Beale Street in Memphis


Today, when people from across the country think of Memphis, they usually think of music, because the city has produced great musicians such as Elvis Presley, B.B. King, and W.C. Handy. But the largest city in Tennessee has a lot more to its legacy. In fact, here are a few of the more amazing historical tidbits about the history of Memphis:

Hernando de Soto
IMAGE: Library of Congress

De Soto’s “discovery”  

Many history books will tell you that on May 8, 1541, Hernando de Soto “discovered” the Mississippi River somewhere around the city of Memphis. A few interesting things about this: First of all, we don’t know exactly where along the river this happened. Secondly, European map-makers (known as cartographers) knew about the existence of the Mississippi River already – so he didn’t really “discover” the river. Finally, keep in mind that Native American tribes in the area had been using the river for centuries. 

Nevertheless, de Soto and his traveling army were extremely important because they were the first Europeans to venture so far into the American continent. Today there is a park in Memphis called De Soto Park. The park contains a monument that says de Soto stood there to see the river, although no one really knows whether this is true or not.

To learn more about de Soto, click here to be taken on a virtual tour of the De Soto National Memorial in Florida.

A map of the Spanish fort that was built in 1795 on the present-day site of Memphis.

Bluff City 

Downtown Memphis sits on a bluff that overlooks the Mississippi River (which is why one of its nicknames is "Bluff City"). Now that we all drive around in cars, it can be easy to miss this point, but if you go to downtown Memphis and look for it, you can still make out the bluff. This land contained several signs of human civilization over the years. First it was a Native American village called Chucalissa. Then it contained a French fort called Fort Assumption. Next came a Spanish fort called San Fernando de las Barrancas. 

In fact, from about 1750 until 1820 there were all sorts of disputes about who actually owned the land on which Memphis stands. Back then all of West Tennessee was generally considered Chickasaw territory, but that didn’t stop some Europeans from claiming that they owned part of it. In 1783, the government of the state of North Carolina “opened” what it claimed as its “western territory” to settlement, which means that it started selling land that it claimed to own as far west as the Mississippi River. A man named John Rice bought 5,000 acres (what is now downtown Memphis ) for 50 cents an acre. 

However, John Rice was later killed in an attack by Native Americans, and his brother later sold the land to Nashville lawyer John Overton for only 10 cents an acre. But Overton did nothing with the land until 1818, when the American government “purchased” all of what is now West Tennessee from the Chickasaw Indian Nation. Immediately thereafter, Overton partnered with two of his friends (James Winchester and General Andrew Jackson). They sent surveyors down to start laying out a town on John Rice’s old land and named it Memphis, after a city in ancient Egypt. Today you can still dig up old newspapers from 1820 that advertise the original sale of town lots in Memphis.

An early map of West Tennessee shows the locations of Memphis and Randolph.
Memphis ’ Rival 

Memphis eventually became the largest city in Tennessee, but things actually didn’t go well at first. Although the first people who moved to Memphis didn’t experience attacks from Native Americans (like the first people who moved to Nashville did), the city of Memphis was a long way from most of the civilized United States back then. Memphis grew so slowly that its original founders didn't make any money from their investment.

Memphis also had a rival city located about 40 miles upstream, where the Big Hatchee River poured into the Mississippi River. It was called Randolph, Tennessee, and in the 1830s no one was certain whether Memphis or Randolph would become the larger city. Eventually, however, Memphis got the railroad line, and emerged as the larger and more prosperous place for West Tennessee farmers to come sell their cotton for it to be sent out on boats. Union troops destroyed Randolph during the Civil War, and much of the town was never rebuilt. 

Memphis in 1871, from a sketch in Harper's magazine

When Memphis died 

Today, when you get really sick, you go to the doctor and he or she might give you a pill to help you get better. Not in the old days. Until about 80 years ago, doctors couldn’t really do much to help you when you were sick. And there were things called epidemics, when disease would spread at such a rate that many people would die. One of the worst epidemics in American history was the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, and it practically destroyed the city of Memphis.

