Monday, February 22, 2016

Lost Counties... Bell County, Tennessee

The State of Tennessee is an ever-changing entity, evidenced by the creation and dissolution of counties throughout the state’s history. Some counties were renamed, many were proposed but never formed, and some were created and later abolished. These are sometimes known as Tennessee’s “lost counties.” James County is a famous example in East Tennessee, established in 1871, from parts of Hamilton and Bradley counties, it existed for 49 years until a referendum dissolved it in 1920.

A map of the proposed Bell County, Tennessee.



A flurry of new counties were proposed after the State Constitution of 1870, due to the reduction of size and population thresholds for creation. Bell and Nashoba counties, in southwestern Tennessee, were among those that were proposed but never established, while James County was one that actually materialized. Bell County was proposed by an act of the state legislature on December 20, 1870, created from the southern sections of Fayette, Hardeman, and McNairy counties.

An 1870 Public Act of the Tennessee General Assembly that established Bell County.


New counties are established for a variety of reasons; residents often want to have a county seat closer to home, and may also desire more local governance. It is unclear exactly why the citizens of the proposed Bell County wished for their own dominion, but they overwhelmingly did. In the referendum held on February 22, 1871, the citizens voted 1284 to 295 in favor of the new county.

The March 2, 1871 issue of the Somerville Falcon that reported the results of the referendum.



However, the commissioners of the existing counties did not relinquish the land so easily. Running through the middle of the proposed county was the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which to these rural counties was an important source of tax revenue. At least two court cases were filed to quash the formation of this new county: The Counties of Hardeman and Fayette et al v. J. C. Wells et al; and Thomas H. Cocke et al v. John G. Gooch et al.

The court case, The Counties of Hardeman and Fayette et al v. J. C. Wells et al, attempted to block the creation of Bell County, reached the Tennessee Supreme Court.


The court case, Thomas H. Cocke et al v. John G. Gooch et al, was filed in Fayette County Chancery Court by the county commissioners and, due to issues of constitutionality, reached the Tennessee Supreme Court.


In the latter case, the plaintiffs argued that Bell County was unconstitutionally established, because the number of votes in favor of the new county was not a two-thirds majority of the voting populace, just a two-thirds majority of those who voted. The plaintiffs prevailed with a Supreme Court opinion written by Judge Peter Turney, who later became Governor. Article 4 of the State Constitution at the time defined qualified voters to be “Every male person of the age of twenty-one years, being a citizen of the United States and a resident of this State for twelve months, and of the county for six months…” Casting aside various arguments presented by the defense, Turney decreed “In the case of all laws, it is the intent of the lawgiver that is to be enforced… It is to be presumed that language has been employed with sufficient precision to convey it, and …nothing will remain except to enforce it.” He goes on to say, “The language of the clause is plain and unambiguous…” and that “we can not presume that the framers of the Constitution did not understand the plain and unambiguous expressions employed to mean more or less than their face imparts.”

Thomas H. Cocke et al v. John G. Gooch et al, determined the fate of Bell County. The Tennessee Supreme Court and Justice Peter Turney ruled that the results of the referendum did not constitute a constitutional majority, and therefore Bell County could not be established.


Bell County is a well-documented example of the complex process of county organization. It is important to understand how the state and its counties came into being, and there is no better place to do so than at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Visit "Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives" online at http://share.tn.gov/tsla/TeVAsites/MapCollection/index.htm to learn more.

Addendum: Nashoba County, seen on the map, faced the same fate as Bell County. It too was legislated into being but never jumped the legal hurdles to establish its existence; in fact it most likely stagnated as a direct result of Bell County’s failure.

An 1871 Public Act of the Tennessee General Assembly that established Nashoba County.


The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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