Sullivan County - Ceded to Tennessee

A History of Sullivan County - Ceded to Tennessee

Goodspeed's History of Sullivan County, Tennessee [with minor edits]

Sullivan County was the second county formed in what is now Tennessee, and included the part of Washington County lying north of a line formed by the ridge dividing the waters of the Watauga from those of the Holston, and extending from the termination of this ridge to the highest point of the Chimney Top Mountain. It was named after Major General John Sullivan, who led a scorched earth campaign against the Iroquois towns that had taken up arms against the American revolutionaries in 1779.

The Act was passed in October of 1779, and in February of 1780, the county court was organized at the house of Moses Looney, at which time a commission was presented appointing as justices of the peace: Isaac Shelby, David Looney, William Christie, John Dunham, William Wallace, and Samuel Smith. Isaac Shelby exhibited his commission dated November 19, 1779, appointing him Colonel/Commandant of the county, and D. Looney of the same date appointing him Major. Ephraim Dunlap was appointed State’s attorney, and John Adair, entry-taker. The court adjourned to meet at the house of James Hollis.

As the records of this court were almost destroyed during the civil war, but little is now known concerning it. For a few years the courts were held somewhere in what is now the western part of the county, at the Yancey Tavern, near Eaton’s Station, or at the house of Mrs. Sharp, near the mouth of Muddy Creek, and possibly at both places.

In 1786, Hawkins County having been erected out of Sullivan County, the Legislature of North Carolina passed an Act to remove the seat of justice to a more central location, and appointed Joseph Martin, James McNeil, John Duncan, Evan Shelby, Samuel Smith, William King, and John Scott as commissioners to select a site for the county buildings. Meanwhile the courts were ordered to be held at the house of Joseph Cole. For some cause the seat of justice was not permanently located until 1792, when James Brigham conveyed thirty acres of land to John Anderson, George Maxwell, and Richard Gammon, commissioners appointed by the county court to erect a court house and jail.

These commissioners seem also to have failed to do the duty assigned them, for in the act of the territorial assembly establishing the town, passed in 1795, James Gaines, John Shelby, Jr., John Anderson, Jr., David Perry, Joseph Wallace, and George Rutledge were appointed to complete the court house. This was a hewed-log structure, which stood on a lot nearly opposite the present courthouse. The jail was built in the rear of this lot. 

The date at which the first permanent settlements were made in Sullivan County is placed by Haywood and Ramsey at 1769. Some local antiquarians, however, assert that a much earlier date is the correct one, but they offer little satisfactory evidence to support their assertions. The fort on the Holston River opposite the upper end of Long Island was built by a regiment of British troops under Colonel Bird, in the autumn of 1758, and was occupied by them during the following winter. At this time a few settlers located in the vicinity, but they were soon compelled to retire to east of the Kanawha.

During the next ten years many hunting and exploring expedition parties traversed the Holston Valley, but no permanent settlements were made as low down as the present Tennessee line, until late in 1768 or early in 1769. On November 5, 1768, a treaty of cession was made at Fort Stanwix, New York, with the Six Nations, by the terms of which, they and their descendants relinquished all rights and title to the lands north and east of the Tennessee and Holston Rivers. On October 14th of the same year, a treaty was made at Hard Labour, in South Carolina, with the Cherokees, who also claimed the territory. By this treaty the boundary lines of the Cherokee hunting grounds were fixed.

Prior to 1779, the portion of what is now Sullivan County north of the Holston was believed to be in Virginia, and the first grants were issued by that state. The earliest one of which there is any record was issued to Edmund Pendleton in 1766, for 3,000 acres of land on Reedy Creek. Of the early settlers only a few of the most prominent can be here mentioned. One of the largest and most highly respected families were the Rheas. Joseph Rhea, a Presbyterian minister, came to the Holston settlements from Maryland, and was upon one of the expeditions against the Indians. He returned to Maryland, but in 1776 he came again to the settlement, this time accompanied by his son, John Rhea. He bought land on Beaver Creek, and while in Maryland the next year, preparing to move his family, he died. In 1778, Mrs. Rhea came with the family. Of the sons, John became the most prominent. He was the first clerk of the county court, and early became a leading attorney. In 1796, he was chosen a member of the constitutional convention, and also represented the county in the first and second General Assemblies.

