Claiborne County

Claiborne County was established by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1801.

Historical Narrative

The Cumberland Historic Byway begins its meandering course through eight of Tennessee’s most picturesque counties at the Cumberland Gap, where the states of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee converge at a natural break in the Cumberland Mountains. This V-shaped opening through the formidable geology of the Cumberland Plateau provided frontier settlers with a vital passageway to the lands west of the Appalachians. The pass acquired its English name in 1750, when Dr. Thomas Walker named it in honor of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II and Queen Caroline. More than 300,000 pioneers travelled the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap to the Plateau region between 1775 and 1840. Yet for centuries before the arrival of white settlers, Native Americans had traversed the Gap for access to the region’s bountiful hunting grounds. Rich in history and natural splendor, the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park encompasses some 24,000 acres in three states, including a northern portion of Claiborne County. Its extensive trail system provides park visitors with unparalleled vistas of geological formations, cascading waterfalls, and breathtaking overlooks.

In traveling the historic route south of the Cumberland Gap on US 25E / SR 32 toward Harrogate, one passes directly from the National Historic Park into the Cumberland Gap Historic District, located in the town of Cumberland Gap. The historic district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 1990, for its association with the historical development of Claiborne County as a late nineteenth and early twentieth century mining town promoted by British investors. In addition, the district includes 38 contributing buildings that represent the district’s period of significance from 1890 to 1930. Prevailing architectural styles exhibited in the district include homes designed in the Queen Anne and Craftsman style. Prior to its association with the extraction and processing of natural resources, chiefly iron, coal, and timber, the town served a vitally important role along the Wilderness Road, with trading posts, inns, stores, and blacksmiths catering to travelers. However, with the rise of the railroads and the establishment of more direct routes to the west, travelers no longer frequented the town of Cumberland Gap. By the middle of the 19th century the town had fallen into a steep economic decline that only worsened during the Civil War, as both armies used the town as a camp and continually raided the area for whatever they needed.

Cumberland Gap’s fortunes greatly improved in the late 19th century. Foreign capitalists flocked to the region to exploit the area’s rich natural abundance. New construction largely replaced the town’s earlier ramshackle assortment of buildings from 1886 to 1891, nine of which are listed as contributing to the current historic district. The early 20th century witnessed another boom in the Gap, with many new commercial buildings and residences constructed. Taken together, these historic properties, according to the authors of the NRHP nomination, “clearly represent a significant and distinguishable entity of architectural value in the context of small town architecture in Claiborne County”.

US 25E / SR 32 continues into Harrogate, home to Lincoln Memorial University and its historic university building, Grant-Lee Hall. Constructed in 1917, the Hall originally encompassed nearly all of the university’s activities, including its dormitories, classrooms, administrative offices, laboratory facilities, and cafeteria. Grant-Lee Hall also housed the residence of the university president. Listed on the National Register in 1978, the nomination describes the building’s first floor as being constructed of stone, “while the second story and gables are brick. The west elevation is embellished with a stone arcade and projected curved sunroom, while the east elevation includes a massive curved exterior stairway and terrace,” and the arcade, arches, and massive stonework show the influence of the Romanesque Revival. Beyond its architectural attributes, Grant-Hall is notable for its local significance in the area of education. Chartered by the State of Tennessee on February 12, 1897, the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the founding of the institution was purportedly initiated by President Lincoln himself, who had expressed his desire to General Oliver O. Howard that a college be established for the benefit of the “mountain people”.

The Tennessee Historical Commission has erected a number of historical markers throughout the State, four of which are located in Claiborne County along the route of the Cumberland Historic Byway:

1. “Return from Kentucky” – The marker is located on US 25E and commemorates the passage of the Army of Tennessee led by General Braxton Bragg and Major General Kirby Smith.

2. “Cumberland Gap” – Located near the town of Cumberland Gap, the marker commemorates the arrival of the initial wave of settlers and long hunters to the region. In addition, the marker describes Civil War activity in the area.

3. “Harrow School” – Located on US 25E, this marker describes the founding of the Harrow School by Reverend and Mrs. A.A. Meyers in 1890. The Harrow School served as the precursory to Lincoln Memorial University.

4. “Pioneer’s Grave” – Located on US 25E, this marker identified the grave of settler James Robertson, killed by Indians in 1784 at Butcher’s Spring near Arthur.

