The Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, which rises high above the Mississippi River even at flood stage, has long presented a logical place for settlement. Though they had departed prior to Hernando de Soto’s expedition through the area in the 1540s, Native Americans dwelt there, and ongoing settlement began again in 1795 when Spain built Fort San Fernando on the bluffs. Soldiers, traders, and squatters occupied the area until the formal founding of Memphis.
Prior to Spanish occupation, John Rice and John Ramsey claimed five-thousand-acre tracts based on North Carolina’s British-based titles. John Overton purchased Rice’s tract from his heirs, and Andrew Jackson and James Winchester bought into the venture. In 1819 they founded Memphis, named for ancient Egypt’s capital.
For a variety of reasons, Memphis grew slowly. A national economic depression, a river sandbar, loss of the county seat designation to neighboring Raleigh, yellow fever, a severely restricted hinterland, depredations by raucous flatboatmen, and competition from other ports all retarded growth. By the early 1840s, however, the city’s fortunes improved. Northern Mississippi opened to settlement, doubling the settled hinterland. The city became a post and stagecoach terminus, and by 1842 six miles of railroad had been laid eastward. Upstream, Randolph lost its river access with the development of a mile-wide sandbar, and Memphis quelled its flatboatmen’s antics. Citizens organized a fire department, built a wharf, established a board of health, and undertook many other reforms. Moreover, they initiated such amenities as a bank, a thespian society, newspapers, and a truly grand hotel, the Gayoso House.
The 1850s brought even more explosive growth and considerable ethnic diversity to the “Bluff City.” Three western rail routes converged on Memphis as the result of military planning. By 1861 the Memphis and Charleston and the Memphis and Ohio Railroads connected the city to the Southeast and Midwest. Slower development of a line to Little Rock may have cost the town its chance to become the first eastern terminus of a transcontinental railroad, but the city did serve as an eastern terminus of the Butterfield overland mail coaches.
Despite its uneven record, Memphis grew at a faster rate than any other American city in the mid-1850s. From a population of fewer than 1,800 in 1840, the city swelled to 22,000 inhabitants in 1858. In addition to Anglo-American migrants, Irish and German immigrants contributed to the population rise.
The Irish arrived first, refugees from English oppression and successive famines following the potato blight. Displaced and largely illiterate farmers with few marketable skills, the Irish provided the labor for cutting roads, erecting buildings, and constructing railroads, levees, and canals. Irish crews also manned the area’s trains and boats, and handled their cargoes. They entered politics enthusiastically and filled municipal jobs, especially fire and police ranks.
Germans came for reasons similar to those of the Irish, though after the revolutions of 1848, political motives dominated. Generally more urban and propertied than the Irish, Germans found a niche in the city’s retail, commercial, and small industries sectors. They guarded their ethnic traditions more closely than the Irish and furnished many of the city’s artists, musicians, and teachers.
African Americans, both slave and free, also contributed to the boom decades. Unlike European immigrants, African Americans received few rewards for their work, and racial prejudice intensified as their scope of opportunities shrank. An 1840s repeal of Tennessee’s ban on the domestic slave trade made Memphis a slave trading center during the 1850s.
Most urban blacks were domestic servants, but many others worked as draymen, roustabouts, and barbers, as well as in the mechanical trades and crafts. The mobility demanded in these jobs threatened whites, and the city imposed a curfew and pass system with harsh penalties for violators.
In the generation following the boom era, Memphis suffered a succession of disasters. Prior to the election of 1860, Memphians remained loyal to the Union. Once Lincoln called for volunteers to subdue the rebellion, however, they abruptly and wholeheartedly switched to secession and the Confederacy. Styling their city the “Charleston of the West,” Memphis leaders squelched all dissent and prepared for war. Men volunteered for military service and converted local facilities and services to meet wartime needs.
Initial confidence in a quick victory soon gave way to a more sobering evaluation as Tennessee’s defenses fell early in 1862. The Confederate retreat at Shiloh left Memphis vulnerable to attack from the north and east. Confederate troops in Memphis destroyed local stores and abandoned the unfortified city. Many civilians followed the army south. With only a makeshift naval fleet left to protect the city, Memphis fell quickly on June 6, 1862. Eight converted steamboats faced twenty-four new Union warships, as 10,000 citizens watched the ninety-minute battle from the bluff. Upon sinking or disabling seven Confederate vessels, Union forces demanded surrender and occupied the city.
