The river, the people, and the land and its produce are all deeply intertwined in the history of the Cotton Junction trail. West Tennessee has contributed enormously to the world’s musical heritage, helping to birth blues, rock’n’roll, and rock-a-billy. And the region has played a crucial role in the history of the United States, seeing spectacular river battles and land engagements during the Civil War, and contributing greatly to the economic welfare of the nation.
PRE-HISTORY to 19th CENTURY
Western Tennessee has been occupied by human beings for approximately 10,000 years, first by members of the Mississippian Culture and then those of the Chickasaw tribe. The location that became Memphis was originally settled by the Spanish in the late 1700s, when a fort was constructed there to give the Spanish control of navigation on the Mississippi River.
The Spanish later abandoned Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas when they signed a treaty that ceded control of the area to the new American colonies. Named for the ancient capital of Egypt, the city of Memphis as we know it today was officially founded in 1819 by a group of property investors, including Andrew Jackson, who would later become President of the United States.
From the earliest days of the steamboat, through the present day, Memphis has been a major center of river transportation. Passenger steamers linked Memphis with river ports up and down the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers as late as the 1920s. In 1842, railroad lines linked Memphis with the outside world, and the city began to grow quickly. It was during this prosperous time that Memphis earned the title “Biggest Inland Cotton Market in the World.”
Unfortunately the prosperity was tempered by the wrath of nature. Located on the river, with rudimentary and aging sanitation, and with a warm climate, Memphis found itself in the crosshairs of yellow fever, a terrible viral disease spread by the mosquitos that bred in the swamps and sewers around the city. Most victims of the disease died within two weeks. Ironically, the disease was likely brought to the new world from Africa on ships transporting slaves to market.
Yellow fever brought death to Memphis in 1828, 1855, and 1867. It was believed that the virus was often brought north by passengers traveling on steamships from New Orleans, which suffered many of the same problems. In 1873 yellow fever struck again when two boats arrived at the docks from New Orleans with sick men on board who died upon arrival, and soon there were several deaths on nearby Promenade Street. Attempts were made to disinfect the city, but they were ineffective and the number of deaths grew daily. 2,500 people died between August and November of 1873. Finally, the outbreak of 1878 was even more deadly with more than 5,000 dying and 25,000 fleeing the city—many permanently.
As a result, the population of Memphis was reduced to a tiny fraction of its original size. Many more whites in the city died than African-Americans, who may have had a stronger resistance to the virus. And so for the first time, African-Americans became the racial majority in Memphis, holding leadership positions and jobs formerly reserved only for whites–including policemen. Yellow fever not only changed the city’s population but shaped its culture: The birth of the blues; Robert Church, the first African-American millionaire; and the rich musical heritage of Beale Street were all made possible by the new opportunities afforded African-Americans after the yellow fever outbreaks.
The blues clubs and restaurants that line Beale Street, a National Historic Landmark, feature the distinctive and historic musical styles born in Memphis. By the early 1900s, Beale Street was filled with clubs, restaurants, and shops, many owned by African-Americans. From the 1920s to the 1940s, most of the Blues and Jazz legends of the time were frequent performers there, including Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King.
Memphis became the home of many pioneers of various American music genres, including soul, blues, gospel, rock’n'roll, rock-a-billy, and country music. The musical traditions of Memphis created a galaxy of stars. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison all made their first recordings at Sun Studio, arguably the most influential recording studio in American popular music. Stax Records created classic soul music, producing artists like Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and many more.
Once a slave trading center, Memphis has been an important landmark for African-American cultural experience as well as a crucial battlefield in the fight for civil rights. The Lorraine Motel, now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum, was the location where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, one day after giving his prophetic “I've Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The motel is now a museum dedicated to the memory of Dr. King and his legacy of peace and justice.
