Memphis is a city in the southwestern corner of the U.S. state of Tennessee, and the county seat of Shelby County. The city is located on the 4th Chickasaw Bluff, south of the confluence of the Wolf and Mississippi rivers.
Memphis had a population of 655,155 in 2012, making it the largest city in the state of Tennessee, the largest city on the Mississippi River, the third largest in the Southeastern United States, and the 20th largest in the United States. The greater Memphis metropolitan area, including adjacent counties in Mississippi and Arkansas, had a 2010 population of 1,316,100. This makes Memphis the second-largest metropolitan area in Tennessee, surpassed only by metropolitan Nashville. Memphis is the youngest of Tennessee's major cities. A resident of Memphis is referred to as a Memphian, and the Memphis region is known, particularly to media outlets, as "Memphis & The Mid-South".
Because it occupies a substantial bluff rising from the Mississippi River, the site of Memphis is a natural location for human settlement. The area was first settled by the Mississippian Culture and then by the historic Chickasaw Indian tribe. European exploration came later, beginning in the 16th century with Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and French explorers led by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.
In 1795 the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, acquired land for a fort from the Chickasaw. Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas was built in the summer of 1795 on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff, just south of the Wolf River. It gave Spain control of navigation on the Mississippi River in the region, but they abandoned it after Spain ceded the territory to the United States under Pinckney's Treaty. The Spanish dismantled the fort, shipping its lumber and iron to their other locations in Arkansas.
In 1796, the site became the westernmost point of the newly admitted state of Tennessee, located in the Southwest United States. Captain Isaac Guion led an American force down the Ohio River to claim the land, arriving on July 20, 1797. By this time, the Spanish had departed. The fort's ruins went unnoticed twenty years later when Memphis was laid out as a city.
The European-American city of Memphis was founded on May 22, 1819 (incorporated December 19, 1826) by John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson. They named it after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile River. Memphis developed as a transportation center in the 19th century because of its flood-free location high above the Mississippi River. Located in the low-lying delta region along the river, its outlying areas were developed as cotton plantations, and the city became a major cotton market and brokerage center.
The cotton economy of the antebellum South depended on the forced labor of large numbers of African-American slaves, and Memphis became a major slave market. Through the early 19th century, one million slaves were transported to newly developed plantation areas from the Upper South, in a huge forced migration. Many were transported along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. In 1857, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad was completed, connecting the Atlantic Coast and this major Mississippi River port; it was the only east-west railroad constructed across the southern states prior to the Civil War.
The city's demographics changed dramatically in the 1850s and 1860s. Due to increased immigration since the 1840s, ethnic Irish made up 9.9 percent of the population in 1850, but 23.2 percent in 1860. They had encountered considerable discrimination but by 1860, they constituted most of the police force, and had gained many elected and patronage positions in city government, including the mayor's office.
Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861, and Memphis briefly became a Confederate stronghold. Union ironclad gunboats captured the city in the naval Battle of Memphis on June 6, 1862, and the city and state were occupied by the Union Army for the duration of the war. The Union Army commanders allowed the city to maintain its civil government during most of this period but excluded Confederate veterans from office, which shifted dynamics in the city. As Memphis was used as a Union supply base, associated with Fort Pickering, it continued to prosper economically throughout the war. Meanwhile, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest harassed Union forces in the area.
The presence of the Union Army attracted many fugitive slaves to the city; they sought protection behind Union lines, and contraband camps were set up to accommodate them. The black population of Memphis increased from 3,000 in 1860 to nearly 20,000 in 1865. The rapid demographic changes, added to the stress of war and occupation, and uncertainty about who was in charge, resulted in growing tensions between the Irish policemen and black Union soldiers following the war. In early May 1866 the Memphis Riot erupted, in which white mobs made up of policemen, firemen and mostly ethnic Irish attacked and killed black men, women and children, wounding many more, and severely damaged black settlements: houses, churches and schools, in South Memphis in three days of rioting. Many blacks permanently fled Memphis after the riot, especially as the Freedmen's Bureau continued to have difficulty in protecting them. Their population fell to about 15,000 by 1870.
In Memphis, unlike disturbances in some other cities, ex-Confederate veterans were generally not part of the attacks against blacks. The outrages of the riot in Memphis and a similar one in New Orleans in September (the latter included Confederate veterans) resulted in support outside the South for Congress to pass the Reconstruction Act and the Fourteenth Amendment.
In the 1870s, a series of yellow fever epidemics devastated Memphis, with the disease being carried by river passengers along the waterways. The worst outbreak, in 1878, reduced the population by nearly 75%, as many people died or fled the city permanently. Property tax revenues collapsed, and the city could not make payments on its municipal debts. As a result, Memphis temporarily lost its city charter and was a taxing district from 1878–1893. The city was rechartered in 1893.
From the 1910s to the 1950s, Memphis was a place of machine politics under the direction of E. H. "Boss" Crump. During the Crump era, Memphis developed an extensive network of parks and public works as part of the national City Beautiful movement. Determined never to suffer plagues again, it rebuilt with meticulous sanitation and drainage. The city government did not encourage heavy industry and allowed Mr. Crump's censor to ban movies.
During the 1960s, the city was at the center of civil rights issues, notably a city sanitation workers' strike for living wages and better working conditions. They had been marching to gain awareness of their plight and had met with resistance. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to lend his support to the workers' cause. He stayed at the Lorraine Motel in the city, where he was assassinated by a sniper on April 4, 1968, the day after giving his prophetic I've Been to the Mountaintop speech at the Mason Temple.
Looting and rioting from grief and rage began quickly in the city after news spread of King's murder. The governor ordered Tennessee National Guardsmen into the city within hours, while small, roving bands of rioters continued to be active. In 1970, the Census Bureau reported Memphis' population as 60.8% white and 38.9% black. Suburbanization drew off wealthier residents to newer housing in the suburbs, and the city developed a majority-black population, with a majority-white metropolitan area.
Memphis is well known for its cultural contributions to the identity of the American South. Many renowned musicians grew up in and around Memphis and moved from the Mississippi Delta. These included such musical greats as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, W. C. Handy, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. Jones, Eric Gales, Al Green, Alex Chilton, Justin Timberlake, Three 6 Mafia, The Sylvers, Jay Reatard and many others. Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis.