You’re looking at: Morgan County Courthouse in Wartburg, Tenn. (Photo: Sumer Newport)
History of Our Area
In 1805, representatives of the United States met with 39 chiefs and warriors from the Cherokee tribe at the Tellico Blockhouse near present-day Vonore, Tenn. There, the Third Treaty of Tellico was signed, ceding what is now Morgan County and the rest of the northern Cumberland Plateau region to the United States. The first white settlers arrived in the area shortly thereafter, and the community that would grow to become Morgan County was born.
Twelve years later, in 1817, Morgan County was formed from portions of Anderson and Roane counties. It was named in honor of Gen. Daniel Morgan, an American Revolutionary War veteran who commanded the troops that defeated the British at the Battle of Cowpens. He was later elected to Congress from Virginia. A year later, the town of Montgomery was named the county seat of Morgan County.
Wartburg was founded in the 1840s by George Gerding, a land speculator who bought up large tracts of land in Morgan County with plans to establish a series of German colonies in the Cumberlands. German and Swiss immigrants traveled from New Orleans up the Mississippi River, the Tennessee River and the Emory River. The settlement was named after Wartburg Castle in Germany. The town was incorporated in 1851, and would become the seat of government in Morgan County in 1870.
This is the story of Morgan County, Tennessee.
While the northern Cumberland Plateau region was claimed by both the Cherokee and the Shawnee, there is no indication that either tribe established long-term settlements in the region. Rather, the region was a hunting ground, used by both tribes, as well as by Native Americans from other tribes.
In the latter part of the 18th century, long hunters began to visit the region with increasing frequency. Their name came from the fact that they made long forays into the wilderness, spending many weeks, months or even years away from their families to hunt, fish and explore. They hunted both whitetail deer and turkey, but there were other wild game animals in the region at the time, including a few buffalo, a few elk, and a large number of fur-bearers that were in high demand.
By the middle of the 19th century, European settlers were anxious to move westward, through the Cumberland Gap and into the pioneer lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. The British attempted to dissuade this westward movement; King George I issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, banning colonial settlement west of the mountains.
The king’s decree was both unpopular and nearly impossible to enforce. Nevertheless, permanent settlement of the plateau lands along the base of the Cumberland Mountains would not begin until the early 1800s.
The first settlers
In 1807 — two years after American and Cherokee representatives met at Tellico Blockhouse to sign the treaty that would open the region to white settlement — brothers Samuel and Martin Hall moved to the Emory River, about seven miles northeast of present-day Wartburg, and became the first permanent settlers of Morgan County.
The Hall family was originally from Virginia. Samuel Hall — along with his father, Samuel Hall Sr., and two of his brothers — were on the first list of 128 people in Henry County, Va. to take a public oath renouncing their allegiance to King George and affirming their allegiance to the independent state of Virginia.
The family would move to North Carolina prior to the start of the Revolutionary War. Samuel and at least three of his brothers served in the militia during the war.
Following the war, Samuel Hall married Letitia Hendrix. Martin Hall, who was younger than his brother by a couple of years, married Letitia’s younger sister, Chloe Hendrix. (Interestingly, the Hall brothers had a sister, Elizabeth Hall, who married a brother to Letitia and Chloe, Darby Hendrix.) The Hall brothers moved west through the mountains to Knoxville, Tenn., before arriving in present-day Morgan County and settling along the headwaters of the Emory River in 1807. Samuel’s twin brother, David Hall, also made the move to the Cumberland Mountains. He built the first cabin in what is now Clinton, Tenn., just across the mountains from the Emory River, in 1799.
Today, both Samuel and Martin, and their wives, are buried at Elizabeth Cemetery on the banks of the Emory River north of Wartburg.
From there, settlement began in earnest.
At about the same time that the Hall family was settling the fertile bottomlands of the Emory River valley, the Stoneciphers were settling Crooked Creek. Early land records show that Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Stonecipher settled on Crooked Creek, as did his sons: Ezra Stonecipher, Daniel Stonecipher and Samuel Stonecipher.
