In 1797 the Tennessee General Assembly created Cocke County from Jefferson County, naming the new county in honor of William Cocke, a Revolutionary War soldier who supported the establishment of the State of Franklin, helped write Tennessee’s first state constitution, and served as one of the state’s initial U.S. senators. Cocke County, in upper East Tennessee, rests against the Great Smoky Mountains and is traversed by the French Broad and Big Pigeon Rivers. The first white settler was John Gilliland, who planted a corn crop at the mouth of the Pigeon River in 1783 to establish his claim to the land. Although Cocke County settlers had few violent encounters with Native Americans, most early settlers located near one of several forts in the area: William Whitson’s fort, Abraham McKay’s fort, Wood’s fort, or John Huff’s fort.
The creation of Cocke County gave local citizens better access to courts, and made it easier to attend general musters and elections. The first county court was held in the home of Daniel Adams. After some controversy, the county seat was located on fifty acres of land on the French Broad River donated by John Gilliland, the son of the original settler. The town was named New Port, and construction began immediately on a log courthouse. In 1828 a new brick courthouse was built.
Controversy over the location of the county seat continued into the Reconstruction period, and Cocke County, along with Obion County, was singled out in the Constitution of 1870 for permission to allow a simple majority of the voters to determine the location of county government. In 1867 the Cincinnati, Cumberland Gap, and Charleston Railroad came to Cocke County, and under pressure from railroad officials and interested capitalists, the county seat was moved to a new site at the bluffs overlooking the French Broad River. This new site retained the name Newport; thereafter, the original county seat was designated Oldtown. Its only remnant is the O’Dell House, a brick structure in the Federal style built by Abel Gilliland in 1814 and now on the National Register of Historic Places. Fire destroyed the new courthouse and most of the county records in 1876, and government returned to Oldtown, where it remained until 1884, when a new brick courthouse was constructed. The current Colonial Revival-style courthouse, built in 1930, is also listed on the National Register.
The emergence of Newport as permanent county seat was closely connected with the financial and industrial schemes of a group of British, American, and Canadian investors headed by A. A. Arthur who formed the Scottish Carolina Timber and Land Company. With the completion of the Western North Carolina Railroad in 1882, Cocke County had access to a modern transportation corridor linking it to both Knoxville and Ashville. Interestingly, the new courthouse in Newport was not located at the center of the downtown commercial district; that place was reserved for the railroad depot, an unmistakable sign of the power of the new capitalists compared to that of the local government.
In 1898 Anna Stokely, her two sons, James and John, and Colonel A. R. Swann established a cannery in Jefferson County that grew to become an international concern under the name Stokely-Van Camp. Initially funded with $3,900, the farm-based concern shipped canned tomatoes down the French Broad River to Chattanooga for sale to housewives. Using local labor and local produce, the business soon expanded into the southeastern region and offered a variety of canned fruits and vegetables. In 1933 the Stokely brothers bought the Van Camp company, considered to be the model of the canning industry. With this acquisition, Stokely-Van Camp moved into national production.
Parrottsville, the second largest town in the county, is one of the oldest communities in the state. A group of German immigrants whose descendants continue to reside in Cocke County settled here in the 1780s. Hamilton Yett, son of one of the original German immigrants, built the National Register-listed Ellison House in 1857.
The first church in the county, the Big Pigeon (Primitive) Baptist Church, was organized in the home of James English in 1787. Seven years later the Baptists erected a building. In 1800 the Methodists joined the Baptists in Cocke County when John Adam Granade preached in the courthouse. In addition to their churches, the Methodists established a campground on the north side of the French Broad River. When the denomination divided over the slavery issue in the 1840s, Cocke County maintained congregations of both the Methodist Episcopal and the Methodist Episcopal, South. The Presbyterians appeared briefly in 1809 but did not become established in Cocke County until 1823. In addition to these denominations, others have organized through the years: the Lutherans in 1845; the Christian Church in 1923; the Roman Catholics in 1913; and the Episcopal Church in 1967.
In 1814 Anderson Academy became the first school in Cocke County. However, for most children, a few months of instruction in modest one-room schools was all the education they received. In 1875 the Parrottsville Academy was established in the Robert Roadman mansion. The Methodists purchased the school in 1890 and operated it until 1924, when the Parrottsville School was built. The Southern Baptists erected Cosby Academy, a boarding school, in 1912-13 and sold it to the county board of education in 1936. The first Cocke County High School was constructed in 1917; the present facility was built in 1962-63, with additions in 1975-76.
At least four notable Cocke County residents deserve special mention. Upon his inauguration in 1911, Ben W. Hooper became the first Republican governor of Tennessee (1911-15) in thirty years. This prohibitionist received the support of the WCTU, the Anti-Saloon League, and churches across the state. Grace Moore (1901-1947), who was born near Del Rio, received international acclaim as an outstanding operatic soprano. Wilma Dykeman (1920- ) and James Stokely (1913-1977) were a husband-wife team whose writings focused on the region and the character of mountain people. Their best known collaborative effort was Neither Black Nor White, published in 1954. Dykeman’s individual works include The French Broad; The Border States; The Tall Woman; The Far Family; Return the Innocent Earth; Tennessee: A Bicentennial History; and the introductory essay of this encyclopedia.
The county’s 2000 population was 33,565.