Visitors Guide to
 


Lauderdale County, Tennessee
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.







 
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