The area around Memphis, Tennessee was first settled by the Mississippian Culture and then by the Chickasaw Indian tribe. European exploration came years later, with Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and French explorers led by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.
The modern city of Memphis was founded in 1819, the city was named after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile River. In the early 20th century, Memphis grew into the world's largest spot cotton market and the world's largest hardwood lumber market. During the 1960s the city was at the center of civil rights issues. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel.
Many notable blues musicians grew up in and around the Memphis and northern Mississippi area. These included such musical greats as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and Isaac Hayes.
From about 10,000 BCE, Paleo-Indians and later Archaic-Indians lived as communities of hunter-gatherers in the area that covers the modern day southern United States. Approximately 800 CE to 1600 CE, the Mississippi River Delta was populated by tribes of the Mississippian culture, a mound-building Native American people that had developed in the late Woodland Indian period. The Tipton Phase people were a local expression of the Mississippian culture. They inhabited the region of modern day Tipton, Lauderdale and Shelby Counties during the time of first contact with Europeans, at the arrival of the de Soto Expedition. By the end of the Mississippian period the land was claimed and populated by the Chickasaw tribe. The exact origins of the Chickasaw are uncertain. Noted historian Horatio Cushman indicates that the Chickasaw, along with the Choctaw, may have had origins in present-day Mexico and migrated north. When Europeans first encountered them, the Chickasaws were living in villages in what is now Mississippi, with a smaller number in the area of Savannah Town, South Carolina. The Chickasaws may have been immigrants to the area and may not have been descendants of the pre-historic Mississippian culture. Their oral history supports this, indicating they moved along with the Choctaws from west of the Mississippi in pre-history.
|“||"These people (the choctaw) are the only nation from whom I could learn any idea of a traditional account of a first origin; and that is their coming out of a hole in the ground, which they shew between their nation and the Chickasaws; they tell us also that their neighbours were surprised at seeing a people rise at once out of the earth."||”|
—Bernard Romans- Natural History of East and West Florida
By the 1680s, French explorers led by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle built Fort Prudhomme in the vicinity, the first European settlement in what would become Memphis, predating English settlements in East Tennessee by more than 70 years. Fort Assumption was a French fortification constructed in 1739 on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff on the Mississippi River by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville's French army. The fort was used as a base against the Chickasaw in the abortive Campaign of 1739.
Despite such early outposts, the land comprising present-day Memphis remained in a largely unorganized territory throughout most of the 18th century, while the boundaries of what would become Tennessee continued to evolve from its parent — the Carolina Colony, later North Carolina and South Carolina. By 1796, the community was the westernmost point of the newly admitted state of Tennessee. However, West Tennessee was at that time owned by the Chickasaw tribe.
|Source: "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau. http://factfinder.census.gov.|
The area of West Tennessee became available for white settlement after the Federal Government purchased it from the Chickasaws Nation in the 1818 Jackson Purchase. Memphis was founded on May 22, 1819 by a group of investors, John Overton, James Winchester, and Andrew Jackson, and was incorporated as a city in 1826. The city was named after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile River. The founders planned for a large city to be built on the site and laid out a plan featuring a regular grid of streets interrupted by four town squares, to be named Exchange, Market, Court, and Auction. Of these, only Court Square remains as a public park in downtown Memphis. The city grew as a center for transporting, grading and marketing the growing volumes of cotton produced in the nearby Mississippi delta in the antebellum era (for background, see "King Cotton").
The cotton economy of the antebellum South depended on the forced labor of large numbers of African-American slaves, and Memphis became a major slave market. Prior to the Civil War, one quarter of the city's population were slaves. Seeking their freedom, slaves turned to the Underground Railroad to escape to the free states of the North, and the Memphis home of Jacob Burkle was a way-station on their route to freedom.
The Gayoso House Hotel was built overlooking the Mississippi River in 1842 and became a Memphis landmark until it burned in 1899. The original Gayoso House was a first class hotel, designed by James H. Dakin, a well-known architect of that era, and was appointed with the latest conveniences, including indoor plumbing with marble tubs, silver faucets and flush toilets. In 1857 the Memphis & Charleston Railroad was completed, linking the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. Memphis was one of the two eastern termini of the Butterfield Overland Mail route to California from 1857 to 1861.
At the time of the American Civil War, Memphis was already an important regional city because of its river trade and railroad connections, particularly the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, the only east-west rail link across the South. Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861 and Memphis briefly became a Confederate stronghold.
Union forces moving down the Mississippi River captured Memphis from the Confederacy in the Battle of Memphis on June 6, 1862. The city remained under Union control for the duration of the war, except for a dramatic raid conducted by Nathan Bedford Forrest. Memphis became a Union supply base and continued to prosper throughout the war. During that time the Gayoso House was a Union headquarters. According to local legend, General Forrest rode his horse into the lobby seeking to capture a Union general.
Extensive yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s (1873, 1878 and 1879) devastated the city. It was reported that such terror gripped the town in August 1878 that fleeing families "left their houses with the doors wide open and silver standing on the sideboards." At that time it was not understood that this fatal disease was carried by a mosquito vector, so public health measures were unsuccessful. Remaining in the city to care for the sick, a number of Catholic Franciscan Sisters of Mary, Episcopalian nuns of the Sisterhood of St. Mary and clergymen sacrificed themselves. So many people died or fled the epidemics that in 1879 Memphis lost its city charter, and until 1893 Memphis was governed as merely a taxing district. Robert R. Church, Sr., the South's first African American millionaire, after having been born a slave was the first citizen to buy a $1,000 bond to help restore the city's charter. 
Eventually improvements in sanitation, particularly the construction of an innovative sewer system designed by George E. Waring, Jr., removed the breeding grounds of the mosquito vector. Then, in 1887, a source of abundant and pure artesian water was found beneath the city, and in 1892 the first Mississippi River bridge at Memphis opened. As a result the city again began to prosper, and it regained its charter in 1893. In 1897, Memphis' pyramid-shaped pavilion was conspicuous at the Tennessee Centennial exposition.
The Memphis Park and Parkway System including Overton Park and M.L. King Riverside Park was designed as a comprehensive plan by landscape architect George Kessler at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Memphis grew into the world's largest spot cotton market (over 40% of the nation's crop was traded here) and the world's largest hardwood lumber market. Into the 1950s, it was the world's largest mule market. From the 1910s to the 1950s, Memphis was a hotbed of machine politics under the direction of E. H. "Boss" Crump. During the Crump era, Memphis developed an extensive network of parks and public works as part of the national City Beautiful Movement.
Clarence Saunders, a Memphis inventor and entrepreneur, opened the first self-service grocery store in 1916 and founded the first supermarket chain, Piggly Wiggly. Saunders, who became very wealthy from these ventures, lost his fortune due to stock manipulations by Wall Street "bears", and was forced to sell his partly-completed Memphis mansion, dubbed the Pink Palace. The Pink Palace eventually became the City's historical and natural history museum. Other parts of the Saunders estate became the site of an upscale residential development, Chickasaw Gardens.
The storied Peabody Hotel opened in 1923 and became a symbol of upper-class Southern elegance. In 1935, a Mississippi author wrote, "The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard's, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby, where ducks waddle and turtles drowse, ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta."
During the Second World War, the War Department constructed large supply depots in Memphis for the Army and the Army Air Force. The Memphis Army Depot also served as a prisoner of war camp, housing 800 Axis prisoners. By the time it closed in 1997, the Memphis Army Depot had 130 buildings on site with more than 4 million square feet of enclosed industrial space. Meanwhile, in 1942, the US Navy built the Millington Naval Air Station (now the Naval Support Activity Mid-South) in Millington, Tennessee, just north of Memphis. This 3,500 acre facility provided pilot training during World War II, and later became the major naval air technical training center for enlisted personnel aviation speciality training. It is currently used as a naval personnel center and Headquarters for the US Army Corps of Engineers Finance Center. Its flight facilities have transferred to civilian use as the Millington Regional Jetport. The first national motel chain, Holiday Inn, was founded in Memphis by Kemmons Wilson in 1952. His first inn was located in Berclair near the city limit on Summer Avenue, then the main highway to Nashville, Tennessee.
During the 1960s the city was at the center of civil rights issues, notably the location of a sanitation workers' strike in 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had come to the city in support of the striking workers, was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel, the day after giving his prophetic I've Been to the Mountaintop speech at the Mason Temple. St. Jude Children's Research Hospital opened in 1962, the result of tireless fundraising efforts by the entertainer Danny Thomas. St. Jude's specializes in the study and treatment of catastrophic diseases affecting children, especially leukemia and other childhood cancers, AIDS, sickle cell disease, and inherited immune disorders.
FedEx Corporation (originally, Federal Express) was founded in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1971, but moved to Memphis in 1973 to take advantage of the more extensive airport facilities. Memphis became the major hub of operations for FedEx and as a result the Memphis International Airport became the largest airfreight terminal in the world. In 1974 Harold Ford, Sr. was elected to the US Congress, becoming the first black elected national official from Tennessee. Memphis elected its first African American mayor, Dr. W.W. Herenton in 1991.
Memphis is well known for its cultural contributions to the identity of the American south.
Col. Henry Van Pelt began publishing The Appeal newspaper, ancestor of today's Commercial Appeal in a wooden shack along the Wolf River in 1841. A pro-Confederacy newspaper, The Appeal moved frequently during the Civil War to avoid capture by Union forces. The Commercial Appeal was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for its coverage of, and editorial opposition to, the activities of the Ku Klux Klan.
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. Tom Lee Park on the Memphis riverfront is named for an African-American riverworker who became a civic hero. Tom Lee could not swim. Nevertheless, he single-handedly rescued thirty-two people from drowning when the steamer M.E. Norman sank in 1925. Today, Memphis Riverboats offers tourist excursions from the Memphis waterfront on paddlewheel steamers.
Beginning in the early 20th century Memphis became famous for the innovative strains of African-American music, including gospel, blues, jazz, soul, and Rhythm and Blues genres, a tradition that continues to this day. Many notable blues musicians grew up in and around the Memphis and northern Mississippi, and performed there regularly. These included such musical greats as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, and Howlin' Wolf. Stax Records, which opened in Memphis in 1957, produced almost exclusively African-American music. Stax was a major factor in the creation of the Southern soul and Memphis soul music styles, also releasing gospel, funk, jazz, and blues recordings. Stax recordings and artists included Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, William Bell, The Bar-Kays and their house band, Booker T. & the MG's. Several Stax hits were written and produced by the team of Isaac Hayes & David Porter.
In 1950, Sam Phillips opened the "Memphis Recording Service" where he recorded for his Sun Records label. B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison were all recorded there in its early years. The young Elvis Presley frequently listened to gospel and soul music, and many of his early recordings were inspired or written by African-American composers and recording artists in the Mid-South area.
The first African American-formatted radio station, WDIA, was founded in the city in 1947 by Bert Ferguson and John Pepper, and included a young B. B. King as disc jockey. B. B. King's moniker was derived from his WDIA nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy", a reference to Memphis' Beale Street on which many nightclubs and blues venues were located. WHER, the first all-female station ("All-Girl Radio"), was founded in 1955 by the recording studio owner Sam Phillips and Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson.
In addition to a rich musical heritage, Memphis also boasts a long culinary legacy dominated by regional barbecue. Memphis barbecue is rendered distinct by its sole usage of pork (as opposed to beef), focus on rib and shoulder cuts of meat, and multiple locally-owned barbecue restaurants. Celebration of this local culinary tradition reaches its climax each year in May, when the Memphis in May Festival holds its annual World-Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Downtown Memphis is the oldest section of the city, built on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Downtown includes the old central business and government districts. Beale Street, and the Lorraine Motel (now the National Civil Rights Museum, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968) are located in the Downtown area.
The Pinch District or just The Pinch is an area of Uptown, Memphis that played an important role in local immigration patterns beginning in the early nineteenth century. Memphis' first business district, the Pinch encompassed all of Memphis north of Adams Street, from the River to Third Street. The name was originally a term of derision, referring to emaciated Irish immigrants who fled the Irish Potato Famine. Later, Italian, Russian, Greek and, especially, Jewish immigrants also called it home before migrating to more affluent sections of the city.
Victorian Village is a series of grand Victorian-era mansions built just east of Downtown Memphis in what was then the outskirts of the city. Several of these homes have been opened to the public for tours.
Orange Mound was the first African-American neighborhood in the United States to be built by and for African-Americans. Orange Mound was developed on the grounds a former plantation beginning in the 1890s and provided affordable land and residences for the less affluent. The neighborhood provided a refuge for blacks moving to the city for the first time from the rural South. Orange Mound residents largely owned their own homes and enjoyed a strong sense of community and identity.
Midtown, Memphis, a very diverse area in the center of the city has buildings largely dating from the first half of the 20th Century. Midtown is Memphis' most ethnically and culturally diverse area. Many educational and cultural institutions are located in Midtown, including the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Rhodes College, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Memphis Zoo, and the Memphis College of Art. Evergreen Historic District, one of Memphis' oldest residential districts is located in Midtown.
The first Memphis schools were chartered in 1826, but until 1848 all Memphis schools were private. The first "free" public schools in opened in 1848, but at first nominally charged a $2 tuition. By 1852, there were 13 public schools supported by taxpayers. The first city school for black students opened in 1868, and for a century the city maintained separate school facilities for the two races. Memphis City Schools began desegregation in the late 1950s, but progress was slow until a court order in 1973 that required busing to fully integrate the schools. The 1973 busing order was unpopular with white families and within a short time many white families had enrolled their children in private schools.
The University of Tennessee College of Dentistry was founded in 1878 making it the oldest dental college in the South, and the third oldest public college of dentistry in the United States. The University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis was created in 1911 through merger of five independent Tennessee medical schools following the influential Flexner Report.
The University of Memphis first opened as the West Tennessee State Normal School in 1912. Rhodes College, then known as Southwestern at Memphis, moved to Memphis from Clarksville, Tennessee in 1925. LeMoyne-Owen College a private, historically black, church-affiliated college traces its history to 1862 when the American Missionary Association (AMA) opened an elementary school for freedmen and escaped slaves.
The Memphis and Shelby County Room in the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library provides facilites for researchers to view items from the library’s archives and its manuscript collections. These include historical records of people and families, maps, photographs, newspaper vertical files, books, city directories, and music and video recordings. These materials document the development of the community, government, economy, culture, and heritage of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee. The Genealogy Collection includes microfilmed and indexed Memphis and Shelby County records. The Tennessee Genealogical Society maintains a Regional History and Genealogy Center Library in suburban Germantown, TN. The Shelby County Register of Deeds website has many important records available on-line, including real estate transactions, court cases and vital records.