Obion County

Created on October 24, 1823, and organized on January 19, 1824, Obion County included what is now Lake County until 1870. The county took its name from the Obion River; the word Obion is thought to be an Indian word meaning “many forks.” Situated in the rolling hills of northwest Tennessee, Obion County has earned the nickname “Land of Green Pastures.”

Many early settlers were Scots-Irish from the Carolinas and Virginia. The first known white settler was Elisha Parker, who arrived in the area in 1819. In 1820 Colonel W. M. Wilson settled three miles southwest of the future town of Troy; organization of Obion County took place in his cabin. Davy Crockett was among those present on March 16, 1825, when the county seat of Troy was laid out. Crockett’s association with the history of Obion County is well known; he served the area in the U.S. House of Representatives, and his claim of a record kill of 103 bears was made in Obion County.

The history of Union City, the present county seat, was tied to the railroads. Laid out in 1854 by General George Gibbs on land he received in 1829, the town derived its name from the intersection of the Nashville and Northwestern Railroad with the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.

Historically Obion County has been a region of small farms; in 1860 most farms ranged in size from twenty to fifty acres. Tobacco, corn, and wheat were the principal crops. The population of Obion County increased rapidly in the antebellum years; in 1830 the population numbered just over 2,000, increasing to 12,800 by 1860.

Obion County experienced its share of action during the Civil War. In the early months of 1861 Camp Brown, which housed up to ten thousand Confederate soldiers, was established one mile north of Union City in preparation for General Leonidas Polk’s invasion of Kentucky and occupation of Columbus in September 1861. The last important engagement in Obion County pitted the U.S. Seventh Tennessee Cavalry under the command of Colonel Isaac Hawkins against Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Seventh Cavalry under the command of Colonel Duckworth. Unable to take the Federal stronghold at Union City by storm, the Confederates devised a “Quaker cannon” from a black painted log and wagon wheels and successfully demanded unconditional surrender in Forrest’s name.

Rebuilding and recovery occupied the years following the war. Business and manufacturing had revived by the early 1880s, and the rail lines soon made Union City a commercial center, shipping the products of the county’s furniture factories and sawmills to eastern markets.

Along with the commercial vitality of Union City came demands to move the county seat from Troy. Following a lengthy public debate and court battle, Union City won a hotly contested referendum, and the county records were moved to the new courthouse in July 1890. As the county seat, Union City grew rapidly, a period of expansion now marked by several National Register properties, including the Washington-Florida Avenues historic district; the East Main Historic District; and the Mt. Zion C.M.E. Church.

In the early 1900s trouble loomed at Reelfoot Lake. Fishermen felt they had a natural right to fish the lake. However, lands beneath the lake’s shallow waters had been claimed under the 1783 grants made prior to the earthquakes of 1811-12 that created the lake. In the meantime, settlers profited from the lake’s bounty of fish and migrant waterfowl unmindful of previous claims. In the 1870s John Burdick established a dock and wholesale fish business at the lake.

In the 1890s James Harris of Tiptonville became interested in exploiting the timber and agricultural possibilities of the lake. Buying up most of the old land grants, Harris announced in 1899 that he would drain the lake. Opposed by Burdick and the fishermen, Harris’s son won the initial legal battle when the lake was declared not navigable and thus subject to private ownership.

In 1907 Harris joined forces with the West Tennessee Land Company, which had acquired the remaining grants. Under pressure from the land company, Burdick chose to lease his property and obtained sole rights to purchase all lake fish, a move that embittered some of the fishermen.

Emotions among some lake residents shifted toward a more violent solution to the dispute as they lost faith in legal remedies. Soon men wearing masks and gowns and calling themselves Night Riders, made vigilante raids around the lake, terrorizing those who opposed them and burning Burdick’s dock.

On the night of October 19, 1908, Robert Z. Taylor and Quentin Rankin, attorneys for the land company, were taken from Ward’s Hotel at Walnut Log by the Night Riders. When they refused demands to reopen the lake to fishing, Rankin was killed, and Taylor escaped into the water of the lake, surviving to tell the story.

Captured by the state militia, eight men were tried in Union City, and six of them were sentenced to hang, but the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict on several technicalities. The lake was later ruled navigable and incapable of private ownership. Today it is a part of Tennessee’s park system, and its fish, game, and the winter presence of American bald eagles attract many visitors.

Economic development in the twentieth century rested on manufacturing. In 1923 Brown Shoe Company joined the Canvas Duck Decoy Company and Child’s Specialty House (children’s clothing) as the major industries located in Union City. In 1934 Salant & Salant established shirt manufacturing in that city. In 1968 Goodyear Tire, employing 3,000 workers, came to Union City. The newest industry to locate in Obion County is Tyson Foods, which established a processing plant in 1996. In addition to rail service, Obion County is served by Everett-Stewart Airport, originally a World War II aviation training field.

Agriculture remains a key economic contributor. In 1986 the state designated twenty-seven Tennessee Century Farms in Obion County and these properties produced cotton, soybeans, livestock, honey, corn, and wheat.

Obion County’s rich history has been carefully preserved. The first monument ever erected in memory of unknown Confederate dead was dedicated in Union City on October 21, 1869. Nearby is the Obion County Museum. On Highway 51 is Turner Kirkland’s Dixie Gun Works, the world’s largest supplier of antique guns and parts. The Obion County Courthouse, built by the Public Works Administration in 1939-40, and the Park’s covered bridge near Trimble are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1997 Main Street Union City sponsored a multiple property National Register nomination which listed over one hundred additional properties in Union City, including the Capitol Theater, Central School, and the Union City Armory.

The 2000 census lists the county’s population at 32,450, representing a slight growth of 2.3 percent since 1990. Union City too experienced slow growth, reaching a population of 10,876. Despite its industrial growth, Obion County has retained its agricultural base and still ranks high in the production of corn, wheat, orchard products, soybeans, and swine.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Obion County
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 22, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018