Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Lost Counties of Tennessee: Powell County

Tennessee is an ever-changing entity, which is 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.”

This map of Kentucky and Tennessee from 1839 shows Powell County in northeast Tennessee.

The Tennessee State Constitution of 1835 changed the restrictions on new county formation by requiring:
  • Counties had to be at least 350 square miles
  • They had to have populations of at least 450
  • No parts of the counties may be less than 12 miles from adjacent county seat
  • Formation of new counties requires consent of the majority of qualified voters
  • Existing counties may not be reduced to less than 650 square miles, with some exceptions

Residents of an area in northeast Tennessee petitioned the Tennessee General Assembly to form "Powell County" because citizens “reside from fifteen to thirty miles from the places of holding courts.” Powell - also spelled Powel - County was first established by an act of the state legislature in 1835. It was to be named for Samuel Powell, a United States representative and judge on the first circuit court in Tennessee. The proposed county would have included Kingsport and its county seat would have been Fall Branch.

A petition to the Tennessee General Assembly requested the creation of Powell County from 1835.

An act of the Tennessee legislature establishing Powell County.

It is unclear exactly why the county didn’t formally organize, but an 1836 petition altering the borders of the county points to a size or distance concern.  This turned out to be only a minor setback as the Tennessee General Assembly passed an act establishing Powell County in 1837. However, this effort did not come to fruition. An 1839 petition to the General Assembly called for the organization of the county to be completed, which resulted in a third legislative act attempting to create Powell County.

An act of the Tennessee legislature establishing Powell County.

After the 1837 legislation, a case was filed in Hawkins County Chancery Court to dissolve Powell County. In Orville Bradley et al v. Commissioners of Powell County, the plaintiff, a former Tennessee senator and representative, claimed that the county should not be established for the following reasons: First, a majority of the voting populace did not vote in favor of the new county, only a majority of those who voted did. Second, the county would have been only 260 square miles, not the required 350. The plaintiff also argued that the boundaries of the proposed county “approach within less than eleven miles of the court house” of Greene and Hawkins counties, and “within less than ten miles of the court house” of Sullivan and Washington counties. Third, the proposed county “may reduce Greene County to less than six hundred and twenty five square miles.” Fourth, since the boundaries of the county had “never been actually run and marked” the commissioners couldn’t have known who within the proposed county was eligible to vote.

The Tennessee Supreme Court’s decree in the case: Orville Bradley et al v. The Commissioners of Powell County.

After appointing Addison Armstrong, the son of famous Tennessee surveyor Robert Armstrong, to survey the proposed county, Supreme Court Justice William B. Turley ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating, “there are not contained three hundred and fifty square miles…” The Supreme Court therefore upheld the decree of Chancellor Thomas L. Williams, “and doth declare said act of the general assembly utterly null and void…”

Addison Armstrong’s survey and plat of Powell County as ordered by the Tennessee Supreme Court. Armstrong was the deputy surveyor of Knox County at the time.

This ruling didn’t discourage the petitioners who wanted to form the new county. They continued to petition the General Assembly until 1857.

A petition to the Tennessee General Assembly requested the creation of Powell County from 1857.

Powell County, like Bell and many others after it, failed to meet the constitutional thresholds for creation. Understanding the various county laws and constitutional provisions of Tennessee is fundamental to understanding its history. There is no better place to do so than at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

A second plat of Powell County within the Supreme Court case drawn by the deputy surveyor of Hawkins County, Robert W. Kinkead.

Visit "Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives" online at to learn more.

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

1 comment:

  1. Interesting story! Thanks for all you do to preserve the history of this great state!