A FRONTIER HERO FOR THE AGES
Frontier hero Davy Crockett was born in 1786 along the banks of the Nolichucky River in Greene County, near present-day Limestone in East Tennessee. The Crockett family name was originally Monsieur de la Croquetagne; the family had immigrated to the new world from France in the 17th century. According to his autobiography, Crockett’s childhood was filled with hardship. Crockett was an avid and skilled hunter at a young age. He ran away from home at the age of thirteen and did not return home for almost three years, traveling across Tennessee and honing his skills as a hunter.
Crockett became a household name fighting Native Americans in the Creek War in the early 1800s. Always wearing his coonskin cap, an image that made him an American icon, Crockett used his folksy appeal to help him win election to the Tennessee Legislature in 1821, and then to three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Tennessee.
After Crockett’s third term in the House of Representatives, due to his dissatisfaction with the recent Presidential election in the United States, he traveled to Texas, which was then part of Mexico, and joined the Revolution for Texan Independence. Crockett was killed at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 along with Jim Bowie and 180 other defenders.
For almost 50 years, citizens in West Tennessee petitioned the state to form a new county to give them better access to government. In 1871, Crockett County was created and named for David Crockett and Alamo was named its seat. Davy Crockett is also the subject of many books, plays, songs, and folklore—and his adventures have become partly fictionalized accounts including a popular children’s television program in the 1950s, when children would wear “coonskin” caps to emulate their hero. Two Tennessee State Parks are named for him: Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park in Limestone and David Crockett State Park outside Lawrenceburg.
THE CIVIL WAR IN WEST TENNESSEE
At the time of the American Civil War, Memphis was already crucial to the nation because of its plentiful river and railroad junctions, connections, and markets. When Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861, Memphis became a Confederate stronghold. Union forces recaptured Memphis from the Confederacy in the Battle of Memphis. On June 6, 1862, this spectacular naval battle fought between Union and Confederate ironclads and warships on the Mississippi River immediately north of Memphis was witnessed by many citizens and recreated in vivid newspaper articles around the world.
As many as 180 Confederate sailors were believed to have died in the battle, with the Union Navy suffering only a single casualty—Colonel Charles Ellet, who had designed and led the Union’s fleet of steam rams, died several days later of a wound received during the battle. Ellet’s steam rams were vital to the Union victory at the battle, and his sacrifice was honored when the U.S. Navy named a WWII era destroyer for him and his descendants, who were also respected ship architects.
The Battle of Memphis was a major victory for the Union that resulted in the destruction of most of the Confederacy’s naval capability—rendering the Mississippi River the Union’s sole domain, ensuring easy transport of men and supplies, and denying the Confederacy any transport ability on the largest and most important shipping channel in America. Combined with the Union’s destruction of the rail lines leading from Memphis to the Confederate strongholds in Eastern Tennessee, the Union capture of Memphis was a strategic necessity in the war effort.
After the battle, the city remained under Union control for the rest of the Civil War. Though a second “Battle of Memphis” occurred, this was only a desperate Confederate guerilla action to try and capture or assassinate Union Army generals while freeing Confederate captives in the area. The single-night raid failed miserably and the Union never lost control of the city.
Memphis continued to prosper unlike most cities within the South following the Civil War—by the nature of its location on the Mississippi River, and its strategic importance to both the war effort and the ongoing economic welfare of a river-shipping nation, Memphis was able to thrive while most other Southern cities languished in poverty.
During the height of the Civil War, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was conducting an expedition into West Tennessee during most of December 1862. His plan was to destroy the rail line that supplied General Ulysses S. Grant's army, which would severely curtail or even halt Union Army operations.
By December 17, Forrest's 2,100-man cavalry brigade had crossed the Tennessee River and was heading west. The Battle at Jackson took placed on December 19, 1862 in Madison County. Grant ordered a troop concentration at Jackson to repulse the Confederates, but Forrest’s troops managed to break the lines and continue their advance. Using decoy attacks, Forrest’s men managed to keep the Union Army engaged while two small groups of Confederate soldiers destroyed the railroad tracks north and south of Jackson.
