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Chattanooga and Hamilton County

Chattanooga, Tennessee is nicknamed “The Scenic City” and for good reason. Nestled in the Tennessee River valley, surrounded by magnificent mountains, and home to some of the most beautiful natural landmarks in America, Chattanooga and surrounding Hamilton County is a nature lover’s dream. A stopping point for tourists from all over the globe, Chattanooga offers a blend of the quaint meticulous detail of a small town, the thriving downtown business district of a large city, and the historical significance that can only be found in a major military theatre.

Tennessee is the ancient Indian name given to a broad expanse of country, rich with heritage, rivaled by none. Once the homeland of the Cherokee, Tennessee is bordered on the west by the Mississippi River, racing eastward to the fog-shrouded forests of the Great Smoky Mountains. The eastern portion of the state is truly beautiful; it’s mountains, waterfalls, and wildflowers have been the inspiration for many artists and poets throughout the centuries.

Interest in the land began in 1663 when the English King, Charles II, granted to North Carolina a charter for land, which spread to the Pacific Ocean. At that time, Tennessee was still a part of North Carolina, and the land was fully occupied by the Cherokee Indians. A portion of the Indian land, now Hamilton County, was a wilderness refuge of deep green forests and high, lofty mountain ranges.

During the Revolutionary War, the Cherokees sided with the British and fought against the American colonists because of the constant land manipulation, broken treaties, and oppression by the white settlers. The Americans later insisted that the Indians had “given up” their land claims because of their stand during the war. By 1783, politicians and land speculators had begun a new program of transferring land titles into private hands. North Carolina allocated millions of acres within Tennessee as military bonuses or generous bargains for surveyors. The southeast Indians began to rebel against this program, which resulted in many small field wars and the famed Cherokee warlike spirit.

The real origins of Hamilton County, can actually, be traced back to the North Carolina Land Grants of the 1780s. These grants form the beginning of many real estate records in Hamilton County.

In 1784 the citizens of Washington, Green, and Sullivan counties formed a separate state they called Franklin, in honor of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was actually established in what is now the Hamilton County region.

Brainerd Mission

The creation of Hamilton County was crucial to the federal government because of the country’s hunger to acquire more land. Tribal property loss was especially devastating because the magnificent terrain had been such an abundant and necessary part of the Cherokees’ lives and heritage. When Tennessee gained statehood in 1796, three-fourths of the area was still Indian Country, but the state continued to extend its borders farther into the Cherokee claims.

Rather than assimilate the Native American into their culture, the white man drove them from the region. The United States Constitution became a shining hope for the “new world”; a hope never before seen in other nations. The Constitution was a vision of little criticism or opposition, so ideal that not only was it embraced by the settlers but by the Indians as well. It’s concepts of freedom gave new opportunities to oppressed people everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except for those native to the land.

In 1807, the United States government gave Robert Patterson permission to operate a mill for the benefit of the Indians. The Cherokees cooperated in this concession; otherwise he would not have been permitted to live in the Nation. Patterson was the first white man to establish a manufacturing business in the section and the first to bring his family with him.

Asahel Rawlings settled around 1810 in what was afterwards called Dallas. He and his family also had special permission to live in the Cherokee nation. Patterson and Rawlings may be called the first citizens of Hamilton County. Hundreds of people followed their lead, moving into the section later to be called Hamilton County.

Hamilton County’s original borders were moved several times, first to Roane County and then again into Rhea County. Finally, Hamilton County (named in honor of Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury in George Washington’s Cabinet) was erected by Act of the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee on October 25, 1819. Tennessee then defined Hamilton County as being located “southwest of Rhea and south and east of Bledsoe and Marion counties.”

Rhea County had another bearing on the development of early Hamilton County. The Indian line marking the southern boundary of Rhea County took in Sale Creek valley within the county, an area transferred in 1819 to Hamilton County. Here pioneers settled as citizens of Rhea County, with some becoming local officials. In 1819 all these people, with the marking of the new county boundary, became residents of Hamilton County.

There were now 765 settlers within the new boundaries described for Hamilton County. Only the section north of the Tennessee River was included in the new county. The Cherokee Nation was south of the River and that land did not become part of the county until the Treaty of 1835.

The Act of the Legislation erecting Hamilton County stated, “until otherwise prescribed by law, the court of common pleas and special sessions should be held at such place as might be designated by Charles Gamble, John Patterson, and William Lauderdale.” These three new commissioners were to select a site for the county seat and launch a new government. All three were early settlers who had had previous experience as public servants.

