Founding of Jackson/Madison County

By: Robert Briley

The western part of this great state is the Plateau of West Tennessee. This area averages less than 300 ft above sea level and is the lowest part of Tennessee, however, it has some of the greatest forest, rivers, streams, and fertile soil in all the south. Carved out of this land in the 19th century was Madison County and its seat of government, Jackson. This is the brief history of its founding.

In the 15th century prior to European arrival, West Tennessee was the home of numerous Native American Tribes such as the Mound Builders, Woodland Indians, and Mississippians. The greatest evidence of this can be found south of Jackson at the Pinson Mounds. The mounds found here are ceremonial mounds built between 200 B.C. and A.D. 500, during the Middle Woodland Period. These Native Americans built a series of at least 15 mounds for burial and religious purposes, including Saul’s Mound, the second largest Native American Mound in the United States.

Later, the Chickasaw became the most dominant Native American tribe in the area. They used West Tennessee, and particularly Madison County, more for hunting purposes. They did not establish permanent homes because of the low lying lands and the potential for flooding from the Forked Deer River (which they called the Okeena) and the Hatchie River, as well as the lack of flint which was necessary for survival at this time.

The first Europeans to visit present-day West Tennessee were the Spanish in 1540, being led by famed explorer Hernando de Soto. They came into contact with the Chickasaw, who hunted in the region during their exploration; however, they never took advantage of their discovery by settling in or colonizing the area. The French arrived in 1682 under the leadership of Robert Cavelier de La Salle. Even though they built Fort Assumption in 1739 at present-day Memphis, they abandoned it a year later.

The French had earlier built Fort Lick in present-day Nashville in 1714. These fur traders probably made treks westward across the Tennessee River looking for game, pelts, and furs.

Throughout the 1750s-60s, British colonial hunters from Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina trekked into Tennessee looking for game. One such hunter was the famous explorer Daniel Boone, who made it all the way to present-day Madison County. After the British were victorious in the French and Indian War in 1763, they officially gained control of the area but forbade any colonists to travel, trade, or live west of the Smoky Mountains. This was a point of contention for the colonists who regularly disobeyed this proclamation.

During the American Revolutionary War, Americans continued to emigrate into Tennessee. After the war, the settlers of eastern Tennessee formed the unofficial and unrecognized State of Franklin in 1784. Tennessee became a U.S. territory in 1789 and had a large enough population to become a state in 1796, which was the 16th and last one added during the presidency of George Washington. However, even when Tennessee became a state, West Tennessee was still under Chickasaw control. In 1818 a treaty negotiated by Andrew Jackson was signed with the Chickasaw to sell the lands between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers for $300,000. This opened up West Tennessee for settlement.

Settlers began to move into the area quickly, being attracted by cheap fertile land that was safe from Native American attack. Some of those who came moved to the Cotton Gin Grove Community, which is east of Jackson, as well as an area two miles west of Jackson near the Forked Deer River, which became known originally as Alexanderia. It was named after Adam Alexander who was a surveyor of the U.S. Range Survey & Registrar of the Land Office in this section of West Tennessee.

One of the first settlers to move into present-day Jackson was Dr. William Butler. He came down the Forked Deer River on a keel boat in 1819 and settled near a spring south of Jackson on the 640 acres of land that he had purchased. He donated 30 of these acres, on which downtown Jackson was established. Like most of the settlers that came into the area at this time, Butler brought with him enough supplies to last him for quite some time–things like coffee, flour, cotton, farm tools, seeds, powder, lead, and some farm animals.

On November 7, 1821, enough settlers had moved into the area that the Tennessee General Assembly formed Madison County (named after former President James Madison). The stream of people increased over the next few months. Eight to ten wagons a day brought people into the area who were attracted by cheap, fertile land free from Native American attack and the potential to make a living farming. Within two years a courthouse was built, a jail erected, and weekly postal service was established. On August 17, 1822, by an act of the General Assembly, the name of the seat of justice in Madison County was changed from Alexandria to Jackson, in honor of the Battle of New Orleans hero and later President of the United States, Andrew Jackson.

By 1830, 675 residents lived in Jackson, and by 1833 that number had increased to 900. Most of these individuals became farmers who planted either cotton or corn, but there were also carpenters, blacksmiths, merchants, preachers, doctors, lawyers, and bankers. The Jackson Male Academy and Jackson Female Academy were built at this time along with a number of churches representing numerous Christian denominations. Within a few years, Jackson could boast of hotels, a newspaper, a 3 pharmacy, and plenty of cotton merchants ready and willing to ship cotton down the Forked Deer in keelboats to Memphis and New Orleans.

Jackson-Madison County is a snapshot of how America was settled. Individuals came looking for an opportunity and to make the best of it. Surviving with hard work by the sweat of their brow, they carved out their existence in the wilderness. Through perseverance, grit, and determination, they set the foundation for a city that has emerged as a major transportation and trading center which is now not only a leader in the state, but in the region and the nation as well.

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