It may be hard to imagine, but 200 years ago this week Hamilton County had just over 800 residents, didn't include Chattanooga and was being established as Tennessee's 43rd county.
Friday marks the 200th anniversary of the formation of Hamilton County — named for the first U.S. secretary of the treasury and founding father Alexander Hamilton — out of property from the Cherokee Nation and Rhea County.
Leaders and residents of the now-over-330,000-person county have spent the month leading up to the anniversary celebrating the area's history and progress by commemorating special moments and places in its history.
"I think this anniversary gives us a unique opportunity to reflect as a community," County Mayor Jim Coppinger said. "I think we're a community that likes to look at its different time frames and recognize the importance of moving forward, so this is a special time to look at where we are and where we want to be in the years to come."
Coppinger, Hamilton County's mayor since 2011, said honoring the county's history helps contextualize the goals of current leadership.
He said that at an event earlier this month he attended at Poe's Tavern, the county's first courthouse in what is now Soddy-Daisy, "I could see how government was established and what it is today and why the fundamentals are similar and we still govern with mostly the same goals in mind. But now you look at the issues of today, from public education and economic development, and it's so different than it was back then, and there's no real way to guess what it will be in the future. But that's why we look back on history — for guidance on how to do or not do certain things."
HOW DID IT GET ITS NAME?
Two hundred years ago this week, the founders of Hamilton County chose to name the new county after Alexander Hamilton, former aide-de-camp to Revolutionary War Gen. George Washington and the first secretary of the treasury.
Birth of a county
The county seat was established in 1822 on the farm of then-County Clerk Asahel Rawlings, spurring development of the since-dissolved town of Dallas, which was located in what is now Chester Frost Park. The country seat moved to Harrison in 1840, according to county records.
By 1858, Chattanooga — which was founded in 1839 — had outgrown Harrison and become the home of circuit court by state order. In 1870, the people of Hamilton County voted to move the county seat to Chattanooga, scorning residents of Harrison who, alongside some Bradley County communities, seceded to form James County, which operated for several decades until declaring bankruptcy in 1919. According to the county's website, some property was not returned to Hamilton County until 1957 due to legal complications of the secession.
"I think it's interesting to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Hamilton County, and it's the 100th anniversary of the county absorbing James County, to just see how much we've progressed and come together as a community," Coppinger said. "That area around Ooltewah was at one time not part of our community, and Chattanooga wasn't even close to what it is now, so it just shows how much we have changed and can change and shows how much we have to celebrate."
"If you look back, you wouldn't recognize Hamilton County compared to what it is now," he said. "No one could ever have guessed what Hamilton County would become back then, but if you had a crystal ball to look and see what will happen in the next 200 years, I think the future of Hamilton County is incredibly bright — it's still unlimited how far we can go."
Reflecting on the past is only part of the anniversary celebration.
According to Mayor Coppinger, the county is planning to set the foundation for future generations' understanding of history.
"One of the things we're going to do is bury a time capsule that's about as big as a 55-gallon drum," he said. "We've been asking different legacy companies and groups to contribute to the capsule and really leave a piece of modern Hamilton County for people in the future to be able to reflect on who we are now in the same way we are looking back on our history."
While Coppinger said the county hasn't decided when to suggest future residents unearth the capsule, which will be buried in Chester Frost Park, the message he wants them to receive from it is clear.
"What I'd like for them to be able to see when they look back on who we are now is how the county worked for all of our 10 municipalities to make sure that everybody, old and young, contributed to make a vibrant life for all of our people in this generation and those who come after us," Coppinger said. "I hope, and I do believe, we'll see the same or even greater participation in the future of our community. Everything we've accomplished and everything we've overcome through the last 200 years has been a result of cooperation between different governments, companies, organizations and people who have worked to make a strong community."
The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office is simultaneously marking its anniversary, as history seems to trace its founding to a similar date, Chief Deputy Austin Garrett said.
SHERIFF'S OFFICE HISTORY
Despite sporadic record retention in the first century of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, officials there are working to compile an book with hundreds of historic photos and detailed historical information to be shared with the public.
“The HCSO 200th Anniversary Commemorative book is a remarkable project designed to document the 200-year history of the men and women of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office,” public relations manager J. Matt Lea said. “This massive undertaking, began in January of 2019, will include historical information and photographs showcasing our agency’s history and the people who made it happen. It will also include many new photographs displaying our current personnel, equipment, and resources.”
Lea said the book, expected to be completed in spring 2020, “will offer our community and our citizens the most detailed history and overview of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office to date.”
He said the book will serve as a historical reference for current and future residents.
"I believe it is significant for any law enforcement agency to document its history because, as an organization, our past tells us where we have been and ultimately where we are going," he said. "By recognizing the historical achievements of the [sheriff's office] and the dedication of our personnel, we will ultimately help to memorialize their sacrifices and efforts for future generations."
The sheriff's office is working on a book to chronicle its first 200 years with photos that shows the growth of the department and jail, and also highlight historical moments like visits from presidents and distinguished trials in the area.
Hamilton County will continue to mark the anniversary with a birthday celebration on the courthouse lawn from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Friday.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @_SarahGTaylor.
HAMILTON COUNTY BINGO
As part of the celebration of Hamilton County’s 200th birthday on Friday, a Bingo game card has been created to encourage families to explore the county’s history.
The game card is posted on the Hamilton County government website and also is available by emailing localhistory email@example.com.
Each of 23 historic sites occupies a square on the card along with a free center square and a ‘Choose Your Own Historic Site’ square. To Bingo, visit five sites (or four if including the free square), pose for a selfie and then insert all photos on a page along with your name, phone number and email. Email the one-page entry to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger will select the winning entries during a blind draw on Friday.