Presbyterian Church to use the upper room of the courthouse for Divine Worship. Any other denominations were free to use the building when the Presbyterians were not having worship. The members of the court were not insensitive to the beauty of the grounds because in 1835 $20.00 was appro­priated for planting trees on the public square.

For three quarters of a century the old courthouse served the county’s needs. By 1875 its condition had become such that a committee was appointed by the court to investigate the propriety of erecting a new building. Those on the committee were B.A. James, G.H. Glass, C.W. West, J.C. Apple, R.H. Cato, John P. Carter, and John A. Fite. In January 1876 the committee reported that in their opinion there was a “pressing neces­sity for a new courthouse. The present building is unsafe and dangerous to hold court in as can easily be seen by an inspection of the walls and foundations.” Thus, the justices voted to construct a new courthouse “ respectable in appearance – one the people can justly be proud of.” The cost was not to exceed $18,000 and was to be paid off in three years.

The Smith County Courthouse as it appeared in 1909, showing the original construction with two doors in front and a wire fence around the yard.

Judge John A. Fite was the general super­intendent of the building and Henry C. Jackson of Murfreesboro was the contractor. The courthouse is of the Second Empire architectural style. When first built the front of the building was a little different; there were two front doors instead of one and two sets of steps.

The meticulous care with which the plans and specifications were drawn up for the new building resulted in a stately edifice of which, over one hundred years later, the people may still be “justly proud.” The walls were built of good hard brick and, after completion, were cleaned and washed off with apple vinegar and penciled down with white lime. Wainscoting of black walnut and yellow pine three feet in height was put up around all rooms, including the courtroom. Stair rails and banisters were of three inch fancy turned black walnut. The mansard roof was covered with Vermont Slate of purple and green color. In April of 1877 the court voted that the old, original courthouse be torn down by the work house crew. The rock and brick were to be neatly stacked and sold, and the rubbish was to be used in leveling the yard of the new building.

In January, 1879, the building committee reported to the court that “instead of an old and dangerous barn, the county of Smith can now boast of having not only the handsomest but the best Courthouse in the State.” The court voted to remunerate Judge Fite $250 for his services as superintendent, but he declined the money, requesting that the court administer it in assistance to the poor.

In the 1970s well over $200,000 was spent renovating the historic old building. On May 5, 1979, the Smith County Courthouse was entered in the Tennessee Historical Commis­sion’s National Register of Historic Places.

The first jail in the county is thought to have sat on the southwest corner of the court square behind the courthouse. It was built about 1812 by James Walton and was made of logs and contained two rooms, one above the other. Stocks were erected and a whipping post was set up, probably at the same time the courthouse was built. They were a requirement of the times because all criminal offenses, such as perjury, horse stealing, burglary, and theft were punished at the whipping post. A certain number of lashes, according to the seriousness of the crime, but not more than thirty-nine, were laid on the bare back. For horse stealing there was an additional punishment of standing in the stocks three hours for three successive days, and being branded with a hot iron with the letter “H.T.” The punishment for the second offense was death; there is no record in Smith County of anyone’s ever being convicted for the second time. In those days there were no penitentiaries, and all punish­ment was meted out on the local level.

In 1839 a new jail was built with Thomas W. Wooten being the lowest bidder for the contract. This jail may have been located across and down the street on Second Avenue on or near the site of succeeding structures.

In 1906 a fine brick jail house was con­structed with adequate facilities for housing the felons and lawbreakers as well as the sheriff and his family. Women’s quarters were later added to the building. This jail was situated on Second Avenue near where the present jail is located, and is well remem­bered by many residents of the county. Bill Allred was the builder of the structure which cost $6,500, including equipment. L.A. Ligon was chairman of the building committee.

The building was thought to be almost escape proof, but the builders didn’t figure on the ingenuity of the prisoners. The first breakout came when inmates tunneled through the ceiling. A later breakout came when a hole was hacked through the concrete floor to a room below. Numerous other escapes came when the bars were sawed through.

The present modern jail replaced this old structure in 1961 at an approximate cost of $52,000. The old building and property was sold to D.T. McCall for $8,000.

Before the days of State and Federal Aid, provision was made by the County Court for the aged, the orphans, the insane, and the paupers of the county. The J.P.s were responsible for seeing to the needs of those requiring assistance in their respective districts and would make recommendations to the court. In 1829 David Hogg, Zachery Ford, Exum Whitley, John Chambers, Littleberry Hughes, William Walker, Solomon Debow, Richard Alexander, and Adam Dale were appointed by the court to inquire into the feasibility of building a poor house. The probable cost of the building and land was to be reported to the next term of court. Consequently, seventy-five acres of land was purchased in the Key Hollow near Monoville from a Mr. Carpenter. To this day there is a branch there bearing the name “Poor House Branch.” A court-appointed committee su­pervised the administration of the poor house or poor asylum, as it was often called, with one of the members being elected to act as treasurer. The committee was also responsi­ble for hiring a superintendent to manage the house and farm. In 1866, S.M. Phelps was employed as overseer and the following year as superintendent. He held the position for many years.

A burying ground for the inmates was located near the farm at Monoville on a hill behind the old schoolhouse. Gruesome tales are told of “ grave snatchers” who would dig up the corpses and bring them to Carthage where they were sold to some doctor who wished to further his medical education. In one such instance, one of these unscrupulous robbers was enroute to Carthage with the corpse tied behind him on his horse. Upon hearing another rider coming, he rolled the body into the ditch and continued on his way. When the road was clear, he went back and retrieved his burden.

The poor farm remained in the Key Hollow until about 1871 when a farm containing two hundred eleven acres was purchased in Horseshoe Bend for $1200, and frame build­ings were erected. It was decided that the area was unhealthy as well as inconvenient so the land was sold and another farm purchased two and one half miles west of Carthage on what came to be known as the “ County House Road.” A commodious brick building, heated with two hot air furnaces, was constructed in 1885. This large farm was cultivated for the use of the poor house until January 8, 1952, when the need for such an institution ceased to exist because Old Age Assistance and other Federal and State programs were introduced. Saunders F. Hailey and his wife, Nannie, were the last custodians of the county poor house. The old brick house burned a few years ago.