Formed in 1799, Rutherford County once covered all of WNC
From The Forest City Courier’s Golden Anniversary edition
August 1, 1968
Rutherford County, formed in 1779, is the oldest county in Western North Carolina.
During the height of the Revolutionary War the name Tryon County became obnoxious to the patriots and the General Assembly was petitioned to abolish Tryon, and form from it two new counties, Lincoln and Rutherford.
This was done and the line was drawn between the two counties, the boundary being the road north and south of the present Cleveland County fair grounds.
Rutherford’s westward boundaries were indefinable, so vast was tract embraced in the new county.
All the southern tier of counties in North Carolina have since been formed from Rutherford’s original territory. Buncombe was the first county formed from Rutherford.
Rutherford County has furnished her share of statesmen to North Carolina. Among these have been an associate justice of the Supreme Court, four judges of the superior courts, five congressmen, four solicitors, and a variety of other state and district officers. Elisha Baxter, a native of the county, served as governor of Arkansas, and his brother, John Baxter, served many years as a member of the United States Court of Appeals.
At one time Rutherford County was regarded as the center of the gold mining industry in North Carolina and Georgia. The Bechtlers, of Rutherfordton, set up a mint in 1831 and minted nearly three million dollars worth of gold in $1, $2.50 and $5 coins.
Extensive mining for monazite and mica and other materials have been carried on successfuly in Rutherford over the years.
It was in the middle 1800’s that residents made use of the county’s rivers. Citizens living near the rivers had to donate their labor to clean out the river channels. As late as 1840 small boats were floated on the First and Second Broad and Green Rivers, headed for Columbia, S.C.
There was even an attempt to create an inland river port to be known as Burrtown, in honor of Aaron Burr. A similar town, named Jefferson, was also created on paper – and got no further.
Rutherford has a remarkable military record. Under the militia system nearly ever able-bodied man served one or more terms of three months in service during the Revolution.
Rutherford was on the frontier when the Revolution came. On the whole, the settlers here were Loyalist, but they soon had reason to switch. Royal Governor Martin, in one of his last acts, cooked up a scheme calling for a general Indian uprising against the frontiersmen from the Ohio River to Alabama.
Attacks on border towns were soon reported, one at Crooked Creek, near Old Fort, where several were killed. In July of 1776, General Griffin Rutherford informed the council that the situation was critical. Already 37 had been murdered in Rowan County in two days.
Within a week the general had 2,500 men in arms and on the frontier.
From Old Fort he crossed the mountains at Swannanoa Gap (Ridgecrest) with 2,000 foot soldiers, 80 calvary, and 1,400 packhorses. The force moved so quickly it was 50 miles inside Indian territory before it was discovered.
It drove up Hominy Creek to Pigeon River, Richland Creek, and then to the Tuckaseegee River. Destroying village[s], the army hurried along the Little Tennessee River to the Valley River and Hiwassee settlements. From there the general crossed the Nant[a]halas, avoiding a planned ambush at Wayah Gap. The last of the Cherokees on this side of the Smokies fled either into Tennessee or Alabama, and within a month Rutherford was back home.
War of 1812
Several companies participated in the War of 1812, and the county sent two militia companies to aid in the Cherokee Removal of 1848. Although the Mexican War was fought during the administration of a North Carolina-born president, the war was very unpopular in this area. But a few men did serve in that war.
The Civil War, started the county’s lowest economic era.
Rutherford did not give Lincoln a single vote, but the county was divided on seccession. When it came, however, the county sent 14 companies and over 1,700 men into the Confederate Army.
The surrender found the county in economic ruin, but there was hope and progress until the “radical” national congress imposed reconstruction. Chaos followed. The secret Union League and. Red Strings Association were countered by a large and active Ku Klux Klan.
The resulting warfare was bloody and bitter. Military rule followed, but corrupt courts and officials fanned rather than subdued the flames. Hundreds were illegally arrested and imprisoned.
Citizens fled their homes to escape vengeful oppression. Business and commerce were stilled. The uproar continued until about 1873 when the Conservatives regained control of government.
Two Rutherford County companies, one white and one Negro, fought in the Spanish-American war of 1898.
Rutherford County sent her proportionate share of men into World Wars I and II, and also into the Korean War (and now has its share in Vietnam—Ed.)
Up until the turn of the century Rutherford’s economy was almost wholly dependent on agriculture and this phase of industry had not been highly developed until about 1890.
Antiquated modes of cultivation, neglect of growing livestock and a one-crop system (of cotton) made up farming operations.
A turn of improvement in agriculture cultivation took place before the turn of the century, and farming conditions gradually improved with the years.
With the establishment of the Cliffside, Henrietta and Florence Mills, the economy of the county started on a new phase. These plants afforded a new payroll and took many people off the farm and put them to work for a weekly cash check. The coming of the railroads a short time before the textile plants gave the county a new impetus. Within recent years there has been a development in the tourist industry, which brings many dollars a year into western Rutherford.
Rutherfordton is the county’s oldest town, having been founded shortly after the county was created. The first courthouse was at Gilbert Town on Holland’s Creek, one mile north of Rutherfordton. This site was found to be very unfavorable for the purpose for which it was chosen and the county seat was moved to Rutherfordton.
Forest City is the county’s second oldest town, having been incorporated shortly after the Civil war.
Col. Patrick Ferguson, on his raid into Western North Carolina, shortly before the Battle of Kings Mountain, made his headquarters at Gilbert Town.
The county’s population has grown from 5,000—when Rutherford covered most of this end of the state—to its present day figure of 45,000.
In comparison to 1968, the population of the county in 2004, as estimated by U. S. Census Bureau was 63,570. More details and facts can be found at the official Rutherford County Web site.