In 1786 James White built a fort five miles below the junction of the French Broad and Holston Rivers on the southernmost edge of frontier settlement in present-day East Tennessee. William Blount, governor of the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio, selected the site of James White's Fort as the territorial capital in 1791 and gave it the name Knoxville in honor of Revolutionary War hero General Henry Knox (1750-1806), who served as the first U.S. secretary of war from 1785 to 1794.
Knox County, also named for Henry Knox, was created from parts of Greene and Hawkins Counties on June 11, 1792, by Governor Blount and has the distinction of being one of only eight counties created during territorial administration. Knoxville has served as the county seat of Knox County from the date of the county's creation. Portions of Knox County were later removed to create Blount County (1795), Anderson County (1801), Roane County (1801), and Union County (1850). Knox County currently contains 509 square miles and lies at the geographical center of the Great Valley of East Tennessee. The Tennessee River originates near the center of the county from the union of the Holston and French Broad Rivers.
Governor Blount designated Knoxville as the capital of the Territory South of the River Ohio from 1791 to 1796. Knoxville also served as the capital of the State of Tennessee from 1796 to 1812 with the exception of one day in 1807, when the legislature met in Kingston, and briefly again in 1817-18. Frontier leader General John Sevier, a resident of Knox County, served as governor of Tennessee from 1796 to 1801 and 1803 to 1809, most of Knoxville's years as the state capital. Since no state capitol building was constructed until work began on the present capitol building in Nashville in 1845, the general assembly met in taverns and public buildings. Blount Mansion (1792), the home of Territorial Governor Blount, is the most historically significant dwelling surviving in Knox County from the pre-statehood era and is the only National Historic Landmark in the county.
Knoxville enjoyed an early advantage from its status as the capital city of the new and growing state and from its central location in the Great Valley of East Tennessee and quickly became the largest commercial center of the region. The first newspaper in Tennessee, the Knoxville Gazette, was established in 1791 by George Roulstone. Following its early growth, Knoxville lagged behind Nashville and Memphis in the decades prior to the Civil War, in part because of the difficulty of transportation on the Tennessee River. When the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad and the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad met in Knoxville in 1855, the transportation problem was solved.
Location and the railroads made Knoxville and East Tennessee strategic targets for both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. The battle of Fort Sanders (1863) confirmed Union control of the city for the rest of the war. With Federal occupation of the city, William Gannaway “Parson” Brownlow (1805-1877), Unionist leader, author, and newspaper editor, returned to Knoxville in triumph in 1863. He later served as governor of Tennessee (1865-69) and U.S. senator (1869-75).
Post-Civil War recovery was initially slow and difficult, but Knoxville retained its role as the major center of commerce in East Tennessee. By 1900 Knoxville had a population of 32,000 and appeared to have enormous potential for continued growth. Testaments to the city's growing regional and national importance, Knoxville hosted Appalachian Expositions in 1910 and 1911 as well as the 1913 National Conservation Exposition. The major industries of the early twentieth century were textiles, coal, lumber, marble, and zinc. Growth had slowed again by the 1930s. As a result of the New Deal initiatives, the Tennessee Valley Authority located its headquarters in Knoxville in 1933 and became a significant employer. A group of Knoxvillians led by Colonel David Chapman was instrumental in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934, which eventually generated a booming tourism industry in East Tennessee. The explosive post-World War II growth of the University of Tennessee and nearby Oak Ridge had a major impact on the city's economy as well. Knoxville hosted the 1982 World's Fair, which drew visitors from across the nation and the world. The principal industries of the 1990s included apparel and textiles, metal products, and food products.
Education has also played an important role in Knox County's history. The University of Tennessee grew out of Blount College, founded in Knoxville in 1794. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the home campus of the statewide University of Tennessee system, serves twenty-five thousand students in 297 degree programs in fifteen colleges and schools. Knoxville College, founded in 1875 to provide a unique educational experience for African Americans, remains the oldest historically black college in East Tennessee. Pellissippi State Technical Community College, established in 1974, currently enrolls eight thousand students in programs for associate undergraduate degrees and vocational training. Knox County operates a consolidated city and county public school system with an enrollment of over fifty-two thousand students in grades K-12. Lawson McGhee Library, the main library of the Knox County Public Library System, is the oldest continuously functioning public library in East Tennessee.
Growing communities in Knox County include the incorporated town of Farragut, the fastest growing area of Knox County, and the unincorporated communities of Concord, Halls, Karns, and Powell. Some historic communities in Knox County include Asbury, Ball Camp, Byington, Cedar Bluff, Corryton, Dante, Ebenezer, Gibbs, Graveston, Harbison's Cross Roads, Heiskell, Kimberlin Heights, Mascot, Millertown, Riverdale, Skaggston, Solway, Spring Place, Stock Creek, and Thorn Grove. The county’s 2000 population was 382,032.
A number of individuals who have made significant contributions to Tennessee and United States history are associated with Knoxville and Knox County. Among important writers with Knoxville connections are James Agee, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Nikki Giovanni, George Washington Harris, Joseph Wood Krutch, Cormac McCarthy, J. G. M. Ramsey, and Tennessee Williams. Military leaders from Knox County include Admiral David Glasgow Farragut and Brigadier General Lawrence D. Tyson. Country music star Roy Acuff and blues musician Walter “Brownie” McGhee both spent their formative years in Knoxville. Inventors George Dempster and Weston Fulton called Knoxville home, as did Harvey Broome, a founder of the Sierra Club.