The earliest pioneers came from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and the Carolinas. They crossed the Ohio River and traveled north on narrow Indian trails through dense hardwood forest with wagons drawn by oxen. Many made their way to Bloomington, then east to hilly country, or they reached Jackson County and came north into future Brown County on the Sparks Ferry Road, or west from Columbus in Bartholomew County. Pioneers who had settled on lowland near Columbus came to the hills to escape malaria. Others deliberately chose the hills having lived in mountains before they made the trip to Indiana in search of new land. By 1830 an estimated 150 settlers had arrived; the United States census of 1840 reported 2,364 people.
By 1828 the Indiana State Legislature had divided the land of present day Brown County between Monroe, Jackson, and Bartholomew counties. In 1835 settlers presented a petition to the Legislature requesting a new county. On February 4, 1836, both the House and Senate passed a bill providing for the formation from western Bartholomew, eastern Monroe, and northern Jackson counties of a county to be named Brown in honor of Major General Jacob Brown, a hero of the war of 1812. The county has 320 square miles, 16 miles from east to west and 20 miles from north to south.
In August 1836, the land was divided inton five townships of Jackson, Hamblen, Washington, Johnson, and Van Buren. Nashville, then known as Jacksonburg, was chosen as the county seat. Banner C. Brummett was appointed County Agent to lay out Nashville in lots to be sold at auction. It was expected that money from the sale would help pay expenses of the county government. The lots sold very slowly, for pioneers had little money, and funds were very short for a number of years. In 1837 a log court house was built, and the first log jail. They were built on the same lots on which the present court house and log jail stand. Nashville, at that time, consisted of a cluster of log cabins and 75 people.
The country was very wild in 1836. Bears, panthers, and wolves were plentiful. The wolves were so numerous and destructive to livestock that the Commissioners paid $1 for every wolf scalp brought to them. Settlers lived a rugged pioneer type of life for many years. Their cabins and small settlements were mere niches in the great forest that covered hills and valleys. The men hunted deer, rabbits, squirrels, wild turkeys and pigeons for food. As soon as enough land was cleared they planted corn, potatoes, wehat, hops for yeast, flax, and tobacco. Women made quilts, wove wool and flax into cloth, made the family clothes, carried water from a well or stream, cooked food in open fireplaces, raised the children, and nursed them when they were sick.
By the time Nashville was incorporated in 1872 water powered grist mills and sawmills were scattered over the county. Each village served its own locality with at least one general store, a blacksmith shop, a church and a post office. A doctor, sometimes more than one, lived in almost every village. In 1881 there were 20 doctors in the county, and 37 churches - Methodist, United Brethren, Baptist, Christian, Presbyterian, and New Light. Money continued to be scarce and much business was conducted by the barter system. The first schools were built of logs, but by 1872 one-room frame school houses dotted the county; in 1900 there were 73.
People farmed but they depended on forest products for cash. Lumber was taken to Indianapolis, also tan bark, cross ties, hoop poles, and barrel staves. The trees were cut recklessly and this led to deep trouble. Since there was not enough farm land on the ridge tops and in the creek bottoms, trees were eliminated on the sides of hills. Wheat and other crops were planted, and erosion began in earnest. By 1900, soil was so completely washed from hillsides and creek bottoms that crops could not be grown. Poverty was widespread and people began to leave the county in droves. Cabins all over the hills and valleys stood empty. In 1890, 10,308 people lived in Brown County. By 1930 only 5,168 remained. Not until 1980 did the population exceed the 1890 figure.
In 1900, villages were still the centers of Brown County life. Travel by horseback, wagon, or carriage was exceedingly limited due to deeply rutted, rocky roads. There were people in remote areas who never made a trip to Nashville their entire lives. Many a family's only contact with the outside world was the huckster's weekly visit with his horse and wagon. As a result the pioneer way of life continued long after other counties had adopted a new pattern of living.
