Smith County

The Tennessee General Assembly chartered Smith County on October 26, 1799.

Historic Context

Smith County Heritage Museum in Carthage


The Tennessee General Assembly chartered Smith County on October 26, 1799, taking land from Sumner County. The county takes its name from General Daniel Smith, a Revolutionary War veteran and land surveyor. Pioneers to Smith County were of Scots-Irish, English, and German heritage. Early settlers here included Revolutionary War veterans Tilman Dixon and William Walton. A contest for locating the county seat occurred in 1804, with the “polecats” supporting a site near Dixon Springs, while the “moccasin gang” supported a site on William Walton’s land. Ultimately, Walton’s favored site was chosen, making Carthage the seat of Smith County. The town became an important river port during the steamboat era.

The topography of Smith County varies from the relatively even surface of the central basin to the ascent of the Highland Rim to the north and east. Settlers found the soil was fertile, and early crops included tobacco, cotton, and bluegrass pasture for livestock. Smith County’s population in 1860 was 16,457, of who more than a quarter were slaves. Disruption from the Civil War and the taking of some Smith County land for the creation of Trousdale County did not deter the growth of Smith County’s population. By 1880, 17,893 people lived in the county.

By the late 1880s, Carthage had approximately 400 citizens. This number had declined from as high as 700 in 1830, as other towns were established along the river. The river was the primary means of transporting Smith County produce prior to the war. Port towns rivaled one another for business, and as steamboats declined, so did some of these towns. Carthage, however, was bolstered by the coming of the Nashville and Knoxville Railroad through the town at the end of the nineteenth century.

Smith County continued to rely on an agricultural economy into the twentieth century. Businesses included distilleries, mills, tanneries, and saltpeter mines, as well as crops. In the 1960s, the building of Cordell Hull Dam and the subsequent inundation of some Smith County river towns changed the landscape and resulted in the development of industrial plants. However, the county has largely retained its rural landscape, and its population has increased very little since the turn of the twentieth century. In 2010, the county population was 19,166, a number that includes 2,306 residents of Carthage.