These pioneers of the region designated the Walden Ridge home of Hasten Poe (Poe’s Tavern) as the county’s first courthouse and county seat. The sturdy, two-story log structure, located at Poe’s Cross Roads, now the town of Daisy, served the traffic on the busy public road.

They directed their newly elected sheriff, Charles Gamble, to hold an election “on the first Thursday and Friday in March next and select field officers for the militia, designated the 64th Regiment attached to the Seventh Brigade.” With the establishment of Hamilton County came the creation of a working judicial system.

In 1820, the Cherokees formed their own government and made innumerable attempts to keep their land. Nevertheless, President Andrew Jackson ordered all Indians to be “removed” west of the Mississippi River in 1830.

John Ross, one-eighth Cherokee Indian, was chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828 until his death in 1866. A well-educated businessman, Ross operated the trading post at Ross’s Landing for several years. He married a full-blooded Cherokee, Quati, who died of pneumonia while journeying the “Trail of Tears”. After the Cherokee removal to Oklahoma, Ross maintained his title as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, and David Vann of the Western Cherokees was appointed Assistant Chief.

Sequoyah, another Cherokee leader, developed the first Indian language that could be written and read. An accomplished artist and silversmith, he represented the level of civilization the Cherokees had achieved at the time of their removal.

Despite the Cherokee’s obvious attempts to work and live among the white man, they were relentlessly driven from the land they knew and loved. Local white residents were given the right to establish a local government, and the state of Tennessee authorized the citizens to provide law and order and establish a “seat of justice” to record deeds, obtain licenses, and levy taxes. Residents could vote immediately in local, state, and national elections.

The “Treaty of 1835”, or the “Treaty of New Echota,” or the “Treaty of Removal” (as it is variously called) was concluded Dec. 29, 1835, at New Echota, Ga. This treaty was between certain minor chiefs and many Cherokees who had no position whatsoever with the Nation, and the Commissioners of the United States, Gen. William Carroll and John F. Schermerhorn.

By provision of the treaty, the Cherokees ceded to the United States all their lands east of the Mississippi in consideration of five million dollars. The United States ceded to the Cherokees fifteen million acres of land in the Indian Territory, west of the Mississippi. By the terms of the treaty, the title of the Cherokees to Hiwassee District (including that part of Chattanooga which is south of the Tennessee River), their last possession in Tennessee, was extinguished.


Before our formal written Constitution was adopted, American colonists brought English common laws with them. The Crown of England designated shire reeves appointed for a one-year term, the representatives of the royal authority in a shire. Their responsibilities included keeping prisoners in “safe custody, preparing the panel of jurors for the assizes, the execution of writs, and the sentence of death.” In addition, the sheriff acted as the presiding officer in parliamentary elections for the county and was required to attend on the judges at assizes.

Today, some of these same responsibilities of the early shire reeve can be seen in our own legal tradition held in the office of sheriff. The sheriff is the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the county. His office forms a critical bond between community citizens and constitutional law.

Most records from Hamilton County’s early sheriffs are scant because of the many moves of the county seat and of the destruction of our courthouses. In addition, some sheriffs may have found it far safer and less incriminating to “clear” their files upon leaving office.

The preservation of important records and documents was also hampered because of Union occupation in this area during the Civil War. Books were seized from the county register’s office and moved several times during the course of occupation. Book I, which is supposed to contain many early historical accounts of the region, has never been found. Its loss has greatly contributed to a blank in our county’s history.

Both before and during the War Between the States, Hamilton County and the town of Chattanooga were radically opposed in their views regarding the War. Most of the town was for the Confederacy, while the majority of the county was Union in sentiment. Many families in the county were in sympathy with the Confederate cause, and some families were divided in service and sympathy. This brought on bitterness, sorrow, and in some cases tragedy.

Union Troop Camp, 1865

On September 9, 1863 during the term of Sheriff R. G. Campbell, civil government ceased to exist as the first Union troops entered Chattanooga. After the crushing blow Confederate soldiers experienced at Missionary Ridge, many of the town’s original citizens left. Yet, the few remaining civilians began working to reestablish civil government.

Tennessee’s governor at that time, Andrew Johnson (who later became President after Lincoln’s assassination) urged military authorities to return civil control where possible. After President Abraham Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in December 1863, Johnson ordered elections for county officials to be held in March of 1864. But voting requirements ordered by Johnson were not in keeping with Lincoln’s original intentions to kill the idea of secession.

The election resulted in a “serious farce” in Hamilton County, as well as the greater Tennessee region. Election restrictions were resented by Unionists and of course, all Confederate sympathizers were excluded from the ballot lists. Despite the fact that only 75 voters from the entire county went to the polls, eight civil offices were filled, including that of the sheriff.

