Visitors Guide to
along the Great River Road
Native Americans had been using the rich resources of
Lauderdale's river bottoms and hardwood forests for thousands of years
before European explorers arrived. There are many Woodland and Mississippian
Period sites in Lauderdale County, some complete with mounds. By the late
1600s the Chickasaw tribe had claimed the western Tennessee region. When
Robert de La Salle and his party passed the region in 1682-83 during the
French exploration of the Mississippi River they observed their villages.
After the Revolutionary War the region that would become Tennessee was under
control of the state of North Carolina. Despite the Chickasaw claims to the
territory, North Carolina sent Henry Rutherford to the area in 1785 to
survey for land warrants. Rutherford and his party established "Key Corner"
as a landmark for marking off claims by carving his initials and a large key
into a huge sycamore on the first high ground east of the Mississippi and
south of the Forked Deer. When North Carolina ratified the Constitution of
the United States in 1789, it also ceded its western lands, the "Tennessee
country", to the Federal government. North Carolina had been using this land
as a means of paying men who had fought in the Revolutionary War and
reserved the right to continue this program of giving veterans land claims.
In 1818 the Jackson Purchase was completed. The Jackson Purchase was a
series of treaties where the Chickasaw tribe ceded all of their land
Tennessee west of the Tennessee River to the Mississippi River. Native
Americans were largely absent from Lauderdale County until the 1950s when
two Choctaw families migrated to the county to work in the cotton fields.
Today two Choctaw communities can be found in Ripley and Henning. In 1819
Rutherford with his brothers, Benjamin Porter, and a man named Crenshaw,
returned to Key Corner and established a settlement, bringing with them
live-stock, poultry, farming implements and a good supply of provisions.
Fulton, on the Mississippi River near the site of Fort Pillow State Park,
was also settled in 1819, and Judge James Trimble laid out Lauderdale's
first town there in 1827. Fulton prospered as a steamboat landing, but the
town has been consumed by the Mississippi River.
Lauderdale County was formed from parts of Tipton, Dyer and Haywood
Counties. The people who lived in the region had been cut off from the
county seats of Tipton and Dyer Counties by the Hatchie and the Forked Deer
Rivers and successfully petitioned the state legislature for a county of
their own. On November 24,1835. Lauderdale County was created and named in
honor of Colonel James Lauderdale, who died the first Battle of New Orleans
in 1814 on the December 23, 1814. Ripley was established as the county seat
in February 1836 on 62 acres purchased from Thomas Brown and named for
Eleazer W. Ripley who fought in the War of 1812, eventually rising to the
rank of Brigadier General. Ripley would serve as a U. S. Representative from
Louisiana from 1835 until 1839. The site was selected on account of a large
spring just north of the public square. J. N. Smith opened the first
mercantile store in a log cabin and the town quickly became a center for
trade between Dyersburg and Covington.
During the antebellum period cotton dominated the county's agriculture.
Steamboats carried cotton bales from landings on the Forked Deer,
Mississippi, and Hatchie Rivers. In 1850 there were 304 slaveholders in
Lauderdale County, 96 of who owned ten or more slaves. The Civil War
devastated the county's farms and plantations.
In 1861, the Confederate Army built extensive fortifications on the
Chickasaw Bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in southwest Lauderdale
County and named the site for General Gideon J. Pillow of Tennessee. Because
of its strategic location, controlling traffic on the Mississippi River, the
fort was attacked and captured in June 1862 by the Union Army, which
controlled it during most of the war. After Fort Pillow's fall to Union
forces, occupation of the county seesawed between Confederate and Union
troops, both of used Ripley as a base. There were four significant
skirmishes in 1862 and 1863. A controversial engagement took place at Fort
Pillow on April 12, 1864, when a Confederate force under General Nathan
Bedford Forrest overran the Union outpost and killed almost half the
garrison of 600 mostly African American troops. Fort Pillow State Park has
an Interpretive Center/Museum that interprets the Civil War history of the
region. The park also offers its visitors hiking, fishing, and wildlife
viewing as well as offering camping opportunities.
The county recovered from the war slowly, returning to cotton as the primary
crop, with some tobacco raised for the market at Memphis. Railroads reached
the county in the 1870s when the Newport News and Mississippi Valley line
reached Henning. Henning is now most known as the town where Alex Haley, the
author of the international bestseller Roots, grew up. Haley was inspired to
write Roots after listening to stories from his grandmother and aunts while
he lived here. The Haley house has been restored to the time period of the
early 20th century and the site also features an interpretive center.
The current county courthouse was built in 1936 by the Public Works
Administration. Designed by the Nashville firm of Marr and Holman, the
building displays the PWA Modern style so popular in the New Deal era. The
Ripley Post Office was built in 1938 by the Works Progress Administration.
The Neo-Georgian design building was listed on the National Register of
Historic Places in 1988. The post office contains a mural, "Autumn," painted
by government-commissioned artist Marguerite Zorach and shows hunting and
nutting in the West Tennessee country.
During World War 2 the U.S. Army constructed an air base at Halls. Some
7,700 troops trained on the 2,450-acre site, many of them as B-17 Flying
Fortress bomber pilots. When the base closed it was converted to civilian
uses. The airfield became "Arnold Field Airport", and over the years, the
hundreds of buildings of the base were sold, removed or torn down. Today, a
Veteran's museum, in which a large number of artifacts and other exhibits
are on display, is in a building on the former aircraft parking apron.