1n 1905 the Illinois Central Railroad built a line from Indianapolis to Effingham, Illinois. The line ran from Morgantown across the southwest corner of Jackson Township. Helmsburg was the main station. Two trains a day from Indianapolis, and two from Effingham, brought freight, mail, and passengers. Horse drawn hacks took people and wagons transported mail and freight from the station to Nashville.
The first cars appeared in Nashville in 1913. Their use was strictly limited because of the very bad roads and because of the widespread belief, peculiar to Brown County, that cars were both autonomous and maleficent. By necessity as the number of cars increased county roads were gradually improved. By 1934 State Road 135 north from Nashville to Morgantown had been built and in that year was hardsurfaced. State Road 46 between Bloomington and Nashville was worked on extensively until it was considered one of the best gravel roads in the state. Some years later it was hard surfaced.
A colony of superb artists was drawn to Brown County. In 1907 T.C. Steele built a home near Belmont, and Adolph Shulz came to Nashville. Will Vawter, V.J. Cariani, Marie Goth, C. Curry Bohn, Dale Bessire and others moved to Nashville. The Brown County Art Gallery was opened in 1926. In 1954 a larger gallery was built on East Main Street, and an Art Guild established a gallery in the old Minor House on Van Buren Street.
Brown County State Park opened in 1931 offering many advantages: a lodge, cabins for rent, picnic areas, a swimming pool, and miles of trails. And at present there is Yellowwood State Forest, the Hoosier National Forest, Lake Monroe and Lake Lemon.
Brown County was formed in 1836. It is named for Gen. Jacob Brown, who defeated the British at the Battle of Sackett's Harbor in the War of 1812. In 1907, artist T. C. Steele built a studio in rural Brown County and thus began the Brown County Art Colony. Nashville continues to be an art center and tourist attraction.
County Council: The county council is the legislative branch of the county government and controls all the spending and revenue collection in the county. Representatives are elected from county districts. The council members serve four year terms. They are responsible for setting salaries, the annual budget, and special spending. The council also has limited authority to impose local taxes, in the form of an income and property tax that is subject to state level approval, excise taxes, and service taxes.
Board of Commissioners: The executive body of the county is made of a board of commissioners. The commissioners are elected county-wide, in staggered terms, and each serves a four year term. One of the commissioners, typically the most senior, serves as president. The commissioners are charged with executing the acts legislated by the council, the collection of revenue, and managing the day-to-day functions of the county government.
Court: The county maintains a small claims court that can handle some civil cases. The judge on the court is elected to a term of four years and must be a member of the Indiana Bar Association. The judge is assisted by a constable who is also elected to terms of four years. In some cases, court decisions can be appealed to the state level circuit court.
County Officials: The county has several other elected offices, including sheriff, coroner, auditor, treasurer, recorder, surveyor, and circuit court clerk. Each of these elected officers serve terms of four years and oversee different parts of the county government.
As of the census of 2000, there were 14,957 people, 5,897 households, and 4,434 families residing in the county. The population density was 48 people per square mile (18/km²). There were 7,163 housing units at an average density of 23 per square mile (9/km²). The racial makeup of the county was 98.16% White, 0.21% Black or African American, 0.22% Native American, 0.20% Asian, 0.01% Pacific Islander, 0.37% from other races, and 0.82% from two or more races. 0.88% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. 25.2% were of German, 20.1% American, 14.9% English and 12.4% Irish ancestry according to Census 2000.
There were 5,897 households out of which 29.90% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 64.80% were married couples living together, 6.50% had a female householder with no husband present, and 24.80% were non-families. 20.60% of all households were made up of individuals and 7.30% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.51 and the average family size was 2.89.
In the county the population was spread out with 23.30% under the age of 18, 6.30% from 18 to 24, 27.90% from 25 to 44, 29.60% from 45 to 64, and 12.90% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 41 years. For every 100 females there were 100.90 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 98.10 males.
The median income for a household in the county was $43,708, and the median income for a family was $49,252. Males had a median income of $36,828 versus $24,321 for females. The per capita income for the county was $20,548. About 7.70% of families and 8.90% of the population were below the poverty line, including 9.10% of those under age 18 and 10.10% of those age 65 or over.