William Gannaway Brownlow was elected Governor of Tennessee in March 1865. His strong Unionism stand sought to further bind the state economically, returning it to earlier East Tennessee Republican politics. Although Tennessee fared better than other southern states, it did suffer during Brownlow’s term of office.

Even though history has provided some brief biographical sketches of some of our earliest sheriffs, there is no extensive information in Hamilton County regarding the office of sheriff or his department. It was not until 1882, when Sheriff Cate and his deputy were murdered, that county law enforcement was routinely featured in news articles. Only then did the sheriff’s department, as we know it, begin to be publicized as the principal law enforcement agency in the county.

As previously noted, there are some periods in Hamilton County’s judicial history for which there are no records at all. Much of what is known has come from personal diaries and descriptions.

In former Hamilton County Judge Lewis Shepherd's Personal Memoirs, he records a description of the county’s courthouses. He describes the first as Poe’s Tavern. A large, two-story log house, situated at the foot of Walden’s Ridge, Poe’s Tavern was designated as the court of “common pleas and special sessions” in 1819. The courts were held at the Poe home for several years and were then moved to the home of John Mitchell.

They remained at the Mitchell home for only a short time before being moved to a crude structure established on the farm of Asahel Rawlings. A small town named Dallas developed around the court.

The third courthouse was built in Harrison and became the new county seat in 1840. Previously, the Indian village of Van Town, Harrison was a rich, important region which was quickly populated when lands were opened for public entry. Residents built a a very substantial brick building for their court and the county seat officially remained there until December of 1870.

Swim's Jail, 1862

With the arrival of the Civil War, normal judicial procedures were interrupted for a time. In 1862, Swim’s Jail, originally constructed to hold runaway slaves, was utilized by Confederates to house Union captives.

Until Chattanooga came under Union occupation, horrible stories came from the depths of the dungeon known as Swim’s Jail, where as many as twenty-two men would remain for weeks at a time. In a dirty, rat infested, thirteen by thirteen square foot room, the men would stay chained to one another in the inescapable hole of darkness and sweltering heat. Former prisoner, William Pittenger, gave the following account of his encounter with the fortress:

“The jailer advanced to the middle of the room...took a large key from his pocket, and applying it to the hole in the floor, gave it a turn, and with great effort, raised a ponderous trap-door...A rush of hot air and a stifling stench as from the mouth of the pit, smote me in the face, and I involuntarily recoiled...but the bayonets of the guards were behind, and there was no escape...I was compelled to descend into what seemed more like the infernal regions than any place on earth...in a moment more, the trap fell with a dull and heavy sound that seemed crushing down on my heart and every ray of light vanished. I was shut into a living tomb -buried alive!“

After the war, the county seat was changed from Harrison to Chattanooga in the year 1870. Harrison residents, enraged by the move, succeeded in establishing a new county under Governor D. W. Senter from factions of Hamilton and Bradley Counties. The act was passed on January 27, 1871, and James County, “affectionately known as Jim,” was established with it’s county seat located in the small railroad town of Ooltewah.

The new county immediately began having financial problems. In 1890, the state legislature moved to abolish James County but lacked the necessary two-thirds vote needed to do so. The courthouse burned down in 1913, and in 1919 James County finally went bankrupt. That same year the state legislature approved the territorial annexation of James County’s land and it’s population of 300, which was joined with Hamilton County. All of James County, however, was not returned to Hamilton County until 1957, when the legislative decision was formally amended.”

The new county seat in Chattanooga was located in James Hall at the northeast comer of Market and Sixth Streets; it served as a temporary courthouse until the fourth courthouse (and jail) in the old armory at Fourth and Market Streets, was designated as court. The fifth courthouse was built on its present site at a cost of $33,500.

Old County Jail, circa 1976

The lot opposite it, on Walnut Street, was purchased for the county jail for $2,300, and in 1881 the jail structure was erected. The courthouse was struck by lightening and burned on May 7, 1910, but the “Old Jail” remained. The sixth courthouse was rebuilt on the same site as the fifth and dedicated in 1913.

The former Justice Building was completed in 1976 under the administration of Sheriff Frank Newell, but the increasing needs of the criminal justice system steadily demanded more space, especially in the jail portion of the building. The Hamilton County - Chattanooga Courts Building on the corner of Market and Sixth Streets, was completed in early 1992. After the Justice Building offices were vacated, except for Jail Records, and Criminal Records, a two-year renovation of the building was initiated. This remodeling modernized the jail considerably and increased its capacity to over 500.