The latter half of the 18th century was a time of great movement and exploration in the American colonies. By 1774, the old animal and Indian trails through the western hunting grounds of the Cherokee and Iroquois were quickly being eroded away by ever increasing travel to settle those vast expanses. Settlement in the western Overmountain region of North Carolina had grown to the extent that government representation was required. In 1779, Overmountain settlers petitioned the North Carolina legislature for a courthouse, hoping to alleviate the long and arduous journey required to conduct legal business such as land transactions for those living in the west.
Shepherded through the legislative process by Halifax, NC representative Willie Jones, a resolution was passed by the North Carolina General Assembly authorizing a courthouse to be built between the two largest settlements in the Overmountain region. In addition, the legislation called for a town to be established around the courthouse. Jonesborough Historian Paul Fink writes, “When in 1779 the general assembly of North Carolina passed an Act authorizing the establishment of a town at the site chosen for the courthouse, they were determined that it should not be a mere cluster of rude huts,” so building restrictions were incorporated in the Act “that . . . grantee shall within three years erect, build and finish on said lot one brick, stone, or well-framed house, twenty feet long and sixteen feet wide with at least ten feet in pitch, with a brick or stone chimney.” The town grew rapidly and was considered by many to be the last bastion of civilization before entering the wild, dangerous and sparsely populated western frontier.
By the mid 19th century, Jonesborough was a prosperous county seat. Travelers from every part of the nation, but particularly those traveling from New York to Georgia by stage, spent many a night in Jonesborough awaiting stages to their final destinations. Accounts of such travels were often published in various newspapers of the day. From such accounts we find the following descriptions of Jonesborough:
“The town is snugly and modestly nestled in a deep hollow, while the adjacent hills are crowned with neat private residences and several academies of some architectural pretension”
“In 1833, it contained a population of about 500 inhabitants. Eleven lawyers, four physicians, two clergymen, three cabinet makers, two bricklayers, one blacksmith, four taverns, two hatters, four tailors, four shoemakers, one silversmith, two wagon makers, and one mill.”
“It boasted a male and a female academy with a total of about two hundred students, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists had church structures…A Masonic Lodge was located at Jonesborough, and several merchants and professional men made the town their residence.”
During the Civil War, Jonesborough, along with all but one Northeast Tennessee county, voted to remain a part of the Union. Due to its vital strategic importance to both North and South because of the railroad, Jonesborough was often occupied by troops. When one hears the Civil War described as “brother against brother” few locales epitomize the description as accurately as the Tennessee counties of Carter, Johnson, Unicoi and in Washington County, Jonesborough.
Jonesborough’s economy was not as adversely affected by the war as were those of other cities in the South. In fact, the late 1870s and 1880s were a time of extensive building in town. Many of the beautifully restored structures one sees today were built during this period. However, the twentieth century saw Jonesborough’s economic influence waning as more and more industry located in and around Johnson City and Kingsport. By mid-century, Jonesborough, though still the county seat of Washington County, was a sleepy little town, bypassed by all but a few.
In 1966, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act, which significantly expanded the National Register of Historic Places and provided matching funds to states for preservation planning. Tennessee passed its preservation enabling legislation in 1969. With that action, the seeds for the Jonesborough of today were sown. A small group of far-sighted individuals looked around and saw Jonesborough for the historic and architectural treasure that it is. With planning funds provided by the state, the Historic Zoning Commission was created, and restoration projects began.
In 1973, a local high school teacher came up with a new idea, an idea whose roots stretched as far into Appalachian soil as the limestone outcroppings themselves. An old farm wagon was pulled up in front of the “Mail Pouch” sign on Courthouse Square and the International Storytelling Festival was born.
Today, Jonesborough is a thriving community with a vibrant downtown, anchored by history and oral tradition. For more information on visiting Tennessee’s oldest town, visit www.jonesboroughtn.org.