History of Madison County

In Historic Madison, the author Miss Emma Inman Williams says a history of West Tennessee would be incomplete without talking about the people who “owned” or controlled the territory for years and years. She identified these people as the Chickasaws who had their village near Pontotoc, Miss, but who hunted and traveled through the land between the Mississippi River and the Tennessee River. (p.17)

Just prior to the American Revolution Richard Caswell of North Carolina made plans to negotiate with the Indians for the purchase of the westward territory. A land office was opened, and any citizen of N.C. could sign up for not more that 5,000 acres for 10 pounds of specie or paper money. Two and a half million acres of the Chickasaw country was recorded – mostly by the politicians of N.C. who had opened the land office. This all happened before the Chickasaws agreed to sell the land. (Historic Madison, Williams, p.24)

Surveyors were sent into the new country to locate the entries that had been recorded. James Robertson, Henry Rutherford and Edward Harris were selected to survey the new lands in 1785. They left Nashville in small boats traveling up the Cumberland to the Ohio, then over to the Mississippi River and then up a small river that Rutherford said the Indians called Okeena. The survey party changed the name to Forked Deer because of a deer with peculiar shape horns. Rutherford spent three months of that year in the District and established on the first bluff of the Forked Deer “Key Corner.” When the survey party returned to the east they said they had not even seen an Indian. (Historic Madison, Williams, p. 24)

Henry Rutherford visited the District again in 1811 and 1816. Calvin Jones visited the District in 1818 and wrote about what he saw. He said there was not a white family or trading house in the District except for Fort Pickering. Fort Pickering was near the location of the present day Memphis. (Historic Madison, Williams, p. 25)

In 1818, just 22 years after Tennessee was admitted to the Union, the state requested that commissioners be appointed to negotiate the treaty to obtain the Western District. General Andrew Jackson and Isaac Shelby of Kentucky were appointed. The Chickasaws reported to Jackson that they had no land to sell. He chided them that citizens who had bought and paid for the land had been kept out of it for 30-odd years and that the President would have to give it to the citizens. He said they would allow the Indians such compensation for the “hunting grounds.” The treaty was negotiated and signed after 20 days at Old Town of the Chickasaw near Tuscumbia, Ala. on Oct. 19, 1818 (Historic Madison, Williams, p. 25-26)

In the spring of 1819 the westward march to the Jackson purchase or the Western District included prospectors, surveyors and settlers from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Middle and East Tennessee. (Historic Madison, Williams, p.27)

James Caruthers and William E. Butler, with other men, came on a keel-boat in 1819. Caruthers’s objective was to locate some of the land warrants for the University of North Carolina. Samuel Dickens , Sugars McLemore, John McLemore and Memucan Hunt Howard, partners to locate land warrants, found over 330,000 acres and were paid one-sixth of all those located. Williams writes that “all these men had dreams of riches; some realized the dreams.” (Historic Madison, Williams, p.31)

In 1819, the area that would become Madison County had its first settlement in the Cotton Gin Grove community by John Hargrove, Roderick and Duncan McIver and families. Later in 1819, John Bradberry settled near Spring Creek and Seth O. Waddell was an early settler. In 1820 surveyor Adam R. Alexander, James Porter, James Brown and William Doak established the third settlement in the western portion of the county area on the Forked Deer River. Thomas Shannon, Herndon Haralson and others came to the county before its organization in 1821. (Historic Madison, Williams, p.33)

In the following year, additional pioneers settled further west on the banks of the Forked Deer River. A land surveyor’s log cabin became the center of the activity in this area. His name was Adam R. Alexander. The County of Madison was soon formed by an act of the state legislature on November 6, 1821. In August, 1822 the Tennessee Legislature changed a proposed name of Alexandria for the county seat to Jackson in honor of Andrew Jackson. The county seat was never actually called Alexandria, but it was the first proposed name for the town.

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 of which the most important 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. More than 170 Confederate soldiers died and some Union soldiers were captured and held as prisoners in the two-story Denmark Presbyterian church. The church, built in 1854, still stands today and is open to tours.

