Located in the upper plateaus of southwestern Tennessee near the headwaters of the Big Hatchie River, Hardeman County has an area of 655 square miles. The county was formed from the Jackson Purchase and attached to Hardin County, then to Madison County, before the Tennessee General Assembly created Hardeman County in 1823. The county was named in honor of Colonel Thomas Hardeman, a veteran of the War of 1812 who served as the first county court clerk. He was commissioner of the town of Bolivar before moving to Texas in 1835.
Settlement of the county began almost immediately, with most settlers migrating from Middle Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Kentucky. Among the early settlers were Ezekiel Polk, the grandfather of President James K. Polk, and his son and son-in-law, William Polk and Thomas McNeal, and Rufus P. Neely, the grandson of Thomas Hardeman.
The county seat was established first on Hatchie River and named Hatchie Town. In April 1824 the commissioners chose the present site on land offered by William Ramsey and called the town Bolivar in honor of the South American patriot Simon Bolivar. The town was incorporated in 1847 and was governed by a mayor, recorder, and five aldermen.
Today, Bolivar embraces both the old and the new. City residents enjoy recreational facilities that include a city park, city swimming pool, and the Hardeman County Golf and Country Club. The city has a weekly newspaper, the Bolivar Bulletin-Times, two radio stations, and cable television. City government consists of a mayor and city council. In 1973 Bolivar took steps to preserve the architectural worth of the many antebellum houses still in use by creating a historical and cultural district of twenty sites in the uptown area. A Victorian Village was established with the district.
The town of Grand Junction became synonymous with railroads as a result of the 1854 junction of the Memphis and Charleston and the Mississippi Central Railroads. By 1858 Grand Junction had a newspaper, the Quid Nunc. Today, the town is the home of the National Bird Dog Museum and Field Trial Hall of Fame. Grand Junction acquired these facilities because of its proximity to the Ames Plantation, where the annual National Bird Dog Field Trial takes place each spring. The Hobart Ames Foundation operates the plantation for the benefit of the University of Tennessee. On the plantation grounds is “Cedar Grove,” the plantation house built by John Walker Jones in 1847.
Other Hardeman County towns also owe their existence to the railroads. Hickory Valley is situated on the old Mississippi Central Railroad. In 1920 H. H. McMurtree and Luke Wadley built a sassafras mill near Hickory Valley. Pulliam's Crossing was established around the same time the railroad was built in 1855. In 1897 H. B. Duryea built a noted stock farm for shorthorn cattle on three thousand acres near the rail crossing.
The first flourishing settlement at Hornsby was called Bright Prospect before it took the name Crainville. The town's reputation rested on the discovery of artesian wells in 1915. By 1923 the town boasted nine artesian wells and had become a favorite spot for political candidates to hold rallies and barbecues.
Middleton began as a small settlement called Slab Town. In 1946 the Tennessee Gas Transmission Company (now Tennessee Gas Pipeline, part of the ElPaso Corporation), a major supplier of natural gas in the United States, located in Middleton. Recently, the town has emerged as a major retail and industrial center. Labor Day weekend is celebrated with the Fur, Fin, and Feather Festival. Middleton also celebrates the M-Town Variety Show in November and sponsors a Christmas parade and Christmas yard- and business-decorating contests in December.
Saulsbury was incorporated in 1856 and quickly became a leading area cotton market. As a result of the importance of Saulsbury, the county polling place moved from Berlin to Saulsbury. The town also engaged in sand mining, and James H. Godsey established a leather goods manufacturing industry. Today, Saulsbury holds an annual community celebration with the lighting of the Christmas tree.
Eight cousins established the town of Silerton, which was incorporated in 1923. Jim Rowland served as the first mayor. Silerton became the center of the county's timber trade. Toone, named for James Toone, became a major shipping point for the northern part of the county when the railroad came through in 1856. T. C. Conner established a pottery there, the only one of its kind in West Tennessee.
Whiteville, which was incorporated in 1854, first emerged in the early nineteenth century when Dr. John White opened a trading post. John S. Norment built the first and only cloth manufacturing factory near Whiteville. In 1900 the community supported a newspaper, the Whiteville News. Today, Whiteville is the site of a Tennessee Technology Center. The town celebrates Children's Day, a Harvest Festival, and a December Parade. Anderson's Fruit Farm maintains markets at Whiteville and Cloverport.
Pocahontas in the southeastern part of the county was the site of a Civil War battle at Davis Bridge, part of the Corinth campaign. Today, visitors reach the National Register-listed site via a walking trail. Pocahontas is also the home of the Big Hill Pond State Natural Area, a park abounding in wildlife, with fishing, nature trails, and scenic areas. Middleburg, once a thriving community, was destroyed during the Civil War. Only Lax's Ole Country Store survives as a reminder of the former community.
Several Tennesseans of note have come from Hardeman County. Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, an ardent nineteenth-century supporter of women's rights was born in Bolivar. She wrote numerous articles and essays in support of her cause and published two books, Recollections of 92 Years and The Master of Red Leaf, Black and White. John Houston Bills, a Hardeman County planter, maintained private journals for the years 1843 to 1871; they are an invaluable source to the history of the county. His house, “The Pillars,” is a historic house museum in Bolivar. Another historic building, the Little Courthouse (circa 1824), is the county's official museum, administered by the county chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities. John Milton Hubbard, another diarist, wrote Notes of a Private. Hubbard was headmaster of Bolivar Male Academy when he marched away to the Civil War with his students. Egbert Haywood Osborne–educator, Baptist minister, Confederate soldier, and lawyer–published a book of poems. Charles Austin Miller, 1890 Tennessee secretary of state, compiled the Official and Political Manual of Tennessee. Jesse Christopher Allen and James H. White worked to establish schools for black children in the 1930s.
For much of its history, Hardeman County's economy has depended on agriculture and lumbering. Quickly identified as a favorable site for cotton production, the county early attracted planters who built plantations and worked the cotton fields with slave labor. No longer dependent upon cotton, the county's farmers now engage in livestock production and plant a variety of crops. Hardeman is still the leading hardwood-producing center in West Tennessee. McAnulty's Woods, a conservation site within the town of Bolivar, is the only known virgin forest remaining in West Tennessee.
Since the 1940s Hardeman County's economy has shifted toward industrial production. As in other Tennessee counties, Hardeman workers are engaged in the production of automotive parts and textiles. In addition, factories in the county produce elevator appliances, pyrotechnics, electrical switches, and absorbent clay products. According to the 2000 census, 28,105 people lived in the county, representing an increase of 20 percent since 1990.