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New maps online, including Tennessee’s ‘Bell County’

Staff Reports • Updated Jul 10, 2016 at 2:00 PM

Here’s a quick geography quiz: Where in Tennessee would one find Bell County?

The short answer is, “nowhere.” But oh, what might have been.

In 1870, the Tennessee General Assembly proposed a new county along the state’s southwestern border, which would have included parts of Fayette, Hardeman and McNairy counties. Residents of what was called Bell County adopted a referendum to secede from the three existing counties, but those counties fought back – perhaps concerned about the loss of the lucrative Memphis and Charleston Railroad line.

The legacy counties prevailed in the Tennessee Supreme Court, successfully arguing that Bell County’s residents hadn’t met the constitutional voting requirement needed to create a new county.

Although Bell County never officially came to exist, there are nevertheless maps of what it would have looked like. And one of these maps is among the new additions to the Tennessee Virtual Archives.

The Tennessee Virtual Archive, run by the Library and Archives, has hundreds of digitized maps from counties throughout the state, which are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. These maps are extremely important to historians because they often include details about geographic features such as hollows, ridges and streams as well as human-made structures like roads, schools, churches and even individual homes. In some cases, the maps provide information about who the landowners were at the point in time when the maps were made.

In addition to the rare map of the proposed Bell County, within the last month Library and Archives staff members have added maps from many different Tennessee counties – all of which do exist. These maps show a wealth of detail about long gone landowners, houses, schools and churches.

To learn more about the maps available at the Library and Archives, visit sos.tn.gov/tsla and click on the “Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives” link under the online resources heading.

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