Our articles this month have been about how Trousdale County was created by a change in the Tennessee State Constitution in 1870. We are a “Constitutional County.”
The change in that document allowed smaller counties to be formed, giving people in rural areas access to their county governments without having to travel long distances.
The new county was proposed and then the people in the affected area had to give their vote of approval – which they did overwhelmingly.
We were named after former Governor William Trousdale (more on that in a future article) and then we had to select a county seat.
Since we only had one town, the decision was pretty cut and dried. But, there was always the option of building a new town from scratch. So, as reported in the Nashville newspapers on December 16, 1870, “The citizens of the new county of Trousdale have selected Hartsville as their county-seat, by a vote of 433 to 302 for Gray’s, 135 for Miller’s and 13 for Averitt’s.”
We are not sure where Gray and Miller proposed to build, but Averitt may have been close to Averitt’s ferry on the Cumberland River.
The real problem lay in marking off the actual lines for the new county. We were cut out of our neighbors: Sumner, Smith, Macon and Wilson.
Initially the new boundary lines followed the natural flow of creeks, the river and various ridges and hills; thus the resulting map was full of curves and bends.
That in itself created problems!
As soon as the map was finished, our neighbors to the north and east sued and the case set a national precedent!
Standing before the Tennessee State Supreme Court, Macon County attorney M.N. Alexander argued, among other things, that it was impossible to determine “square miles” on anything other than a straight line, or at least using as many straight lines as possible.
The new county was to be a set distance from the county seats of its parent counties and at least a set distance from its own county seat. But how did you determine distance if it changed every few feet due to the meandering of a creek?
The State Supreme Court searched for any previous rulings in the whole United States that could be used as an example – we call those rulings “precedents.” If you could say, “Well, in the case of North Carolina against Jones, it was ruled…” then you didn’t have to make a decision, but you simply let the previous decision be yours.
But there were no cases like this anywhere in the USA.
So the court looked to the country from which our legal system took its basic form: Great Britain. There they indeed found a precedent.
The courts of England had ruled that straight lines were necessary to draw off county lines.
The State Supreme Court ruled that the new county of Trousdale was indeed valid, but that the proposed boundary lines encroached on the constitutional minimum territory and limits of Macon and Smith counties and the lines were hence “void.”
It was back to the drawing board.
New lines were drawn.
The late historian James Welch Owen wrote that in laying out the new lines, good flat country was pushed into the old counties because they produced fine crops and therefore were creating wealth. But the rocky hills and hollers of those counties were included in the Trousdale County lines because they were of little use and were a poor source of taxes.
So the rich, flat river bottomlands around Dixon Springs, which were originally included in the Trousdale County lines, were returned to Smith County.
Our county lines today show mostly straight lines and the curves of the Cumberland River to the south. The ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court set its own precedent – one that other states have used since!