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 672,277 in 2011 making it the largest city in the state of Tennessee, 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, which has overtaken Memphis in recent years. 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 settlement. The area was first settled by the Mississippian Culture and then by the Chickasaw Indian tribe. For 10,000 years they occupied the bluffs along the river, building a large mound on the bluff. 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 until 1797 when it was abandoned in keeping with Pinckney's Treaty. The fort was dismantled, its lumber and iron shipped away. Its ruins went unnoticed when Memphis was laid out twenty years later.
The land comprising present-day Memphis remained in a largely unorganized territory throughout most of the 18th century. In 1796, the site became the westernmost point of the newly admitted state of Tennessee, located in the Southwest United States.
Memphis was founded in 1819 by John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson. The city was named 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.
As the cotton economy of the antebellum South depended on the forced labor of large numbers of African-American slaves, Memphis became a major slave market. In 1857, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad was completed, the only east-west railroad across the southern states prior to the Civil War.
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 remained under Union control for the duration of the war. Memphis became a Union supply base and continued to prosper throughout the war. Meanwhile, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest harassed Union forces in the area.
In the 1870s, a series of yellow fever epidemics devastated Memphis. 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. However, it 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 sanitation workers' strike. The Lorraine Motel in the city was also the venue of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, the day after giving his prophetic I've Been to the Mountaintop speech at the Mason Temple. In 1970, the Census Bureau reported Memphis' population as 60.8% white and 38.9% black.
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, Al Green, Alex Chilton, Justin Timberlake, Three 6 Mafia, The Sylvers, Jay Reatard and many others.