by Harbert Alexander
Before statehood, West Tennessee was occupied by prehistoric Native Americans, who camped and hunted there as early as 9,000 B.C., as well as much later historic tribes such as the Choctaws and Chickasaws. Woodland Culture peoples developed the large mound village site now protected by the Pinson Mounds State Archeological Park, the site of three separate mound groups. First discovered in 1820 by a surveyor, Joel Pinson, the mounds remained of local interest until the 1880s, when a Smithsonian Institution archeologist, William E. Myer, surveyed and mapped the site. Pinson Mounds is the largest Middle Woodland period mound group in the United States and includes one mound, measuring 72 feet, the tallest mound east of the Mississippi River.
Twenty-two years after Tennessee statehood, the Chickasaws signed the 1818 treaty that secured the area for settlement. The first farm families came to Madison County in 1819 and settled east of Jackson in Cotton Gin Grove. In the following year, additional pioneers settled further west on the banks of the Forked Deer River in a community they proposed to call Alexandria because of the land surveyor named Alexander. However, the Tennessee Legislature declined the suggested name of Alexandria because there was already a town in Tennessee with this name. The Legislature decided to name the county seat of Madison County Jackson in 1822, in honor of Andrew Jackson, a hero of the recent War of 1812. Jackson’s sister-in-law Jane Hayes lived in the city, and the General played an important role in the early history of Madison County.
Jackson became the county seat in September 1822, after the Tennessee General Assembly created Madison County in November 1821. In 1835 Congressman Davy Crockett made an angry speech on the courthouse steps, following his defeat for reelection, in which he told the people of Jackson: “The rest of you can go to hell, for I am going to Texas.” A year later he and another Jackson resident, Micajah Autry, were dead at the Alamo. In the antebellum period, Jackson became a transportation center for agricultural products on the Forked Deer River.
During the Civil War, Madison County contributed two Confederate generals, Alexander W. Campbell and William H. “Red” Jackson. The county became the scene of several small battles and skirmishes, the most important of which was the battle of Britton Lane. A small park in the Denmark area commemorates the engagement in which Confederate cavalry under General Frank C. Armstrong clashed with Federal infantry, leaving more than 170 Confederate dead. Because of its importance in the regional rail work network, Federal troops occupied Jackson for most of the Civil War. In 1864 Federal raiders demanded a ransom or they threatened to burn Jackson. Although the city met the demands, most of downtown Jackson was burned.
The town of Bemis arose from the cotton fields of Madison County when the Bemis Brother Bag Company decided to construct a cotton bagging plant and a town along the Illinois Central Railroad. Begun in 1900, the model town developed in several stages and incorporated the designs of graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as local architects such as Reuben A. Heavnor. Jackson annexed Bemis in 1977.
The first railroad was completed in Madison County in 1858 as a result of the promotional efforts of Judge Milton Brown. In addition to serving the transportation needs of commercial agriculture, the railroads developed a labor base for later industrial development. Jackson resident I. B. Tigrett was the president of Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad, which boasted 3,000 miles of track. The legendary Illinois Central Railroad engineer Casey Jones made his home in Jackson. His house and many of his possessions are preserved at Casey Jones Village.
Today Madison County offers a wide variety of economic, cultural, and educational benefits. It is the home of University of Memphis at Lambuth, Union University, Lane College, and Jackson State Community College. For many years, Jackson has hosted the Miss Tennessee pageant. Several musical artist claim Madison County as their home, including Sonny Boy Williamson, a legendary blues and harmonica artist; Big Maybell, a gospel and blues recording artist; Denise LaSalle, Queen of the Soul Blues; and Carl Perkins, Mr. “Blue Suede Shoes.” Once largely agricultural, the county’s economy now rests on a diversified industrial and commercial base. Transportation continues to be important to county development, and Madison County is served by Interstate 40, three railroads (Norfolk-Southern, CSX Transportation, and West Tennessee Railroad), and McKeller-Sipes Regional Airport.
At the hub of West Tennessee’s agricultural and industrial production, Jackson and the people who live and work there benefit from a rich history and a bright future.