The Tennessee General Assembly created Campbell County on September 11, 1806, from land taken from Anderson and Claiborne Counties. The twenty-sixth county was named in honor of Colonel Arthur Campbell, a Revolutionary War soldier and Indian fighter. Jacksboro is the county seat.
The primary attraction for early settlers was the wide, fertile Powell's Valley. This lovely valley, coupled with wide navigable rivers and numerous tributaries, provided an ideal setting for the settlers. Although farming was the first organized activity, numerous coal and iron deposits began to attract attention in the early 1800s. The harvesting of timber also provided an early boost to the local economy. Most early settlers clustered in Powell's Valley, but a few hardy pioneers ventured into the more remote mountain areas of the county. Town locations reflect these early concessions to geography.
The 2000 federal census reported a population of 39,854 for Campbell County. Most Campbell Countians live in the country, and even in the four incorporated towns, which contain slightly more than 20 percent of the population, a rural character predominates. Jellico and LaFollette are the two largest towns, with Caryville and Jacksboro each reporting fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. Two of the oldest settlements in Campbell County are the unincorporated communities of Fincastle and Speedwell.
The town of Jacksboro was founded in 1807 and served as the hub of the county and its government activities. Jellico was founded in 1885 and is strategically located on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Grace Moore, an international opera star in the 1940s, was educated in Jellico.
Originally known as Big Creek Gap, LaFollette traces its history to 1893, when Harvey LaFollette, an Indiana educator and engineer, purchased the mountain land for its iron and coal reserves. In 1897 the town of LaFollette was organized, and a railroad link to the Southern Railway was established. With this railway link, LaFollette expanded its iron furnace to employ as many as 1,500 workers. The furnace closed in 1926.
Railroad development in the county transformed the economy from subsistence farming to coal mining and lumber production. Except for temporary slumps, coal ruled the economy for three-quarters of a century. By the mid-1930s Campbell County men found employment in the coal mines, while women worked in the growing textile industry. New Deal agencies had a significant impact in the county as well, as the Public Works Administration built a school in Caryville, the Civilian Conservation Corps developed Cove Lake State Park, and the Works Progress Administration added a post office in LaFollette. The Tennessee Valley Authority's development of Norris Lake provided the most important New Deal change.
With the completion of Interstate Highway 75, tourism boosted the county economy. The Chamberland Mountains, which separate Jellico from the rest of the county, and the 750 miles of Norris Lake shoreline attract tourists, boaters, fishermen, and retirees to the county. The interstate highway not only sparked an increase in tourism, but also provided improved access for diversified industrial development. This new growth coincided with the final decline of “King Coal” in the early 1980s. Today more than forty small and medium industries employ more than 25 percent of the county's work force, providing 2,294 jobs. Tourism and the service industry employ more than half of the county's workers.
Campbell County has produced some outstanding military, political, and corporate leaders. Major General Joseph A. Cooper, a Campbell County native, commanded the U.S. Sixth Tennessee Regiment during the Civil War. Captain Winston Baird commanded an all-volunteer military brigade during the Spanish-American War and received a presidential citation for his leadership and heroism. Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, John J. Jennings and J. Will Taylor, were born and raised in LaFollette. Four-star General Carl W. Stiner was born on a Powell Valley farm and educated in Campbell County schools. General Stiner commanded the military forces in Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama. He retired to his Powell Valley farm, and his brother, retired Colonel Tom Stiner, serves as county executive. Harry Stonecipher, chief executive officer of McDonald-Douglas Corporation, was born and raised in Campbell County, as was the late Dr. Burgin Dossett, a well-known Tennessee educator.