Researched and Compiled by Kathy Niedergeses,
Lawrence Co. Historian and Lawrence Co. Archives Director
(Previously published in The Heritage of Lawrence County, Tennessee)

Before Creation

The area that later became Lawrence County was once part of a land grant given by England’s King Charles II to the Earl of Clarendon and seven lesser lords. The grant consisted of all the land south of the Virginia Colony and westward to the Pacific Ocean and was called Carolina. This area came under the jurisdiction of North Carolina when North and South Carolina were divided with its west boundary stopping at the Mississippi River. When the State of Tennessee was created in 1796, the part that is now Middle and West Tennessee was considered untamed western territory. From that point on, settlers began their westward movement through Tennessee.

However, at this time, much of Tennessee was still under control of two major Indian tribes – the Cherokee and the Chickasaw. The Cherokees were the largest of the southeastern tribes and still claimed areas in North and South Carolina, north Georgia, eastern Alabama and East Tennessee. The Chickasaws were the smallest of the southeastern tribes with their claims being in the northern regions of the present state of Mississippi, western Alabama and southwestern Tennessee. The Tennessee River at the Muscle Shoals, in what later became Alabama, seemed to be the dividing line between the Cherokee and the Chickasaw. Both tribes claimed the area that is now Lawrence County as their hunting grounds. Even though neither tribe maintained permanent settlements here, there were several Indian "encampments" in present day Lawrence County.

Many factors contributed to the settlement of Lawrence County. Among those were fertile soil, abundant streams, free land, virgin forests and the ever present need to "go westward." Even though the Native Americans still claimed the region, settlers were eager to explore the new land, stake a claim and provide a home for their families. From 1805 to 1816, there was a series of Indian land cessions involving land along the Tennessee River that eventually lead to the creation of Lawrence and several more of the southern counties.

As early as 1807, Cherokee Chief Doublehead leased or indentured land to several pioneer families. Others did not bother obtaining a lease; they simply intruded upon the land. By 1810, the Indians numerous complaints about the amount of trespassers prompted the government to build Fort Hampton at the mouth of the Elk River and evict the squatters. Agent Col. Return J. Meigs first had the task of determining who and where they were. Then, by 1811, the government ordered all whites evicted. Shortly after being run out and their homes and crops burned, many settlers returned, only to be run out again. Several of these families are later found in the Lawrence County census.

In 1812, the squatters living in the bounds of the Congressional Reservation petitioned the State Legislature for relief from "unrelenting Savages" and from North Carolina granting land to the same area that they already occupied.

Birth of a County and Its Government

After the signing of the 1816 treaties with the Cherokee and the Chickasaw Indians, the legislature passed the Private Act of 1817, thereby creating a county from a portion of Hickman, Giles and Maury Counties to be called Lawrence County in honor of Captain James Lawrence, hero of the War of 1812. This same act established a Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, which became the governing body of the county with authority for the making and carrying out of laws, overseeing court related issues, setting tax rates and fees, issuing fines and other matters.

Private Acts of 1817, 1819 and 1822 state that the boundaries of the county were the southwest corner of Giles County, running west with the Alabama state line, then north to the Duck River Ridge, then east southeast with the top of said ridge to the northwest corner of Giles County. Summertown sits on the Duck River Ridge, with all waters north of this ridge running into Duck River and all waters south running into the Buffalo River. This ridge runs west northwest of Summertown to Grinder’s old stand (where Meriwether Lewis lost his life) from there to about Hohenwald. Highway 20 runs this same ridge starting north of Summertown where Highway 20 crosses over into Lewis County. Thus Lawrence County’s northwest boundary, from about Summertown westward, originally extended much farther into what is now Lewis County, going up to Grinder’s Stand on the Old Natchez Trace Road from the south and Hickman extended to the stand on the north. 1836 calls of civil district eleven also show this.

The boundaries between counties were constantly changing. A person living in Lawrence County would request that his land be included in the surrounding county he was closest to; or request to be included in Lawrence County. The most drastic change occurred in the county’s northern border in 1843, when Lewis County was created and the section in Lawrence County from just above Napier northward to the Duck River Ridge was included in Lewis. In 1885, part of Napier was annexed into Lewis County and the rest of the Napier area in 1889.

