Tuesday, October 19

What if we renamed Tennessee’s counties to better reflect what they’re known for? Find your county and see if you agree.

On one of my recent trips across the state, I contemplated the names of Tennessee counties. It occurred to me that most of the 95 are named for politicians who were prominent in 1810 or 1840 but whose names are not as well-known to people today.

After all, how many of us are familiar with William Lee Davidson, Edward Cheatham, Benjamin Lincoln, Robert Chester, Robert Henry Dyer, James Fentress, Benjamin Hawkins and so on?

Driving down Highway 70, I came up with a list of more appropriate names for each county. Recognizing that the adoption of my list is extremely unlikely, I’ll divide my proposals into 10 parts:

The Big Four

The “Big Four” counties are all given names that are connected to their actual histories:

  • Davidson becomes Music County.
  • Hamilton becomes Lookout County, taking its new name from the beautiful overlook that towers over Chattanooga.
  • Knox becomes Volunteer County.
  • Shelby becomes King County (taking its name from B.B. King and “The King of Rock ’n’ Roll,” Elvis Presley).

Renamed for famous residents

I propose renaming the following counties for famous natives or residents:

  • Cheatham becomes Summitt County. After all, Pat Head Summitt played high school basketball at Cheatham County Central High School.
  • Chester becomes White County, named for prominent national suffrage leader Sue Shelton White.
  • Fentress County is renamed York County to honor World War I hero Alvin York.
  • Giles County takes the name Brown County to honor its revered early resident, Joseph Brown. Although not everyone has heard of Brown, they should have. His father and two older brothers were killed by Chickamaugan Indians, and he survived two years as a prisoner, then moved to Middle Tennessee and became a prominent minister.
  • Greene County is renamed Johnson County to honor the 17th president of the United States, Andrew Johnson of Greeneville.
  • Haywood becomes Bullock County — named for Tina Turner (whose birth name was Annie Mae Bullock).
  • Maury is renamed Polk County since President James K. Polk’s family is associated more with Columbia than any other town in Tennessee.
  • Montgomery becomes Rudolph County to honor Wilma Rudolph, the woman who, in 1960, was the most famous athlete on the planet.
  • Lauderdale becomes Haley County, named for renowned author Alex Haley.
  • As a tribute to the woman suffrage movement, McMinn becomes Burn County — to honor Harry Burn, the state representative who changed his vote to support the suffrage amendment, and his mother, Febb Burn (who convinced him to do so).
  • Overton is renamed Davis County, to honor the man (James T. Davis) who, for many years, was said to be the first American killed in the Vietnam War.
  • Pickett County becomes Hull County to honor former Secretary of State Cordell Hull.
  • Rhea becomes Scopes County to remind everyone about the most famous chapter in the county’s history.
  • Scott becomes Baker County to honor Huntsville native Sen. Howard Baker.
  • Sevier County becomes Dolly County. I hate to take John Sevier’s name off a county, but his name is already on the county seat of Sevierville. Besides, who could possibly object to naming a county after Dolly Parton?
  • Smith becomes Gore County, named for former Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Sr. and his son, former Vice President Albert Gore Jr. (both of Carthage).
  • Union County becomes Acuff County to honor Roy Acuff, the greatest country music star of the World War II generation.

Renamed for history and culture

To expose Tennesseans to more of their history and culture, the following counties are renamed:

  • Anderson County, home of the “Secret City” of Oak Ridge, becomes Secret County.
  • The headquarters of Cannon County’s school system is what used to be Good Samaritan Hospital. A lot of people who live in Cannon County were born there! Cannon thus becomes Samaritan County.
  • One of the first organized communities in DeKalb County was called Liberty — a word that reflects the way a lot of Tennesseans live. Therefore, I recommend that DeKalb County be given that name.
  • Dickson becomes Ruskin County in honor of the world-famous commune that was there in the late 19th century.
  • One of the most important and sustained civil rights movements in American history occurred in Fayette County. It was known as the tent city movement. I, therefore, suggest that Fayette become Tent County.
  • Hamblen County produced two Medal of Honor recipients in World War I. In my mind, that’s enough to call it Honor County.
  • Hancock is renamed Melungeon County for the ethnic group that has historically been associated with that county.
  • Humphreys County native William Anderson was commanding officer of the USS Nautilus, the first submarine to go to the North Pole. Therefore, that county becomes Nautilus County.
  • Finally, longhunters such as Thomas “Big Foot” Spencer played an important role in the development of Sumner County. So I say we rename it Longhunter County.

Find your county with its alternative name!


Renamed for Civil War history

There are parts of Tennessee where it would be appropriate to give the county a name connected to its Civil War legacy:

  • Hardin becomes Shiloh County.
  • Henderson becomes Crossroads County (as in Parkers Crossroads).
  • Rutherford becomes Stones County.
  • Stewart becomes Fort Donelson County.

Renamed for Native American heritage

Tennessee needs more county names that reflect Native American heritage. Suggestions:

  • Bradley County, one of the last counties taken from the Cherokee, becomes Tsalagi County. (Tsalagi is the Cherokee word for the Cherokee people.)
  • Henry becomes Chickasaw County, reminding us that all of West Tennessee used to be Chickasaw land.
  • Madison becomes Mounds County — as in Pinson Mounds, which was the largest manmade structure in North America 2,000 years ago.
  • Meigs is renamed Jolly County for Cherokee Chief John Jolly who once lived there (and who mentored Sam Houston).
  • Monroe becomes Sequoyah County, reminding us that the creator of the Cherokee syllabary was born there.

