Native Americans of the Woodland period were among the first human inhabitants of what is now Sevierville, arriving sometime around 200 A.D. and living in villages scattered around the Forks-of-the-River area.
Between 1200 and 1500 A.D., during the Dallas Phase of the Mississippian period, a group of Native Americans established McMahan Mound Site, a relatively large village centered around a platform mound and village site surrounded by a palisade just above the confluence of the West Fork and the Little Pigeon River. This mound was approximately high and across. An excavation in 1881 unearthed burials, arrow-points, a marble pipe, glass beads, pottery, and engraved objects. At the time of this first excavation, the mound was located on a farm owned by the McMahan family, and was thus given the name "McMahan Indian Mound".
By the early 18th century, the Cherokee controlled much of the Tennessee side of the Smokies, establishing a series of settlements along the Little Tennessee River. A section of the Great Indian Warpath forked at the mouth of Boyd's Creek, just north of Sevierville. The main branch crossed the French Broad and continued along Dumplin Creek to the Nolichucky basin in northeastern Tennessee. The other branch, known as the Tuckaleechee and Southeastern Trail, turned south along the West Fork of the Little Pigeon River. This second branch forked again at modern-day Pigeon Forge, with the main trail turning east en route to Little River and the other branch, known as the Indian Gap Trail, crossing the crest of the Smokies to the south and descending into the Oconaluftee area of North Carolina. The various Cherokee trails criss-crossing Sevier Co. brought the first Euro-American traders and settlers to the area.
Early Euro-American settlement
European long hunters and traders arrived in the Sevierville area in the mid-18th century. Isaac Thomas (1735?-1818), the most notable of these early traders, was well respected by the Cherokee, and may have lived at the Overhill town of Chota at one time. Europeans like Thomas were mainly in search of animal furs, for which they exchanged manufactured goods.
As settlers began to trickle into East Tennessee, relations with the Cherokee began to turn hostile. During the Revolutionary War, the Cherokee, who had aligned themselves with the British, launched sporadic attacks against the sparse settlements in the Tennessee Valley. In December 1780, Col. John Sevier, fresh off a victory over the British at King's Mountain, launched a punitive expedition against the Cherokee. Sevier routed the Cherokee at the Battle of Boyd's Creek and proceeded to destroy several Cherokee settlements along the Little Tennessee.
A temporary truce secured by James White in 1783 led to an influx of Euro-American settlers in the French Broad valley. Hugh Henry (1756–1838) erected a small fort near the mouth of Dumplin Creek in 1782 known as Henry's Station. He was joined the following year by Samuel Newell (1754–1841), who established Newell's Station along Boyd's Creek, and Joshua Gist, who settled near the creek's mouth. Other early forts in the area included Willson's Station at the confluence of the East and Middle Fork of the Little Pigeon and Wear's Fort at the junction of the Southeastern and Tuckaleechee Trail and Indian Gap Trail. The Cherokee signed away all rights to what is now Sevier County in the 1785 Treaty of Dumplin, which was negotiated at Henry's Station.
In 1783, Isaac Thomas established a farm, trading post, and tavern at the confluence of the West Fork and the Little Pigeon River. He was joined shortly thereafter by Spencer Clack (1740–1832) and James McMahan, and a community known as "Forks of the Little Pigeon" developed around them. In 1789, Reverend Richard Wood (1756–1831) established Forks-of-the-River Baptist Church, which reported a congregation of 22 in 1790. By 1795, the congregation had 94 members.
Sevier County was created in 1794 and named after John Sevier. At a meeting at Thomas's house the following year, the Forks-of-the-Little-Pigeon area was chosen as the county seat, and renamed "Sevierville." James McMahan donated a tract upon which to erect a townsquare. This tract was parceled out into lots of upon which the purchaser was required to build a brick, framed, or stone structure.
The first Sevier County Courthouse was built in 1796. Before its construction, according to local legend, court was held in a flea-infested abandoned stable. Irritated lawyers were said to have paid an unknown person "a bottle of whiskey" to burn down the stable, forcing the new county to build an actual courthouse.
As the county grew, several large farms were established in the fertile Boyd's Creek area. In 1792, Andrew Evans purchased a tract of land near the mouth of Boyd's Creek and built a ferry near the site of the old ford. In 1798, Evans sold the farm to John Brabson, and it was henceforth known as the Brabson's Ferry Plantation. In the early 1790s, Thomas Buckingham established a large farm between Boyd's Creek and Sevierville. Buckingham went on to become the county's first sheriff. In the early 19th century, Timothy Chandler and his son John Chandler (1786–1875) established the Wheatlands plantation in Boyds Creek.
As towns situated along the French Broad are connected via waterway to New Orleans, a flatboat trade flourished along the river in the early 19th century. In 1793, James Hubbert, who lived along Dumplin Creek, established Hubbert's Flat Landing to trade with flatboats moving up and down the river.
In the early 19th century, Knoxville and Asheville were connected via Route 17, a crude road which followed the banks of the French Broad. This new road gave Tennessee's cattle drovers greater access to markets along the east coast. In 1820, a stagecoach road connected Sevierville with Maryville to the west. Sevierville's situation as a county seat along these early roads helped it to grow. By 1833, the town had a population of 150, including two doctors, two carpenters, a tanner, two tailors, a shoemaker, three stores, a hatter, two taverns, and two mills. Distilleries were popular means of supplemental income. By 1850, John Chandler's distillery was producing 6,000 gallons of whiskey per year.
