Before statehood, West Tennessee was occupied by prehistoric Native Americans who camped and hunted there as early as 9,000 B.C., as well as much later historic tribes such as the Choctaws and Chickasaws. Woodland Culture peoples developed the large mound village site now protected by the Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park, the site of three separate mound groups. First discovered in 1820 by surveyor Joel Pinson, the mounds remained of local interest until the 1880s, when a Smithsonian Institution archaeologist, William E. Myer, surveyed and mapped the site. Pinson Mounds is the largest Middle Woodland Period mound group in the United States and includes one mound measuring seventy-two feet, the second tallest mound in the country.
Twenty years after Tennessee statehood, the Chickasaws signed the 1818 treaty that secured the area for settlement. The first farm families came to Madison County in 1819 and settled east of Jackson in Cotton Gin Grove. In the following year, additional pioneers settled further west on the banks of the Forked Deer River in a community they named Alexandria. In 1822 Alexandria changed its name to Jackson in honor of Andrew Jackson. Jackson's sister-in-law Jane Hayes lived in the city, and Jackson played an important role in the early history of Madison County.
Jackson became the county seat in September 1822 after the Tennessee General Assembly created Madison County in November 1821. In 1835 Congressman Davy Crockett made an angry speech on the courthouse steps following his defeat for reelection in which he told the people of Jackson: “The rest of you can go to hell, for I am going to Texas.” A year later he and another Jackson resident, Micajah Autry, were dead at the Alamo. In the antebellum period, Jackson became a transportation center for agricultural products on the Forked Deer River.
During the Civil War, Madison County contributed two Confederate generals, Alexander W. Campbell and William H. “Red” Jackson. The county was the scene of several small battles and skirmishes, the most important of which was the battle of Britton Lane. A small park in the Denmark area commemorates the engagement in which Confederate cavalry under General Frank C. Armstrong clashed with Federal infantry, leaving more than 170 Confederate dead. Because of its importance in the regional rail work network, Federal troops occupied Jackson for most of the Civil War. In 1864 Federal raiders demanded a ransom or they threatened to burn Jackson. Although the city met the demands, most of downtown Jackson was burned anyway.
The town of Denmark once rivaled Jackson for prominence and size, but a number of man-made and natural disasters, including fires, tornadoes, and the relocation of the railroad, have contributed to its demise. Today only a few houses remain along with a historic antebellum Presbyterian church.
The town of Bemis arose from the cotton fields of Madison County when the Bemis Brothers Bag Company decided to construct a cotton bagging plant and a town along the Illinois Central Railroad. Begun in 1900, the model town developed in several stages and incorporated the designs of graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as local architects such as Reuben A. Heavnor. Jackson annexed Bemis in 1980.
The first railroad appeared in Madison County in 1858 as a result of the promotional efforts of Judge Milton Brown. In addition to serving the transportation needs of commercial agriculture, the railroads developed a labor base for later industrial development. Jackson resident I. B. Tigrett was the president of Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad, which boasted three thousand miles of track. The legendary Illinois Central Railroad engineer Casey Jones made his home in Jackson. His house and many of his possessions are preserved at Casey Jones Village.
Today Madison County offers a wide variety of economic, cultural, and educational benefits. It is the home of Lambuth University, Union University, Lane College, and Jackson State Community College. For many years, Jackson has hosted the Miss Tennessee pageant. Several musical artists claim Madison County as their home, including Sonny Boy Williamson, a legendary blues and harmonica artist; Big Maybell, a gospel and blues recording artist; and Carl Perkins, Mr. “Blue Suede Shoes.” Once largely based on agriculture, the county's economy now rests on a diversified industrial and commercial foundation. In 1997 the three largest industrial plants were Procter and Gamble, with 1,200 employees; Porter Cable Corporation, with 1,000 employees; and Devilbriss Air Power, with 750 employees. Transportation continues to be important to county development, and Madison County is served by Interstate 40, three railroads (Norfolk-Southern, CSX Transportation, and West Tennessee Railroad), and McKeller-Sipes Regional Airport.
At the hub of West Tennessee's agricultural and industrial production, Madison County and the more than 84,000 people who live and work there benefit from a rich history and a bright future.