Renamed for prominent landmarks

Some could be renamed for prominent landmarks:

  • Bledsoe is renamed Valley County since it is one of the main counties in the beautiful Sequatchie Valley.
  • Claiborne becomes Gap County because of the Cumberland Gap.
  • Coffee becomes Stonefort County. Even in the early 1800s, Old Stone Fort was prominently marked on early Tennessee maps.
  • Cumberland becomes Plateau County.
  • Lake County is rechristened Reelfoot County for the only natural lake in the state.
  • Macon is renamed Springs County since one of the most prominent features of the tiny county is a spring that now produces bottled water.
  • Marion becomes Canyon County because the “Grand Canyon of Tennessee” is there.

Renamed for unusual geography

Some counties have unusual or notable traits about their geography. These traits would make more appropriate names than their current titles. For instance:

  • The French Broad River flows through Cocke County and connects East Tennessee with Asheville, North Carolina. Historically, a road along this river was known for the herding of livestock such as hogs and cattle. Cocke, therefore, becomes Herd County.
  • Franklin County is the site of a long railroad tunnel that was made by Irish immigrants and African-American slaves in the 1850s. The opening of this tunnel was possibly the biggest day in Franklin County history. Franklin becomes Tunnel County.
  • Numerous institutions in Grundy County have contained the name “Highlander” — the most important of which was the Highlander Folk School. Grundy County, therefore, becomes Highlander County.
  • Houston County has a huge meteor crater, which is why I suggest renaming it Crater County.
  • Johnson County, in extreme northeast Tennessee, is the first county of the state that sees the sunrise, so I recommend it become Sunrise County.
  • The Tennessee River and the Little Tennessee River divide Loudon County into three parts, and in the days before bridges, the only way to cross that county was by use of a ferry. It was not unheard of for a person driving from Knoxville to Chattanooga to have an hour-long delay in Loudon County! Therefore, Loudon becomes Ferry County.
  • McNairy County has many flowing bodies of water, but not a single one of them qualifies as a river. I suggest we call it Creek County.
  • Putnam County has some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the state (such as Burgess Falls and Cummins Falls). Let’s rename it Cascade County.
  • In the 1780s and 1790s, immigrants moving west had to stop for weeks or even months in present-day Roane County before they could safely travel west across the Cumberland Plateau. Roane therefore becomes Stopover County.
  • With only 117 square miles, Trousdale is the smallest county in the state. Call it Tiny County!
  • Van Buren County isn’t very big, but it has 850 documented caves! Let’s rename it Cave County.
  • A long stretch of the Natchez Trace Parkway goes through Wayne County. It becomes Natchez County.

Renamed for river routes

To aid in a better understanding and comprehension of Tennessee geography as well as an appreciation of old river routes, these counties are to be renamed for rivers that run through them:

  • Clay becomes Obey County.
  • Dyer is changed to Deer County.
  • Hardeman becomes Hatchie County.
  • Hickman is renamed Duck County.
  • Jefferson becomes French Broad County.
  • Although it is not a large body of water, Shoal Creek is famous because David Crockett once had a grist mill there, and it is the centerpiece of David Crockett State Park. I recommend Lawrence become Shoal County.
  • Also, Lincoln becomes Elk County; Morgan is rechristened Obed County; Perry becomes Buffalo County; Sullivan is renamed Holston County; Unicoi becomes Nolichucky County; White becomes Caney Fork County; and Williamson becomes Harpeth County.

Renamed for products

Some counties are associated with certain products, which is why:

  • Campbell becomes Coal County.
  • Decatur becomes Iron County.
  • Hawkins is renamed Marble County.
  • Grainger is renamed Tomato County.
  • Moore County becomes Jack County (as in Jack Daniel’s).
  • Polk becomes Copper County.
  • Robertson becomes Tobacco County.
  • Tipton becomes Cotton County.
  • Warren becomes Sapling County.
  • Weakley, site of Tater Town and the Tater Town Festival, becomes Tater County.
  • Wilson becomes Cedar County (after all, there are a lot of cedar trees there).

Renamed for animals

We all like animals, right? Therefore, who could possibly find fault with renaming these counties?

  • Bedford County, which has been known for its production of horses for nearly 200 years, becomes Horse County.
  • Benton, a sparsely populated county along the western bank of Kentucky Lake, is renamed Catfish County.
  • Since it is known for its albino squirrels, Gibson becomes Squirrel County.
  • As a tribute to the honor Lewis County’s Elephant Sanctuary, we rechristen it Elephant County.
  • Marshall is renamed Goat County — to honor that county’s world-famous fainting goats.

Names that are just fine as they are

Finally, in case you are wondering, there are some counties that I would leave with the same names.

  • Blount, Carter, Sullivan and Washington counties were all created so early and played such important roles in the formation of Tennessee that I don’t think they should be renamed.
  • William Carroll was governor for 12 years, and (unlike John Sevier) his name is not associated with a town. So I’d leave Carroll County as is.
  • I can’t think of a better name for the West Tennessee county of Crockett, and Tennessee has to have a county named for him.
  • Tennessee must have a county named for Andrew Jackson — so Jackson County remains.
  • Obion and Sequatchie counties are both, conveniently, named for rivers that go through them. So, to me, these are appropriate names.

That’s my modest suggestion for renaming the counties of Tennessee.

Let the reactions commence.


About Author

Researcher and writer Bill Carey co-founded Tennessee History for Kids in November 2004. He worked as a reporter in Nashville through most of the 1990s, and he is the author of six books, among them Fortunes Fiddles and Fried Chicken: A Nashville Business History; Chancellors, Commodores and Coeds: A History of Vanderbilt University; and Leave No One Behind: Hurricane Katrina and the Rescue of Tulane Hospital. He is a native of Huntsville, Alabama, who spent five years as a flight officer in the U.S. Navy. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1987.

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