George Rutledge came to the county about 1777, and located on the small stream known as White Top. About three years later, he removed to the farm now occupied by his grandson, William G. Rutledge, where he died in 1813. As a Captain, he commanded a company in Colonel Isaac Shelby’s regiment at the Battle of Kings Mountain, SC, was a member of the Constitution Convention of 1796, and of the Territorial Assembly, and after the organization of the state, was a member of the Senate until his death.

Evan Shelby, Sr. located on Beaver Creek, at what was known as the Beaver Dam Bottoms, in 1771, where he erected a fort on an eminence overlooking the site of Bristol. He was born in Wales in 1720, and before coming to Tennessee had taken an active part in the French and Indian war on the borders of Maryland and Pennsylvania. He commanded a company of militia from Sullivan County at the battle of Point Pleasant, and was the leader of the famous Chickamauga expedition. Afterward he was appointed by Virginia a general of her militia. He died in 1794, and was buried in the old family burial ground at Bristol, which was removed a few years ago. His son, Isaac, was made a Lieutenant of militia in 1774, and as such participated in the battle of Point Pleasant. In 1776, he was appointed Commissary, which position he held at the battle of Long Island Flats. Prior to the extension of the boundary line between North Carolina and Virginia, he served a term in the Legislature of the latter State. His last public service in Tennessee was as commander of the Sullivan County Regiment of Militia at Kings Mountain. Evan Shelby, Jr., was a major in his brother’s regiment at Kings Mountain. In 1790, he went to Kentucky, where he was killed by the Indians about three years later.

George Maxwell, another Captain under Col. Isaac Shelby at Kings Mountain, came to Sullivan County about 1771. He rose to the rank of major of Militia, and in 1781 was one of the representatives of the county in the Legislature of North Carolina.

Click Here to learn about all of the known officers and men who served in the Sullivan County Regiment of Militia during the American Revolution. All names in "blue/underscore" can be clicked on for additional information.

The Looneys, who were among the first settlers of the county, came from Wales, and lived for a time in Virginia. Colonel David Looney lived on Muddy Creek, two miles above the Holston, where he erected a blockhouse. Samuel Looney located on the Holston, one mile below the mouth of Beaver Creek.

Of other early settlers there were in the fork the McKinleys, McCorkles, Scotts, Hodges, Greggs, Torbetts, Dinsmores, Hughes, Kings, Hogans, Sharps, and Grosses. Col. William Christie [Christian] lived near where Kingsport now is, on the south side of Reedy Creek. The same neighborhood was the birthplace of General Edmund Pendleton Gaines. Long Island and much other land in the vicinity became the property of Richard Netherland, the father of Hon. John Netherland. Fort Womack, which stood two miles east of Bluff City, was built by Jacob Womack. It afforded protection for the people who lived in the territory now covered by the Fourth, Sixteenth, Ninth, and Twentieth Civil Districts. It is said that when on one occasion the people were forted here a marriage took place between Hal Massengill and Penelope Cobb. From this union have sprung a large number of descendants, many of whom still reside in the county.

The Bledsoes and Beelers located on land adjoining the Shelbys. The Beelers owned the tract of land on Cedar Creek known as Sapling Grove.

At the foot of Eden Ridge (originally Heaton Ridge) on the east side was built a fort known as Heaton’s Fort. It was erected by the settlers of Reedy Creek and Cook’s Valley, and was one of the first structures of the kind in the county. The Yancey Tavern, a famous house of entertainment, was built near this fort. Russell’s Fort stood on the Snapp’s Ferry road, about six miles from Blountville.

