A Land of Bounty, a Land of Nations: Tennessee’s Mississippi River in History

The cultural landscape of the Mississippi River Valley extends approximately 13,000 years from the time when late ice age hunters and gatherers pursued mastodons and other species of large now-extinct mammals, through the recent revitalization of Beale Street as a tourist destination in downtown Memphis. Throughout this period the river has served as a cultural stage upon which the lives of the region’s inhabitants have unfolded, viewing. The river has witnessed the rise and fall of great Native American communities, the arrival of the first European explorers, the Civil War, the age of steam powered river boats, dollar cotton, the sounds of gospel music, the rhythms of blues and soul, and finally Elvis. The cultural phenomena that have unfolded along the banks of the great river are closely tied to the valley’s physical environment. Extremely fertile silt deposited by seasonal flooding has provided the region with the most productive agricultural soils in North America.

The river and its extensive network of tributaries were, and continue to serve as, vital transportation arteries linking diverse markets from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Agriculture and transportation have been, and continue to be, the primary factors that shape the cultural landscape of the Mississippi River Valley.

Native American communities were the first to take advantage of the agricultural potential of the river valley. Approximately 1000 years ago large villages began to appear along the river and its major tributaries where corn could be cultivated in the rich bottomland soils. These communities grew and eventually dominated the landscape with impressive mounds, plazas, and houses enclosed by defensive walls.

Temple structures were built on top of the mounds for powerful chiefs and priests who advertised their political power with costumes of marine shell and copper obtained from distant sources and transported along the river. The open plazas between the mounds served as ball courts where rival villages competed in heated sporting events.


Awe inspiring ceremonies celebrating the corn harvest and the life giving power of the sun were also conducted in the plazas. Eventually the great towns were abandoned and the ball courts fell silent leaving the mounds as silent testimony to the people that once inhabited the valley. History does not record the names of these people so archaeologists refer to them as the Mississippian culture acknowledging the river that gave rise to their way of life. Today, Chucalissa Museum at the T. O. Fuller State Park preserves and interprets one significant village site, which is listed as a National Historic Landmark.

In the winter of 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto entered the Mississippi Valley and was the first European to see the great river and make contact with its native inhabitants. In 1673 Father Jacques Marquette and trader Louis Joliet, followed by Robert Cavelier de la Salle, would descend the Mississippi and claim the Lower Valley for France. An expedition led by La Salle in 1682 established the first structure built by whites within the present-day boundaries of Tennessee, named Fort Prudhomme, on the second Chickasaw Bluff near the confluence of the Mississppi and Hatchie rivers. In 1739-1740, the French built a second fort, named Fort Assumption, on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff in present-day Memphis.

French traders established economic networks with Native Americans throughout the region, especially the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez Indians. The French, and later the Spanish, built sizeable trading posts along the Lower Mississippi and controlled traffic along the mighty river. The primary Spanish post in Tennessee was Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas, built on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff in present-day Memphis, in 1795. Its legacy was a small settlement whose residents later became among the first residents of Memphis.


In 1818 Chickasaw leaders negotiated with Andrew Jackson and Isaac Shelby and signed the Treaty of Tuscaloosa, which opened over 10,700 square miles of West Tennessee for white settlement. The following year, Jackson, John Overton, and James Winchester established Memphis. Within six years, in 1824, what had been a vast open Chickasaw hunting ground had been politically divided into sixteen new counties of Tennessee.

The rich natural resources of West Tennessee—the river transportation, the excellent hardwood stands, the rich bottomland soil—fueled the land rush. Over the next generation, farmers, planters, and their African American slaves transformed the regional landscape and the countryside became prime cotton land. Thousands of African slaves were pressed into service cultivating and harvesting this labor intensive crop by hand. Home to a thriving slave trade, to successful cotton brokers, and a rising financial center, Memphis boomed in the 1850s and became Tennessee’s largest city. It was a diverse city, with its large slave and much smaller free black population, its German and Irish immigrants, and the many passerbys who stopped in the city as they traveled the river. Steam powered ships plied the waters of the great river transporting white gold to distant markets. As an urban center, Memphis also grew as a cultural center for music and the arts and boasted of the Gayoso Hotel, one of the river’s grandest.

During the Civil War, control of the Mississippi River as a transportation route was of great strategic value. The first major Civil War battles in Tennessee took place along the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland river systems. In February 1862 two important forts in Tennessee, Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, fell to federal forces. The Confederates still held a strong position on the Mississippi River on Island No. 10, near Tiptonville in Lake County, and constructed earthworks on the Tennessee side of the river. Sixteen Union ships shelled the island, but could not force the Confederates from their position. Federal engineers, however, decided to have troops dig a canal that connected the bends in the Mississippi River through two sloughs, allowing federal gunboats to bypass Island No. 10 and join other Union forces at New Madrid, Missouri. Union forces were then able to cross the river and block the Confederate escape route at Reelfoot peninsula, resulting in the Confederate surrender of the Island #10 in April 1862. Remnants of the of the earthworks constructed by Confederate forces remain northeast of Tiptonville; nearby is the Jones Chapel Church Cemetery, which contains a mass grave of Confederates who died during the defense of the island.

