Skip to main content

Washington County (Tenn.)



Washington County, Tennessee's first county, was created in 1777 by the North Carolina legislature as Washington County, N. C. Within its boundaries was most of present-day Tennessee.

The new county was organized with a Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (County Court). The court of pleas and quarter sessions exercised judicial, administrative, and legislative functions: electing county officials, appointing jurors, constructing and maintaining county buildings, overseeing the administration of estates, directing the building and maintenance of roads and bridges, providing support for the poor and orphans, binding apprentices, levying taxes, probating documents, and performing other functions designated by the general assembly.

While the county court held original and appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, the court did not have jurisdiction in equity cases. A Superior Court of Law was reestablished in each of the six North Carolina districts to hear criminal cases. The superior court with jurisdiction over Washington County met at Salisbury, N. C. (1777-82), at Morganton, N. C. (1782-84), and at Jonesborough from 1784. No provision was made for equity jurisdiction until specifically given to the district superior courts in 1782.

From 1784 to 1788, Washington County fell into disputed jurisdiction between North Carolina and the de facto state government of Franklin. Under this latter government, the county's judicial system consisted of the Supreme Court of Law and Equity, County Court, and Superior Court. With the demise of the Franklin movement, Washington County returned fully to the control of North Carolina government.

The state legislature voted to cede the state's western lands, including Washington County, to the federal government in 1789. The following year, Congress established the "Territory of the United States, South of the River Ohio" (Southwest Territory), which included what subsequently became the state of Tennessee. Washington County, remained part of this territorial government until Tennessee statehood in 1796. Under the Southwest Territory, Washington County kept the inferior Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, and a Superior Court of Law and Equity was established.

At the time of statehood, Tennessee's judicial system was largely borrowed from North Carolina. Washington County's Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions and Superior Court of Law and Equity continued. Much local power of jurisdiction was left to Justices of the Peace. In addition to serving on the county court, justices could perform marriages, issue warrants and subpoenas, and conduct and levy fines in certain judicial proceedings related to criminal and quasi-criminal matters, including issues of public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

Jurisdiction in the court system often was ill-defined. Superior Court had equity jurisdiction, original jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, and appellate jurisdiction in cases begun in the courts of pleas and quarter sessions. The Court Pleas and Quarter Sessions had limited law and equity jurisdiction, together with administrative functions noted earlier, with the additional responsibility beginning in the 1820s of administering common (public) schools.

Superior Court was abolished in 1809 and replaced by Circuit Court. At this time, the state was also divided into five judicial circuits, with Washington County being included in the First Circuit. Each circuit had one judge who held court annually in each county of his circuit. All criminal cases were moved to Circuit Court. Circuit Court had the same jurisdiction as the Superior Court in equity cases; exclusive jurisdiction in criminal cases; and appellate jurisdiction in criminal cases. Subsequent modifications in 1811 gave the Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals (forerunner of the state Supreme Court) exclusive jurisdiction of all equity cases arising in Circuit Court, and in 1813 gave Circuit Court concurrent jurisdiction with the Supreme Court in equity cases.

Beginning in 1822, Chancery Court, as part of the circuit court system, began to be held once a year for two weeks in the place where Supreme Court was held. Rogersville was the site of the First District Chancery Court. In 1824, Chancery Court began meeting twice annually in each circuit. Three years later, the state was organized in two chancery divisions, with the Eastern division consisting of all counties with district chancery courts held in Rogersville, Greeneville, Kingston, Carthage and McMinnville. Washington County's chancery then met at Greeneville.

The 1834 state constitution created a civil district system of county administration, with justices of the peace elected to the county court from these geographic divisions within the county. The state itself was divided into three grand divisions: Eastern, Middle, and Western, with chancery court districts within these divisions. The Eastern First District was comprised of Carter, Sullivan, and Washington Counties, and court was held at Jonesborough the first Monday in February and September.

After 1834 changes to the state's judicial system were relatively minor. The 1853 constitution stipulated that justices of the peace be elected, not appointed by the legislature. The term of office was also changed from life tenure to six years. An 1877 judicial act gave chancery court concurrent jurisdiction with circuit court in all civil cases, except for injuries involving unliquidated damages. Chancery often was the favored court, since appeals could be made directly from it to the Supreme Court.

Records related to various neighboring counties may be found in the Washington County records for the period when these later counties were a part of Washington. Created from Washington County were the following: Sullivan (1779), Greene (1783), Carter (1796), and Unicoi (1875).



Sevier, John, 1778-85 Allison, David, 1788-91 Sevier, James, 1785-88 Russell, Andrew, 1791-92 Tipton, John, 1787 Roane, Archibald, 1792-93 Gourley, Thomas, 1787-90 Carter, Landon, 1793-94 Sevier, James 1790-1822 Carter, John, 1796-1806 Stephenson, 1822-24 Anderson, James V., 1806-10 Sevier, James, 1824-36 Greer, Samuel, 1836-44


Smith, William H., 1844-56 Hoss, Henry, 1856-60 Anderson, James V., 1810-36 Conley, J. A., 1860-66 Ryland, John, 1836-48 Grisham, 1866-78 Embree, Worley, 1848-52 Shipley, E. A., 1878-86 Crawford, John H., 1852-61 Leab, Jacob, 1886- Armstrong, E., 1864-66 Deakens, James E., 1866-70


Wheeler, C., 1870-74 Luttrell, S. S., 1874-78 Lucky, Seth J. W., 1836-42 Mathes, W. E., 1878-86 Deaderick, J. F., 1842-65 Cooper, Lewis, 1886- Hoss, Henry, 1865-70 Swingle, B. G., 1870-82 Bowman, A. B., 1882-? Young, W. F.,