Evidence that rail transportation would be important to Madison County began with the chartering of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad in 1848. Samuel Jackson Hays of Jackson received a contract to lay track. Financial troubles slowed the progress of the stock company. Judge Milton Brown urged the Madison County Court and citizens to levy special taxes to purchase $250,000 stock. By 1855 work had almost halted due to stockholders not paying. Judge Milton Brown was elected president of the company in 1857, and his leadership, it was felt, would quiet the dissension and bring progress. That happened. The first passenger train rolled into Jackson from Columbus, Miss. in 1858. However, during the Civil War, 1861-65, many rail lines were destroyed. The rail business had to pick up and start over.

In addition to serving the transportation needs of commercial agriculture, the railroads developed a labor base for later industrial development. Another Jackson resident, I. B. Tigrett, became president of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad which became the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio company under Tigrett. He saw to it that the main repair shop of the 3,000-mile line in Jackson. Railroads continued to dominate employment opportunities with the construction of Iselin Yard which provided jobs to machinists and others whose work didn’t involve going out on the trains, but kept them running. The legendary Illinois Central Railroad engineer Casey Jones made his home in Jackson. His house and many of his possessions are preserved at the Casey Jones Village.

The railroads made possible other employment opportunities by bringing in industry. When rumors were heard that the Bemis Bag Company of St. Louis wanted to build a cotton mill in the South, close to the raw material, a good labor source and a rail lines that could easily ship the finished product to New Orleans, St. Louis and other markets, officials with the Illinois Central Railroad wanted the industry on their line. Madison County legislative body agreed to purchase 300 acres for $6,000 and turn it over to the Bemis Bag Company to construct a 20,000-spindle cotton mill. Bemis broke ground in 1900 and the first mill was completed and spinning by June 1, 1901. Judson Moss Bemis also built worker houses on the north and south side of the mill. Bemis benefited from top-notch , nationally known urban planners and architects in designing the town. The company also provided community facilities such as a company store, recreation facilities, schools, fire protection, wide streets, sidewalks, and well-built houses for the employees and their families. By the late 1960s, the Bemis Company had sold most of the company-owned houses. The City of Jackson annexed Bemis in 1977. The Bemis Company sold the mill in 1980 and in 1991, it closed as a cotton mill.

Madison County offers a wide variety of economic, cultural and educational benefits. It is the home of Lambuth, Union University, Lane College, and Jackson State Community College. For many years, Jackson has hosted the Miss Tennessee pageant. Several musical artists have claimed Madison County as their home including, Sonny Boy Williamson, legendary blues and harmonica artist; Big Maybell, a gospel and blues recording artist; Carl Perkins, Mr. “Blue Suede Shoes”; Gail Robinson, noted opera singer. Some outstanding living musical artists include W.S. Holland, former drummer with Johnny Cash’s band; Denise LaSalle, queen of the soul blues; Laurice Lanier, Metro diva and many others. Outstanding historic figures who have called Madison County home include Howell E. Jackson, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1890s; Sue Shelton White who helped to pass the 19th amendment in Tennessee and went on to help write the Social Security law in the Roosevelt Administration. Several outstanding athletes have had their start here in Madison County including Jabari Greer, player with the New Orleans Saints who won the Super Bowl in 2010; Ed “Too” Tall Jones, played for many years with the Dallas Cowboys and helped them to win numerous championships; and Ellis Kinder, who played with the major-league Red Sox and was posthumously inducted into the Boston’s team hall of fame in 2006.

Once largely agricultural, the county’s economy now rests on a diversified industrial and commercial base. Two of the largest industrial plants include Procter & Gamble and Stanley/Black and Decker.

Jobs provided income to families and individuals, but community livability in Jackson, Pinson, Beech Bluff, Madison Hall, Bemis, Spring Creek, Malesus, Medon, Denmark, Huntersville, Three-Way, Fairview, Adair, and all the smaller communities in Madison County rates high in the lives of the citizens.


This history of Madison County was compiled by Madison County Historian Linda J. Higgins (). Former Madison County Historian contributed to the information above.