A notable late arrival in Sevierville was Dr. Robert Hodsden (1806–1864), who had been an attending physician for Cherokee Removal (Trail of Tears). In 1846, Hodsden began construction on a plantation near Fair Garden, just outside of Sevierville to the east. This plantation, known as Rose Glen, was worth $28,000 in 1860, one of the most valuable in the county.
In 1856, a fire swept through Sevierville, burning a recently constructed new courthouse, 41 houses, and several shops in the downtown area. Perhaps more importantly, the county lost nearly all of the vital records of its early settlers.
The Civil War
Slavery was not common in Sevier County, although there were instances, especially at the large plantations along the French Broad River. Even before the war, Sevierville, a hotbed of abolitionist activity, was home to a relatively large community of free African-Americans. In 1861, only 3.8% of Sevier Countians voted in favor of secession from the Union.
In late 1861, a pro-secession speech delivered by Henry Foote met with an angry response in Sevierville, and was followed by a series of explosive anti-secession speeches. The following year, pro-Union Knoxville newspaper editor Parson Brownlow gave a rousing anti-secession speech in Sevierville en route to a hideout in Wears Valley. Brownlow's audience remained gathered throughout the night after a rumor spread that Confederate forces were approaching. Union supporters in Sevier County were harassed and threatened throughout the war, even after Union forces under Ambrose Burnside occupied Knoxville in September 1863.
Sevierville, situated at a major crossroads south of Knoxville, suffered consistent harassment, looting, and confiscation of property by both Union and Confederate forces moving through the town in 1863 and 1864. Vance Newman, a Union recruiting officer living in Sevierville at the time, later recalled:
A guard of rebel soldiers in 1864 threatened to burn my house, and the rebel soldiers so often threatened to take my life that I cannot particularize. They were always after me because of my Union sentiments.
After Confederate General James Longstreet failed to retake Knoxville in the Battle of Fort Sanders, Union and Confederate forces quickly initiated a series of maneuvers to gain control of the strategic fords along the French Broad, culminating in an engagement near Hodsden's farm at Fair Garden in January 1864. Although the Union forces were victorious, they were later forced to retreat for lack of supplies. A state of general anarchy ensued, continuing until the end of the war. On October 30, 1864, Sevierville resident Terressa McCown wrote in her diary:
The robbers have come at last, they robbed my husband of his pocketbook, money and papers and pocket knife. Times get worse everyday. We know not what will come next. I feel this morning like nothing but destruction awaits us.
At the war's end, the county's few remaining Confederate sympathizers, most notably members of the Brabson family, were forced to flee.
Sevierville recovered quickly from the war, with a number of new houses and businesses being built in the 1870s. Two members of the town's African-American community — house builder Lewis Buckner (1856–1924) and brickmason Isaac Dockery (1832–1910) — would play a prominent role in Sevierville's post-war construction boom. Buckner designed a number of houses in the Sevierville area over a 40-year period, 15 of which still stand. Dockery's greatest contributions include the New Salem Baptist Church in 1886 and the Sevier County Courthouse in 1896, both of which still stand.
By the 1880s, Sevierville was growing rapidly, as was the population of Sevier County. In 1887, the town had four general stores, two groceries, a jeweler, a sawmill, and two hotels. It was also home to the Sevierville Lumber Company, which had recently been established to harvest trees in the area. Tourists also started to trickle into Sevier County, drawn by the health-restoring qualities of mountain springs. Resorts sprang up throughout the county, with Seaton Springs and Henderson Springs located just south of Sevierville.
In 1892, a vigilante group known as the "Whitecaps" was formed to rid Sevier County of vice. The group wore white hoods to conceal their identities and used Ku Klux Klan-like tactics, although they were not considered a racist entity. While the Whitecaps initially threatened women accused of prostitution, the group quickly spiraled out of control, launching nightly attacks in the mid-1890s. In 1893, Sevierville physician J.A. Henderson took over an anti-Whitecap group, which he renamed the "Blue Bills." The two vigilante groups clashed at Henderson Springs in 1894, with deaths on both sides. In 1896, the Whitecaps' murder of a young Sevierville couple led to widespread outrage, and in 1898, the Tennessee State Legislature banned "extra-legal conspiracies" and vigilante groups. Due to this measure and the efforts of Sevier County Deputy Sheriff Thomas Davis, the Whitecaps had largely vanished by the end of the century.
After a fire destroyed much of the downtown area in 1900, businesses shifted from the old town square at Main Street to the new Sevierville Commercial District, viz. Court Avenue and Bruce Street, which was centered around the new courthouse. The town incorporated in 1901.
In 1910, Indiana entrepreneur William J. Oliver finished work on the Knoxville, Sevierville and Eastern Railroad, which was Sevier County's first standard gauge rail line. Known as the Smoky Mountain Railroad, this line offered passenger service between Knoxville and Sevierville until 1962.
With the opening of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934, tens of thousands of tourists began passing through Sevierville, which was situated about halfway between the park and Knoxville. U.S. 441, initially known as the Smoky Mountain Highway, was completed to Sevierville in 1934, and later extended to North Carolina.
Entertainer Dolly Parton was born in Sevierville in 1946. Her ancestors had migrated to Greenbrier sometime around 1850, and later moved to Locust Ridge (near Pittman Center), where Parton was born, after the establishment of the national park. Parton has been honored with the Dolly Parton Parkway being named for her and with a statue on the lawn of the Sevierville courthouse.