Meigs County

Created in 1836 from Rhea County, Meigs County is named for Return Jonathan Meigs (1740-1823), a colonel in the American Revolutionary War and later an Indian agent from 1801 until his death in 1823. The county encompasses 195 square miles and is bounded on the west by the Tennessee River. The lower Hiwassee River crosses through the southern portion of the county, where it enters the Tennessee. The county contains fertile bottom land and ample timber, as well as a vein of iron ore.

The Tennessee River Valley was first inhabited by generations of Native Americans, and Meigs County contains many prehistoric and Cherokee sites. Hiwassee Island, at the mouth of the Hiwassee River, is the site of a large Mississippian Period town dating from the eleventh century A.D. and includes several temple mounds surrounding a plaza. The Cherokees later occupied the island. In 1809-10 Sam Houston lived with Oolootek (John Jolly), leader of three hundred Cherokees living on Hiwassee Island, also called Jolly’s Island. Today the area is Hiwassee Island Wildlife Refuge, noted for its use by migrating sand hill cranes.

In the Hiwassee Treaty of 1817 and the Calhoun Agreement of 1819, the Cherokees ceded the land on the east bank of the Tennessee River north of the Hiwassee to Tennessee. The first settlements in the Meigs County area were in the Ten Mile Valley in the north, while later families settled near the site of Decatur. The territory south of the Hiwassee remained in the Ocoee District of the Cherokee nation and was not opened to white settlement until 1836. Most of the Cherokee residents were removed as part of the Trail of Tears in 1838, crossing the Tennessee in Meigs County at Blythe’s Ferry. A few Cherokee residents remained, notably John Miller, Richard Taylor, Colonel Gideon Morgan, and John Jolly. The Meigs County government, Tennessee Valley Authority, National Park Service, and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency have planned a monument near the Hiwassee inscribed with names of the Cherokees removed in 1838, as well as a walking trail along part of a removal route. Construction of the memorial and surrounding park at the former site of Blythe Ferry began in 1998, and parts of the park are already open to the public.

The only incorporated town in the county, Decatur, was laid out as the county seat in 1836 on fifty acres donated by James Lillard and Leonard Brooks. Named for Stephen Decatur, a War of 1812 naval hero, the present historic courthouse, listed on the National Register, was built in 1905. Decatur Academy, a secondary school, opened in the 1840s, and a school for African American children was established in 1869. When the academy closed in 1890, the Holston Conference of the Methodist Church set up a high school that operated until 1910, when Meigs County High School was built. The Meigs County High School’s girls’ basketball team won state AA championships in 1994 and 1995. County schools consolidated in 1997 into two elementary, one middle, and one high school. Other communities in the county include Ten Mile, Big Spring, Peakland, Union Grove, Sewee, Goodfield, and East View.

Meigs County is covered by a series of ridges and valleys running southwest to northeast, with the valleys filled with family farms. In antebellum times, commerce was linked to riverboats at landings such as Cottonport, Pinhook, and Breedenton. Several ferries were also established: the Blythe, Washington, and Free ferries on the Tennessee, and the Russell and Kincannon ferries on the Hiwassee. (In the 1990s, two bridges replaced the Blythe and Washington ferries, the last ferries in the eastern Tennessee River Valley.) Although a railroad was expected in the 1840s and 1850s, one would never cross the county. There were 598 farms in 1850, chiefly raising hogs (twenty thousand head), wheat, oats, corn, and potatoes.

In 1850 Meigs County’s population consisted of 4,480 whites and 395 slaves with 4 free African Americans. By 1860 there were 4,021 whites, and the number of slaves had increased to 638, with 7 free blacks. When Tennessee voted on secession in June 1861, Meigs voted 481 for secession and 267 for the Union. The district south of the Hiwassee had the fewest slaveholders and sent most of its men to the Union. In 1864 Owen Soloman, acting under the order of Military Governor Andrew Johnson, organized a new county court loyal to the Union.

Following the war, farmers in the county resumed their lives, adding apples and peaches, beef cattle and milk cows to the production of grains. In the 1880s Meigs farmers turned increasingly to tobacco as a cash crop–4,159 pounds were raised in 1880, growing to 136,791 pounds by 1940. Timber became increasingly important to the county’s economy and was sent by river to Chattanooga until 1900 when the pine and poplar trees were virtually logged out. Although Meigs County contained 814 freedmen in 1870, the African American population found little opportunity; their numbers fell after the Civil War to less than 2 percent by 1990. As late as 1940 Meigs County had only one industrial plant, the Decatur Hosiery Mills, established in the late 1930s.

The Tennessee Valley Authority brought changes to the county with the construction of Chickamauga Lake in 1940 and Watts Bar in 1942. Although Meigs’s most productive acres were flooded by the lakes, 225 miles of shoreline were created within the county on the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers. The lakes brought tourist use for fishing, hunting, boating, and photography. The TVA’s construction of Sequoyah and Watts Bar plants south and north of the county in the 1970s added residential growth. Several industries were established by the 1970s, when nine companies employed 432 workers.

In the late 1990s tobacco and vegetables top the Meigs County market crops, although beef cattle and dairy herds are still raised. The county contains neither railroads nor a U.S. highway, but seven motor freight companies serve the county. Shaw Industries, a yarn spinning mill, is the largest manufacturer, with over 400 employees; none of the county’s other manufacturers have more than 80 workers. The largest public sector employer is the Meigs County School System. In 2000 Decatur’s population was 1,395, while the Meigs County population stood at 11,086 in 2000.

Suggested Reading

Stewart Lillard, Meigs County, Tennessee, 2nd ed. (1982)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Meigs County
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 15, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018