Rutherford was formed in 1779 from Tryon. It was named in honor of Griffith Rutherford, one of the most prominent of the Revolutionary patriots. He led the expedition that crushed the Cherokees in 1776, and rendered important services both in the Legislature and on the battlefield. It is in the southwestern section of the State and is bounded by the state of South Carolina and Polk, Henderson, McDowell, Burke and Cleveland counties.

Its present land area is 564.12 square miles and the 2000 population was 62,901. The act establishing the county provided that the first court be held at the home of Joseph Walker and the justices were to decide on the most convenient place to hold succeeding courts until a courthouse could be erected.

Commissioners were named to select a place for the county seat. In 1781 an act was passed stating that the original act had not been fully carried out and that the previous commissioners had failed to erect a courthouse even though they had selected the land of James Holland in the fork of Shepard's Creek. The act authorized the commissioners to purchase fifty acres of land from James Holland and erect the buildings. In 1784 an act was passed which stated that the place selected by the commissioners was not convenient; therefore, new commissioners were named to survey the county, locate the center, purchase land and erect the public buildings. In 1787 Rutherford was established on the land purchased for the county seat. Two acres were reserved for the public buildings. Rutherfordton was incorporated in 1793 and is the county seat.

In 1791 parts of Rutherford County and Burke County were combined to form Buncombe County. In 1841 parts of Rutherford County and Lincoln County were combined to form Cleveland County. In 1842 additional parts of Rutherford County and Burke County were combined to form McDowell County. Finally, in 1855 parts of Rutherford County and Henderson County were combined to form Polk County.

Rutherford County was named for Griffith Rutherford, a Provincial Congress member and Revolutionary general.  Many of the county's early settlers were of Scotts-Irish origin from Pennsylvania.


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