A Harper's magazine sketch of a hospital scene during the yellow fever epidemic.

In August 1878, doctors started reporting cases of yellow fever in Memphis. Among the symptoms of the disease were fevers, chills, a yellowing of the skin, and black vomit.  

There had been yellow fever epidemics there before, and people were terrified of the disease. Within days over half of Memphis’s 45,000 citizens fled the city. About 20,000 citizens remained, and about 14,000 of them were African Americans (many of whom couldn’t leave because they didn’t have enough money to leave). 

The next few weeks would be horrible ones. Churches became makeshift hospitals. People were dying at such a pace that they couldn’t bury the dead fast enough. Most other towns in the area declared a quarantine against Memphis, which meant that no one from Memphis was allowed to visit their city (for fear that the disease would spread). 

For reasons that no one will ever understand, African Americans proved far more likely to survive yellow fever than whites. Less than 1,000 of the 14,000 blacks who stayed in Memphis died from the fever. But about 5,000 of the 6,000 whites who stayed in the city died.

The epidemic ended when the weather cooled off in October, but Memphis would never be the same. The government of the city of Memphis had to declare bankruptcy at one point; the banks and investors that had bought bonds backed by the city of Memphis were later paid 50 cents for every dollar of their investment. Meanwhile, many of the people who fled Memphis during the yellow fever never returned. The number of people who lived in Memphis would eventually start growing again in the 1880s and 1890s. But you can imagine how nervous the mere utterance of the words “yellow fever” would make them.

By the way: People didn’t know what caused yellow fever to spread back then. Today we know that the disease was spread by mosquitos. 

The Piggly Wiggly logo

Piggly Wiggly 

The rise and fall of Piggly Wiggly and its founder Clarence Saunders is one of the most bizarre American business stories of all time.  

At the time most grocery stores were owner-operated. Customers would walk in the door and give their lists to a clerk, who would retrieve their items. If the clerk had six people waiting, the customer had to wait for those in line to be served. Additionally, most grocery stores extended credit to their customers, which means they bought groceries with an IOU and then paid their bill at the end of the month or season.

This is what the shelves would have looked like at an old Piggly Wiggly store.

In 1918 Saunders started his new chain, naming it Piggly Wiggly. “It took me two hours to find a name that was ridiculous enough,” he later said. From its inception it was successful. Each store was identical, with each product in the same location in each store. The stores had one-way aisles to expedite traffic and create order. Piggly Wiggly advertised heavily. By 1922 there were 1,200 Piggly Wiggly locations in the United States, making it the largest grocery store chain in the country by far.

However, in 1923 Clarence Saunders lost control over Piggly Wiggly after a long and complicated series of events involving ownership of the company’s stock. Saunders went from being wealthy to being poor overnight. Saunders did not give up, however, and later started another grocery store chain that also became big. (It, however, went bankrupt during the Great Depression). 

Today there are still some Piggly Wiggly stores throughout the South, but they aren’t controlled out of Memphis anymore. Meanwhile Saunders’ home, the Pink Palace, is a museum. Among its many wonderful exhibits is a replica of a Piggly Wiggly store.

Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Blues 

It’s hard to explain how it was that Memphis became such a great place for music. The main thing to keep in mind, however, is that the music and people who wrote and sang it generally came from outside of the city and then moved to the city to perform it to audiences in places like Beale Street and on radio stations. It was in Memphis that people could make their living performing music.. and make their living they did. Here are the three most famous:

A statue of W.C. Handy in Memphis

* W. C. Handy – Today Memphis is rightfully known as the “Home of the Blues.” No one deserves more credit for this than W. C. Handy -- the “Father of the Blues.” 

William Christopher Handy was born in Florence, Alabama. His father was a minister who wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. But young W.C. Handy loved music, and in spite of his parents wishes set his sights on a musical career.


But it wasn’t easy. As a young man, Handy played with a minstrel show for a time, then later got a job as band leader at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville .


In 1909, Handy moved to Memphis and began leading bands on Beale Street and writing music there. Two years later he wrote a campaign song, originally called Mr. Crump for “Boss” Ed Crump of Memphis . He later re-released the song under the name Memphis Blues

Handy went on to write and publish many great blues songs such as Beale Street Blues, Yellow Dog Rag, and St. Louis Blues. In the 1920s and 1930s, a time when blues music was extremely popular, Handy was an international superstar. 

B.B. King
PHOTO: B.B. King's Blues Club

* B. B. King – Riley King was born on a plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi and began playing music on street corners when he was a boy. Then, in 1947, he hitchhiked to Memphis, which is where just about every other African-American musician was moving at that time. His big break came the next year when he played on radio station WMEM, and soon he became a regular on Beale Street restaurants and clubs. His nickname became “Blues Boy,” so he soon shortened his name to “B.B” King. 

B.B. King is not only one of the greatest blues musicians; he is also one of the hardest working. In 1956 he played 342 concerts – nearly one per day! His music is unforgettable, and today he is a member of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.

Click here to hear some of B.B. King's music.

Elvis Presley with President Richard Nixon
PHOTO: Library of Congress

Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley, a Tennessean, may have done more to change American popular culture than any other person who has ever lived.

Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1935, and his working class family moved to Memphis when he was a child. In 1954 a record producer named Sam Phillips signed him to a small recording label called Sun Records, and two years later he moved onto a much larger label called RCA. For a while it looked like Elvis might be a country star (he once appeared on the Grand Ole Opry), but his manager Colonel Tom Parker saw something different in his young star. In 1956 Presley began going on national television shows, and from that point his career skyrocketed -- to the delight of teenagers and the horror of parents.

Presley died on August 16, 1977. Every year on that day his fans still make a pilgrimage to his Memphis home, Graceland.

By the way, the best place to learn more about Memphis’ musical legacy is at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. Click here to be taken to its web site.

King speaks in Memphis
PHOTO: Wayne State University College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs

The King Assassination 

Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. You should learn what happened that week.


King was here to show support for Memphis sanitation workers who had gone on strike a couple of months earlier. The strike started in February (which meant that trash collection stopped in February). By late March it and the reaction to it had led to riots and the occupation of the city by 4,000 National Guardsmen.

The place Martin Luther King Jr. was shot

These were tense times. On the night of April 3, King made his famous speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, predicting that “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.” Click here to read a lengthy excerpt from this speech.

The next day, while he was standing on the balcony of the hotel, he was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. King’s assassination led to riots all over the United States. Click here to read an account of this tragic event from someone who was there. After his murder the city of Memphis (under pressure from President Lyndon Johnson) began working with the sanitation workers' labor union.


The Lorraine Motel, where King was killed, is today the National Civil Rights Museum. Click here for a virtual tour of it. 

More on Memphis

There is more about the city of Memphis and its history scattered throughout the Tennessee History for Kids web site.

Edward "Boss" Crump was the most powerful man in Tennessee for decades. Ida Wells was an African-American woman who launched an anti-lynching crusade in the late 1800s. Robert Church was the South's first Africa-American millionaire.

Here's a photo of the Shelby County Courthouse.
A store window on Beale Street

The Memphis Quiz 

1. (TRUE OR FALSE) Hernando de Soto was the first person to discover the Mississippi River .

2. What American president co-founded Memphis ?

3. What was the name of the West Tennessee town that rivaled Memphis in its early years?

4. What animal caused the spread of yellow fever in Memphis ?

5. What was the name of Clarence Saunders’ grocery store chain?

6. What do the letters “B.B” in B.B. King’s name stand for?

7. Why was Martin Luther King visiting Memphis in April 1968?

8. What became of the hotel where he was shot?

A steamboat on the Mississippi River in Memphis
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There are many great books on the history of Memphis and we recommend three in particular, those being:

1. Past Times: Stories of Early Memphis by Perre Magness

2. Memphis: Metropolis of the American Nile by John Harkins

3. Memphis in Black and White by Beverly G. Bond and Janann Shermann