The history of Hickman County began before Tennessee achieved statehood in 1796. In April 1791 Edwin Hickman, a native of North Carolina, led a surveying party into what is now Hickman County. Hickman's party included James Robertson, later known as the Father of Middle Tennessee, Robert Weakley, who also played a prominent role in early state history, and others. The party camped at the mouth of a small creek on the north side of Duck River opposite the present site of Centerville.
The next morning, as Hickman and Robertson built a predawn fire, Indians fired on the party, killing Hickman and wounding Robertson in the hand. The party retreated to the Cumberland settlement but returned several days later to bury Hickman's body in a shallow grave at the spot where he was killed. In December 1807, when the Tennessee General Assembly created a new county, then Representative Robert Weakley attached an amendment to the bill specifying that the new county should be named in honor of Edwin Hickman. In 1994 the Hickman County Historical Society placed a monument at Hickman's grave and built a fence around the gravesite.
In 1807 the county extended all the way to the present Alabama state line, and Vernon, on the Piney River, became the first county seat. By 1820 several new counties had been created out of Hickman County, and a movement began to move the county seat to a more central location. In 1823 the new town of Centerville became the county seat. As a result of the bitterness over the change, the old log courthouse at Vernon was dismantled at night and hauled to Centerville, along with the court records. Other Hickman County communities in addition to Centerville and Vernon include Aetna, Bon Aqua, Coble, Farmers Exchange, Little Lot, Lyles, Nunnely, Only, Pinewood, Pleasantville, Shady Grove, and Wrigley.
Hickman County is now the eighth largest county in the state, containing 610 square miles. There are more springs and scenic waterfalls in Hickman County than in any other county in Middle Tennessee. A number of sulphur water springs were commercially developed as nineteenth-century recreational sites, including Bon Aqua Springs, Primm Springs, and Beaverdam Springs. These health resorts included hotels, individual cottages, and recreation facilities. Bon Aqua Springs was known as the “Queen” of the southern spas. Neither Bon Aqua nor Primm Springs is still active, but Beaverdam Springs is operated as a church camp by the Presbyterian Church as Na-Co-Me.
The county's early industry centered around the iron furnaces. Indeed, Goodspeed's 1886 History of Tennessee rated Hickman County's iron ore as the best in the state. The Lee and Gould Furnace on Sugar Creek opened in 1832. Five years later, Madison Napier built a furnace near Aetna, which was destroyed by Union troops during the Civil War. Furnaces also opened on Mill Creek near Wrigley at an early date. Standard Charcoal Company opened a furnace at Goodrich in 1882; a new furnace was built at Aetna in 1885. All iron works in the county were discontinued before 1940.
In addition to iron manufacturing, Hickman County's economy has centered on agriculture and timbering. Today, local industry includes manufacturers of packaging materials, metal buttons, men's pants, various wood products, structural steel, and pies. The county’s 2000 population was 22,295 residents.
Two native Hickman County women gained national fame: Beth Slater Whitson and Sara Ophelia Colley. Whitson wrote several hundred songs including “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland.” Colley gained world acclaim as Minnie Pearl on the Grand Ole Opry and the television show Hee Haw. A number of men played important roles in the county's history as well. Jerome Spence published Spence's History of Hickman County in 1900. S. L. Graham built a large cotton mill at Pinewood in the 1850s. Halbert Harvill began his career in education teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. He later taught history and organized and coached the first baseball team and the girls' basketball team at Austin Peay Normal School. Harvill was also dean of the school and president of Austin Peay State University before becoming Tennessee commissioner of education. He served in the Tennessee Senate from 1965 until 1981.