Before 1800: Mound Builders & Explorers
Two thousand years ago, the Walking Tall Trail was inhabited by Native Americans of the Woodland and Mississippian periods, known as the “mound builders” for the large, earthen structures they built for their homes and ceremonial sites. The highest mound of this period in the United States is located at Pinson Mounds near Jackson, indicating that this area held a special importance in the culture. Later came the Chocktaw and Chickasaw tribes, who were here when Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto arrived on the banks of the Mississippi River near modern-day Memphis in the mid-1500s. The French arrived in the late 1600s, building forts along the Mississippi River to secure the fur trade. Continued conflict with the Chickasaws inspired the French to construct heavily fortified Fort Assumption near present-day Memphis. Over the next century, the area would be claimed by the Spanish, the French, the original Native American tribes and the American government. In 1783, the state of North Carolina opened its loosely claimed “Western Territory,” for settlement, honoring land grants given to Revolutionary War veterans as payment for military service. At the time, this was mostly Chickasaw territory, and the early settlers came to their own agreements with the tribe as they claimed their land. Tennessee achieved official statehood in 1796.
1800: Growing West Tennessee
In 1818, the American government officially “purchased” the land of the Western Territory from the Chickasaw for $300,000 in a sale and treaty negotiated by soonto- be President Andrew Jackson and Revolutionary War Colonel Isaac Shelby. Settlers rushed to the area from Middle Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Kentucky, eager to stake their claims. It didn’t take long for towns and communities to form; in fact, lots went on sale for the city of Memphis just two years after the Jackson Purchase was completed. Towns like Somerville and La Grange began to grow around plantations and smallerscale farms, both profitable and dependent on slave labor. The Wolf, Hatchie, and Tennessee Rivers were essential to the towns’ development. Plantation owners depended on the waterways to ship their goods and receive materials, and grain mills operated on the creeks that fed the rivers. “Railroad fever” fell over the Memphis area in the mid-1800s, as eager private investors led the charge to connect West Tennessee’s towns with cities outside the region. Many of the first lines followed the trade routes of the Chickasaw — their well worn paths followed the natural landscape and established safe and strategic routes for year-round travel. One of the first and most crucial lines of the time was the Memphis- Charleston Railroad, whose activity played a major role in further developing the small towns along the Walking Tall Trail. The railroad brought opportunity to these rural areas, as their natural resources became more accessible and businesses sprouted up, capitalizing on the railroad activity.
1800s-1960: The Grays & The Blues
As tensions mounted around the Southern states’ secession from the Union, Tennessee was the last to secede in 1861. The state’s sympathies were divided, but most of West Tennessee sided with the Confederates due to the farm owners’ dependence on slave labor; active pockets of Union activity thrived closer to the Tennessee River. One of the most famous Union strongholds was known as the Hurst Nation, an area near Bethel Springs that not only sympathized with the Union cause, but produced a renegade band of Union scouts that terrorized the area, even burning the city of Jackson. The towns on the Walking Tall Trail were often occupied by Union soldiers, stationed there to secure access to the vital railroad supply lines that linked the North and South. The presence of the railroad and the opposing forces invited ongoing conflict, leading to frequent skirmishes. When the fighting stopped, it was up to the towns’ women to care for the wounded and bury the dead, often converting private homes, churches, and schools into hospitals. The Battle of Shiloh, the most wellknown conflict on the trail and one of the Civil War’s bloodiest, took place in 1862 near Savannah. The Union Army was camped at Pittsburgh Landing on their way to Corinth, Mississippi, where they anticipated confrontation with Confederate forces. In a surprise attack, Confederates moved north to meet the Union troops as they paused on their trek. The two-day battle raged along the banks of the Tennessee River in the rainy cold, and by its end, 24,000 Americans were dead, wounded, or missing.
As the war continued in West Tennessee, many plantation and farm owners were forced to abandon their land, leaving their slaves to fend for themselves. Union forces moving through the area set up small “contraband camps” for the slaves and their families, and employed or enlisted many to help seal the Union’s victory. Following the war’s end in 1865, former slaves in this agricultural area had few opportunities as freedmen. Most chose to stay on the farms as sharecroppers, and others headed to Memphis or other northern cities in search of work. In the early 20th century, the Beale Street area of Memphis began to take shape as a bustling marketplace lined with businesses, nightclubs, and services by and for African-Americans. Blues legend W.C. Handy wrote the first blues song there in 1909, and a landmark was born — the street would be declared “The Home of the Blues” by an act of Congress in the 1970s. Out on the Walking Tall Trail, manufacturing companies began to arrive in these small towns, where they could find workers in the communities, raw materials in the fields, and transportation for their goods on the rivers and railroads. The railroad produced many colorful characters at the turn of the century, including Jackson’s legendary Casey Jones. He embodied the life of a dedicated engineer, dying with “one hand on the whistle and one hand on the brake” as his train crashed and his passengers walked away unharmed.
20th Century: Leaders & Legends
In 1938, the efforts of the Tennessee Valley Authority — part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal — arrived in West Tennessee. Pickwick Dam harnessed the power of the Tennessee River, generating electricity that changed lives and strengthened industry in the area. Around this time, a young Carl Perkins picked up a second-hand guitar and combined the rural rhythm and blues sounds of his childhood with a bluegrass twang, joining the ranks of the early rockabilly pioneers. Perkins topped both the country and R&B charts with the 1950s hit “Blue Suede Shoes,” later recorded by his friend Elvis Presley. The pair secured Memphis and West Tennessee’s title as the birthplace of early rock ‘n’ roll. The 1960s were a turbulent time in American history, and West Tennessee was no exception. Crime was rampant along the Tennessee-Mississippi state line, with moonshine production, gambling rings, prostitution and other illegal activities thriving in this remote and rural area. McNairy County Sheriff Buford Pusser set out to change that, famously taking to unconventional measures to “clean up” the state line, despite the risk of harm to himself and his family. Several films have been made about his life and tragic death, including Walking Tall, filmed along this route in the 1970s. Back in Memphis, West Tennessee was at the center of the national Civil Rights Movement in 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel. The tragic event sparked riots locally and across the country, turning up the tension in the struggle for African-Americans’ equal rights.
1980 to Today: Welcome to West Tennessee
In the 1980s, West Tennessee put new emphasis on inviting visitors to the area, making efforts to share and appreciate the region’s natural beauty and historic treasures. The city of Memphis and outlying towns began to revitalize and preserve public spaces and riverfront areas. Beale Street, the musical heart of the city, underwent transformation into an open-air tourist attraction featuring live music, dancing and food every night of the week; millions of fans flocked to West Tennessee when Elvis Presley’s Graceland officially opened to visitors in 1982. The 1980s and ’90s were a time of preservation and revitalization in the communities along the Walking Tall Trail as well, with court squares and historic buildings receiving much needed attention from loving locals. During this time, several railroad lines consolidated and still contribute to the steady hum of industry here; the trail’s music and Civil War history lives on in the many museums and preserved sites. Today, the places that make up the Walking Tall Trail retain their individual charm, both shaped by and vitally part of West Tennessee’s rich history and culture.