Lawrenceburg was the name chosen by the General Assembly to become the county seat. The selection of a site for this town was another matter. There were five commissioners appointed by the governor – Josephus Irvine, David Crockett, Maximillian H. Buchanan, Enoch Tucker and Henry Phoenix. Three of the commissioners wanted the town to be at its present location, but the other two insisted the town should be placed in the exact geographical center of the county, close to where Gandy Community southwest of Lawrenceburg is today. Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that the first three men had property at their choice location and the last two had property at the Gandy location.

After a long and heated battle, with various petitions being signed by residents and forwarded to the legislature, the present location was chosen. There were two important considerations in this decision: 1) the location was bounded on the east by Andrew Jackson’s newly constructed highway (a major thoroughfare from Nashville to New Orleans) which would provide a mode of transportation, playing a significant role in the economic development of the county; 2) Shoal Creek (originally Sycamore River) with its three tributaries – Crowson, Simonton/Middle Fork (originally Indian Creek) and Beeler’s Fork; and also Spout Springs, bounded the favored site and would provide an abundant supply of water for its residence and industries. During this time, David Crockett resigned his commission and was replaced by Martin Prewitt.

The commissioners were granted 400 acres by the State of Tennessee January 16, 1823. M.H. Buchanan surveyed the lots and laid out the town of Lawrenceburg. The commissioners proceeded to sell lots to various individuals for business and residences, with the proceeds to be used to construct a courthouse, jail and stockades on the square. The town began to bustle with the construction of buildings to house hotels, lawyers and doctor’s offices, blacksmiths and merchants.

Court was first held in the house of Joseph Farmer, occupied by Josephus Irvine at the time, presumed to be just past Ethridge. A temporary courthouse, ready for use in 1821, was used before the David Crockett courthouse was erected.

In its earliest days, court dealt mostly with appointing jurors and a few other items of business. From the first transactions of the court, we see that tax has always been on the top of the list for governments. The very first item of business in the court was to set the tavern rates on the selling of "spirits" at 50 cents per half pint. This resulted in the issuing of license to numerous individuals for "houses of public entertainment" or to "keep a house of ordinary" (inns, taverns, stagecoach stands). The second item was to set the tax rate for the county.

Next in line of importance was transportation. This included ordering jury of views to establish roads or determine the best route for a road to be changed to and appointing overseers and hands to layout and do upkeep on these roads. Certifying wolf scalps brought in by individuals was also usually on the agenda. Settlers were given credit on their taxes for wolf scalps (later wildcats scalps), thus encouraging the eradication of these animals that were in abundance.

Climate and Terrain

Lawrence County is 863 feet above sea level, with the highest point being just east of Summertown and the lowest in Sugar Creek. To reach Lawrenceburg from any direction, a steep hill has to be navigated. Throughout the county there are hills and hollows, however, the county has sufficient flat land excellent for agriculture.

The principal streams of the county are Shoal Creek, Factory Fork, Beeler’s Fork, Chisholm Creek, Knob Creek, Sugar Creek, Blue Water, Little and Big Buffalo Rivers, plus many smaller streams. The sources of these streams are numerous springs that flow from the hillsides over beds of shale, limestone or chert.

The temperature can range from the single digits to the low 70’s in the winter and the upper 70’s to over 100 degrees in the summer. Extremely high humidity often makes summer months feel oppressive. Windy weather prevails most of the winter, but the hotter summer months normally have little breeze. Spring through fall "may" be accompanied by severe storms and tornadoes, with winter bringing cold rains and sometimes snow, or more likely, ice. However, snowfalls have become almost non-existent in the past several years.

Settlement and Growth

When the territory was opened up for colonization, settlers, both old and young, flocked into the area, mostly from South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. A few were from Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama. Several of these pioneers had already left their native state and were living in other counties in Tennessee. While some settlers found fertile land, others found land that was either dense forests, barrens, or poor land overgrown with vegetation or swamps. The forests were populated by wolves, wildcats, deer, turkeys and various other animals and birds. Laws were just being established and people to enforce them were newly elected. Not exactly the promised land, but a chance to carve a home of their own out of the wilderness.

Besides their skills and trades, they brought with them their hopes and dreams, willingness to work hard, and their determination to succeed and better their lives. Some remained and their descendants live here today, while others were just passing through, only staying a few years before going to what they hoped would be a better opportunity.

