Claiborne County lies in
the northern portion of East Tennessee, and borders both the States of
Kentucky and Virginia; the famous Cumberland Gap being situated near the
middle of its northern line. The principal stream in the county is Powell
River. The Clinch River forms a portion of its southern boundary. These
streams receive a large number of tributaries, which furnish the best of
water power. The surface presents a great variety of hills, mountains, and
valleys. For the most part the soil is good, but some of the ridges are
poor and sandy. Its mineral resources consist of coal, iron, and
manganese, all of which it possesses in abundance, and when sufficient
transportation facilities have been procured, the county will become one
of the wealthiest in East Tennessee.
The first settlements in Claiborne County were made in Powell's Valley and
along Clinch River. In 1783 Henderson & Co. mentioned in the sketch of
Hawkins County and in other chapters of this work, received a grant from
North Carolina of 200,000 acres of land to be laid off in one survey, and
in accordance with the following restrictions: Beginning at the Old Indian
Town, in Powell's Valley, running down Powell River not less than four
miles on one or both sides thereof, to the junction of Powell and Clinch
Rivers; then down Clinch River on one or both sides, not less than twelve
miles in width, for the complement of 200,000 acres. The survey, as made,
was approximately as follows: Beginning at what is now known as Old Town,
running along the base of the mountain to a point near Caryville, Campbell
County; thence in a southerly course to a point on the opposite side of
the Clinch River; thence in a line parallel with the first to a point
south of Powell River opposite the beginning; thence in a direct course to
the beginning. This grant was subsequently divided among Mr. Henderson and
his associates or their heirs, and it was doubtless due to their influence
that many of the first settlers located in this valley of Powell River.
During the Indian troubles these pioneers suffered much from savage
depredations, and several forts were built at various points along the
valley. One of the best known of the stations was built by George Yoakum,
upon land still owned by his descendants. Another was situated just across
the line into Virginia. Among the firs settlers in the valley may be
mentioned Elijah Chisum, who had formerly lived in Hawkins County, James
Gibson, John Vanbibber, Spencer Graham, James Carson, Elisha Walling (Also
spelled Wallen and Walden), Thomas McBride and Archibald McKinney. Roddy &
Lee kept a store at the ferry on Powell River, where the Cumberland Gap
road crosses it. The gap was settled by William Doherty and Peter Huffaker,
located near by.
Settlements were also made at an early date on Sycamore Creek, and a
station known as Fort Butler was built about three miles west of Tazewell.
By whom it was built is not known, but James Chisum and Isaac Lane were
among the first to locate in that vacinity. Among those who located near
the road leading from Fort Butler to Mulberry Gap were the Estes, Gibbons,
Sims, Condrey, Henry Griffin, George and Henry Sumter,John Baker and
The act to erect a new county from portions of Hawkins and Grainger was
passed October 29, 1801. It was name Claiborne in honor of William Charles
Cole Claiborne, one of the first judges of the superior court, and the
first representative in Congress from Tennessee. The court of pleas and
quarter sessions was organized at the house of John Owens December 7,
1801, at which time the following magistrates were present: Isaac Lane,
Joseph Webster, William Trent, James Chisum, Abraham Lenham, John Wallen,
Matthew Sims, John Vanbibber, William Rogers, George Read, C. Newport,
John Casey, Joseph Nations, and James Renfro. The oath of office was
administered by Andrew Evans and Joseph Cobb, magistrate of Grainger
County. Isaac Lane was chosen chairman; Walter Evans, clerk; Nathaniel
Austin, ranger; Joseph Nations, corner; Ezekiel Croft, register; Luke
Bowyer, attorney-general, and David Rogers, sheriff. The last named was
unable to give bond, and John Hunt, Sr., was elected to fill the vacancy.
The next term of the court was held at the house of John Hunt, who lived
on the site of Tazewell. The grand jury empanelled was composed of the
following men; John Hunt, William Grisum, Nathaniel Austin, Samuel Tate,
Jacob Dobins, William Bowman, William Stroud, John Webster, Nimrod Dodson,
Peter Neal, Thomas Gibbons, Peter Huffacker, William Rush, Thomas Jeffers,
Hezekiah Jordan, Elisha Walling, Archibald McKinney and George Snuffer.
The third term of the court was held at the house of Elisha Walling, and
it was not until 1804 that a small frame courthouse was erected. It stood
near the site of the present one. The jail was completed at about the same
time as the courthouse. It was used until 819, when Josiah C. Ramsey, John
Evans, William Graham, William Renfro, Robert Crockett, David Rogers and
Reuben Rogers were appointed commissioners to erect a new jail. It was
built with a double wall, the outside being rock and the inside frame.
The circuit court for Claiborne County was organized on the third Monday
in April, 1810, by William Cocke, at which time David Yearsley appeared as
solicitor-general, and Edward Howell was appointed clerk. The attorneys
admitted to practice were Samuel Powell, William R. Cole and C. C. Clay.
The early transactions of the court present little of interest. One or two
cases only will be mentioned. At the April term, 1823, James C. Martin was
convicted of grand larceny, and being brought to the bar to receive
sentence he stated that he wished to make application for a new trial.