Claiborne County was established by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1801, from portions of Grainger and Hawkins Counties, and is named in honor of Tennessee’s first representative to Congress, William C.C. Claiborne, who also served as a U.S. Senator and as governor of the Mississippi Territory and of Louisiana. Encompassing 277,963 acres, Claiborne County is home to a total of 33 Tennessee Century Farms, a statewide program that “honors and recognizes the dedication and contributions of families who have owned and farmed the same land for at least 100 years”.

One such historic farm is the Bill Russell Farm and its NRHP-listed Kincaid House, located along the Cumberland Historic Byway near SR 63 in Speedwell. The Kincaid House is an excellent example of Federal style architecture. The house was constructed ca. 1840 by John Kincaid II for his brother William Harrison Kincaid. The Kincaid brothers were one of the largest landowners in the Powell Valley during the antebellum period. Considering the age of the house, it features uncommon architectural characteristics for the region through the display of stepped parapet gables, a Flemish bond brick exterior, and molded brick cornices.

Another historic Powell Valley property is the Kincaid-Ausmus House, which is located approximately one mile southeast of SR 63. Listed on the National Register in 1975 for its local significance in the areas of architecture and government, the house is historically associated with John Kincaid II, a major land and slave owner of the Powell Valley. The NRHP nomination indicates that Kincaid commissioned the construction of all the existing antebellum brick homes in the Powell Valley. As with all of Kincaid’s homes, his slaves were used in the construction of the buildings, which included the erection of a brick kiln on the site and the cutting of the limestone blocks that made up the foundations. This house was constructed for John Kincaid III and was completed in 1851. Subsequent owners included Kincaid III’s brother, Alvis, Jordan Longmire, and Wiliam Ausmus. The house serves as an excellent example of federal style architecture and features extensive interior woodwork.

The McClain-Smith House in Speedwell was listed on the National Register in 1975 for its local significance in the areas of architecture and literature. Constructed between 1793 and 1800 by Thomas McClain, who was one of the first white settlers of the Powell Valley, the house faces southward toward the valley’s rolling fields with its back to Powell Mountain. The McClain-Smith House is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the Powell Valley and is an excellent example of stone construction. Built into a hill and made from locally quarried limestone, the walls of the house range from 2 to 8 feet in thickness. Many original features are retained, including its poplar ceilings and built-in cherry cabinets.

The children of Thomas McClain later sold the house and over 400 acres of land to “Uncle” Doc Rogers in 1875. Marshall Ellison acquired the house in 1900 and farmed the property until his death, whereupon his daughter, Myrtle Smith, inherited it. Smith was married to local playwright Earl Hobson Smith, whose plays on frontier life have been performed around the country. Myrtle Smith, herself an author, is best known for writing The Civil War Cookbook. From the front porch of the McClain-Smith House can be seen the cemetery on the property in which Thomas McClain and his two wives, as well as “Uncle” Doc Rogers and Marshall Ellison are all interred.

Near the Campbell-Claiborne County line about a quarter-mile south of Old State Highway 63 in Speedwell, is the National Register-listed Speedwell Academy. Significant for its association with both the social and educational history of Claiborne County, Speedwell Academy is a two-story, brick building originally constructed in 1827 as the Powell Valley Male Academy. The school was founded by German immigrant, George Shutter, who arrived to the Powell Valley region from Pennsylvania in the 1820s. Utilitarian in style with Greek Revival influences, the building is situated on a rise overlooking the surrounding pastureland and rests on a limestone foundation with hand-hewn, pegged wooden logs framing the roof.

The school served an important role in the Speedwell community for nearly 150 years, providing educational stability at a time in which access to public education in the area was sorely lacking. Speedwell Academy offered its male students classes in English classics, Latin, Greek, oration, and the sciences in the years before the Civil War. In addition to serving as a school, local tradition holds that the building functioned as headquarters for General Felix Zollicoffer during the Civil War and later as a Confederate hospital. After the establishment of a public school system, Claiborne County took over the Powell Valley Male Academy in 1907 and converted it into the coeducational Speedwell Academy, which operated in various educational capacities until 1971. While simple in design, much of its original, historic fabric remains in the building, including its wooden floors, double-beaded board ceilings, plaster walls, and molded trim.