Lewis County was established in 1843 from parts of Perry, Hickman, Maury, Lawrence, and Wayne Counties and named in honor of Meriwether Lewis, the famed explorer of the Lewis and Clark expedition, who died within the county's boundaries. The first courts were held in the home of John Blackburn on Swan Creek. The first county seat was located there in 1846 and named Gordon in honor of Powhattan Gordon of nearby Columbia. Two years later the county seat moved to Newburg, a fifty-acre tract donated by Hugh B. Venable and Robert O. Smith, which stood on the dividing ridge between Big and Little Swan Creeks. Demands for a more central location for the county seat, coupled with the economic decline of Newburg, led officials to move the seat of government to Hohenwald in 1897; the town received its charter in 1923.
Located on the western Highland Rim, Lewis County's thin and flinty soil has not been conducive to agriculture. Corn, wheat, oats, grasses, and especially peanuts constituted the principal crops. The wealth of the county consisted of iron ore deposits, primarily in the southern part of the county. In 1834 Napier and Catron erected Napier Furnace, which produced approximately ten tons of pig iron per day and employed twenty-five laborers. By 1880 it had ceased operations. The Rockdale Cotton Factory opened in 1825. Producing cotton yarn and employing mostly female workers, the factory operated until late in the Civil War. Other antebellum manufacturing included sawmills, gristmills, and barrel making.
During the Civil War the county furnished three companies for the Confederate army: Company H, Third Tennessee Infantry, Company C, Forty-eighth Tennessee Infantry, and Company H, Ninth Tennessee Cavalry. In all, approximately four hundred men from Lewis County served. No battles were fought in the county, but farmers suffered extensive property losses from foragers.
In the late nineteenth century, three groups of German and Swiss immigrants inscribed the area with a unique cultural heritage. German immigrants arrived in 1878 and established the community of Schubert. They were followed in 1885 by Swiss settlers from Milwaukee, whose colony attracted a third settlement a decade later by the Swiss Pioneer Group from Omaha, Nebraska. The Swiss settlers established New Switzerland and Hohenwald (High Forest). The cultural life of Lewis County quickly assumed the flavor of the new immigrants, with music filling the air from the Swiss Singing Society and a band called “Echoes of Switzerland,” waltzes at Hohenwald's Society Park, and an annual production of the Wilhelm Tell play. Both the Swiss Reformed and German Reformed Churches conducted services in German. The German and Swiss cultural heritage survived until the anti-German propaganda of two world wars and the forces of Americanization eroded the preservation of folk knowledge and history.
In 1903 the Kurshedt Manufacturing Company of New York established a lace factory in Hohenwald. Employing Swiss labor, the factory produced Hamburg lace for baby clothes. During World War I the factory was converted to the manufacture of embroidered military uniform emblems, and the plant closed shortly after the war's end.
Lewis County has catapulted into national prominence on at least two occasions. In 1809 Meriwether Lewis died while lodging overnight at Grinder's Inn on the Natchez Trace. The death of Lewis, who was en route to Washington, D.C., to explain irregularities in his administration of Upper Louisiana, prompted an investigation by his patron and friend, Thomas Jefferson. The death was never satisfactorily explained, and debates continue as to whether the death was a suicide or a murder. Lewis was buried nearby. In 1925 the federal government designated the grave site as a National Monument. Today the Meriwether Lewis National Monument features picnic areas and nature trails, in addition to Lewis's grave and a replica of Grinder's Inn.
On August 10, 1884, a local mob attacked a group of Mormon missionaries and their followers, an episode that was subsequently labeled the “Tennessee Massacre” in Mormon church history. A small Mormon community had lived quietly on Cane Creek until that fateful Sunday morning when a party of masked men descended on the home of James Condor. The intention of the mob has been disputed, but gunfire quickly erupted, resulting in the deaths of four Mormon men and one member of the mob and the wounding of Mrs. Condor. The small Mormon community soon fled the county, some moving to Utah and others settling in nearby counties.
Several small villages have existed in Lewis County. Kimmons once was a large peanut shipping center and railway stop. Allen's Creek, Napier, and Gordonsburg were iron ore and phosphate mining towns. The oldest village was Palestine, which was a voting precinct in Hickman County in 1820. The villages of North Riverside and Hinsontown have survived the reverses of changing economies and population shifts.
Today the citizens of Lewis County enjoy a diverse economic base, an A+ school system, a state vocational school, and opportunities for civic, religious, and recreational activities. Industrial employment is divided among textile, rubber hose, and boot-making factories. The Natchez Trace Parkway and the Meriwether Lewis National Monument draw tourists to the area and provide recreation for local residents. Local trucking companies, railroads, and an airport provide transportation and shipping. The county's 2000 population was 11,367, an almost 23 percent increase over ten years.