The History of Van Buren County, Tennessee

Van Buren County Courthouse
Van Buren County encompasses 274 square miles straddling the Cumberland Plateau and the eastern Highland Rim. The western 30 percent of the county stands 960 feet above sea level; its limestone outcroppings have resulted in numerous caves. The best known, Big Bone Cave, was important in the early settlement period. In 1811 the discovery of bones of a giant sloth in the cave provided its name; remnants of a Pleistocene jaguar were unearthed there as well. The U.S. Department of the Interior designated the 334-acre site a Pleistocene vertebrate fossil site. It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places: in both the War of 1812 and the Civil War saltpeter was mined there, and the well-preserved vats, tramways, and ladders remain in place today.
The other 70 percent of Van Buren County, the Plateau region, rises 800-1,000 feet higher than the western section and is generally level except where streams have cut gorges (called gulfs) through the sandstone. The Caney Fork River and its tributaries drain all of Van Buren County except for the southeast corner, which is drained by the headwaters of Brush Creek. The Caney Fork also creates the northern border of the county, and the Rocky River serves as part of its western boundary.

Van Buren County was formed out of parts of White, Warren, and Bledsoe Counties in 1840 and named for the U.S. president at the time, Martin Van Buren. Andrew K. Parker gave fifty acres of land for a county seat, and the first county court was held at the home of William Worthington on April 6, 1840. The county seat was named Spencer in honor of Thomas Sharp Spencer, who had died nearby in 1794 on what became Spencer’s Hill. The township was officially formed in 1850 and incorporated in 1909.

Prior to that time, the settlement had become the home of Burritt College, founded in 1848 as the first coeducational college in the South. Named for Elihu Burritt of Worcester, Massachusetts, a prominent member in the peace movement, the school was situated in Spencer to insulate students from the vice and corruption of city life, though many of its graduates chose moving to cities over staying in rural Tennessee. Burned during the Civil War and rebuilt, Burritt College survived until the economic failures of the depression forced its closure in 1939.

In 1860 Van Buren County’s population of 2,337 included at least thirty-five slaveholders who owned 239 slaves. The county supported the Confederacy with four companies–one reason Spencer was burned when Union troops took the area in 1863. Earlier, Confederate General Braxton Bragg had marched the Army of Tennessee through the county on his way to Kentucky and the campaign that ended with Confederate defeat and the deaths of twelve Van Buren Countians at Perryville on October 8, 1862.

Burritt College History
Established 1848 through the efforts of Elihu Burritt, a blacksmith who intended that the youth of this community should get the benefits of education denied to him. It closed its doors in 1939 as a result of the development of the public school system and improvement of communication facilities.

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Bone CaveĀ 

Crain Hill Cemetery & Church


Situated about 2 miles from Highway 30 on the side of the Rocky River Road, is the quaint remains of a one room school house that was built in 1870 to serve the community as a school and doubled as a meeting place for the Church of Christ surrounded by the peaceful landscape of a neatly kept cemetery.

The Rocky River community lies in a beautiful valley surrounded by tall mountains and with the Rocky River snaking through the neatly laid out farm lond. Most of the farm land has been handed down from generation to generation originating with the Hillis family who acquired the property in a land grant when the County was being first settled.

Out of necessity the oldest remaining school in the area has been used consistently through the years and has seen many notable educators teach the local children. Mrs. Clydene Davenport reportedly taught her first year of school at Crain Hill. She was a young girl fresh out of David Lipscomb College and was hired to teach there. In her days school would begin in the middle part of July, so the bigger children could study for a couple months and then they would break to give them a chance to help their parents harvest the crops, starting back after the corn, hay and other crops were taken care of. When she started in July the weather was so hot she was almost exhausted from the heat at the end of the day. But, when they cam back to school after the harvest was finished, it was so cold they almost froze to death. Mrs. Clydene reported that she never remember being comfortable there and since it was a so small with with weather boarded walls and a gable roof it has never know any modern such as air conditioning or automatic heat.

Based upon the historical significance of Crain Hill School and Cemetery it is a noteworthy feature of Van Buren County.IMG_0429


Rocky River Road

Trail of Tears more information coming soon…