Military occupation lasted more than three years and affected local attitudes more than the war itself. Memphians chafed against occupation rule and operated the city as a center of smuggling and profiteering. Approximately 15,000 African American refugees poured into the city, and many aided the Union war effort as auxiliaries or soldiers. In August 1864 Nathan Bedford Forrest’s dramatic raid on Memphis raised Confederate morale but had no effect on the war’s outcome.
As war gave way to Reconstruction, a white backlash to radical rule often made bad situations worse. In 1866 the city experienced three days of racial rioting set off by tensions between Irish immigrants and African American soldiers. Forty-four blacks died in the violence, and twelve schools and four churches burned. Approximately three-quarters of the city’s African Americans departed in the riot’s aftermath. In the late 1860s former Confederate President Jefferson Davis made his home in Memphis. His daughter Margaret married Addison Hayes at St. Lazarus Episcopal Church in 1876; his son Jefferson Davis Jr. died in Memphis during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878.
Yellow fever, indeed, posed a worse problem than Reconstruction for many Memphis families. The city suffered through epidemics in 1867, 1873, 1878, and 1879. Thousands of people died despite the heroic efforts of physicians, clergy, volunteers, and black militia units. To escape the repeated epidemics, many Memphians abandoned the city, some permanently. Declining property values and a generation of poor fiscal management ended in bankruptcy and the loss of the city’s charter in 1879.
Under the rule of the “Taxing District of Shelby County,” the bluff community revived and became a modern city. Frugal government repaid municipal debts; the state restored home rule in 1893; and economic growth returned. Railroading (Memphis had eleven trunk lines and a bridge across the Mississippi by the early 1900s), hardwood lumber, cotton, and hardwood and cotton byproducts contributed to the city’s economic well-being. Technology revolutionized urban life: electricity, trolleys, skyscrapers, artesian wells, sewerage and sanitation facilities, and the automobile restructured Memphis lifestyles. Rural in-migration and extensive annexation sent the city’s population past 100,000 by 1900.
As Memphis rose from disease and debt, the city undertook progressive reforms. Edward Hull Crump, a rural transplant and Horatio Alger success story, gained control over local politics. In 1915 his failure to comply with state prohibition laws led to his removal from office by the courts, but he continued to exercise strong influence over municipal politics. After 1927, and for the next twenty-one years, his rule was unchallengeable in Shelby County and across much of Tennessee.
Memphis acquired a mixed reputation in the early decades of the century. On the one hand, it became recognized as the nation’s murder capital. On a more positive note, the city lobbied for the Tennessee ratification of woman suffrage, promoted blues music, and initiated the self-service supermarket, the Piggly-Wiggly stores of Clarence Saunders. When the boom times of the 1920s gave way to the Great Depression, Memphis promoted its economic future through the organization of the Cotton Carnival. During the 1930s, Crump’s political power brought many New Deal dollars for public buildings, public housing, and improvements in urban structure. World War II brought enormous military and industrial expansion, including the Memphis Defense Depot and even a German POW camp.
After the death of E. H. Crump in 1954, Memphians entered a new political era as African American demands for full political participation emerged. Memphis promoted a policy of gradual interracial cooperation until the mid-1960s, when racial integration intensified emotions and polarization replaced accommodation.
In 1967-68 Memphis replaced its city charter and instituted a mayor-city council form of government. Almost immediately the city faced the challenge of a “budget busting” sanitation workers strike. When Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. arrived to support the strike, an assassin’s bullet struck him down, and the city erupted in riot. Television provided the nation with a much-needed lesson on racial oppression, but it polarized Memphis. Race baiters, both black and white, used divisiveness to personal advantage. The election of a black mayor, William Herenton, in 1991 and a black majority in the city council in 1995 restored a measure of restraint.
Post-World War II Memphis gave the world important innovations in lodging and shipping as the birthplace of Holiday Inn and Federal Express. Elvis Presley put Memphis on the map in rock music, and St. Jude Hospital made important strides in the battle against catastrophic childhood diseases. The city has lost several large corporations in recent decades but has strengthened the local economy and maintained a high employment rate by encouraging the growth of numerous small businesses. Moreover, the corporate headquarters for FedEx and AutoZone, two internationally recognized corporations, have located in Memphis. Both corporations were instrumental in bringing the National Basketball Association Memphis Grizzles to the city to begin play at the Memphis Pyramid for the 2001-2002 season.
Such symbols give the city hope in an atmosphere of racial mistrust, declining population, and political cynicism. As Memphis rejects race-baiting opportunists and embraces equality for all, it anticipates a reversal of its postwar decline and a return to its reputation as a “city of good abode.”