The Tennessee General Assembly created Fentress County from parts of Overton and Morgan Counties on November 28, 1823. The county was named in honor of James Fentress, the Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, who had assisted in passing the enabling legislation for the new county. Fentress County is located in northeast Middle Tennessee on the picturesque Cumberland Plateau. The county initially formed the state's border with Kentucky, but when Pickett County was established in 1881, that part of Fentress was included in the new county. The 2000 population of the county was 16,625.
The history of the county is diverse, ranging from farming to mining to German immigration. Established in 1828, Jamestown, the county seat, also was named in honor of James Fentress. The settlement was once called Sand Springs because several fine springs bubbled up from the sandy soil. Today, a city park named Mark Twain Park in honor of the Clemens family, who once carried water from the spring, surrounds the only remaining spring. Jamestown was a small agricultural trade center for most of its history. Important agricultural products included corn, small grains, livestock, tobacco, poultry, and pumpkins. In 1928 the York Institute constructed its modern campus on the outskirts of Jamestown, and during the 1930s the town's population expanded from 857 to over 1,200 residents. During these years industry became more important in the county as six manufacturing firms located in Jamestown by the 1940s. Coal, barite, ore, and natural gas mining already had opened new economic avenues; indeed, the coal mining towns of Davidson and Wilder were the second and third largest communities in the county in 1941. The Fentress Coal and Coke Company and the Davidson Mining Company operated both communities as virtual company towns; they were the scenes of bitter and violent strikes in 1932-33. Unemployed miners later worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority at Norris and for the Civilian Conservation Corps at LaFollette and Cumberland Homesteads.
Allardt is the other incorporated town in Fentress County. In 1881 Bruno Gernt established the town on the behalf of land speculators Cyrus and James N. Clarke of Nebraska. The settlement attracted a steady stream of German immigrants, and by 1886 the town had three general stores, a hotel, a steam mill, a lumber mill, and other tradesmen. Allardt hosts a nationally recognized Pumpkin Festival every October. Other older communities in the county include Clarkrange, Pall Mall, and Armathwaite.
Tourism is becoming a major part of the local economy as a result of the creation of the Big South Fork National Recreation Area. Another attraction is Highland Manor, which is the state's oldest licensed winery.
The Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Area, which includes the York home, mill, and gravesite, also attracts a number of visitors. Pall Mall native Alvin Cullom York is known all over the world for his exploits in France, where he became the most decorated enlisted man of World War I. But Fentress Countians admire him most for his dedication to his fellow citizens. Because of his experiences in the war, York realized the importance of education and dedicated his life to improving education in Fentress County. Under his leadership, the York Institute was established in Jamestown. In 1989 the institute received the prestigious National School of Excellence Award. York also was instrumental in getting better roads and other improvements for the county.
Other important residents of Fentress County include Captain David Beaty, John M. Clemens, Kate Bradford Stockton, and local historians A. B. Wright and Albert Ross Hogue. Beaty was born in Fentress County in 1823. Known as “Tinker Dave,” he formed a Civil War company that was known as David Beaty's Independent Scouts, an outfit that served under Major General George Thomas and General Ambrose Burnside. Beaty's troops protected the county from Confederate incursions. Beaty was a leader in Fentress County during Reconstruction until his death in 1883. Clemens and his wife, Jane Lampton Clemens, moved to Fentress County in the 1830s. Clemens served as an attorney, circuit court clerk, and county commissioner. He was postmaster at Pall Mall from April 1832 to May 1835 before moving to Missouri, where his son, the famous writer Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), was born later in 1835. The Clemens family owned land in the county for many years, and Samuel Clemens signed several of the land deeds. Stockton was a reform activist in Fentress County. She ran for governor on the Socialist ticket in 1936, becoming the first woman candidate for governor of Tennessee.
Reverend A. B. Wright was a Methodist preacher and local historian who left a valuable record of the county's early years in his autobiography that was published in 1876. Another important local historian was Albert Ross Hogue, whose History of Fentress County (1916) has served as an excellent resource for many years.