Carter County is located in the northeast corner of Tennessee. It was created from Washington County in 1796 and named in honor of Landon Carter, treasurer of the Washington and Hamilton Districts of North Carolina and the State of Franklin's Speaker of the Senate and Secretary of State. Carter County's 348 square miles blend mountains, the Watauga and Doe Rivers, and beautiful valleys into an inspiring Appalachian landscape. The Appalachian Trail passes through the county and most of eastern Carter County is within the Cherokee National Forest. Roan Mountain State Park, at the county's border with North Carolina, is one of the most beloved scenic spots in the state. The county’s population in 2000 was 56,742.
Carter County is extremely significant in Tennessee's settlement history. Permanent settlers arrived along the Watauga River in the late 1760s; William Bean was one of the earliest, and his farm was eight miles west of the Sycamore Shoals of the Watauga River. James Robertson established a river valley farm in 1770 and stayed there until moving to the Cumberland River in 1779. Valentine Sevier Sr., the father of John Sevier, lived near Sycamore Shoals. Also in the early 1770s John Carter established his plantation just north of present-day Elizabethton. This notable Revolutionary War patriot was the father of Landon Carter, for whom the county is named. In 1772 the settlers along the Watauga River established the Watauga Association, and three years later, in 1775, land speculator Richard Henderson and Cherokee leaders met at Sycamore Shoals to negotiate the Transylvania Purchase. During the American Revolution Fort Watauga provided refuge from attacks by Old Abram and other Cherokee warriors. In 1780 approximately eleven hundred Overmountain Men gathered at Sycamore Shoals before marching to Kings Mountain. The Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area preserves key historical places, including the Overmountain Men muster ground, the Shoals, the reconstructed Fort Watauga, and the John and Landon Carter Mansion.
Elizabethton, the county seat, was established in 1797 and remained a small rural village until the railroad and industrial age. William G. “Parson” Brownlow established a newspaper there in 1839. Duffield Academy, founded in 1809, was the town's leading antebellum school. During the Civil War the town and county were equally divided in their support of the Union and Confederate causes. The county's most famous soldier was Samuel P. Carter (1819-1891), a Naval Academy graduate who was appointed brigadier general of the U.S. Volunteers in May 1862 and led an East Tennessee cavalry raid that same year. He later returned to the navy as a commander and after his retirement in 1881, Carter was named a rear admiral on the retired list.
The Doe River Covered Bridge, built in 1882, allowed for commercial and residential expansion. Educational opportunities increased with Milligan College, established in 1882, which grew out of the earlier Buffalo Male and Female Institute (1866). Two leading late nineteenth-century Tennessee politicians came from Carter County: brothers Robert Love Taylor and Alfred A. Taylor waged the famous “War of the Roses” in 1886. Bob Taylor was governor from 1887-91 and 1897-99; Alf served as governor from 1921 to 1923.
Carter County's modern history began with the arrival of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad in the late 1880s. The county's first major industry, Line and Twine, came in 1892. Although the depression of 1893-94, followed by a disastrous flood in May 1901, dampened rapid economic growth, investors did not forget about the county's industrial potential. In the mid-1920s German capitalists located the Bemberg and Glanzstoff rayon plants between Elizabethton and Sycamore Shoals. The massive factories thrust local residents, and hundreds of other Appalachian families, into the industrial age. When hundreds of employees, mostly women, struck the companies in 1929, it was “the first concrete sign of Southern disenchantment with a textile industry financed by Northern capital and operated in an exploitative manner.” (1) The strike failed, however, and rayon companies remained the town's key industries until the late twentieth century.
Another significant development in modern Carter County history was the Tennessee Valley Authority's construction of Watauga Dam and Lake in the 1940s. Completed in 1948, the lake created by the earth-filled dam covers approximately 6,430 acres.
The career of Judge Ben Allen (1891-1977) is closely associated with the main themes of the county's modern history. A veteran of the 117th Infantry in World War I and a graduate of the Cumberland School of Law in Lebanon, Allen began his political career with his election as district attorney general in 1926. In the 1930s he was a founding member of the Mountain Breeders Co-op, which aimed to enhance the county's livestock industry. In 1934 he was elected circuit court judge of the First Judicial District, a position Allen held until 1942, when he resigned to become the general manager and vice-president of the Bemberg and North American Rayon plants. The U.S. government seized control of the German-owned factories as a wartime measure, and officials selected Allen because of his reputation for honesty and fairness. Allen remained manager of the two factories until 1956, when he began an active retirement and became a founding member of the Watauga Historical Association, which eventually created the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. Allen's historic Renfro-Allen Farm has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.