Established in 1780, Sullivan County was one of the earliest settled areas in Tennessee. In 1761 troops on their way to aid besieged Fort Loudoun passed through this area of northeast Tennessee, built the Island Road, and constructed Fort Robinson on the Long Island of the Holston. Settlement of the area began shortly after the fort was constructed. The first permanent settlers came from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1765. This area was known as the North of the Holston Settlement and was considered part of Virginia until a boundary survey proved it to be part of North Carolina in 1779. The county of Sullivan, named for General John Sullivan, a New Hampshire Revolutionary War leader, was officially organized in February 1780.
The Holston River crosses the county from northeast to southwest. At the southwest corner, the Holston and Watauga Rivers come together in the Forks area. The north fork of the Holston forms the county boundary with Hawkins County, which was created out of Sullivan in 1786. The Long Island’s strategic location at the head of navigation on the Holston figured prominently in campaigns against the Cherokees and during the American Revolution, when Fort Patrick Henry stood on the old site of Fort Robinson. It was a docking place for boats laden with commodities like iron and salt bound for towns downriver. White settlers defeated the Cherokee in their attempts to resist settlement in the famous battle of Island Flats in 1776. The Treaty of the Long Island of the Holston in 1777 temporarily resolved conflicts between settlers and the Cherokee, who ceded lands to both Virginia and North Carolina. At a location nearby, Colonel John Donelson assembled his family and other settlers for a voyage down the Holston to establish a settlement on the Cumberland River in December 1779. The river routes through the county, as well as the early roads cut in the area, made it a gateway for western settlement as immigrants moved down the Valley of Virginia from Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and across the Carolinas.
Sullivan County is a place of many “firsts” in the settlement history of Tennessee. In 1773, at Taylor’s Meeting House near Blountville, settlers established a Presbyterian church, probably the first church of any denomination to be established within the borders of the future state. Island Road, dating to 1761, is the oldest wagon road in Tennessee. Acuff Chapel, established in 1786, was the first Methodist Episcopal Church founded in the state. The Boat Yard, across from the Netherland Inn at Long Island, was the first major river port, established in 1768, and the first nail factory in Tennessee was at King’s Ironworks, established south of Bristol in 1784. Rocky Mount was the first seat of government for the Southwest Territory in 1790.
Sullivan County developed as a rich agricultural area with an economy augmented with industries such as iron works, powder mills, tanneries, gristmills, and sawmills in the early nineteenth century. Blountville, centered on a turnpike that went north to Richmond, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, was the county seat and a prosperous trade and commercial town. The Deery Inn served travelers from 1785 to the 1930s. Although much of East Tennessee remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, Democratic Sullivan County voted in favor of secession.
Sullivan County is home to Kingsport and Bristol, two of the three “Tri-Cities” of Upper East Tennessee. Kingsport remained a country village until 1909, when the construction of the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway passed through the Holston Valley. This important link to Cincinnati and the Atlantic opened the door for Sullivan County’s development as an industrial center. An improvement association planned an industrial city for the land near the village of Kingsport with the aid of John Nolan, an engineer and city planner. Kingsport, which featured a circular road and park at its center from which city streets radiated, was chartered in 1917. The Tennessee Eastman Corporation, which employs 11,400 in the production of synthetic fibers, is the largest employer in Kingsport and the county today. It began operations as a methanol distillery in the 1920s and had expanded operations to include the manufacture of cellulose acetate by the 1930s. The Quebecor Printing Company (former Kingsport Press) continues Sullivan County’s involvement in the binding industry and is the city’s second largest employer with a work force of 1,400. The county’s population in 2000 was 153,048.
Bristol’s history for its first one hundred years or so was that of a rural village. Evan Shelby (1719-1794) came to Sapling Grove (now Bristol) in 1771 and established a fort that became a settlement center. During the Revolutionary War, Shelby commanded expeditions against the Chickamauga towns, and early planning for the Kings Mountain campaign took place in his quarters at the fort. Modern Bristol dates to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when an industrial town developed at the junction of the Southern Railway and Norfolk and Western Railroad. The presence of two major lines attracted rapid commercial and industrial development. In the mid-1920s Victor Talking Machine Company talent scout Ralph Peer set up a recording studio on the Tennessee side of State Street and made a series of recordings with regional artists. These “Bristol Sessions” featured the Stoneman Family, the Carter family, and Jimmie Rodgers and marked the beginning of the modern country music industry, a fact proclaimed by a colorful mural on the side of a State Street building in downtown Bristol. Tennessee Ernie Ford was another country music star from Bristol.