The next Mississippi engagement took place at Fort Pillow in Lauderdale County. In the spring of 1862, the Union army regularly bombarded Fort Pillow and a Confederate gunboat fleet based there. On May 10, 1862, Confederate and federal naval forces fought the Battle of Plum Bend near Fort Pillow; Confederate rams sunk two federal boats, which were subsequently repaired. The Union counterattacked with its own ram fleet, which Confederate batteries repulsed, and then a ground effort to storm the fort. The federal offensive failed, but the Confederate command, fearing being cut off from supplies and support, abandoned Fort Pillow on June 4, 1862. Memphis fell two days later as an outmanned and outgunned Confederate navy fell to the combined firepower of 24 Union gunboats. An estimated 10,000 people watched the battle from the safety of the river bluffs.


For the remainder of the war, federal troops manned, and expanded, various fortifications along the river. Fort Pillow became an important vantage point on the Mississippi River. Union forces used the fort as a operations base, as a recruiting post, and a trading center. It also was a refuge for runaway slaves and many African Americans lived in and nearby the fort. In April 1864, Confederate General Nathan B. Forrest attacked Fort Pillow, where his 1,500 battle-hardened veterans faced about 300 white Unionists and a roughly equal number of African American civilians and troops of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). A federal gunboat evacuated most of the civilians but the federal troops retreated to a small, inner fort near the river bluff. Forrest offered to accept the garrison’s surrender, but the federal commanders refused. Forrest’s troops then attacked, and offered no quarter. As historian John Cimprich concludes, “ as a result of the intense hostility toward armed blacks and southern unionists, discipline among the victors broke down. . . Deaths totaled 64 percent of the black troops and at least 31 percent of the whites. Forrest alleged that the Federals refused to surrender until most had died; Federal survivors claimed that a massacre took place.” Fort Pillow became one of the controversial battles of the entire Civil War.

Memphis became a major federal base of operations for the entire western theater. Generals U. S. Grant and William T. Sherman were among the Union commanders based there. The city became home for thousands of African American slaves who flocked to the Union lines for protection. President’s Island in Memphis became one of the state’s largest camps of contrabands—as the escaped slaves were categorized. Federal troops also constructed Fort Pickering, near the present-day location of the National Ornamental Metal Museum and De Soto Park and south of the I-55 Bridge, in Memphis. This fort was a major USCT training post and home to several USCT regiments.

A year after the war, soldiers from Fort Pickering were involved in the infamous Memphis Race Riot of 1866, which left 46 black and two white residents dead. The white violence against federal soldiers and African American citizens spurred officials in Washington to pursue the passage of a federal Civil Rights Bill and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

The bitter politics and violence of Reconstruction shaped the region’s race relations as well as its settlement patterns. Memphis became a patchwork of segregated neighborhoods. With industrial development fueled by railroad expansion, thousands of black and white migrants moved to the Bluff City. Along the river to the north, newly freed African Americans established rural enclaves such as Jamestown and St. Paul in Tipton County. The region’s emerging railroad system soon surpassed the Mississippi as the primary transportation corridor, and what were once small county seats became large, bustling trade centers. The opening of the Frisco railroad bridge over the Mississippi at Memphis in the 1890s inaugurated a new boom in urban and industrial expansion, a boom that carried the city and region forward until the triple devastation wrought by the tremendous river floods of 1927 and 1937 with the Great Depression sandwiched between.


New Deal programs brought new levees to the river, along with wholly new infrastructure of roads, utilities, and river improvements. Industry not only shaped the towns and cities; it also changed the nature of cotton farming throughout the region. By the mid-20th century mechanized farming replaced the labor of hand-picked cotton and thousands of African Americans were displaced from the fields. Some left for the industrial cities of the north; many more searched for new opportunities in Memphis.

Out of war, emancipation, labor, soil, trial and triumph came a rich cultural legacy expressed through music. Memphis and the Tennessee Delta formed a crucible for American roots music, from its signature contributions to American Gospel through the compositions of Lucie Campbell and Herbert Brewster to the blues trumpet of W. C. Handy and the guitar wailings of Sleepy John Estes to the powerful soul music of Stax Records and onto the rockabilly traditions of Sun Records, personified by Elvis Presley. These musical traditions would forever change the sound of the Mississippi Valley and they echo through our culture to this day.

Today we are left with physical reminders of our past in the form of Indian mounds, Civil War forts, wrecked steamboats, and the harmony of hard labor. Historic sites provide us with a basis to understand our past, enjoy the present, and hope for the future. The intrinsic worth of these resources is so great that we have a responsibility to protect and preserve our history so that future generations may value and appreciate our past.


Historical and Cultural Amenities Links

  • Chucalissa Archaeological Park
  • Tennessee Historical Commission
  • Center for Historic Preservation
  • Mississippi River Museum at Mud Island River Park
  • The Memphis Cotton Museum
  • National Ornamental Metal Museum Memphis
  • Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area
  • Center for Southern Folklore - Memphis
  • Sun Studios Memphis
  • Tennessee History
  • Memphis Heritage Tours
  • Memphis Cook Convention Center
  • The Peabody Hotel Memphis
  • West Tennessee Historical Society
  • Alex Haley Home & Museum
  • The Mallory-Neely House
  • Center for the Study of Southern Culture
  • Tennessee Century Farms
  • Fire Museum of Memphis
  • Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
  • Stax Museum of American Soul Music
  • National Civil Rights Museum
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