As other settlers arrived in the area, they established families whose surnames can still be found in the community today; names like Freels, Laymance, Shannon and McCartt.
Many of the earliest settlers received land grants for their service in the Revolutionary War.
A new county
In 1817, the Tennessee General Assembly passed an act establishing Morgan County. Most of Morgan County was originally part of Roane County, though some was part of Anderson County. The new county contained large swaths of land that are now part of Scott, Fentress and Cumberland counties.
The county was named for Gen. Daniel Morgan, a hero of the Revolutionary War who commanded the patriots at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina and was later elected to U.S. Congress from Virginia. The town of Montgomery, located about 13 miles west of present-day Wartburg, near present-day Deer Lodge, was established as the seat of county government, built on land donated by Daniel S. Lavender. It was named for Maj. Lemuel P. Montgomery, a Knoxville resident who had been killed at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the Creek Indian Wars in 1814.
When the first census of Morgan County was taken in 1820, there were 1,676 people living here. Ten years later, in 1830, the population had grown 54% to 2,582. It would then remain relatively stable for the next 50 years.
Wartburg is born
In 1832, the Tennessee General Assembly passed an act establishing Fentress County, which included a portion of Morgan County. As a result, the town of Montgomery moved several miles east, so that it would once again be centrally located in Morgan County. The new town was established on 10 acres of land purchased from William Wall on the Emory River, less than two miles from present-day Wartburg. In 1849, the state legislature established Scott County, which carved away another chunk of Morgan County to the north.
It was in the 1840s that land speculator George Gerding forever changed the course of Morgan County. Gerding, a German native, purchased several large tracts of land with the intent to establish a series of German colonies. His dreams were never fully realized, but he did establish the East Tennessee Colonization Company, and his colleague Friedrich Guenther platted a small town and named it after Wartburg Castle in Germany. It was there, at Wartburg Castle in Germany, that Martin Luther translated the New Testament of the Bible into German.
Guenther originally laid out six streets in Wartburg. He assigned them names of famous European places, but the names were later changed to names you’ll find in Wartburg today: Rose Street, Church Street, Maiden Street (originally called Maidenland), Kingston Street, Mill Street and Cumberland Street.
The first settlers began to arrive by 1845. There were some Germans among them, but they were mostly Swiss settlers. They came from places like New Orleans, taking steamboats up the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers to Nashville, then traveling by ox cart to Morgan County.
Wartburg grew slowly at first. By 1850, there was a store (owned by Gerding), a church and school, a doctor’s office, and little more.
Among the early residents of Wartburg was artist Friedrich Julius Georg Dury, a Bavarian national whose work is still on display today at the White House, as well as at the Tennessee State Museum and other locations.
Early Wartburg included an emigration house, a log structure in which new colonists arriving to the area could lodge while building houses of their own. Many of these early colonists were Catholics — so many that work began on a monastery, though it was never completed. In 1846, an Evangelical Lutheran church was organized. A Catholic church would later be built in 1879.
The Civil War era
Like the rest of the region, Morgan County was pro-Union during the Civil War. Its residents were steadfastly opposed to secession. In fact, only 7% of Morgan Countians voted to leave the United States and join the Confederacy. The vote was 630 against, and only 50 for secession. Most of the men from Morgan County who fought in the war headed north and joined the Union army.
Not everyone was pro-Union, however. The Civil War led to bitter division in Wartburg, where Gerding — the city’s founder — sympathized with the Confederacy, while popular Lutheran pastor John Wilken supported the Union.
Outnumbered, some Confederate sympathizers in the area soon found themselves driven away from their homes, although the region effectively remained under Confederate control until General Ambrose Burnside marched through the region in 1863 en route to seize Knoxville and East Tennessee from the South. As a precursor to that invasion, in June 1863, forces under the command of Union Gen. William P. Sanders captured 104 Rebel soldiers in and near Wartburg.
