Centuries before Europeans settled in what was to become Williamson County the area was home to at least five prehistoric cultures. Over many centuries these occupants of the Harpeth Valley progressed from a nomadic existence to a settled lifestyle in fortified villages along the Big Harpeth River and its tributaries. When white scouts and long hunters ventured onto the land, tribes of Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Shawnees were sharing its bounty in a migratory fashion.
From the time white settlers began to attempt to wrest the area from the Indians, they were determined to have the rich, well watered meadows and forests at all costs. They paid dearly for their desire to settle the region before treaties were signed, and several lost their lives to the tomahawks and arrows of those first Williamson Countians defending their hunting grounds.
By 1798 a few white settlers were permanently established in the area. Ewen Cameron built the first house in Franklin, and members of the Goff, McEwen, and Neely families made their way through the canebrake southward from Fort Nashborough. In 1799 Major Anthony Sharp sold 640 acres of his enormous military grant to Abram Maury, who laid out the county seat of Franklin, named for Benjamin Franklin, on 109 acres of this property in 1800. The little village with its huddle of log cabins was half-circled by the Big Harpeth River. Franklin and Williamson County were created by the Tennessee General Assembly on October 26, 1799. Carved from neighboring Davidson, the new county was named for Dr. Hugh Williamson, a Revolutionary patriot and distinguished statesman from North Carolina.
Many of the early settlers came to take up grants awarded to them for their Revolutionary War service. Others bought land from those who chose not to settle here. Soon representatives of every honorable profession were calling the county home. Possibly its fame could be laid in part to its fine schools dotting the countryside. Franklin and Triune were noted for their male and female academies. These private schools flourished until around 1861. Attendance declined during the years of war and Reconstruction, and they were gradually replaced by the public school system.
Prior to 1861 Williamson County was the third wealthiest county in Tennessee. Its riches were derived from its productive soil, timber, and livestock. Almost wholly loyal to the South, Franklin and its surrounding communities suffered extreme hardships during Union army occupation from 1862-65. Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest led a successful raid against a federal garrison near Brentwood, capturing 785 men and valuable stores in March 1863. The battle of Franklin was a bloody conflict fought on November 30, 1864, between the forces of Confederate General John B. Hood and those of Union General John M. Schofield. During the five hours of desperate fighting the Confederates, who made repeated attacks against strong breastworks, suffered an appalling number of casualties in both officers and men. Confederate Generals John Adams, Patrick Cleburne, States Rights Gist, Hiram Granbury, and Otho French Strahl were killed on the field. A sixth, John C. Carter, died ten days later. In some brigades all officers were killed down to the rank of captain. Union General David S. Stanley was wounded, but no Union generals were killed.
During the war and Reconstruction, two of Williamson County’s most important historical cemeteries were established. The McGavock Confederate Cemetery near Carnton contains the bodies of 1,481 Confederates killed at Franklin and is the largest private Confederate cemetery in America. The other notable cemetery in Williamson County is the Toussaint L’Overture County Cemetery, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although the cemetery was not incorporated until 1884, the first interments occurred much earlier, around 1869, making it the oldest African American institution in continuous use in Williamson County. The extent of destruction associated with the battle of Franklin, the collapse of slavery, and the political upheaval associated with Reconstruction produced years of uncertainty before recovery began for the citizens of the county.
In years past Williamson County boasted some forty-four communities, quite a few of which still retain their identity. However, only four–Franklin, Brentwood, Fairview, and Thompson’s Station–have been incorporated as of April 1996.
Countless notable people have called Williamson County home. These include Thomas Hart Benton, Governor John Buchanan, Governor Newton Cannon, John S. Claybrooke, John H. Eaton, Bailey Hardeman, Judge Thomas Maney, John Marshall, Abram Maury, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Hardy Murfree, Randal McGavock, John McGavock, Nicholas Perkins–and many others. Daniel M. Robison (1893-1970), former state librarian and Archivist and state historian, was born in the village of Arrington. He initiated the useful biographical directories of state legislators in 1956.
Until recently Williamson was a rural county with very little manufacturing. In the 1930s the Dortch Stove Works operated in Franklin and was followed by Magic Chef, which made electric and gas ranges on the same site. Jamison Bedding then bought the property and was in business here for many years. In the late 1990s, developers restored the former factory as a model historic preservation adaptive reuse project. After CPS, APCOM, Pellican, and the Essex Group opened their plants in the 1960s, Franklin became the main manufacturing center in the county. Brentwood tends more to residential areas, office complexes, and service companies. General Smelting and Refining Company is located at College Grove, and Four Star, which makes tobacco harvesting equipment, operates out of Triune.
From 1980 to 2000 businesses became more diversified. During that time Williamson became one of the fastest growing counties in the state, with major development taking place in residential, retail, office, and manufacturing properties. The service industry, which includes the Williamson Medical Center, doctors’ office complexes, restaurants, hotels, mortgage companies, law firms, accountancies, and financial institutions, was especially important. Primus, one of the largest financial companies in Middle Tennessee, is located at Cool Springs in Franklin. The largest employment site is Cool Springs Galleria, with some three thousand employees. The largest single industrial employer is CPS Corporation in Franklin, with six hundred employees.
Williamson County’s population boomed like no other county in the state between 1990 and 2000. The county grew to 126,638 residents, an increase of 56.3 percent in ten years.
Such rapid growth and the construction of new highways, schools and malls in rural areas, hitherto untouched by progress, have created enormous stress in many places. These developments have resulted in the loss of private homes, historic landmarks, cemeteries, springs, and open spaces. However, in the face of great odds, interested citizens are striving to preserve the best of the past as their communities move toward the future.
James A. Crutchfield, A Heritage of Grandeur (1981); Louise Gillespie Lynch, Our Valiant Men: Soldiers and Patriots of the Revolutionary War Who Lived in Williamson County, Tennessee (1977)