The Tennessee General Assembly created Giles County in 1809 from land once part of North Carolina. Andrew Jackson suggested the name “Giles” to the legislature in recognition of the strong support Congressman William Branch Giles had given to Tennessee in the successful bid for statehood in 1796. Since Indian treaties had not been finalized, settlers were not permitted to move onto their land until 1806.
Both Elkton and Prospect claim the designation of first settlement in the county; they were followed by Lynn Creek, Campbellsville, Pulaski, Bodenham, Crosswater, Aspen Hill, and Blooming Grove. Of these, Pulaski and Lynnville exist today as incorporated towns. Other incorporated towns are Minor Hill and Ardmore.
Pulaski was designated the county seat and a courthouse erected on a square in the center of the county in 1811. The present neoclassical beauty, erected in 1909, has been placed in the National Register of Historic Places. Busts of three natives who served as governors of the state, Aaron V. Brown, Neill Smith Brown, and John C. Brown, were placed in the foyer as a bicentennial project.
Aaron V. Brown (1795-1859) served in both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives before becoming governor of Tennessee (1845-47). In 1847 Brown, a Democrat, was defeated in the gubernatorial race by a fellow Giles Countian, Neill S. Brown, a Whig. Aaron Brown's political activities focused on national issues, particularly slavery, and he is credited with authorship of the “Tennessee Platform” in defense of national unity presented to the Nashville Convention of 1850.
The location of Giles County on the Nashville and Decatur Railroad made it a center of activity during the Civil War. Though no major battle was fought within its boundaries, the county fell into Federal hands after the battle of Fort Donelson and was occupied by Union troops for several years. Grenville Dodge was in command in 1863 when Sam Davis, a young Confederate soldier and member of Coleman's Scouts, was condemned and executed for spying. A statue of Davis stands on the south side of the town square, a monument to the twenty-one-year-old soldier whose last words were immortalized by Confederate veterans: “If I had a thousand lives, I would lose them all here before I would betray my friend or the confidence of my informer.” The county contributed four generals to the Confederate cause: John C. Brown, G. W. Gordon, John Adams, and Preston Smith. More than two thousand soldiers from Giles County filled the Southern ranks.
Pulaski was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Organized shortly after the war by John C. Lester, James R. Crowe, John Kennedy, Calvin Jones, Richard R. Reed, and Frank O. McCord, the secret society spread across the state as its reputation for violence and intimidation evolved. In recent years attempts to stage Klan activities in Pulaski have met stiff resistance from the community.
Giles County was the birthplace of noted African American architect Moses McKissack, founder of McKissack and McKissack, one of the oldest African American architectural firms in the nation. The firm's Bridgeforth School was built with support from the Rosenwald Fund in 1927. Giles County has more than one hundred National Register properties including large downtown districts in Pulaski. Elkton boasts the Gardner House (ca. 1896), which belonged to Matt Gardner, a local minister, merchant, and community leader.
Giles County is also the birthplace of two nationally known writers, Donald Davidson and John Crowe Ransom. Davidson and Ransom were associated with the group of poets at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s known as the Fugitives. These men and women have been credited with the literary flowering that emerged as the Southern Renascence. Davidson and Ransom were also involved in another famous literary group, the Agrarians, whose 1930 anthology I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition received widespread attention.
From its inception, education has played an important role in the history of Giles County. Pulaski Academy, later known as Wurtenburg Academy, then Giles College, and chartered by the legislature when the county was organized, was the first of many academies, colleges, and private schools. Martin Methodist College, established in 1872, was a gift from Thomas Martin in honor of his daughter, Victoria, an advocate for female education. The four-year college is administered by the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church.
A county library, donated by the late C. A. Craig, a founder of the former National Life and Accident Insurance Company in memory of his wife, serves the public in a renovated building. The building also houses a county genealogy room and a museum containing artifacts brought to the county by the early settlers. The Sam Davis Museum, a Civil War museum organized by the United Daughters of the Confederacy is located on Sam Davis Avenue and is administered by the historical society.
In the post-World War II era, a number of institutions including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local banks, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Retail Merchants Association have developed a diversified economy to carry the county into the twenty-first century. The county’s 2000 population was 29,447.