Greene County lies in the Great Valley of Tennessee in the northeast corner of the state. Its valleys are enriched by the disintegrated limestone that lies below them. Bays Mountain, one of the three sets of high ridges that run through the valley, is located on the north side of the county and is drained by Lick Creek. The Unaka, or Great Smoky, Mountains to the east slope down to the Nolichucky River. The resources of Greene County, including the creeks and rivers, plentiful game, and good bottomlands, attracted generations of Native Americans. Places like the Camp Creek site, along the banks of the Nolichucky River, document Native American activities during the Woodland Period.
Settlement began about 1772 when Jacob Brown and a couple of families from North Carolina moved to a camp on the banks of the Nolichucky, the first in its valley. In 1775 Brown leased from the Cherokees a large tract of land which was titled to him as part of the Washington District of North Carolina. In 1777 Henry Earnest, a Swiss immigrant, established Elmwood Farm along the Nolichucky River. It is the oldest Tennessee Century Farm. A great influx of settlers between 1778 and 1783 made residents of the area anxious for separate government, which was achieved through the efforts of Daniel Kennedy and Waightstill Avery. Greene County, part of North Carolina, was established in 1783 and named in honor of General Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, under whom many settlers had fought during the Revolutionary War. Greene County participated in the State of Franklin movement along with fellow upper East Tennessee counties Sullivan and Washington. The split that precipitated the end of the State of Franklin occurred during the 1785 constitutional convention held at Greeneville.
Presbyterian ministers dominated education during the early history of the county. Dr. Samuel Doak, educator and minister of Mount Bethel Church, obtained a charter for a private Presbyterian academy in 1784 which became Washington College in 1795. Doak served as its president until 1818, when he resigned to establish, with his son Samuel Witherspoon Doak, another classical school called Tusculum College. In 1794 Dr. Hezekiah Balch founded Greeneville College, the first college west of the Alleghenies. Tusculum and Greeneville Colleges merged to form the Tusculum College that endures today. The county also is associated with the founding of Methodism in Tennessee as the site of Ebenezer Church, established in 1792 by the Earnest family. An early Quaker meeting took place at New Hope Meeting near Ripley Creek in 1795.
Greeneville is strongly associated with Andrew Johnson, its most famous citizen, the former alderman and mayor who became the controversial seventeenth president of the United States after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Johnson moved to Greeneville from North Carolina as a runaway apprentice and set up a tailor's shop. This building is now preserved inside a brick structure and is one of three sites in the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. The others are the cemetery on Monument Hill where he is buried and Johnson's South Main Street home from 1851 to 1875, the years he served as governor, vice-president and president of the United States, and U.S. senator.
Other historic sites in Greene County are the Tusculum College historic district, which includes the only Tennessee building designed by famous American architect Louis Sullivan; the Earnest Fort-House, an unusual late eighteenth-century fortified stone and log house which is part of the Earnest Farms Historic District; and a historically significant and beautiful stretch of the Nolichucky River Valley at the border between Greene and Washington Counties adjacent to the David Crockett Birthplace State Historical Area. The recently restored Dickson-Williams House in Greeneville documents antebellum life and architecture.
Greene County played a pivotal role in the Civil War in East Tennessee. The county was largely Unionist in sentiment and the Greeneville Convention of 1861 was the state's largest and most important pro-Union meeting in the weeks immediately prior to the Civil War. After the Confederate disaster at the battle of Knoxville in 1863, General James Longstreet placed his troops in winter quarters at Greeneville. In September 1864 Confederate cavalry commander John Hunt Morgan died in Greeneville after he and his officers were surprised by a Union force from the command of Alvan C. Gillem.
Greene County agriculture is historically known for burley tobacco production. It was the crop that led to prosperity in the late nineteenth century, when Greeneville developed into the region's most important tobacco market. The University of Tennessee Extension Service operates a Burley Tobacco Experiment Farm outside of Greeneville. But the modern dairy industry was also important in the mid-twentieth century, especially after Pet Milk established a plant in Greeneville in 1928. Tobacco, beef cattle, and hay remain important products from the county's rich farmland. The economic growth that accompanied burley tobacco cultivation and the dairy industry also stimulated commerce and industry in Greeneville, and the city displays a collection of late Victorian commercial buildings that were constructed during Greeneville's years as an important stop on the Southern Railway. The Brumley Hotel, built by entrepreneur Colonel John H. Doughty in 1884, has recently been restored as the centerpiece of a downtown revitalization effort known as the General Morgan Inn.
Greene County's economic focus has shifted, along with the other counties of upper East Tennessee, to include large industrial employers such as Five Rivers Manufacturing, which produces television sets, and Plus Mark, the maker of greeting cards and gift wrap. In 2000 the population of Greene County numbered 62,909 inhabitants, but it retains significant reminders of its place in Tennessee's history from the earliest days of the state's settlement.
Richard H. Doughty, Greeneville: One Hundred Year Portrait, 1775-1875 (1975)