In the early 1880s Westin A. Goodspeed, a successful Nashville-based publisher, discovered that volumes combining local history, biography, and state historical records had sold well in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and several other northern states. In the South, except for Kentucky, Virginia, and Georgia, little compilation of resources had occurred since the Civil War; Goodspeed acted to fill that gap in Tennessee.
Goodspeed proceeded by asking more than one hundred “prominent citizens” including Governor William B. Bate, State Librarian Mrs. S. K. Hatton, and the secretary of the Tennessee Historical Society, James A. Cartwright, to submit material for a general history of the state. The 742-page summary depicted the state's geography, Native American history, white settlement, pre-statehood political development, economic development, plus judicial, political, and religious history. The compendium emphasized military history, although it also covered government and private institutions and included biographies of seventeen individuals. The choice of individuals was particularly interesting as it included the three Tennessee presidents, Sam Houston, William Carroll, Davy Crockett, John Bell, John Sevier, and James Robertson, plus the odd combination of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Felix Zollicoffer, and William G. Brownlow. The section on the Civil War covered 140 pages, though the 66 pages devoted to Native Americans represented the most ambitious attempt to develop that theme until the 1940s.
The company issued another ten volumes covering smaller areas within the state. Each volume contained the section on state history and biography followed by sections on local history and biography organized by county. Some counties, such as Shelby and Hamilton, made up separate volumes. Thirty-four counties were covered before the publication was discontinued. As in the state history, local citizens compiled the county histories with little editing. They often consisted of lists of officers or prominent citizens. For those thirty-four counties, however, no more complete record of early government officers, business development, educational progress, or religious history exists. In the 1970s, both Woodward and Stinson of Columbia and the Elder's Bookstore of Nashville brought out reprint editions. By the late 1990s many local history Web pages had placed county history and biography sections on the Internet, making it even easier for scholars to use this valuable source.