When Goodspeed published its well-known history of Tennessee in 1887, it concluded that “No Tennessee county has a more honorable record or a more interesting history than Jefferson.” The second of twenty-six American counties so named, its early settlers were men of intelligence, education, and patriotism, whose influence is still felt seven generations later.
Geography influenced the development of this East Tennessee Valley county. From 1784 to 1788, under the government of the State of Franklin, this area was part of Caswell County. Jefferson County, as created by Territorial Governor William Blount on June 11, 1792, encompassed approximately 1,200 square miles. The Holston River formed its northern boundary, and the French Broad River bisected it. These two water highways, the result of the area's heavy rainfall, support a large variety of plants, animals, and freshwater fish. Early settlers used these rivers as their primary means of transportation to the new frontier of Tennessee. North Carolinians came down the French Broad, and Virginians arrived by way of the Holston River.
The first permanent settlement at Dandridge dates to 1783; the village became the county seat in 1793. One immigrant, Dr. William Moore, set up practice as the first physician in Dandridge. Dr. Moore's wife, Cassie Paxton Moore, was a lady of culture and kept a large library. Her first cousin, Sam Houston, spent weeks with the Moores, immersed in the books that would prepare him for later public service in Tennessee and Texas.
Fertile soil and favorable treaties with the Indian tribes of the area attracted hundreds of settlers to Jefferson County. By 1795 Knox and Jefferson Counties each reported populations of approximately 7,500. Many of the early settlers were Revolutionary War soldiers of Scots-Irish background who migrated to the region to claim war land grants. The rivers that brought them to the area would also provide farm-to-market roads for the corn, wheat, and cattle these industrious pioneers produced. The rivers remained the primary transportation system in the county until the first railroad was constructed in 1858.
The Civil War touched Jefferson County in a variety of ways. Divided in their loyalties, members of a given family often fought on opposing sides. On Christmas Eve, 1863, at Dandridge, Federal cavalry engaged Confederate soldiers from the command of General James Longstreet, who was moving to the Morristown-Dandridge-Greeneville area for winter headquarters. Both Union and Confederate troops foraged the area in search of food. By winter's end the land was devastated; even the fence rails had been burned. The buildings of Carson-Newman College, established in 1851, had also been vandalized. Unlike many other institutions, however, Carson-Newman recovered and is now among the largest church-supported colleges in Tennessee. With over 2,200 students, 350 faculty and staff, and thirty buildings on ninety acres in the heart of Jefferson City, no other institution or industry contributes as much to the county's economy.
The fertile land and seasonal climate accounted for much of the agricultural recovery in the post-Civil War period. The success of the county's agricultural production encouraged the establishment of canning factories, such as Stokely and Bush Brothers in the early twentieth century. In the late 1990s, Bush's baked beans controlled over 50 percent of that product's market.
The outbreak of World War II gave final impetus to the building of Douglas Dam as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Construction of the dam threatened valuable farmland, and Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar fought on behalf of the interests of the canning industry against TVA plans for Douglas Dam. Indeed, Jefferson County lost 40.5 square miles of the most fertile farmland to the TVA. But war demands for hydroelectricity took precedence over other concerns. The Cherokee Dam blueprint was used to build Douglas Dam. More than six thousand laborers worked around the clock and completed construction in 382 days, a world record for a project of this size. The hydroelectricity from Douglas and Cherokee Dams furnished power for two critical war industries, aluminum production and the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge.
In 1914 valuable zinc ore deposits were discovered by Mark Newman, a geologist with American Zinc Company. In the 1930s Dr. Charles R. L. Oder, of Universal Zinc Company, and Jack Crawford and Howard Miller, two nationally recognized geologists, found additional deposits. By 1960 four major companies were mining zinc in Jefferson County. From 1950 to 1995 Jefferson County claimed the distinction of being the largest producer of zinc ore in the United States, although declining deposits have reduced the number of mining companies operating in the county today to two.
Currently Jefferson County encompasses 273.83 square miles, having contributed land to the formation of Sevier County (1795), Cocke County (1797), and Hamblen County (1870). The 2000 population of Jefferson County was 44,294. There are five incorporated cities: Baneberry, Dandridge, Jefferson City, New Market, and White Pine. Jefferson City is the largest with a population of 7,760.