FROM KING COTTON TO CIVIL RIGHTS
Cotton is a simple plant that was an economic engine throughout the South, but in West Tennessee cotton was king. During the Civil War, West Tennessee and Memphis in particular supported a huge black market for raw cotton, which was in great demand by northern cotton mills because of the embargo enforced by the Confederacy. A January 1863 investigation for the Federal War Department concluded that in Memphis, a "mania for illicit cotton had corrupted and demoralized Union Army officers.”
With a fertile supply of Delta soil nourished by the Mississippi River, West Tennessee has a rich history rooted in the production of cotton. Memphis was widely known as “King Cotton” in the 19th and 20th centuries, and was the nation’s principal cotton trading center when the Memphis Cotton Exchange formally opened in 1873.
The industry had relied heavily on slave labor, so much that Memphis also became a major slave trading center. After the emancipation of the slaves in America the practice of sharecropping replaced the free labor of slavery. Sharecropping is a form of farming where tenants work the farms and fields in exchange for housing and food instead of wages, and this how the descendants of many slaves subsisted after the Civil War.
By the 1840s, the town of Jackson had become a cotton depot for the region and was quickly transforming into a railroad town, with as many as five railroads carrying passengers and freight through the city. As the railroads moved in, the town grew quickly and became an established market for lumber, farm products, and furs. During the Civil War, Jackson alternated between Confederate and Union occupation, and served as an important supply base due to its strong rail infrastructure. Today, the town is best known for two of its legendary residents, rock-a-billy musical pioneer Carl Perkins and heroic railroad engineer Casey Jones.
The Nutbush area was established in the early 19th century to be an agricultural community that was supported by slavery. The settlers who began the town were English immigrants who had first settled in North Carolina and Virginia. When the first settlers arrived here, they found hazelnut trees that reminded them of a village in North Carolina called Nutbush, which they decided was a fitting name for their new home. Nutbush is home to two churches with extensive links to the history of the Civil War and slavery.
The Trinity United Methodist Church was founded in 1822. More than 50 Civil War soldiers, both Confederate and Union, are buried in the Trinity Cemetery associated with the church. The building was often referred to as the “Buckhorn Church” because of the deer antlers that served as hat racks inside. Woodlawn Missionary Baptist Church in Nutbush was established in 1866 by freed slaves of the community and members of the white Woodlawn Baptist Church. A young Anna Mae Bullock, who grew up to become Tina Turner, the “Queen of Rock and Roll,” often sang in the choir here. The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
Nutbush is also the birthplace or home of many prominent music pioneers and recording artists such as Hambone Willie Newbern and Sleepy John Estes, as well as Tina Turner, born to sharecropper parents who worked the cotton fields. Turner honored her hometown with the hit song “Nutbush City Limits.” In 2001, Tennessee officially named Highway 19 as the “Tina Turner Highway” in her honor. Nearby Brownsville is home to the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center where the culture of the delta is celebrated and many musical pioneers are honored.
FROM RAILROARDS TO AUTOMOBILES
Until the early to mid 20th century, the railroads were the primary form of transport for goods and passengers—there was simply no other way to travel with such speed and ease, and modern roads did not exist. Towns like Martin, McKenzie, Stanton and Jackson were built on railroad trade, and helped supply the nation with the goods needed to build a growing nation. The places between the major rail destinations were generally inaccessible until long distance road travel became possible in the late 1930s.
As the volume of visitors using the roads increased, roadside attractions were developed to help attract tourists on their way to more popular destinations. These oddities and amusements competed with one another for tourist dollars, often using unusual photo opportunities and promises of the “World’s Largest” to stir the imagination and prompt a paying customer to stop and see.
When the interstate system was developed, many of these communities were bypassed again, and many of the roadside attractions went out of business and disappeared completely. But you can still see remnants of this classic period of American road travel. From the “World’s Largest Teapot Collection” in Trenton and “The Mindfield” sculpture park in Brownsville, West Tennessee is full of historic roadside attractions.
There’s more than meets the eye, or the ear, here in West Tennessee. Follow the rails, lose yourself in the fields of white, and find the tune that speaks to your soul on the historic Cotton Junction trail.