Some Union sympathizers were forced to leave as well — including the Rev. Wilken. He would not return to Wartburg until after Federal forces had taken control of the area.
There were no major Civil War battles fought in Morgan County, but the region was subject to considerable guerrilla warfare. Both armies constantly foraged for food and supplies, which devastated the region’s small farms.
A number of murders took place during the war, most of the killers never brought to justice. Daniel “Sim” Lavender II, the son of Daniel S. Lavender who donated the land for the original county seat of Montgomery, was one of those. In 1864, infamous Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson and his men dressed as Union soldiers and slipped into Morgan County to spy on their enemy. Ferguson was able to get information from Ferguson, and identified him as a Union sympathizer. The following day, as Ferguson and his men withdrew from Montgomery, they revisited Lavender’s farm. When he objected to their horses being driven through his cornfield, he was decapitated as his daughter watched. Ferguson was hanged after the war, one of only two Rebels executed for war crimes.
By 1870, when the U.S. census was taken, the population of Morgan County had declined by 11% from 10 years earlier, a testament to the tolls that the war had taken. Property values plummeted. But brighter days were ahead.
New growth and opportunity
The population of Morgan County in 1870 was 2,969, its lowest point since the early 1940s. The Civil War had taken a huge toll. When naturalist John Muir hiked across the northern Cumberland Plateau en route to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867, he described seeing homes vacated because their owners had left the area during the war. The guerrilla warfare and lawlessness that gripped the region during the war had wreaked havoc.
But by 1880, just 10 years later, the population of Morgan County had grown to 5,156 — an increase of 74%. It was the most explosive period of population growth in the county’s history — before or since. With the war complete and Reconstruction in full swing, there was new opportunity in the mountainous communities that had been so isolated during and before the war. And still greater opportunity was ahead.
In March 1870, with the population of Montgomery having dwindled to just 50 people, the voters of Morgan County approved a referendum to move the county seat to Wartburg, which had grown to become the economic hub of the county in just 25 short years. It was a close vote; the final tally was 195 to 149 in favor of moving the county seat. And, so, the seat of justice was moved to Morgan County, and the property in Montgomery was sold. The town ceased to exist. Today, you won’t find it on the map.
In 1880, the Cincinnati Southern Railroad was completed, and opened for business. This area had been viewed as a railroad desert, and the City of Cincinnati had eyed a railroad link with the South since long before the Civil War. Completion of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad helped spur Cincinnati into action, since it considered Louisville an economic rival.
In June 1869, the City of Cincinnati chartered the railroad. The goal was to connect Cincinnati to Chattanooga. By 1870, Tennessee’s legislature had signed off on it. Kentucky was slower to agree to it, since it would compete with the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. Cincinnati bankrolled the campaigns of a number of Kentucky legislative candidates in the 1871 election, and enough of them were elected to give the approval to the Cincinnati Southern Railroad charter.
The route of the Cincinnati Southern across the Cumberland Plateau took a similar route to Gen. Burnside’s army during the Civil War, when Burnside invaded Knoxville and wrested control of East Tennessee from the Confederacy. In fact, Burnside wrote while he was encamped at Chitwood — located to the north in Scott County — that a railroad should be built through the region to link Knoxville with the cities in the North.
Construction began on the Cincinnati Southern in 1873, and was completed in 1879. Point-to-point service began on Dec. 19, 1879, and passenger service began in February 1880.
Between Danville, Ky. and Rockwood, Tenn., railroad construction crews had to bore 27 tunnels for trains to pass through the mountainous terrain. An engineer described it as a feeling of a “rat running through ratholes.” And so that stretch of railroad came to be known as The Rat Hole Division. Many of the tunnels were in Morgan County. Although they were all eventually sunlighted or bypassed, some still remain. Among them is Tunnel #16 in Sunbright, which is a popular ATV destination and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Jobs and growth
The completion of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad opened the Cumberland Plateau to the outside world once and for all. Coal mining and timber cutting were already Morgan County’s two main industries, but they accelerated substantially with the opening of the railroad. As a result, Morgan County and the rest of the region moved from a subsistence farming existence to a wage-based economy for the first time.
