The ‘unnaming’ of Benton County

Published 1:31 pm Tuesday, May 31, 2022

There are a lot of examples out there of places being renamed. A dorm at my alma mater used to be called Confederate Hall; now it’s Memorial Hall. I once skied at Squaw Valley Resort in California, now known as Palisades Tahoe. The highest mountain in the United States, once officially known as Mount McKinley, is now Denali.

I know this sort of thing makes some people mad, and I understand that. But I’d like to point out that this has been happening for longer than you might realize.

Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton was one of the heroes of the South in the 1830s. Ally of President Andrew Jackson and a staunch believer in manifest destiny, Benton was one of the great orators of his era.

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Many people thought Benton would be president one day. That’s one reason that no less than 10 states named counties for him in the 1830s and 1840s — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington.

However, Benton’s opinion on slavery changed dramatically in the 1840s. A slave owner who supported policies friendly to slavery in the early part of his career, Benton found himself increasingly uncomfortable with the institution as he aged.

In 1849 Benton publicly declared himself in opposition to the spread of slavery in the west. “My personal sentiments are against the institution of slavery, and against its introduction into places where it does not exist,” he said.

Speaking out against slavery wasn’t tolerated in the antebellum South. Overnight, Southern newspapers labeled “traitor,” “demogogue,” and “petty tyrant.”

“He [Benton] is now heading a band of abolitionists, factionists and disunionists, in course hostile to the best interests of the country,” the Daily Nashville Union said in May 1850.

Benton’s stance on slavery cost him his re-election to the U.S. Senate in the fall of 1850, and it also cost him some namesakes. Within less than a year of Benton’s slavery stance, the legislature of the state of Florida changed the name of its Benton County to Hernando County.

The Alabama legislature would later do something similar, voting unanimously to rename its Benton County in honor of the late John C. Calhoun. “He [the sponsor of the measure] asked for the ayes and nays, and that a tribute might be paid to the illustrious dead; and a merit rebuked administered to the traitorous living,” the Montgomery Weekly Advertiser reported.

What happened in Tennessee is kinda similar, kinda different.

Benton County, Tennessee, was originally named for Thomas Hart Benton. But according to a local history written by a county resident (which you can read at the back story’s a bit complicated.

There was, you see, a prominent resident of that part of West Tennessee named David Benton, and there was originally talk of naming the county after him. However, the local history maintains, another group of residents wanted the county named for landowner Ephraim Perkins. “To preserve local unity, David agreed to a compromise adopting ‘Benton’ in honor of his second cousin, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton.”

After Senator Benton expressed his opposition to slavery, leading citizens of Benton County, Tennessee, and some members of the legislature weren’t happy about it. But instead of renaming the county, they took a different tact. In February 1852, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a resolution declaring that Benton County was named for David Benton.

Newspapers around the South understood the implication. “We suppose this was done to remove the suspicion that it was named after the Missouri free soiler,” the Spirit of the South newspaper in Eufala, Ala.

Officially, at least, Thomas Hart Benton remains separated from the Tennessee county originally named for him. Beside the courthouse in Camden is a small tombstone-like marker with details about David Benton’s life: that he was born in 1779, died in 1860, participated in the War of 1812 and was a member of Benton County’s first court.

The marker also claims David Benton is the man “for whom Benton County was named” — which strikes me as interesting. David Benton may, after all, be the man for whom Benton County is named, but he was not the man for whom Benton County was originally named.

The whole Benton County story does make you wonder.

Lincoln County, Tennessee, was named for Benjamin Lincoln. If the legislature passes a resolution, will future generations fall in line with the incorrect assumption that it was named for Abraham? Jackson County is named for Andrew Jackson. If we some lawmaking body — in the name of tourist development — proclaims that it is named for country star Alan Jackson, will we put up a historic marker that reflects that point of view?

Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies.