The sprawling metropolis of Memphis is a city born out of its geographic location. Like most cities along the Mississippi River, the area was a major stop-off point for transporting goods. However, with the introduction of the railroad dissecting the country from east to west, Memphis was changed from a port into a hub. More recently, large corporations such as Federal Express have started calling Memphis home, thus elevating the local economy and inspiring a new sense of pride in both long-term residents and newcomers.
Long before Columbus, the Chickasaw Indians found their way to this area. The flat plains made cultivation easy and the proximity of the river insured an abundant supply of water. When the last major earthquake along the New Madrid fault shook the area in 1829, a branch of the river reversed its flow and formed Reelfoot Lake. Luckily, so few people lived in the region at the time that no deaths or injuries were recorded. Unfortunately, the same factors that drew the Chickasaw here made the area attractive to the European explorers. In the late 17th century, France claimed the lands in the Mississippi River Valley, down to the Gulf of Mexico. When King Louis XVI handed this territory over to Spain in the 1790s, Fort Saint Ferdinand of the Bluffs (named for King Ferdinand VII) kept watch over the traffic up and down the river.
By 1818, the Spaniards no longer occupied it, and the newly formed state of Tennessee took the land on the East side of the river from the Chickasaw by treaty. Memphis, named for the Egyptian city's similar geographic location on the Nile, was founded in 1819.
Memphis became the center for trade of two kinds: cotton and slaves. Plantation owners from Mississippi brought their cotton up the river to sell and returned home with new workers for their fields. A plaque in Auction Square commemorates the auctioning of both "commodities" during this era. This trade sparked an economic boom in Memphis, resulting in the building of luxury hotels such as the Gayoso House (recently remodeled into condominiums) and the establishment of a number of businesses.
In 1845, Memphis became the site of a naval shipyard, bringing a new source of revenue to the area. With the completion of the Memphis-Charleston Railroad, goods could be shipped East to the Atlantic Ocean, establishing Memphis as the transportation hub it is today.
The American Civil War was fought mostly east of Memphis, in the mountains of Tennessee and Georgia, and south in Mississippi. The one major battle fought locally occurred in 1862. Union forces conquered the Confederate Navy in a short time while Memphians stood on the banks of the river, in what is now Confederate Park, to watch the battle. Memphis became a Union supply point because of the city's transportation facilities and was also the site of a prisoner-of-war camp.
After the Civil War, the schooling of former slaves began. An organization called the Memphis Freedmen's Bureau was instrumental in the start-up of business services for African-Americans. Unfortunately, the yellow fever epidemic of the 1870s killed more than half of Memphis' population of 16,000, halting economic and social progress. Many who did not fall victim to the disease fled the area, believing that the river waters were unhealthy. The devastation was so severe that Memphis had to give up its city charter in 1879.
The irony of the epidemic was that much of the African-American population survived and remained to begin the rebuilding of the city. It was the area's first African-American millionaire, Robert Church, Sr., a former slave, who bought the first bond issued in an attempt to restore the city's charter. In fact, there is evidence that this was a period of time when African-American residents flourished, economically and socially, from Memphis to New Orleans. Their businesses thrived and a strong black middle-class developed.
The early part of the 20th century saw the flowering of Jazz and the Blues as musical forms. Beale Street became the home of nightclubs where musicians such as W.C. Handy experimented with new musical forms born from the combination of spirituals, folk music and even square dance rhythms. When the powerful E.H. "Boss" Crump commissioned Handy to write a campaign song to help him run for mayor, it signaled a formal acceptance of these new art forms. Crump presided over Memphis for almost 50 years, during which time African-American musicians such as Handy, B.B. King and Rufus Thomas put Memphis on the national map. Their success allowed Sam Phillips to start the famous Sun Studio and for radio station WDIA to adopt an all-black format. It was here in 1953 where legendary Elvis Presley got his start, skyrocketing to superstardom, effectively putting modern Memphis on the map.