According to archaeological investigations, long before Tennessee became a state, Native Americans occupied lands in present-day Anderson County. Permanent white settlement dates to 1796, when Thomas Frost built a cabin. After statehood, settlements soon expanded, increased by the arrival of German immigrants in 1800. In December 1801 Anderson County was created from parts of Knox and Grainger Counties. The county was named after Joseph Anderson, a prominent U.S. senator and former territorial judge in Knoxville. The first seat of government in Anderson County was Burrville, named after Vice-President Aaron Burr. After Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel and became implicated in a land speculation scheme, the Tennessee General Assembly changed the name of the Anderson County seat to Clinton in honor of either Vice-President George Clinton or his nephew DeWitt Clinton.
Agriculture was the key occupation in the county's early history, but a number of small businesses supplemented subsistence farming. Land speculation, especially in coal mining areas, began in the 1830s and continued throughout the nineteenth century. Once the county was linked to regional railroad networks during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, coal mining became its leading industry.
Education also played an important role in Anderson County. Union Academy, established in Clinton in 1806, began admitting female students along with males in 1817. By the 1840s Clinton Seminary and Clinton Grove Academy had opened and affiliated with the Baptist and Methodist churches, respectively. New education laws in the post-Civil War era prompted County Education Superintendent Charles D. McGuffey to campaign for funding for schools in Anderson County. By 1892 Anderson County was operating fifty-eight public schools, five for black students.
No major Civil War battles were fought in Anderson County, but, as in many other East Tennessee counties, local loyalties were divided between Union and Confederate sympathizers. Violence settled too many arguments; “bushwhacking” was common. When Confederates established a conscription center at Clinton, Union sympathizers used “Eli's Cabin” as a safe house to escape to Kentucky and join the Union army.
In the late Victorian era, several locations along the railroad lines experienced new investments in tourism and coal mining. In the 1890s Oliver Springs, at the corner of Roane, Morgan, and Anderson Counties, became a popular tourist spot. Accessible by rail, the town, with its large resort hotel and mineral springs, attracted guests from all over the United States and Europe. In July 1891 the coal mines at Briceville became the site of a violent strike prompted by the increasing use of convict labor to replace more expensive free labor. In the resulting “Coal Creek War” miners attacked the prisoners' stockade, released the convicts, and demanded the end of the convict-leasing system in Tennessee. Months of negotiations between the miners, Governor John Buchanan, and the Tennessee General Assembly failed to resolve the issue. The convict-lease system came to an end in 1895 when the leases expired. At the same time the general assembly enacted prison reforms and established Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Morgan County.
In the 1930s and 1940s the federal government made its presence known and propelled Anderson County and the state to national prominence. In 1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority into law and changed the Tennessee landscape, especially that of Anderson County. TVA launched its first major construction project with the building of Norris Dam, the planned community of Norris, and public parks at Norris and Big Ridge. The dam provided jobs, flood control, and electricity to Anderson County.
World War II led to new federal initiatives. Anderson County's location and resources and its proximity to Tennessee Eastman in Kingsport attracted federal planners searching for a site for the development of the atomic bomb. The resulting city of Oak Ridge became the fifth largest city in Tennessee within two years. The “Atomic Capital of the World” brought national and international attention to the state in 1945, when the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima.
Anderson County again garnered national attention in the wake of federally mandated school desegregation in the 1950s. When Clinton High School opened its doors to black students in 1956, a riot ensued, and Governor Frank Clement called out the National Guard to restore order in Clinton. White students boycotted classes, and in 1958 the high school building was bombed. Clinton High School students attended classes in Oak Ridge while their school was rebuilt. The events in Anderson County received national television coverage when Edward R. Murrow and CBS television analyzed the desegregation trouble in Clinton.
From its establishment in 1801 to recent historical events, Anderson County has influenced the role of the state in the nation, and the role of the nation in the world. Its 2000 population was 71,330.