Hamilton County

The Tennessee General Assembly created Hamilton County on October 25, 1819. Rhea, Marion, and Bledsoe Counties bounded the new county, and it extended south to the state line. The creation of the new county on the southwestern frontier was brought about by a treaty with the Cherokees in 1817. By the terms of the Hiwassee Purchase, the Indians yielded large sections of Alabama and Georgia, as well as the Sequatchie Valley and the area that became Hamilton County. Initially, Hamilton County did not extend south of the Tennessee River. This area, including the site of Cherokee Chief John Ross's landing in present-day Chattanooga, did not become a part of the county until the disputed Treaty of 1835 that led to Indian removal and the “Trail of Tears.” The county was named in honor of Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury in George Washington's administration. Hamilton was the name of the district of which this section had formerly been a part.

This beautiful region, where the Tennessee River winds through the convergence of several mountain ranges, was the last stronghold of the Cherokees. When their valiant effort to retain their homeland failed, Ross's Landing became one of the main staging areas for the trek west.

At the time of the 1820 census, Hamilton County counted 821 residents, including 16 free blacks and 39 slaves. Approximately 100 Cherokees lived on six private family reserves. The settlers were clustered mainly at Sale Creek, at Poe's Crossroads (Daisy) and at the farm of Asahel Rawlings (Dallas). Hasten Poe had a popular tavern at a crossroads near the foot of Walden's Ridge, and this was used for the holding of the first courts. The courts were later moved nearby to the farm of John Mitchell before a log courthouse was built at Dallas on the Tennessee River. The county seat was shifted across the river to the new town of Harrison in 1840. Chattanooga, whose growth far outstripped that of Harrison, became the seat of government in 1870.

Principal towns, in addition to Chattanooga, are Red Bank, Soddy-Daisy, Ooltewah, Collegedale, East Ridge, Lookout Mountain, and Signal Mountain. The old towns of Dallas and Harrison were inundated by waters of Lake Chickamauga in 1939 when Hamilton County became a center for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Chattanooga's future as a railroad center was assured when the Western and Atlantic Railroad selected it as its northern terminus. This line reached the city in 1849, and the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad was completed in 1854. The East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad, the Cincinnati Southern, and other rail lines later were extended to the growing city.

A rail center and the “Gateway to the South,” Chattanooga became a focal point in the Civil War, especially in the summer and fall of 1863. The Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg fell back from the city and fought a bloody battle at nearby Chickamauga, Georgia, on September 19 and 20, 1863. From the surrounding mountains, the Confederate forces besieged Chattanooga until the arrival of Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant and General William T. Sherman. The Union won victories at Wauhatchie and Lookout Mountain prior to the famous charge up Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863.

After the Civil War, Chattanooga experienced a cholera epidemic in 1873 and a yellow fever scourge five years later. There were also devastating floods in 1867 and 1886. The city still managed to develop as a manufacturing center and underwent a real estate boom in the late 1880s. Later, it became the site of the first Coca-Cola bottling franchise and the headquarters for several major insurance companies. Combustion Engineering, DuPont, and McKee Baking were also key employers. The Krystal hamburger, the Moon Pie, the Double-Cola soft drink, and the Little Debbie snack cake originated in Hamilton County, and all four nationally known products have their corporate headquarters in the county. Hamilton Place Mall, one of the state's largest shopping malls, opened in 1987.

Chattanoogans who made their mark in national politics include Senator and Postmaster General David Key, Senator and Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, Senator Estes Kefauver, and Senator and Labor Secretary Bill Brock. Adolph Ochs went from publisher of the Chattanooga Times to develop the New York Times into a leading newspaper. Soddy's Ralph McGill became an award-winning editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Grace Moore was an opera and film star before meeting a tragic end in an airplane crash; she is buried in Chattanooga. Bessie Smith rose to fame as “Empress of the Blues,” and Roland Hayes had an outstanding singing career.

With such attractions as Rock City, Ruby Falls, and the Incline Railway on Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga has been a favorite tourism center. An abandoned railroad station was converted to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo family entertainment complex in 1973. Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park has units at Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Signal Mountain, and Missionary Ridge. A recent focus has been development of the downtown riverfront, including erection of the Tennessee Aquarium, the Children's Discovery Museum, the IMAX Theater, and the Chattanooga Visitors Center. Other museums include the Chattanooga African American Museum, Chattanooga Regional History Museum, Houston Museum of Decorative Arts, Hunter Museum of American Arts, Mary Walker Museum, National Knife Museum, and the museum of the Tennessee Valley Railroad. The Walnut Street Bridge was restored as a popular pedestrian walkway, and the handsomely landscaped Tennessee Riverwalk was built along the river. Engel Stadium is the historic home of the Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball team. Chattanooga, which had a remarkable cleanup of its polluted air, is developing a reputation as “the environmental city,” featuring electric buses, greenways, and an expanded convention center with an environmental design.

Colleges and universities in Hamilton County include the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Chattanooga State Technical Community College, Southern University, Tennessee Temple University, and Covenant College.

The 2000 population of Chattanooga is 155,554 and Hamilton County's was 307,896. Hamilton County encompasses 542 square miles. Chattanooga and Hamilton County operate under separate governments, and the county includes nine municipalities.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Hamilton County
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018