People were flocking to the area. After experiencing 74% population growth between 1870 and 1880, Morgan County would see its population grow by another 48% between 1880 and 1890, and 26% between 1890 and 1900, by which point there were nearly 10,000 people living here.
The railroad directly gave rise to several towns, including Sunbright and Lancing (the latter of which was originally named Kismet) in Morgan County. In Deer Lodge, folks who could afford second homes were building getaway residences and traveling to Morgan County by rail from Northern states. In the northern section of Morgan County, English social reformer Thomas Hughes established Rugby Colony.
Hughes, an author best known for writing “Tom Brown’s School Days,” established Rugby as an utopian village for younger sons of English gentry. He named the Victorian village for the school where his famous novel was set. An 1887 document noted that Rugby “is fast becoming known as one of the great health and pleasure resorts in America.”
Meanwhile, back in the county seat of Wartburg, growth was also happening. The population had grown to more than 200 by 1890, and new businesses were springing up. It wasn’t just the Catholics who organized a church in 1879; so, too, did the Presbyterians. And in 1883, they built a church on Kingston Street. Today, that church building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary
By the late 1800s, the fast-growing coal mining industry on the northern Cumberland Plateau was undergoing growing pains. In 1891, the so-called Coal Creek War began. It took place primarily in neighboring Anderson County, but the fallout would extend to Morgan County.
The Coal Creek War resulted from coal companies replacing hourly workers with convict laborers being leased out by the Tennessee state prison system. Critics said the practice suppressed employee wages because corporations could “lease” state prisoners for a much cheaper price. While hundreds of coal miners were arrested after the violence began, they ultimately won the fight. Tennessee became one of the first states in the South to end the controversial practice of inmate labor-lease contracts in 1896.
The state’s solution was to build Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tenn. The state purchased 9,000 acres and built both a prison and a railroad spur from the nearby Southern Railroad. The idea was that the state would operate its own coal mines on the prison grounds. Prisoners would either mine, operate coal ovens, or farm. More than 200 of the convicts formerly leased to private coal companies were housed at Brushy beginning in 1896.
The original prison was a wooden structure. It was replaced in the 1920s with a castle-like building built of stone that was quarried on-site. It was in operation until 2009 and today is a popular tourist attraction.
In 1933, Tennessee Gov. Hill McAlister designated much of Brushy Mountain’s lands for a new state forest. The Civilian Conservation Corps built roads and facilities until being 1941. Reportedly, a planned camp inside the forest was abandoned in 1938 due to rattlesnakes and prionser escapes from Brushy Mountain.
I952, much of the Morgan State Forest burned in a forest fire. In 1970, the lands were transferred from the TN Division of Forestry to the TN Dept. of Environment & Conservation, and Frozen Head State Park was born.
Morgan County today
In the modern era, Wartburg continues to be the economic hub of Morgan County, although there are growing numbers of business in Sunbright, Lancing, Deer Lodge, and other parts of Morgan County, as well. Fiber technology — which is available to every home and business in Morgan County — has transformed the economy, making every crook and cranny of Morgan County a potential marketplace. It’s a good thing, too. While timber-cutting continues to create jobs and opportunity, the coal industry that supported so many Morgan County families for so long began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s, and has now ended altogether. Just as it did in the aftermath of the Civil War, and again with the arrival of the railroad in 1880, Morgan County’s economy has changed.
Today, folks come to Morgan County for the quiet, off-the-beaten-path way of life — which includes clean, open places, fresh air, low taxes and cost of living, affordable housing and low crime, yet easy access to major cities — and recreation. In addition to Frozen Head State Park & Natural Area, Morgan County is home to Obed Wild & Scenic River, Lone Mountain State Forest, Cumberland Trail State Park, Catoosa Wildlife Management Area, Historic Rugby and Rugby State Natural Area, Historic Brushy Mountain Penitentiary and the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.