Greg Tucker, ‘Rutherford for Real’, published 2010 (‘Rutherford for Real‘ may be purchased for only $20 by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org)
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
In the midst of the upcoming Civil War sesquicentennial observance (2011-15), the Rutherford County seat (Murfreesboro) will celebrate its bicentennial — but on what date?
The state legislature established Rutherford County in 1803. The new county was bounded to the north and west by Wilson, Davidson and Williamson counties, and to the east by Warren. The southern boundary extended to the “Indian lands” and included most of what later became Bedford County.
Travel and commerce during the early years relied on rivers and streams. Early communities, such as Readyville and Versailles, were upstream in the Stones River watershed. A town at the confluence of the Stones River East and West Forks was favored as the county seat.
Thomas Bedford, Robert Weakley and several other major landowners on the Forks profited handsomely from the sale of town lots and surrounding property for Jefferson, the county seat. Soon farm produce, timber, furs and other commerce was following the streams and primitive paths and roads to Jefferson where river boats loaded at the port and headed downstream to the Cumberland River and Nashville.
The southern half of the county, however, was over the “Tennessee Divide” where the Duck River system flowed west to the Tennessee River, and Jefferson was not reasonably accessible. In 1807 the legislature created Bedford County, leaving the Stones River watershed in Rutherford. For commerce and access to major cities downstream, Jefferson was now well-situated to serve the remaining expanse of Rutherford County.
But by 1808 influential families with substantial estates upstream from Jefferson began lobbying for a new county seat. These included Ready on the East Fork and Lytle, Barfield, Maney and Murfree on the West and Middle Forks. Their rationale was that a “seat of government” with its various courts and offices should be “more centrally located.”
Obviously, these shrewd landowners and speculators also recognized that a new county seat adjacent or proximate to their lands would dramatically increase the value of their property, as it did for Weakley and Bedford.
Jefferson area landowners and businessmen (notably Thomas Bedford Jr., Thomas Rucker, Mark Mitchell, Peter Legrand and Sheriff John Griffin) lobbied to protect their values. But after three years of bickering the Jefferson interests were overwhelmed. The Tennessee General Assembly on October 17, 1811, appointed seven Rutherford County commissioners to select a place “near the center of said county” where 60 acres could be laid out with “good water” for a new county seat.
On November 19, 1811, the Assembly determined that the new county seat, wherever located, would be named “Murfreesborough.” Competition eventually narrowed the choice to two locations: (1) a site on the East Fork between Jefferson and Readyville offered by Thomas Rucker and favored by Charles Ready, and (2) a site near Murfree’s Spring offered by William Lytle.
Finally, in the spring of 1812 “in a thick grove” near the Lytle home, the appointed commissioners and a large crowd of county residents met “where a table was spread with provisions, beside a good supply of liquor,” according to the account by John Spence.
When a ballot was taken, four commissioners favored the Lytle site, three voted for the Rucker proposal. By a one vote majority, the new county seat, Murfreesborough, was placed on the 60 acres offered by William Lytle. Surveying and platting for the new town began in June 1812 and the first town lots were sold in August 1812.
The transition, however, was not easy. Even before the new site was determined, Jefferson area landowners and businessmen petitioned the legislature for losses they expected to incur if the judicial and commercial activity was relocated. When the legislature denied restitution, a citizens’ petition was delivered to state lawmakers asking that the county seat be determined by referendum.
Frustrated in their appeals to the legislature, the Jefferson forces tried to simply ignore the plan for a new county seat. For example, the county court (the original county governing body meeting in Jefferson) voted on April 8, 1812, to fund repairs for the county jail in Jefferson, ignoring the plan for a new jail and courthouse in Murfreesborough.
On Oct. 8, 1812, about five months after selection of the site for Murfreesborough, a divided and rancorous county court met in Jefferson with only 14 of 51 members present. On a quick motion to adjourn, the presiding officer ordered that the court reconvene the following day in Murfreesborough. Six of the members then commanded the sheriff (a Jefferson sympathizer) to reconvene the court in Jefferson at 9 a.m. on the following day. By sheriff’s order, the county court reconvened in Jefferson on Oct. 9, while dissident members (Murfreesborough supporters) held court at the home of William Lytle near the new town. Needless to say, citizens who had traveled to Jefferson for business before the court were inconvenienced and confused, and for almost nine months the county was in gridlock.
Finally, 27 members of the court (a legislative quorum) met in Jefferson on June 15, 1813, and voted to adjourn and reconvene in Murfreesboro “agreeable to the act” of the legislature. The first regulations for the new town were passed by the legislature in October 1813.
So when should the bicentennial of Murfreesboro be observed? The Rutherford County Historical Society considered the question at its August 2010 meeting. It was observed that an individual “birthday” is set on the date of delivery rather than the date of conception, that the choice of name may occur at some time before or even after a birth, and that discipline and responsibility are usually achieved only after considerable growth and development.
Using these criteria, the Society unanimously favored the moment of the town commissioners’ vote as the “birth” of Murfreesboro. Accordingly, the bicentennial should be in the spring of 2012 when conditions favor a picnic “in a thick grove.”
Greg Tucker can be reached at email@example.com.