Created in 1803, Rutherford County came from sections of Davidson, Wilson, Williamson, and Sumner Counties and is named in honor of Griffith Rutherford, an Irish immigrant who served on the council of the Southwest Territory. The county’s 619 square miles encompass the geographic center of the state.
Until 1794 the land that is Rutherford County was the seasonal hunting and fishing ground of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Shawnees, Creeks, and Choctaws. Early maps depict the Nickajack Trail and the Creek War Trace converging near present-day Murfreesboro at the springs camp of Black Fox, a noted Cherokee chief. After a series of treaties negotiated between settlers and native tribes failed, militia under Nashville founder James Robertson wiped out Black Fox’s camp. The Cherokees last used the camp springs site of the legendary leader as they were forcibly marched along the Trail of Tears to reservations in Oklahoma.
Stones River, a major tributary of the Cumberland River named for explorer Uriah Stone around 1767, provided a transportation route and water source for settlers and power for mills built throughout the county. Jefferson, a river town now covered by the waters of Percy Priest Lake, was the first county seat. Centrally located Murfreesboro gained county seat status in 1811. From 1818 to 1826 Murfreesboro was the capital of Tennessee. Smyrna, LaVergne, and Eagleville are incorporated towns within the county.
A moderate climate supporting a long growing season, proximity to Nashville, access to market by water, road, and, by the 1850s, the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, combined to promote an agrarian base of considerable diversity and wealth. A few holdings exceeded 1,000 acres. Oaklands, established by the Murfree and Maney families in the 1820s, had 1,500 acres and, as illustrated by the 1850s Italianate house museum, was a very prosperous estate. The county now has 200,000 acres of farm land and twenty-two certified Century Farms (those that have been in the same family for at least one hundred years). Livestock and grains continue to be the county’s chief agricultural products.
Rutherford County’s location between Nashville and Chattanooga made it a highly contested area during the Civil War. The battle of Stones River was one of the bloodiest confrontations of the western theater. To supply the Union advance to the south, General William Rosecrans ordered the construction of the largest earthworks fortification built during the war–Fortress Rosecrans. Of the county’s many Civil War stories, none is better known than that of Smyrna’s Sam Davis, who was only twenty-one when captured, tried, and hanged as a Confederate spy. He is buried in the family cemetery on the grounds of his home, now a state historic site. Another noted Confederate scout from Rutherford County was Dewitt Jobe, who also was executed for spying in 1864.
Education has traditionally been a priority in Rutherford County. Nineteenth-century schools included Bradley Academy, established around 1811 and attended by James K. Polk and John Bell, Union University, Soule College, and Jefferson Academy. The Tennessee College for Women, completed in 1907, was a landmark of education as well as Classical Revival architecture. It was followed in 1911 by the Middle Tennessee Normal School, now Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU).
Denied formal education for generations, Rutherford County’s African American population took advantage of the schools which opened across the county in the wake of Reconstruction and in succeeding decades. Bradley Academy, reopened in the 1880s as a school for African Americans, became the county’s first accredited high school for blacks.
A county hospital opened in the 1920s, as did a county health department funded by the Commonwealth Fund of New York. The Alvin C. York Veterans Administration Hospital is named in honor of Tennessee’s World War I hero and its construction by the Public Works Administration represented a lasting New Deal legacy to the county. Sewart Air Force Base, near Smyrna, was a product of the country’s preparations for World War II and remained in military operation until the 1960s. Today it is a busy commercial airport. Major employers in the county’s history include the Carnation Milk Plant, Tennessee Red Cedar Wooden Ware Company, Sunshine Hosiery Mills, General Electric, National Healthcare Corporation, Bridgestone/Firestone, Ingram Distribution, and Samsonite Furniture Company. Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corporation, U.S.A., is the largest private employer in the county.
Rutherford Countians of note include Sarah Childress (Mrs. James K. Polk); Governor John Price Buchanan and grandson James Buchanan, a 1986 Nobel Prize winner; poet Will Allen Dromgoole; Congressman and historian James D. Richardson; novelist Mary Noailles Murfree; writer Andrew Nelson Lytle; sportswriter Grantland Rice; country music’s “Uncle Dave” Macon; Jean Marie Faircloth (Mrs. Douglas MacArthur); educator and civil rights activist Mary Ellen Vaughn; and NASA astronaut Rhea Seddon.