In November 1835 the Tennessee General Assembly established Lauderdale County from portions of Tipton, Dyer, and Haywood Counties. The county was named for Lieutenant Colonel James Lauderdale, who was killed in the battle of New Orleans. The county covers 477 square miles and is bounded by the Forked Deer River, the Mississippi River (although some areas, such as Forked Deer Island are now on the west side of the river), and the Hatchie River. The eastern part of the county lies on the Gulf Coastal Plain while the western portion is in the Mississippi Bottom.
Native Americans used the rich resources of Lauderdale's river bottoms and hardwood forests for thousands of years before European explorers arrived. Woodland and Mississippian Period sites, many with mounds, dot the landscape. By the late seventeenth century the Chickasaws claimed West Tennessee. Robert Cavelier de La Salle and his party observed their villages, and the Europeans constructed Fort Prudhomme near the mouth of the Hatchie. Despite the Chickasaw claims, North Carolina sent Henry Rutherford to the area in 1785 to survey for land warrants. Rutherford and his party established “Key Corner” as a landmark for marking off claims by carving his initials and a large key into a huge sycamore on the first high ground east of the Mississippi and south of the Forked Deer. Following the Jackson Purchase in 1818, Rutherford, his brothers, Benjamin Porter, and a man named Crenshaw settled near Key Corner. Native Americans returned to Lauderdale County during the 1950s, when two Choctaw families migrated to the county to work in the cotton fields. Today two Choctaw communities are in Ripley and Henning.
The earliest settlements of whites and African American slaves were located at Key Corner and Porter's Gap. Griffith Rutherford built the first grist mill in the county at Key Corner in 1826, and Joseph Jordan and William Champers added a cotton gin the following year. Fulton, on the Mississippi River, was settled in 1819, and Judge James Trimble laid out Lauderdale's first town there in 1827. Fulton prospered as a steamboat landing, but today much of the town has been consumed by the Mississippi River. Durhamville was established in 1829; that same year, a church–Turner's Chapel–was built there. Edith Kenley opened the first school in her home at Double Bridges. General William Conner promoted Ashport, a speculative town on the Mississippi. Other early towns included Golddust, Nankipoo, and Hales Point. Nankipoo became the home of Roark Bradford, a popular writer of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Bell Irvin Wiley also was raised near Nankipoo and later achieved fame as the author of more than twenty history books on the Civil War including The Road to Appomattox, The Life of Billy Yank, and The Life of Johnny Reb; the latter two remain authoritative studies of the common soldiers of the war.
Ripley was established as the county seat in February 1836 on 62 acres purchased from Thomas Brown and named for General E. W. Ripley, a veteran of the War of 1812. J. N. Smith opened the first mercantile store in a log cabin, and the town quickly became a center for trade between Dyersburg and Covington. In 1936 the Public Works Administration (PWA) built Lauderdale County's fourth courthouse. Designed by the Nashville firm of Marr and Holman, the building displays the PWA Modern style so popular in the New Deal era. Works Progress Administration funds were used in 1941 to construct the post office, designed by Louis A. Simon in a Colonial Revival style. A mural, Autumn, produced through the federal artists' program, still decorates the post office interior. Painted by Marguerite Zorach, the mural reflects hunting and nutting in the West Tennessee country.
During the antebellum period cotton dominated the county's agriculture. Steamboats carried cotton bales from landings on the Forked Deer, Mississippi, and Hatchie Rivers. In 1850 there were 304 slaveholders in Lauderdale County, 96 of whom owned ten or more slaves. The two largest planters were Hiram Partee, who had eighty-six slaves, and Thomas Fitzpatrick, with eighty-four.
The Civil War devastated the county's farms and plantations. After Fort Pillow's fall to Union forces in June 1862, occupation of the county seesawed between Confederate and Union troops, both of whom bivouacked in Ripley at different times. Skirmishes occurred at Double Bridges and Woodville in October 1862, Knob Creek in January 1863, and Durhamville in September 1863. The most controversial engagement took place at Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864, when a Confederate force under General Nathan Bedford Forrest overran the Union outpost and killed almost half the garrison of 600 mostly African American troops.
The county recovered from the war slowly, returning to cotton as the primary crop, with some tobacco raised for the market at Memphis. Railroads reached the county in the 1870s. Henning became the first railroad town, established on the line that at various times was named the Newport News and Mississippi Valley line, then Paducah and Memphis (1872), Memphis and Louisville (1874), Memphis Paducah and Northern (1878), Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern (1881), and finally Illinois Central (1887). In 1873 Carrie White became the first African American teacher in Henning. In 1918-19 Will Palmer, an African American businessman, built his home in Henning. The town's most famous son, Alex Haley, spent his boyhood there with his Palmer grandparents. He later wrote the international bestseller Roots from the stories he heard from his grandmother and aunts. The railroad reached Ripley in 1874 and eventually reached the towns of Gates (1882), Halls (1883), and Curve (1884), which was touted as the strawberry capital of the world.
By the late 1890s Ripley had acquired an electric system, and telephone lines strung by the Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph Company reached Halls in 1900. The Bank of Halls organized in 1899, followed by the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Henning (1901), Ripley Savings Bank and Trust (1903), and Gates Banking and Trust Company (1904). Building on a school tradition that included Ripley Academy, Lauderdale Institute, and Ripley Female Institute in the 1800s, public high schools were built between 1900 and 1910 at Curve, Ripley, and Halls. Timber became an important industry in the county. Anderson-Tulley, a Memphis veneer company, purchased 17,000 acres of Lauderdale timberland, which now serves as the Anderson-Tully Wildlife Management Area.
During World War II the U.S. Army constructed an air base at Halls. Some 7,700 troops trained on the 2,450-acre site, many of them as B-17 bomber pilots. The base closed after the war, and the land was sold at auction in 1955. A portion of the land was developed as an industrial park, and Lauderdale County acquired its first plant when Tupperware opened one of three national plants in 1969, employing 750. Although Tupperware closed its manufacturing facility in 1991, Lauderdale has attracted a number of industrial employers. In 2001 four companies had more than 500 employees: SR of Tennessee, a motor vehicle parts company, had 750 workers; Marvin Windows had 720 employees; Tennessee Electroplating, another motor vehicle parts firm, had 640 workers; and A. O. Smith, a producer of motors and generators, had a labor force of 500. The two largest public sector employers were the Lauderdale County School System and the State of Tennessee's Cold Creek Correctional Facility, formerly Fort Pillow Prison Farm. In 2000 the population of Lauderdale County was 27,101.
Clarice H. Hellums and Kara H. McCauley, Visions of Lauderdale County, Past and Present (1996)