Judge Scott was upon the bench, and in order to allow the prisoner's
counsel to prepare a statement of the ground upon which the application
was based "withdrew for a few minutes". The Judge's fondness for the
"flowing bowl" is well known, and such opportunities of fortifying himself
against the tedium of the court were not to be neglected. It is not
surprising, therefore, if his absence extended to several minutes. Upon
his return to the bench he proceeded to pass judgement upon the prisoner's
application when to his astonishment now one was to be seen. The sheriff
then took occasion to inform him that during his honor's absence the
prisoner had escaped and distanced all pursuit.
In October, 1822, Thomas Jones, who had been twice convicted of
manslaughter, was sentenced to be branded upon the brawn of the left thumb
with the letter "M". He secured a stay of execution, and at the October
term of the next year presented a pardon from Gov. Carroll.
The first resident attorney in the county was doubtless Luke Bowyer. At
what time he came to the county is not known, but he served as a
magistrate for a year or two about 1815. He was then an old man, one of
the first settlers on the Watauga, and from that time until shortly before
his death was one of the most active practitioners in the State. It is to
be regretted that so little is known of his life. In 1833 the lawyers of
Tazewell mentioned in the Tennessee Gazatteer were John M. Brobson, James
B. Robinson and Gray Garrett. Of these men Garrett was the most prominent.
He had formerly been located at Newport, and subsequently served a term as
attorney-general. The attorneys of a little later date were Walter R.
Evans, Lewis A. Garrett, Theodore Regan and Thomas L.W. Sawyers. The
present bar is composed of the following member: P.G. Fulkerson, E.A.
Hurst, G.W. Montgomery, C.H. Rogers, J.P.Davis, T.W. Stone and W.S. Carr.
The commissioners appointed to locate the seat of justice and lay off a
town to be known by the name of Tazewell were George Reed, John Vanbibber,
Matthew Sims, Abe Lenham, Joseph Webster, John Bullard and Silas Williams.
The site chosen was upon land occupied by John Hunt, Sr., and doubtless
owned by him. The first house is said to have been erected in 1803. The
first merchant was William Graham, a native of Ireland, and a gentleman of
high reputation, both as a business man and a citizen. He owned a large
body of land below town, and about 1814 completed the fine stone residence
now occupied by Mr. Fulkerson. After conducting his mercantile business
for a few years he was joined by William Houston and Hugh Graham. This
partnership, under the name of Hugh Graham & Co., lasted for several
years, and after its dissolution Hugh Graham and William Houston conducted
separate establishments. The building occupied by William Graham stood
upon the corner where William Eppes & Son's store now is. Among the later
merchants were James Dickinson, Cloud & Shackleford, Benjamin Seawell &
Son, William Seawell, Chrisman & Hunt and G. W. Rose. The first physician
of the town now remembered was Dr. Thomas Walker, who was succeeded by
Alfred Noel, Gabriel Shackleford and James Evans. Dr's M. and J. Carriger
and Samuel Brown were also located in the town prior to the civil war. Of
the other early residents of the town may be mentioned John Bristoe, who
was licensed to keep an ordinary in 1806; Reuben Rose, who opened the
first tavern or hotel of importance; Elijah Evans a hatter, whose shop now
forms a part of Cottrell's hotel, and G. W. Posey, a farmer, who lived in
the upper end of town. Among the oldest residents of the town now living
are William Eppes, formerly a tailor, but now one of the leading
merchants, and G. W. Rose, who resides upon a farm east of town. The first
church building in the town was erected by William Graham, and stood a
short distance below his residence. It is said to have been built about
1815, and was doubtless used by all sects, although Mr. Graham was a
Presbyterian. At what date a congregation of Presbyterians was organized
is not definitely known, but a history of Union Presbytery places it at
1829 or 1830, and states that it was made by Rev. Stephen Foster. It would
see, however, that some kind of organization must have been effected
before that time. Among the first members were William Graham and wife,
Francis Patterson and wife, Willis Harper, Hugh Graham, James Patterson
and Wife, William Houston and wife and James Weir and wife. The old church
served as a place of worship until about 1845, when a new one was erected.
The Methodists early made Tazewell a preaching place. Bishop Asbury in his
journal speaks of preaching "at Hunt's at Claiborne Courthouse" on October
14, 1802. At what time the congregation was organized is uncertain, but no
house of worship was erected until about 1844. The Baptists organized a
church, and also completed a building at about the same time.
During the early years of the town it was supplied with the schools common
to such communities at that day. About 1835 a frame academy was built near
the town spring. This then became the educational institution for the
In 1854 Tazewell Female Academy was incorporated under the auspices of the
Sons of Temperance and the Masonic Fraternity. Two years later Tazewell
Academy was raised to the rank of a college, and given all the privileges
of such an institution. It has since undergone no change, and has long
enjoyed an enviable reputation.
On November 11, 1862, upon the evacuation of Tazewell by some Confederate
troops who had been stationed there, a fire broke out which destroyed the
greater portion of the town. About twenty buildings were burned, including
the courthouse, a large brick hotel and several brick storehouses. From
this sever loss the town has never fully recovered, but it is still one of
the most flourishing and enterprising inland towns to be found in
Tennessee. The business interests of the present time are represented by
the following firms: R. J. & J. C. Carr, William Eppes & Sons, J. K.
Robinson, T. Evans and B. F. Schultz, general merchandise; White & Stone,
groceries, boots and shoes and hardware, and T. E. White, manufacturer and
dealer in saddlery and harness. The last named is probably the largest
retail establishment of the kind in East Tennessee.