James Winchester, pioneer, entrepreneur, military commander, and founder of Memphis, was born in Westminster, Maryland, and served in Maryland regiments during the American Revolution. He was wounded and captured in a raid on Staten Island in mid-1777 and imprisoned until December 22, 1780. After his release, he joined the Maryland Line and fought in General Nathaniel Greene’s command until 1783, when he was discharged with the rank of captain.
Winchester came to Davidson County, North Carolina, in 1785 and settled on Bledsoe’s Creek, where he built a mill, distillery, and cotton gin. When Sumner County was created by partition from Davidson in 1787, Winchester became captain of the horse, and was soon elevated to lieutenant colonel, commandant of the county. In 1789 he became the first county trustee.
During the Southwest Territory era, James Winchester continued as county militia commander. Appointed to the legislative council of the territory in 1794, he was named acting commander of the Mero District Militia the following year.
When the State of Tennessee was organized in 1796, Winchester was elected Speaker of the Senate and brigadier general, commandant of the Mero District. From 1797 to 1800 he surveyed Indian boundary lines, took the census for Mero District, and attended the meetings of the county court more often than most of his fellow magistrates. In 1800 he subdivided and platted the town of Cairo on the Cumberland and acquired an interest in a five-thousand-acre tract on the Mississippi River that he and John Overton developed as the site of Memphis in 1820. Promoter of a school at Cairo, he was also a trustee of Davidson Academy, Nashville, and Sumner and Transmontania Academies in Gallatin. His various business ventures included the Sumner Cotton Factory, a riverfront warehouse, and a variety of shops, all at Cairo. He built flatboats and barges for river transportation, and in 1806 he constructed two oceangoing schooners near his mill on Bledsoe’s Creek. After a safe passage by way of New Orleans to Philadelphia, he sold them at the point of disembarkation.
When the War of 1812 began, Winchester won appointment as a brigadier general in the regular U.S. Army. Assigned to the recruiting service, he yearned for a field assignment, an ambition that led to an ongoing controversy with General William Henry Harrison and ultimately to Winchester’s capture and the defeat of his army at the River Raisin on January 22, 1813. During April 1814 Winchester joined General Andrew Jackson on the Gulf Coast and took command at Mobile until the end of the war. Playing secondary roles to two military chieftains who would be future presidents of the United States ended General Winchester’s military career. However, he later published a vindication of his acts in the northwest that charged Harrison with failing to honor his promise to rendezvous his troops with Winchester’s on the fateful day of battle at the Raisin River.
After 1815 Winchester organized a steamboat company, bought and sold land, surveyed the boundary line between Tennessee and the Chickasaw Nation, and planned the city of Memphis. He died at Cragfont on July 27, 1826.
Walter T. Durham, James Winchester: Tennessee Pioneer (1979)