The United States government had very little money in its coffers after the Revolutionary War, so individuals were granted land for their service in this war in lieu of monetary compensation. Although the majority of the people who were given military land warrants (grants) never came to Lawrence County, a few did. Others sold the rights at nominal fees to individuals who truly wanted a fresh start in new territory and the opportunity to own their own property. Also, land speculators purchased numerous grants and resold them for a higher price. However, the majority of the land grants in Lawrence County were occupant grants.

To obtain an occupant grant, a person first located the property they desired, resided on it for three years and showed that improvements had been made. Afterwards, they filed an entry, then had it surveyed, for which the settler paid a small fee. At this point, the description of the property was sent to the state. After several months, if the state determined that no one had previously claimed rights to this property, the grant was awarded.

The settler’s first priority, after staking their claim or purchasing property, was to provide shelter for their families by constructing a home, no matter how crude. The land had to be cleared in order to plant crops to provide food for their families and livestock. Livestock kept during Lawrence County’s early years were mainly cows, sheep, pigs, mules, horses and oxen. Crops grown were wheat, corn, cotton, fruits and tobacco. Early industry consisted of sawmills, flour mills, powder mills, cotton mills and the production of iron ore.

The area around Henryville was the first actual settlement, having been settled a year or two before Lawrenceburg. Small communities and a few villages begin to appear in other areas of the county – Blue Water, Chinubee, West Point, Rossborough, Appleton, Sugar Creek, Wayland Springs, Wolf Creek, Marcella Falls, Pleasant Point, Fall River. Many others were established later.

In making provisions for the census, an enumeration of taxable property, polls and voters was ordered November 1818. The results were returned May 6, 1819 listing a total of 458 males over age 21. In 1819, precinct elections were at Jacob Pennington’s and John Null’s; and in April of 1821, voting precincts were at the town of Lawrenceburg, Jacob Pennington’s and John Null’s. By 1823, the districts were divided by captains, with 1835 being the last division before they were designated with numbers. The constitution of 1836 provided that there be twelve equal districts using numbers; in 1855, districts were split again for a total of fifteen. The population for the county in 1820 was 3,271 including 204 slaves; 1830 enumeration was 5,411 with 552 slaves with the count rising every year, until slavery reached its max in 1850 with population being 9,280 including 1,162 slaves.

The Civil War and Its Aftermath

The Civil War took a tremendous toll on Lawrence County. The economy was at its lowest point. Many Lawrence Countians died fighting or of disease, while others simply did not return. Most of those who were not involved in the fighting, and the soldiers who returned, found they had suffered great losses. Both Union and Confederate Soldiers, or marauders, had confiscated their food supply and livestock, some homes were burned, and in some cases, a member of their family had been murdered.

Lawrence County did not have a vast amount of plantations. Most were simple farmers, merchants and tradesmen. However, there were a few large plantation owners who suffered great losses principally due to liberation of their slave labor, devaluation of money and other losses during the Civil War. Before the war and the establishment of the Federal money system, each bank issued their own money. Therefore, most Confederate money was totally worthless. According to the Nashville Weekly Press and Times of June 25, 1868, money values were as follows: $50.00 on Bank of West Tennessee worth only $15.00; $90.00 on Bank of Chattanooga worth $5.40; $20.00 on Union Bank of Georgia worth .80; $100.00 State Bank of South Carolina worth $3.00. Only money issued by Union Bank of Tennessee and Planters Bank of Tennessee was still worth face value.

In 1829, $34.23 of taxes was collected on 3,428 acres. Taxable property in 1859 was 377,817 acres valued at $1,110,431. Some taxable items included this year were 550 slaves, 119 town lots, seven mills, five yards (tan or livery), two distilleries, two forges, two tobacco factories, jewelry, household furniture and pianos. The totals for 1865 were 362,788 ¾ acres valued at $865,745, showing a large decrease in taxable property value between 1861-1865.

During this period, northerners (carpetbaggers) were sent to each state to make sure loyal union officials were elected and the courts were allowed to once again hold regular sessions. No deeds were recorded for the time period 1863-1867, and only a few in 1868. Lawrence Countians were busy restoring their towns, road, farms, schools, economy and their life. A whole new way of life had to be learned by families whose large farms were dependent upon slave labor. Many citizens were bankrupt and lost their homes or farms through foreclosure, while others were able to sell.

