Named in honor of President James Monroe, Monroe County is located along the North Carolina border in the southeastern corner of Tennessee. Its beautiful landscape includes the Appalachian Mountains, approximately 145,380 acres of Cherokee National Forest, the Bald River Falls on the Tellico River, and the Little Tennessee River. The modern Cherohala Skyway, a scenic byway, connects Tellico Plains to Robbinsville, North Carolina.
In 1819 the Tennessee General Assembly established the county from lands formerly belonging to the Overhill Cherokees. Despite the destruction of several Cherokee village sites by Tellico Lake in the late 1970s, Monroe County still possesses extremely significant historical sites associated with the Cherokees and the Native American heritage of Tennessee. Toqua was a large Mississippian village along the Little Tennessee River. Great Talequah was a principal Overhill Cherokee town initially visited by South Carolina fur traders in the late seventeenth century. Tanasi was the principal Cherokee political center of the early eighteenth century, while by the mid-1750s Chota emerged as the principal town, remaining so until the treaty era began in the late eighteenth century. Fort Loudoun, the first permanent English settlement in present-day Tennessee, was established along the Little Tennessee River in 1756-57. In 1760 Sequoyah, the originator of the Cherokee syllabary, was born at the nearby village of Tuskegee. Today, the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum documents his contributions to Cherokee culture and history as well as the Cherokee legacy in Tennessee. Another important site concerning early relations with the United States and the Cherokees is Tellico Blockhouse, a former federal agency established in 1794 near the site of Fort Loudoun. The first major gold mining sites in the state also are in Monroe County, where placer mining took place along Coker Creek from 1831 to 1834.
Madisonville is the county seat, and the National Register-listed Monroe County Courthouse (1897), designed by Baumann Brothers and Company of Knoxville in Classical Revival style, dominates the historic town square. The construction of the new courthouse coincided with plans of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to build a new line linking Atlanta and Knoxville which would pass directly through Madisonville, giving the county its second major railroad line. The Cannon-Stickley House, a two-story brick central hall dwelling with an impressive double Greek Revival-style portico, documents the town's antebellum past. Madisonville is also home to the historic Hiwassee College, established in 1849, and is the birthplace of U.S. Senator C. Estes Kefauver (1903-1963), the Democratic nominee for vice-president in 1956, and John C. Vaughn (1824-1875), who served in the Mexican War and later as a brigadier general for the Confederacy. Vaughn commanded the cavalry brigade that escorted President Jefferson Davis during his flight from Richmond in 1865.
Sweetwater, located along the original route of the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad (later the Southern Railway) and the historic Lee Highway (U.S. 11), is the county's largest town and industrial center. It is home to the former Tennessee Military Institute (TMI), established by Dr. J. Lynn Bachman in 1874 as the Sweetwater Military College. The school operated as TMI from 1902 to 1975, when it became TMI Academy. Now the campus is home to Tennessee Meiji Gakuin, a high school for Japanese students. During the Civil War, Sweetwater was a strategic railroad town, serving as a key supply depot for the Confederacy in mid- to late 1863. East of Sweetwater on Tennessee 68 is the Lost Sea, a huge underground lake that has been an important tourist destination throughout the twentieth century.
Tellico Plains, located on the western boundary of the Cherokee National Forest, was a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century logging and industrial town controlled largely by Charles Andrew Scott (1866-1930), whose Classical Revival mansion of 1912 has been listed on the National Register. Also at Tellico Plains is a restored Civilian Conservation Corps camp, now used as a ranger station for the Cherokee National Forest. The first industrial works in the county date to iron works of the early 1800s operated by Cherokee residents. James Bradley and Michael Carroll acquired the property in 1824, but Elisha Johnson bought the Tellico Iron Works in 1846, operating it until it was destroyed by Union troops in 1864. Ray Jenkins (1897-1960), a famous defense attorney, was born at Tellico Plains.
The construction of Tellico Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) during the 1970s reshaped the county's landscape while creating new economic opportunities, especially in recreation. While the TVA's plans for Timberlake City (1967-75) never fully materialized, construction of Tellico Dam continued throughout the decade, although final completion was delayed for years due to controversies surrounding the project's impact on the snail darter, an endangered species, as well as on the environment and historic Cherokee sites. In September 1979 President Jimmy Carter regretfully signed a federal law allowing the dam to be closed and Tellico Lake to be completed.
Monroe County's 2000 population stood at 38,961, more than a 27 percent increase in ten years. The county seat of Madisonville had grown at an even faster rate, almost 30 percent, and counted almost 4,000 residents.