One of the more colorful stories from early federal history is that of the ‘Lost State of Franklin’, an area of present-day East Tennessee that was once its very own state. Much lesser known to folks here in the Volunteer State, however, is the story of Tennessee’s lost county. Given my own obsession with county-level geography (and my ongoing quest to visit every county in the United States), it’s kind of a wonder that it has taken me so long to mention James County, TN – an oversight that will now be corrected.

The story of short-lived James County, TN, begins in 1871, with the passage of a bill introduced by State Representative Elbert Abdiel James of Hamilton County (think Chattanooga). Citing the stark difference in demographics of the eastern portion of Hamilton County from the greater Chattanooga area, James asked that a brand new county be created so that residents there might have their own representation in deciding state affairs. Evidently, Governor DeWitt Senter, along with a quorum of state legislators, cited the precedent of Whatever and quickly signed off on the idea.

Even in the nineteenth century, it would have been considered poor form to suggest naming the new county after himself, so Rep. James, in a thinly veiled move, proposed naming it for his father, Sullivan County resident Jesse James (seriously). Certainly, the fact that the elder James had the same last name as his son was a mere coincidence, right? A few folks from neighboring Bradley County wanted in as well, so boundaries were set to include a small portion of Bradley along with the eastern 1/3 of Hamilton County. The community of Ooltewah was designated the James County seat.


Probably more useful if you're familiar with Tennessee geography
Probably more useful if you’re familiar with Tennessee geography


But all was not well in the land of James. The new government, plagued by corruption and (shockingly) nepotism, found that there was simply too small a tax base to support any infrastructure. Roads deteriorated, schools went unbuilt, and the anticipated overflow from nearby Chattanooga’s booming economy never materialized. The only people prospering were the county administrators.


Some things never change.
Some things never change.


By the early twentieth century, James County was beginning to collapse under its own weight. In 1919, the inevitable happened – the entirety of the county went bankrupt and was absorbed back into Hamilton.

Few remnants of James County remain today. Courthouse fires in 1890 and 1913 destroyed most of the records and the futile experiment was quickly forgotten. However, anyone interested can still visit the old James County courthouse, which still stands in Ooltewah. And while it’s no longer a seat of government, one function of the old building remains. You can still get married there – because it’s now a wedding chapel.



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