The first or one of the first mills in the county is said to have been built by John Sharp, an Indian trader. It was a small tub-mill, and stood on the spot occupied by the mill built a few years later by John Spurgeon at the mouth of Muddy Creek.

As the majority of the first settlers of the county was Scots-Irish the first religious organizations were Presbyterian, and it is said that as early as 1778 two churches had been constituted. These were Concord and Hopewell. Very little is known of them, except that Samuel Doak preached to them for two years preceding 1780. One of them is thought to have been the old "Weaver Church," between Bristol and Union, which, tradition says, was founded by Rev. Joseph Rhea, while on one of his trips to Tennessee. The oldest church of which there is any definite knowledge is New Bethel, which was organized in 1782 by Rev. Samuel Doak. James Gregg, Sr., John Allison and Francis Hedge, Sr., are supposed to have been the first ruling elders.

The first Methodist family in the county was that of Edward Cox, who lived near Bristol from 1775 to 1777. He then removed to a tract of land which he entered, about one mile northeast of Union Depot. It was at his house that the first conference in Tennessee was held, by Bishop Asbury. The first Methodist society in the county, and, it is believed, in the state, was organized some time between 1785 and 1790, about two miles from Blountville, where a house of worship known as Acuff’s Chapel was erected. It was a log structure 20x30 feet. Among the first members were the Acuffs, Vincents, Crofts, and Hamiltons.

The first Baptist society in the county was Kendrick Creek Church, organized by Jonathan Mulkey some time prior to 1786. Among the first members were Peter Jackson, Anthony Epperson, William Nash, David Parry, and Nicholas Hale. A second church was organized on the Holston in 1788, and in 1795, a congregation was formed at the Ferry Meeting House, at Long Island, by Richard Murrell and Abel Morgan. Double Spring Church was also organized by Richard Murrell in 1805. Muddy Creek Church first appears on the minutes of the association in 1826, when it was represented by Amos James and John Spurgeon. In 1846, two new churches were organized, Union and Eden’s Ridge. The former was first represented in the association by James White and John Longmire, and the latter by Samuel Bachman and N. Roller.

The first Lutheran immigrants to the Holston Valley located in Sullivan County, Tenn., and Washington County, Va., near the close of the last century. They settled in the neighborhood of Line Church, on or near the headwaters of Reedy Creek; of Buchler’s Church, near the headwaters of Cedar Creek; of the Dutch Meeting-house, between the south fork of the Holston River and the Watauga, and of Roller’s Church on Falling Creek.

The first ministers who are known to have visited East Tennessee were Revs. Paul Henkel and John G. Butler, and it is thought the first churches were organized by them. The first regular pastors in Sullivan County were Revs. Jacob Zink and Adam Miller. Until 1811, the Lutheran Church in East Tennessee had no regular synodical connection, but in that year they united with the Lutheran Synod of North Carolina, with which they were connected until 1820. The Tennessee Synod was then formed, and the churches of East Tennessee remained with this body until January 2, 1851, when the Evangelical Lutheran Holston Synod was organized at Zion’s Church in Sullivan County. It embraced ten ministers of whom only three are now living. They were William Hancher, A. J. Brown, J. M. Schaeffer, J. K. Hancher, J. B. Emmert, J. Fleenor, A. Fleenor, J. A. Seneker, J. Cloninger, and J. C. Barb.


Sullivan County, North Carolina was pulled into the illegal "State of Franklin" from 1784 to 1788. In 1790, it was among all of the North Carolina counties ceded to the Territory South of the Ohio River, also known as the Southwest Territory. In 1796, Sullivan County became part of the new state of Tennessee. Blountville was laid off and became the County Seat of Sullivan County in 1792; it has remained as the county seat ever since.
Click Here to see how Sullivan County evolved between 1779 and 1790, when it was ceded to the Territory South of the Ohio River, aka the Southwest Territory. 


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