The story of Hardin County begins with the prehistoric mound builders of the Woodland and Mississippian Periods. Savannah, the modern county seat, is built partially within a wall and trench and amid a line of fourteen mounds on a bluff parallel to the Tennessee River. These prehistoric peoples also built a considerable structure covering approximately four acres in the northwest corner of the county near Middleton and several mounds at Pittsburg Landing in what is now the Shiloh National Military Park. After the Mississippian era, Hardin County, along with most of the rest of West Tennessee, became an area shared by various Indian tribes as a rich hunting ground.
Geologically, Hardin County lies in the Western Valley of the Tennessee River. The river enters the county at the middle of its southern border and flows northward in a west to east direction. The western side of the river, making up one-third of the county's six hundred square miles, is rich bottomland with some hills and ridges. The land east of the river is higher, with a steadily increasing elevation moving toward the eastern boundary. East Hardin County also contains extensive rich bottomland along the lower portion of several creeks and on the inside of river bends.
In 1780 John Donelson led the river party that rendezvoused with James Robertson's overland party in the establishment of Nashborough. According to Donelson's journal, his group stopped at what was probably Diamond Island, near Pittsburg Landing, in the Tennessee River; this is the first known record of whites on Hardin County soil.
In 1783 the North Carolina legislature designated land in West Tennessee for settlement by Revolutionary War veterans. The act creating land bounties anticipated a treaty with the Chickasaws, who claimed the area, and probably anticipated Tennessee statehood. The North Carolina Act allowed claims to be surveyed, and in 1786, either Isaac Taylor or W. A. Farrar laid off five thousand acres for Andrew Kerr and three thousand acres for Joseph Hardin.
After the Jackson Purchase, the Tennessee General Assembly in November 1819 created Hardin County, which extended from Wayne County to the Mississippi. Eleven days later, Shelby County was created, which removed present Shelby County and most of Fayette County from the western reaches of Hardin County. In 1823 the legislature created McNairy County, which established the current western boundary of Hardin County. Bits and pieces were added or taken away over the years, until the county's present boundaries were established in 1856.
Hardin County was named for Colonel Joseph Hardin. He was born in Richmond, Virginia, removed to North Carolina at an early date, and came to Greene County and later Knox County following the Revolutionary War. He served as a representative of Washington and Greene Counties in the State of Franklin and in the Tennessee Territorial Assembly. Hardin died sometime between 1791 and 1801 in Knox County. Among the first settlers were Hardin's sons, a daughter, and their extended families. Like the Nashborough settlers, the Hardin families arrived in two groups: one by land and one by river. The boat party arrived in July 1816, with the land party not far behind.
The first session of County Court of Pleas and Quarterly Sessions was formed January 3, 1820, at the home of Colonel James Hardin near Cerro Gordo. The July 1822 session was held at Hardinville (now called Old Town) near the confluence of Turkey and Boone's Creeks. This site was determined to be the center of the county. The citizens of the county living west of the river strongly objected to the long trip, which included ferry costs, and initiated a successful effort to move the county seat. In 1829 Rudd's Ferry was selected as the county seat; the name was changed to Savannah in 1850, when the state legislature incorporated the town.
Mostly rural and agricultural, Hardin County had a mixed experience in the Civil War. Its allegiances were divided, with most of the western side of the river favoring the Southern cause and much of the eastern side supporting the North. Hardin was one of the few counties outside East Tennessee to vote against secession in both plebiscites. The war moved across the county several times. On April 5-7, 1862, the battle of Shiloh took place in an area between Shiloh Church and Pittsburg Landing. It is commemorated by a three-thousand-acre national park that attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Another Civil War attraction is the Cherry Mansion. Built on the bluff overlooking the river by David Robinson in 1830, the mansion became the headquarters of General Ulysses S. Grant during the battle of Shiloh. The Cherry Mansion is one of several nineteenth-century houses found in Savannah and Hardin County; perhaps the oldest is the James Graham house, built circa 1825.
The history of the county is tied to the waterways. Early industry included mills built along the creeks throughout the county. The first mills were used to grind grain, but later mills were built to take advantage of the natural resources of timber, rock, and minerals. Commercial goods moved into the county and various products from the forest or farm moved to markets by river transportation. In 1930 the Milo Lambert Bridge at Savannah became the first span across the river in the county. Further downriver, Shannonville became Saltillo, and White's Ferry became Cerro Gordo. Hamburg and Crump's Landing fell victim to the impoundment of the river into a lake by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Pickwick Dam, completed by the TVA in 1938, created a recreational area, which steadily increased the size and importance of Counce. The Tennessee River Museum, located in a historic post office building in Savannah, documents the river's influence on local history and folkways.
Savannah's population reached almost 1,000 in 1880 and today numbers almost 7,000. As the county seat, it has always been the political hub of the county. In 1963 the completion of the Estes Kefauver Bridge over the Pickwick Dam also made it the county's commercial hub. Like Savannah, the county has grown considerably and had a population of 25,518 in 2000.
Although the economic importance of the clothing industry has decreased considerably in the past two decades, Kraft paper, steel, mobile homes, plastics, chemicals, and wood-related products have added to the industrial base. Yet even with an increased emphasis on attracting industry and increases in jobs associated with recreational attractions, many Hardin Countians still depend on the farm for at least part of their livelihoods. Increased traffic on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, improvements to U.S. Highway 64, and a new connector to Interstate 40 promise to open Hardin County to new and increased industrial opportunities.