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The county is named for President Martin Van Buren, 1782-1862, eighth president of the United States of America, 1837-1841. Spencer, the county seat, is named for Thomas Sharp Spencer, one of the early long hunters who probably scouted in the area of present Van Buren County. Spencer is about sixty-five miles from the geographical center of Tennessee. Fall Creek Falls State Park, which straddles the county line between Van Buren and Bledsoe counties, is a major attraction for visitors to the county.
Big Bone Cave is located in the northwest corner of Van Buren County. It is one of the best-known and most historic caverns in Tennessee. It was mined by prehistoric Indians for gypsum and salts and was the site of the largest saltpeter mine in Tennessee during the War of 1812 and again during the American Civil War. The cave is named for the discovery of the skeleton of a Giant Ground Sloth by saltpeter miners in 1811. Many of the wooden saltpeter mining artifacts in the cave remain in a remarkable state of preservation, due to the extreme dryness of the cave.