The History of Memphis, Tennessee – From Chickasaw to the Birth of Blues

Memphis, Tennessee has a long and rich history. The story of the city is one of periods of strong economic growth punctuated by serious challenges. It is a city with an impressive cultural heritage as one of the birth places of blues. And as we will see below it is a story that has been over a thousand years in the making.

The area where modern day Memphis now sits was likely first settled between 800 and 1600 CE by members of the Mississippian culture tribes. These are native American tribes noted for their mount building construction. During the 1700’s the Chickasaw Indian tribe migrated into the area. It is thought that the Chickasaw likely originated in what is modern day Mexico before heading north.

The first European visitor to the area is believed to be the Spanish explorer Hernado de Soto who arrived during the first part of the 1540’s. De Soto was followed by French explorers Cavelier and de La Salle who reached what would become the Memphis area during the 1680’s. The explorers would build Fort Prudhomme. A second settlement First Assumption was constructed in 1739 on the Chickasaw Bluff. This would serve as a base against the Chickasaw Indian during the 1739 military campaign.

The city of Memphis was founded on May 22, 1819. The founding investors in the city including James Winchester and Andrew Jackson. The city was later incorporated in 1826. The city took it’s name from the ancient capital of Egypt which was located on the river Nile. The city thrived thanks to it’s position as a trading centre for cotton cultivated on the plantations in the surrounding area. From the start the city was envisioned as a major city. The plan for the city featured a well laid out grid of streets punctuated by four town squares.

The city suffered two significant setbacks in 1878 and 1879 as a result of Yellow Fever epidemics. During the 1878 epidemic more than five thousand residents of the city would die and tens of thousands were forced to flee. The impact of these epidemics went beyond the cost in lives however. The financial impact of the epidemics was devastating for the city, directly leading to the city needing to declare bankruptcy. The city was forced to give up it’s city charter which it would not regain until 1893.

Not all the economic news for the city was bad however. By the turn of the 20th century Memphis had transformed itself into the home of the world’s largest spot market for cotton. It was also the world’s largest market for hardwood.

The economic engine of the city’s growth was something of a double edge sword. Historically, the regions expansive plantations had been based on slave labor. In fact before the civil war one quarter of the Memphis population had been slaves. The historical legacy of a class based society riven along racial lines led directly civil rights protests during the 1960’s. This cumulated in a major strike by the city’s sanitation workers in 1968.

Arguably the city’s most significant impact on the wider world has been cultural. Memphis has produced some of history’s most famous blues musicians. These include jazz legends such as B.B. King, Muddy Water and Robert Johnson. The history of blues imbues the culture of the city to this day.