Named in honor of Nashville judge John Overton, Overton County was carved out of Jackson County on September 12, 1806. With an area of 434 square miles, the newly created county encompassed all of what is now Fentress County, as well as portions of Clay, Putnam, Cumberland and Scott Counties. It is situated on the escarpment of the Highland Rim to the west and the Cumberland Plateau to the east.
Prior to the establishment of the county the area had been used as a hunting preserve by Native Americans, and white encroachment into the area violated existing treaties with the Indians. In the Alpine community the Cherokee inhabitants were referred to as “Nettle Carrier” Indians and were friendly with white explorers. In 1763 a party of Long Hunters explored the area and camped for a time at the current location of Waterloo on Spring Creek and later along the Roaring River. A number of the Long Hunters chose to remain, to the chagrin of the Cherokees. In 1769 one of those frontiersmen, Robert Crockett, was ambushed in the Oak Hill area and killed; he is purported to be the first white man to die in Middle Tennessee.
In 1797 the idealistic and peripatetic Dr. Moses Fisk moved into the county. A recent graduate of Harvard who was licensed to practice law, Fisk wanted to tame the wilderness and pursue the American dream. He established a settlement at Hilham, which is one of the oldest communities in the county. Fisk, thinking Hilham was the geographical center of the entire globe, started four roads radiating out of Hilham in the four major directions of the compass, convinced that all roads would lead to his new Rome in the wilderness. In an era of male dominance, Fisk established a Female Academy–one of the first such schools in the entire South–at Hilham in 1806.
After the American Revolution many veterans received land grants from the federal government and moved into the region. In 1799 Colonel Stephen Copland and his son “Big Jo” left Kingston and established a settlement near Monroe. Copland worked out a hospitable arrangement with the Cherokee chief Nettle Carrier and was allowed to establish a home site. His success encouraged further settlement.
The first county seat was located at Monroe in the northern part of the county at the crossroads of the Kentucky Stock road and the road to Danville, Kentucky. Benjamin Totten served as its first county clerk. Both John Sevier and Andrew Jackson acquired landholdings in Overton County in such places as Monroe, Windle, Oakley, Independence, Taylor and Ozone. In 1802 French adventurer Andre Michaux explored the Roaring River and trekked through the county as he moved west across the state.
John Sevier’s son, Samuel Sevier, acted as the first doctor in the Upper Cumberland, and his daughter Joannah lived most of her life in Overton County; she is buried in Monroe. Sevier’s widow, “Bonnie Kate,” moved to Overton County in 1815 and settled in the Dale community. Dale, or Lily Dale, no longer exists. The community was one of those flooded to create Dale Hollow Lake, yet its name endures in the choice of the lake’s name.
The county seat moved from Monroe to Livingston in 1835 as traffic through Monroe began to decline. Overton County representative Alvin Cullom engineered the change of location. New roads into Livingston and a burgeoning merchant district made it the logical choice for the county’s government.
Though much of the land in the county is inadequate for commercial agriculture, Overton County did have a number of slave owners. In 1860 slaveholders numbering 248 owned 1,087 slaves.
Though largely outside the fighting in the Civil War, Overton County was not untouched by the conflagration. Prior to the debacle at Mill Springs, Kentucky, which led to his untimely death, Felix Zollicoffer encamped and trained his Confederate troops near Monroe. Union soldiers gunned down a group of Confederates at the Overton Farm, north of Monterey, in 1864. In 1865 Captain John Francis and a band of Confederate guerrillas burned down the courthouse.
After the Civil War entrepreneurs and industry moved into the county. Two extractive industries, logging and coal mining, flourished side by side. Loggers like “Uncle Billy” Hull, father of Cordell Hull, made fortunes at the turn of the century. Logs were cut and either snaked by mules to “peckerwood” mills to be roughly sawed and shipped to market or floated down to the Cumberland River for delivery in Carthage or Nashville. Coal camps were established in the rugged hills to the south and east of Livingston. Run by the Fentress Coal and Coke Company and the Gernt family, towns like Twinton, Davidson, Wilder, Crawford, and Hanging Limb experienced a brief economic boom that lasted from the 1890s until the mid-1930s. The Wilder-Davidson strike over unionization led not only to the murder of organizer Barney Graham, but also precipitated the demise of the soft coal industry in the Upper Cumberland.
Concomitant with the logging and coal booms was the extension of railroads into the region. The railroad assisted the extractive industries and increased mobility in the region. Rickman, the second largest community in Overton County, was established in 1900 as a railhead. Rickman provided the only stop between Livingston and Algood and became a burgeoning economic center as a result. That economic boom reached its peak in the 1940s and has been on the wane ever since. The Rickman community had its own high school until 1984, when schools were consolidated and all students of high school age attended Livingston Academy. Rickman became a bedroom community for citizens who worked either in Cookeville or Livingston.
The Alpine community of Overton county was home to Governor Albert H. Roberts. A progressive governor and former educator, Roberts was instrumental in Tennessee’s ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Ironically those very women whom Roberts empowered with the right to vote chose to vote him out of office when he ran for reelection in 1920. Roberts performed the marriage ceremony of World War I hero Alvin C. York and his bride Gracie Williams in Pall Mall June 7, 1919.
The county boasts two significant recreational facilities: Standing Stone State Park, which began as New Deal-era parks project, and boat docks and campgrounds on Dale Hollow Lake, a project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Tourism accounts for a considerable portion of the county’s annual income.
In 2000 the population of Overton County was approximately 20,118, with less than 1 percent of the residents being nonwhite.