Native American Indians inhabited McMinn County for thousands of years before white men settled the area. It is widely believed the first Europeans to enter McMinn County were Hernando Desoto and his men in the mid 1500's. This assumption is based on the findings of Aztec statuary on an island in the Hiwassee River west of Calhoun.
McMinn County was organized on November 12, 1819, and its government was established in March of 1820. It was named after Joseph McMinn who was Governor of Tennessee at the time of the organization and was active in the political constitutional convention in Knoxville. He personally delivered Tennessee's proposed constitution to President George Washington. Joseph McMinn's public service career included eight terms in the General Assembly, three as speaker of the Senate, and three terms as Tennessee's fifth governor from 1815 to 1821. He later served as an agent to the Cherokees. Joseph McMinn died in 1824 and is buried in Calhoun.
Several important historical events have occured in McMinn County. In 1834, a Cherokee leader, John Walker Jr, was murdered in McMinn County. Walker was an advocate of the removal of the Cherokees to the west, and he was killed by two anti-removal Cherokees, James Foreman and Isaac Springston. The trial was held in McMinn County with Judge Charles F. Keith presiding. Foreman's attorney, Spencer Jarnigan, argued that the state courts had no jurisdiction over the matter as it had occured south of the Hiwassee River in the Cherokee Nation. Keith dismissed the case on these grounds, but when it was heard by the Supreme Court in June of 1836, the verdict was overturned, proving to the Cherokee that thier rights as a Nation did not supercede state law. The Removal Treaty, signed by Cherokee leaders only a few months later, sealed the fate of the Nation. The forman Trial heard in Athens set the stage for the Cherokee Removal, known as the Trail of Tears.
During the Civil War, the county sharply divided over the question of secession, and the adage of "brother against brother" took on true relevance. In McMinn County, the civil war was fought in family parlors, churches, and neighborhoods. The county was never site to any large battles, but a few skirmishes did occur as both sides struggled for control of both the Hiwassee River bridge at Calhoun and the county's rail lines. McMinn County sent men to fight on both sides of the war and allegiences changed sometimes daily depending upon which army was present. Athens played host to Federal General William Tecumseh Sherman as well as Confederate Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, both at different times at the historic Van Dyke home. Sherman also used the Bridges Hotel in Athens as his temporary headquarters. A strong Unionist and Tennessee's first post-war governor, William G. "Parson" Brownlow served as minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, the forerunner of the present Keith Memorial United Methodist Church in Athens.
After the Civil War, McMinn County began to rebuild. By the mid 1870's McMinn County was firmly established as an agricultural and industrial leader in Southeast Tennessee. Along with such tourist attractions as the White Cliff Springs Hotel on Starr Mountain, Athens, Englewood, and Calhoun saw the birth of textile, railroading and lumber industries. With this growth came an increase in population, as well as road and highway improvements in the 1920-30's, and and airport in the late 1940's.
McMinn County saw national attention in 1946 when local GI's formed a politcal party and by defeating the entrenched political machine, signaled a new beginning in the structure of county government.
Today McMinn County is a largely industrial county with major companies producing goods as diverse as automobile components, farm equipment, furniture, chemicals, clothing and newsprint. Bowater Inc., located in Calhoun, is the world's largest producer of newsprint. McMinn County has an area of 439 square miles and currently has a population of approximately 51,000 persons. The five municipalities of Athens, Etowah, Englewood, Niota and Calhoun are located in the county. Athens is the county seat.
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