Archaeological evidence in Sumner County indicates occupation by Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian cultures in the deep past. Two easily accessible prehistoric mounds stand at Castalian Springs, where Native Americans for centuries came to hunt the game which gathered at the springs and its salt lick. The first white long hunters included Henry, Charles, and Richard Skaggs, and Joseph Drake in 1765. Among other early explorers and long hunters were James Smith and an eighteen-year-old male mulatto slave in 1766, and Kasper Mansker, Isaac Bledsoe, and others in 1771-72. The first permanent settler was the fearless Thomas Sharp Spencer, who earned that distinction by living several months in the hollow of a sycamore tree at Bledsoe’s Lick in 1776, then planting crops and building cabins from 1776 to 1779. By 1783 settlers had erected three forts–Mansker’s, Bledsoe’s, and Asher’s–for protection against Indian attack.
In 1786 the North Carolina General Assembly created Sumner County and named it for Revolutionary War General Jethro Sumner. The rolling hills and well-watered lands attracted pioneer leaders of the stature of Daniel Smith and Anthony Bledsoe as well as those of more meager means such as Hugh Rogan. However, Native Americans did not passively accept this frontier advance; periodic warfare resulted in the deaths of both Indians and settlers, including Robert Peyton, the last known Sumner settler killed by Indians. The opening of wagon roads, the influx of new settlers, and a preemptive strike at the Indian raiders’ base village of Nickajack ended the Indian wars by 1795.
Cairo emerged as an early trade center and important port along the Cumberland River. However, in 1801, the general assembly authorized the purchase of 41.5 acres from Captain James Trousdale and thereon established Gallatin as the county seat.
With the exception of a two-year agricultural depression (1821-23) and cholera epidemics in 1849 and 1852, the first half of the nineteenth century was a period of growth, development, and recognition for Sumner County. Two residents, William Hall and William Trousdale, and Sumner-born William B. Campbell served as governors of Tennessee. Advantages provided by improved roads, a stagecoach line, river trade, and ferry services led to establishment of approximately thirty communities and, according to the 1820 census, a total of fifty-four manufacturing concerns, mostly distilleries and mills.
Following a tradition of building for permanence established by Daniel Smith’s construction of Rock Castle and William Bowen’s 1780s brick house near Mansker’s Station, the county experienced an architectural boom during the 1800s. Among the more than one hundred showplace homes were James Winchester’s Cragfont (1802), John Bowen’s Trousdale Place (1822), Josephus Conn Guild’s Rose Mont (1840s), Isaac Franklin’s Fairvue (1832), and Daniel Smith Donelson’s Hazel Path (1857). National reputations and fortunes amassed by owners of the several estates came from plantation-based agriculture and the raising of thoroughbred racehorses.
Sumner Countians, historically united in war, furnished 821 men to Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, three companies to the Seminole War of 1836, and three to the Mexican War. Such devoted support of the Union divided voters on the question of secession early in 1861. But following the fall of Fort Sumter, the county voted 6,465 to 69 to declare Tennessee independent in the referendum of June 8.
Over 3,000 Sumner Countians were soldiers in the Civil War, and many of the first were trained at Camp Trousdale near Portland. In 1862 Confederate General John Hunt Morgan defeated Union forces at the battle of Gallatin but soon afterward withdrew, and the county was in Federal control for the rest of the war. The Union army hired local blacks, called contrabands, as contract labor, and in Gallatin black residents enlisted in the Union army’s Thirteenth and Fourteenth U.S. Colored Troops.
Following the war, freed blacks established several communities, including Village Green and Free Hill, and organized the nation’s first agricultural fair created by and for black citizens. The fair remained an annual event for nearly one hundred years. By the twentieth century, Gallatin’s African American leadership had established strong churches and schools. Black businesses such as restaurants, dry cleaners, taxi services, and barbershops emerged, along with a black baseball team, the Travelers.
The early twentieth century brought added emphasis to agricultural production. Portland’s strawberry industry expanded, and the location of a Kraft Cheese plant in Gallatin in 1928 provided a ready outlet for increased dairy production throughout the county. Out-of-state money underwrote the formation of the Southland Grasslands Hunt & Racing Foundation, which attempted to establish new steeplechase traditions in the Tennessee “bluegrass” country.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provided a defining moment in county history during the early 1950s. With the corps’s construction of Old Hickory Dam on the Cumberland River, TVA built a steam electric generating plant at Gallatin. The net result was new jobs, new recreational opportunities, and a housing boom along the hundreds of miles of lake shoreline.
Benefiting greatly from proximity to the lake and to Metropolitan Nashville, as well as from the advent of a growing local tourism industry, Hendersonville became the largest city in the county (32,000 residents in 1990) and a tourist center for country music fans. Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash once operated country music museums there. The Trinity Broadcast Network, a Christian cable television network, now uses the facilities at the former “Twitty City.” Country music star Reba McIntyre owns a horse farm along the Cumberland River just south of Gallatin.
Educational opportunities within the county expanded with the opening of Volunteer State Community College at Gallatin in 1969. Employment opportunities were further increased with the addition of thirty-one new industries and the expansion of over 120 others, principally at Gallatin and Portland. The county’s population boomed between 1990 and 2000, rising some 26 percent to 130,449 residents.