Archaeological excavations performed by Dr. David Moore, during the early 1980s, revealed the earliest inhabitants of McDowell County to be from the Mississippian and Woodland eras. Dr. Moore discovered evidence in an area close to the Catawba River in and around an unusual topographical site known as Round Hill. These early Native Americans lived in this section prior to Juan Pardo's exploration of the region.
In 1566, the Spanish explorer Juan Pardo came to Western North Carolina traveling through the area that is now McDowell county. His purpose was to acquire territory for Spain, but he had also hoped to find precious metals. Pardo and his men built a log blockhouse at the headwaters of the Catawba River. Apparently intimidated by the formidable range of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the home of the Cherokee Nation, Pardo left the area the following year.
In 1748, "Hunting" John McDowell received a land grant for property known today as "Pleasant Gardens" including acreage originally located from Swan's Pond (Catawba County) up the Catawba River west to present day Marion and into the region known as Buck Creek. During a hunting expedition with his friend Henry Weidner, the two came upon a lush green valley with thousands upon thousands of acres of virgin forest. During that time, it was customary when settling a dispute to engage in a "friendly" wrestling match. McDowell came out the winner.
"Hunting" John McDowell received two land grants and after establishing residence along the Catawba River of Pleasant Gardens, raised his family. He is noted in Max Dixon's, The Wautagans as being instrumental in Jacob Brown's Purchase of one of the last remaining pieces of acreage along the Nolichucky River in Tennessee when he hosted a negotiations with the Cherokee on his farm in North Carolina.
His son, Joseph McDowell, is noted in history as a significant contributor to the Battle at Kings Mountain. McDowell County is named in his honor. Today, his home stands as one of the few remaining homes in North Carolina still standing and built by its namesake.
The settlement of Old Fort was later established and it had become the westernmost outpost of Colonial civilization at the time. These early pioneers established a close community protected by a series of forts which remained active until the early 19th century. Thus, Old Fort.
Marion, the county seat of McDowell County, was planned and built on land selected by the first McDowell County Commissioners on March 14, 1844 at the Historic Carson House. It was not until 1845, however, that the official name of Marion was sanctioned as the county seat by the state legislature. The name of Marion came from Francis Marion, the American Revolutionary War hero, known as the “Swamp Fox” and the man upon whom the movie "The Patriot" was based.
During the Carolina Gold Rush period of the early 19th century, the south county area was known for its gold production. The banks of the Muddy Creek and mines at Vein Mountain were productive areas. Many mines and thriving gold rush towns such as Brackettown no longer exist, although scattered ruins and cemeteries mark many locations of the gold rush period.There were other mines in the area also including an old mine in Woodlawn. In that community someone opened a mine on Tom's Creek which may have been a Mica mine. There are remnants of the a sorting house and the old mine shaft itself. Who opened and ran this mine is unknown.
McDowell county was first formed in 1842 from parts of Burke County and Rutherford County. It was named for Joseph McDowell, a Revolutionary War leader and hero of the Battle of King's Mountain, and a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1797 to 1799.