Samuel Cole Williams

Jurist and historian Samuel Cole Williams was born in Gibson County in 1864 and educated in the schools of Humboldt. Encouraged by Judge Horace Lurton–a family friend and later a U.S. Supreme Court justice–he enrolled in the Vanderbilt University law school and graduated in 1884. Soon thereafter, Williams accepted attorney Sam Kirkpatrick’s invitation to become his partner in Jonesborough. Eight years later, after his partner died, Williams moved to Johnson City, the emerging business center of the Tri-States area. He established an enviable reputation as a lawyer, and his clients included railroads, industrialists, and businessmen. He invested wisely in real estate, banks, and industries. Williams was appointed to a vacancy on the Tennessee State Supreme Court in 1913 and the next year was elected to a full term. He resigned to become dean of the Lamar School of Law of Emory University from 1919 to 1924.

Successful attorney, businessman, jurist, and teacher, the sixty-year-old Williams returned to Johnson City, where he kept morning office hours–looking after his business interests and taking a few cases that interested him. In the afternoons and evenings, he worked at home in his comfortable library, writing the history of Tennessee from earliest times to statehood. Since 1893, he had been collecting material on the early settlers and had published ten articles in the Tennessee Historical Magazine, Tennessee Bar Association Proceedings, Journal of American History, and Tennessee Law Review. When he died December 14, 1947, he had written six books on early Tennessee history: History of the Lost State of Franklin (1924); Beginnings of West Tennessee in the Land of the Chickasaws, 1591-1814 (1930); General John T. Wilder, Commander of the Lightning Brigade (1936); Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History (1937); Tennessee During the Revolutionary War (1944); and William Tatham, Wataugan (1947). To this list may be added some fifty articles and monographs.

In 1929 judges of the state supreme court, authorized by the state legislature, appointed Williams chairman of a committee to draft an official law code. The Code of Tennessee 1932 soon became known in legal circles as the “Williams Code.”

During World War II, the “judge” helped editors of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly and East Tennessee Historical Society Publications meet their schedules. The former published nine of his articles, and the latter featured three. Elected chairman of the Tennessee Historical Commission in 1941, Williams promoted a state program placing markers at or near historical sites throughout Tennessee and encouraged the preservation of local records and private papers for students, professors, and history buffs to use in their studies of local history. Williams’s campaign for better county histories led to the publication of Historic Madison (1946) by Emma Inman Williams and Robert E. Corlew’s A History of Dickson County From Earliest Times to the Present (1956), works which serve as models for amateurs and professionals alike.

An enthusiastic researcher, Williams corresponded with librarians, antiquarians, archivists, and historians who shared ideas and information with him. In 1921 and 1929 he traveled to England to conduct research on William Tatham. Like Henry Adams, he employed clerks to make legible copies of journals, letters, and documents. The judge wrote his books and articles in long hand, and his wife typed them. His daughter, Gertrude Williams Miller, tried to eliminate dangling participles and other errors with little success; her father had his own preferences. Although he was criticized for his prose and the errors in his manuscripts, Williams’s contribution to the early history of Tennessee far outweighs these carpings.

Suggested Reading

Pollyana Creekmore, “Bibliography of Historical Writings of Samuel Cole Williams,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications 20 (1948): 9-15; Frank B. Williams Jr., “Introduction to the New Edition” of Tennessee During the Revolutionary War, by Samuel Cole Williams (1974), v-xvi

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Samuel Cole Williams
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 21, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018