The Tennessee General Assembly formed Dickson County on October 25, 1803, from the counties of Montgomery and Robertson and named it in honor of Congressman William Dickson, a Nashville physician. An industrial county from its inception, Dickson County was part of the frontier until 1818. The first court justices included several well-known Tennesseans: Montgomery Bell, William Doak, William Russell, Sterling Brewer, Gabriel Allen, Lemuel Harvey, Jesse Craft, Richard C. Napier, and William Teas. They organized the county on March 19, 1804, at the home of Robert Nesbitt on Barton's Creek. Later sessions of the court met at the homes of Colonel John Nesbitt and John Spencer until the courthouse was completed in 1810.
The county seat of Charlotte, named for James Robertson's wife, was built on 50 acres purchased from Charles Stewart for five thousand dollars. On May 30, 1830, a tornado devastated the town, destroying most of the businesses and homes, as well as the jail and courthouse, along with many county records. A new brick courthouse was completed in 1832 and is now the oldest courthouse in the state.
As a part of the Military Reserve, Dickson County was attractive to many settlers, who established farms along the rich bottom lands of the Cumberland, Piney, and Harpeth Rivers, as well as Jones, Turnbull, Bartons, and Yellow Creeks. Although the soil and climate of Dickson County were not conducive to the production of cotton, early farmers raised the crop to take advantage of the high cotton prices. In 1807 Robert Jarman began operating his own cotton gin, which he claimed was superior to all others due to its “hollow neck teeth saw” design. By 1860 wheat, rye, oats, corn, and tobacco had overtaken cotton in economic importance.
During the antebellum years, Dickson County was one of the leading iron producers in Tennessee. In 1796 James Robertson began manufacturing the first iron products west of Tennessee's Allegheny Mountains from his Cumberland Iron Works at Cumberland Furnace. In 1804 Robertson sold his furnace to Montgomery Bell, who became the state's wealthiest capitalist and industrialist. Other important iron manufacturers included Anthony and Bernard Van Leer and George F. and Richard C. Napier. Much of the iron production was accomplished with slave labor, and throughout the antebellum period iron makers held approximately one-fourth of the slaves in Dickson County. Although iron production declined in importance in the post-Civil War period, the furnace was still in production in the early 1940s.
Dickson County played a pivotal role in the development of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Influenced by the religious fervor associated with the Second Great Awakening, some members of the Presbyterian Church chafed under the Calvinist doctrines and church rules regarding ordination of ministers. On February 4, 1810, Samuel King, Finis Ewing, and Ephraim McLean met at the home of Samuel McAdow on Acorn Creek (now in Montgomery Bell State Park) to discuss the conflict. After a night of prayer, they organized the Cumberland Presbytery, the foundation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
Although a school board was appointed in 1807, public education received little support during the nineteenth century. The first four-year high school was established in 1919. From the 1820s to the 1920s private secondary schools and colleges followed the fortunes of ministers and professors who moved into the county. Included among those early schools were Tracy Academy, Charlotte Female School, Alexander Campbell School, Edgewood Academy and Normal College, Dickson Academy, Dickson Normal School, Glenwylde Academy, and Ruskin Cave College.
On June 8, 1861, the county voted overwhelmingly to join the Confederacy. Dickson County supplied six infantry companies and an artillery battery to the Southern cause. Yellow Creek and Cumberland Furnace were favorite rendezvous areas for guerrilla forces. No major skirmishes took place, but frequent attacks occurred along the railroad constructed by the Union army.
After the war the Nashville and Northwestern Railroad (on the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis main line), which traversed the southern portion of the county, became a magnet for migrants from the North, who settled in the new railroad towns of Dickson (originally called Smeedville), Tennessee City, White Bluff, and Burns. With two railroad branch lines terminating in Dickson, the town became the county's railroad “hub,” and by the early 1900s was the financial and commercial center of the county. The growth of Dickson produced bitter conflict with Charlotte, the economic fortunes of which were in decline, over the best location for the county seat.
Among the new arrivals to Dickson County was Julius Augustus Wayland, who founded the Ruskin Cooperative Association in August 1894. The cooperative was first located at Tennessee City, but soon moved to the great cave (since named Ruskin) on Yellow Creek. Internal disagreements led to the dissolution of the colony in 1899.
Montgomery Bell State Park, the county's major recreation area, was established as a project of the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps during the New Deal. After World War II administration of the 3,782-acre park was transferred to the state. Montgomery Bell offers camping, hiking, boating, fishing, and golf to park visitors. The state completed a major resort facility at the park in 1998.
Frank Goad Clement, three-term governor of Tennessee, was born in Dickson at the Halbrook Hotel, which is listed in the National Register. Clement's administration in the 1950s and 1960s oversaw a pivotal time in the state's political life, as he dealt with the changes brought about by urbanization and desegregation. He drew national attention when he delivered the keynote address at the 1956 Democratic National Convention.
The old county court system, composed of magistrates from each of the civil districts, was phased out in the 1950s when the General Sessions Court was established. Presently, the county is administered by an elected county executive and two commissioners elected from each of the twelve representative districts.
The northern section of the county remains primarily rural. Modern highways and an industrial park have further urbanized southern Dickson County, with the town of Dickson as the retail and industrial center. Dickson is also home to the Renaissance Center, a multimedia arts and educational center established by the Jackson Foundation. In addition to Dickson and Charlotte, other incorporated towns are Burns, White Bluff, Vanleer, and Slayden. Between 1990 and 2000 county population grew by 23 percent to 43,156 residents.