Created by the Tennessee General Assembly on October 26, 1799, Smith County was named in honor of General Daniel Smith. Carved out of Sumner County, the new county covered a large territory of 314 square miles. Immigrants of Scots-Irish, English, and German descent established thriving towns and productive farms along the courses of the two rivers and abundant streams that flow through the fertile bottom lands. The majority of the settlers, many of whom held land warrants for Revolutionary War service, came from North Carolina. Once the pioneers cleared land, planted a crop, and built a shelter, churches and schools soon followed. The Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists all had active congregations. Clinton College at New Middleton, Geneva Academy at Carthage, Shady Grove Academy at Gordonsville were among the early schools.
In 1804 a heated election was held for selection of a permanent county seat. The contest raged between proponents (the polecats) of Bledsoesborough, a site on the Cumberland near Dixon Springs, and supporters (the moccasin gang) of William Walton, whose land grant was situated at the confluence of the Cumberland and Caney Fork Rivers. Walton, a Revolutionary veteran, operated a ferry and tavern at the site. An abundance of refreshments, including a full supply of whiskey furnished by Colonel Walton, may have influenced the victory claimed by the moccasins, who determined Carthage, destined to become one of the most important towns in Middle Tennessee during the steamboat era, as the county seat. Throughout the winter of 1805 the town was laid out and public buildings were constructed. By 1879 a new courthouse building, “the handsomest in the State,” was erected and continues to grace the town square. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Crucial to the pioneer’s survival were the streams that turned the mills and provided a highway to market for his products. John Lancaster operated a mill on Smith Fork, and the town of Lancaster was laid out nearby. New Middleton was established on Mulherin Creek, and, further west on Round Lick Creek, the community of Jenning’s Fork (Grant) was not only a mill seat but also was traversed by the Trousdale Ferry Pike, a main stage thoroughfare terminating into the Walton Road at Chestnut Mound, a scenic stage coach town on the eastern ridge of the county. Travelers along the Pike crossed the Caney Fork River at Stonewall on the ferry established by John Trousdale, who settled in the area about 1804. Pleasant Shade on Peyton’s Creek and Difficult and Defeated on Defeated Creek grew into trade centers for residents of the northern section of the county. Dixon Springs was settled prior to 1787 by Tilman Dixon, Revolutionary War soldier, where his historic home, Dixona, site of the first county court meeting, still stands. Maggart, Sullivan’s Bend, Jonesboro, West Point have all been inundated by the Cordell Hull Reservoir. Rome, located on the Cumberland at the mouth of Round Lick Creek, rivaled Carthage as a port and trade center until it began to decline, along with the steamboats, in the early twentieth century. The historic Rome Ferry plied the river at this point.
During the 1880s railroads brought new life to communities along the rails. Brush Creek, Sykes, Hickman, Lancaster all bustled with hotels, dry goods stores, banks, livery stables. Gordonsville, founded in 1801 by John Gordon and the largest town south of the Cumberland, flourished as a busy rail center and was incorporated in 1909. One of the county’s two high schools is located at Gordonsville. South Carthage, just across the river from Carthage, emerged as the rail center for northern Smith County, and a bridge spanning the Cumberland replaced the obsolete ferries. Opened to the public on February 1, 1908, the new structure, built at a cost of sixty-four thousand dollars, was operated as a toll bridge.
Smith County industries, until recently, have been those associated with farm products such as distilleries, grist and flour mills, and tanneries or operations for processing saltpeter, tobacco, and timber. Construction of the Cordell Hull Dam on the Cumberland River in the 1960s, development of an industrial park where several large plants have located, and the mining of the county’s rich deposit of zinc have been determining factors in the growth of the economy. Leading manufacturers in the county include William L. Bonnell Aluminum Extrusion, Savage Zinc, and Dana Corp. Spicer Universal Joint.
Among the better-known statesmen from Smith County are William Bowen Campbell and Benton McMillin, who served as governors of Tennessee, 1851-53 and 1899-1903, respectively. Cordell Hull, secretary of state under Franklin D. Roosevelt and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945, practiced law and called Carthage home for many years. The unique Cordell Hull Bridge, the second to span the Cumberland, and the Cordell Hull Dam honor his name today. Albert Gore Sr. represented Tennessee in Congress from 1939 to 1971. Albert Gore Jr. served as representative and senator prior to being elected vice-president of the United States in 1992 and 1996.