The second largest city in West Tennessee stands on land acquired by treaty from the Chickasaws on October 19, 1818. The city is located in the geographic center of Tennessee's western district in Madison County, created by the Tennessee General Assembly on November 7, 1821, shortly after settlers began moving into the area. The town of Alexandria was designated as the county seat, and in 1822 the name was changed to Jackson to honor Andrew Jackson, who had negotiated the secession treaty with the Chickasaws.
Jackson's central location on the Forked Deer River made it a natural crossroads for the western district. In the early years, the rich alluvial soil of the surrounding region fostered a cotton economy and supported a plantation culture. By 1860 Madison County included 11,400 whites, 10,012 slaves, and 83 free persons of color. Even today, the rural landscape surrounding Jackson is dotted with cotton fields, and the population still reflects the early racial mix.
Transportation played an important role in the development of Jackson from a small frontier outpost into a major regional commercial and cultural center. In the antebellum period the Forked Deer River, which was large enough to accommodate keelboats, flatboats, and even small steamboats, served as the chief transportation artery. Traffic on the Forked Deer carried crops to market in New Orleans and brought consumer goods to plantation households. In 1857 the first rail transportation arrived in Jackson and opened a new commercial era.
The Mississippi and Tennessee Central and the Mobile and Ohio were the first railroads to serve Jackson. The Civil War interrupted rail development, but in the postwar years, new construction, the expansion of connections, and the consolidation of rail lines redefined the systems serving Jackson. The three largest rail companies serving Jackson were the Louisville and Nashville, the Illinois Central, and the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio. Jackson's most legendary figure is Illinois Central engineer Casey Jones, who lost his life in a collision with a freight train near Vaughn, Mississippi.
Transportation development continued into the twentieth century as Jackson was linked with major state highways. The Memphis-to-Bristol Highway (later designated as U.S. 70) passed through Jackson, where it joined with U.S. 45, a major north-south highway corridor. In the late 1960s came Interstate I-40, while in the 1990s the expansion of U.S. 412 to a four-lane highway linked Jackson with the Mississippi River bridge of Interstate I-155 west of Dyersburg.
The city suffered little physical damage during the Civil War, although events in the surrounding area significantly influenced people's lives. A few small skirmishes were fought around Jackson, and Federal troops occupied the town for approximately one year. Both sides used the main building of West Tennessee College as a military hospital. The city also served as an important recruiting station for Confederate forces. Robert Cartmell, a prominent citizen of Jackson, kept a diary during the period that provides a firsthand look at Civil War life on the homefront.
The impact of industrialization on Jackson began with its development as an important rail link between the commercial centers of the Midwest and the Gulf coast port cities. The key player in this process was the Illinois Central Railroad. In the final two decades of the nineteenth century the Illinois Central completed acquisitions that extended its service from Cairo south to New Orleans. It established an engine shop in Jackson that represented the city's first major unionized industry. By the turn of the century, the earlier cotton crossroads community of Jackson had been transformed into a bustling commercial and industrial city. Other significant industries were Southern Engine and Boiler Works, Southern Seating and Cabinet Company, and Jackson Fibre Company, a subsidiary of Bemis Brothers Bag Company. Built in 1900 three miles south of Jackson, this textile mill soon became the largest single employer in the county. The parent company also established a planned self-sufficient community named Bemis.
Jackson's long educational tradition began with the establishment of Jackson Male Academy in 1823. Other schools, including some female academies, appeared shortly thereafter. In 1844 West Tennessee College began operations as the city's first institution of higher education. Postwar concerns for the education of freedmen led to the opening of the Colored Methodist High School in 1882; this soon evolved into Lane College, an institution of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Jackson's education tradition continues today with a consolidated city-county public school system, four primary/secondary private schools, and four institutions of higher learning: Jackson State Community College, Lambuth University, Lane College, and Union University.
The Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Baptists organized the first churches in Jackson. In 1820 the Tennessee Annual Conference appointed two Methodist ministers to serve in the newly opened western district and report on the needs of the area. Six years later, the members organized First Methodist Church in Jackson. Records of the Western Tennessee Presbytery indicate that the Presbyterians organized St. Luke's Parish in Jackson on July 23, 1832. Although Baptists formed congregations in rural Madison County during the 1820s, Jackson's First Baptist Church was not organized until 1837. Catholic families apparently settled in Jackson prior to the Civil War, but St. Mary's Parish did not record baptisms and marriages until 1867. A small Jewish community organized a congregation named B'Nai Israel in 1885.
Emma Inman Williams, Historic Madison: The Story of Jackson and Madison County Tennessee (1946); Emma Inman Williams, Marion B. Smothers, and Mitch Carter, Jackson and Madison County: A Pictorial History (1988)