The Tennessee General Assembly established Bedford County on December 7, 1807, from land taken from Rutherford County. The first court met at the home of the widow Ann Payne in what is now Moore County. Settlement of the area progressed slowly after an initial expedition in 1783 led by Alexander Greer, who later settled at Greer’s Lick on land he marked during the expedition. Samuel Barton and the Edmiston Land Company carried out other early expeditions. Few settlers arrived until after 1806. Some brought Revolutionary War grants from North Carolina; others came with Tennessee grants, awarded from 1800 to 1810. In 1808 Andrew Erwin purchased fifty-five thousand acres from Norton Pryor. A bitter title dispute arose between Andrew Jackson, who served as Pryor’s agent, and Erwin. Litigation continued until 1824, when a compromise settlement was reached.
Shelbyville, the county seat, was established in 1810 from land donated by Clement Cannon, an early resident and the operator of the first grist mill. Shelbyville was ideally suited as a trading center, with fords on the southern and eastern ends of the town. In 1852 the commercial value of the town increased with the construction of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. In the antebellum period, Shelbyville experienced its share of tragedy. A tornado swept through the town on May 31, 1830, destroying the courthouse and inflicting five casualties. Three years later an Asiatic cholera epidemic caused great panic and many deaths. Cholera outbreaks would recur in 1866 and 1873 with similar results. In 1934 the Bedford County Courthouse was destroyed a second time when a lynch mob burned it. Several days of threatened violence preceded the act of arson. One hundred national guardsmen were called to the scene to protect a young black man, E. K. Harris, accused of assault. Disguised as a guardsman, the accused man was removed from the jail and sent to Nashville for safekeeping. The mob burned the courthouse in retaliation for the removal of Harris.
In the early twentieth century, Shelbyville was a thriving industrial center. In 1923 Shelbyville had a population of 2,912 and boasted an electric light plant, water works, a textile factory, a hub and spoke factory, a foundry, saw mills, and planing mills, in addition to banks, churches, schools, and two newspapers. Shelbyville Mills was a large textile factory and company town, complete with a school and church. The Musgrave Pencil Company is one of the world’s largest pencil manufacturers. On the factory grounds is the historic Turner Institute Building, a former African American private school designed by Nashville architect Moses McKissack. Shelbyville achieved worldwide prominence in the twentieth century through the promotion of the Tennessee Walker. In 1939 Shelbyville became the home of the Walking Horse National Celebration, earning the designation as the “Walking Horse Capital of the World.”
The main line of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad created the towns of Bell Buckle, Normandy, and Wartrace. Now one of the most visited railroad towns in Tennessee, Bell Buckle is the home of Webb School. Founded in 1886 by Sawney Webb, the school has a well-deserved reputation as one of the leading preparatory institutions in the South. The establishment of Normandy as a railroad town brought about the demise of the village of Rowesville (Roseville). Despite enthusiastic expectations for the growth of Normandy, it remained a village, attaining its largest population of 250 in 1917. Wartrace, established in 1852, benefited from the rise of the walking horse industry in the county. Wartrace’s historic railroad hotel has become a virtual museum to the Tennessee Walking Horse, and the champion of the first Celebration, “Strolling Jim,” is buried on the grounds.
Bedford County has furnished soldiers for every war since the War of 1812. During the Civil War Bedford County was divided in its loyalties and supplied nearly equal numbers of troops to the armies of both the North and the South. Though the pro-Union stance of Shelbyville earned that city the title of “Little Boston,” one of the Confederacy’s best-known generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was born in Bedford County in 1821 and took his middle name from his birthplace.
Bedford County has been the birthplace of two Tennessee governors and an Arkansas governor and the residence of a third Tennessee governor. Shelbyville native William Prentice Cooper served three consecutive terms as governor of Tennessee from 1938 to 1945. His marriage to Hortense Powell Cooper produced three sons, one of whom, Jim Cooper, represented the fourth district in the U.S. Congress, 1982-92. Jim Nance McCord, who succeeded Cooper as governor 1945 and served until 1949, was born in Unionville. His most important accomplishment was the institution of the sales tax to fund education. Archibald Yell, the second governor of Arkansas, grew to manhood in Bedford County as well and practiced law in Shelbyville. A friend of Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, he was killed at the battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican War in 1847. Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist (1995-2003) and his wife Martha Swanson Sundquist were residents of Shelbyville from 1962 to 1970.
Two other Bedford Countians of note are George DeForest Brush and James L. Bomar. Brush (1855-1941) was a Shelbyville native who achieved prominence as a painter. Bomar, born at Raus in Bedford County, became a Shelbyville attorney before serving in both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly, where he was Speaker of the House and lieutenant governor. He is the former president of Rotary International. The county’s 2000 population was 37,586.