African Americans were also undergoing big changes in their lifestyle. Their transition from slavery to freedom was filled with difficulties. Even though they had been slaves, their homes, food and a few necessities had been provided by their owner. Now they must strive to make their own way by acquiring or renting property, build their homes and churches and provide for their families. They were still not accepted as equal by most southerners and organizations were formed to discourage their progress. Many left Lawrence County for other counties or states. Those that remained settled in various communities and either worked for their former owner for a fee, farmed the few acres they could purchase, found odd jobs using skills they learned during slavery, worked in mining or other small industries.

Migration and the Economy

The economic depression was not confined to the south; the whole nation suffered. New money brought in by northern capital, helped to rebuild the economy by providing new industries that were geared toward using natural resources. Luckily Lawrence County was rich in two natural resources – iron ore and timber. The establishment of a railroad through Lawrence County assisted, not only the new industries, but also farmers and other businessmen. It played a roll in providing transportation for some of the future waves of immigrants that were to arrive in search of new opportunities.

The large influx of mostly German Catholic immigrants from northern states, starting in 1870 and continuing through the late 1890’s, also helped to boost the economy. The Cincinnati German Catholic Homestead Association had purchased several thousand acres of land in Lawrenceburg and several other areas of the county. These families brought their skills and trades to our county, opened businesses, built homes, churches and schools. Farmers among this group expanded their property and prospered; others were involved in the mining and timber business.

Also, in the mid-1880’s through the early part of 1900, E. W. "Farmer" Crews, a land speculator/realtor purchased large quantities of land mostly from Ethridge to Buffalo Road and further. He advertised in many northern states, inviting families to visit our county, painting the picture of opportunities far greater than they actually were. About the same time, Joseph J. Crane, in the Summertown vicinity, was also enticing new settlers into the region to further populate the county and boost the economy. Then in the early 1890’s a small group of Norwegians settled in and around Lawrenceburg.

From 1908-1920’s, countless families arrived from Cullman, Winston, Lawrence, Franklin and Morgan counties in Alabama. These industrious people at first purchased land mostly in the southeast part of Lawrence County. Here, they found virgin timber and sawmills sprang up everywhere. After the timber was cleared, a majority of these families planted what they knew best – cotton. As a result, gins sprang up in many communities. These settlers, coming together from so many regions, brought about a wide range of crops grown in Lawrence County, with a large percentage being shipped to other areas, mostly by rail.

By 1896, the assessed value of property was $1,393,797, including 61 ¾ miles of railroad, their localized property and 114.40 miles of Western Union Telegraph Company lines. From 1900 to 1920, the population of Lawrence County grew from 15,402 to 23,593, creating quite an economic boom.

An idea was born in 1902 to construct a power plant to provide electricity for Lawrenceburg. A legislative act cleared the way in 1905 and the plant was finished and in operation by 1908, providing the town with cheap electricity and later expanded to three miles out including some farmers and small industries. This was a great boost to the economy since it enticed industries to Lawrence County. Profits paid for street construction, paving, fire fighting equipment and city taxes were lowered.

Plans began to emerge in 1922 for building another power plant in order to produce more electricity, thereby allowing expansion of the area covered and amount of water that could be provided and to anticipate the arrival of more and larger industries. The plant was in operation by 1924, but not finished yet. Not long afterwards, Lawrenceburg again needed more power for the expanding growth in population and industry. However, these dams continued to provide electricity until TVA took over in the 1930’s.

The next arrival of a large group of immigrants occurred in March of 1956, when Murray Ohio Mfg. Co. moved their offices and plant to Lawrenceburg. Approximately 100 supervisors and their families made the move to Lawrence County. Over the years, a wide variety of products were made including bicycles, tricycles, lawnmowers, peddle cars and fans. Originally 550 employees were hired, but at its peak, employment was as high as 5,000, with over 4,000 of them being at the plant in Lawrenceburg. Lawrence County has continued to grow in population, economically and demographically over the years and in 2017 will celebrate its 200th birthday. It is now a diverse county with many different cultures, professions, religions and interests.

Sources: Lawrence County Court Minute books; tax records; Private Acts; Indian Treaties; newspapers; census; various county documents, minute books, deeds, etc.

Copyright 2008 by Lawrence County Genealogical Society, doing business as Lawrence County Heritage Committee. You must have permission from the author before using the above article in its entirety. For use of any part, you must site this article as the source.

Updated 24 November 2012                                                        Return to Archives Main Page