Raleigh blossomed as Shelby County seat

Bartlett-Sesq-logo-SMALL-WEEditor’s note: This series will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary this year. This is the first section of a two-part article in this series; see the second section here.

In 1796 Tennessee became the 16th state in the U.S., but the western area had not been developed as much as East Tennessee and Middle Tennessee had been. In the early 1800s, people from Virginia and the Carolinas began moving west. Because of the dense forests, many came by boat, floating down the Tennessee River to the Mississippi and settling in inlets such as the Wolf River.

One of the first white settlers that came up the Wolf River was a trapper and hunter named Tapp, who came from North Carolina in 1816. His only neighbors were the Chickasaw Indians. Others soon followed, coming across West Tennessee through the dense wilderness, clearing a trail as they went. When they settled on a piece of land, they cut down trees and brush to open fields, plow the ground and grow a crop. It was a hazardous and dangerous trip that took many months. They relied on meat from killing bears, deer and turkeys. In 1824 other families moved into the Raleigh area, and a small community emerged.

Shelby County was established in 1819, named in honor of Isaac Shelby, a Kentucky governor and Revolutionary War soldier, with a stipulation that the courts be held in Memphis. Bound on the east by Fayette County, on the north by Tipton County, on the west by the Mississippi River and on the south by the state of Mississippi, the new county covered 755 miles. The population was 364.

Also in 1819, Memphis was established by Andrew Jackson, Judge John Overton and General James Winchester, who had bought 5,000 acres of land from the U. S. government. The first Shelby County Court met in a log house, approving the building of a log courthouse, jury room and jail on Market Street at a cost of $125. Making Raleigh the county seat was the decision of a committee appointed by the state legislature to select sites for the seats of government in all the newly created counties of West Tennessee. Memphis vigorously opposed this, but a committee was formed to build a courthouse in Raleigh with an appropriation of $555 and advertise and sell lots in the town. The town was approximately in the center of the county and on the Wolf River, where people could reach it by boat and stagecoach.

The town of Raleigh was laid out in 1827, soon followed by the cutting of the road to Somerville, which became the Memphis-Somerville Road. The small community of Jessamine (later Bartlett) was founded on that road as a stagecoach stop. The road continued to Somerville and east to Nashville.

The first court sessions were in Raleigh in 1827, and the town became the county’s metropolis. Leading business firms were Abram Bayless, Jesse M. Tate, Taylor and Sanderlin, and Rawlings and Sren. Wilson. Sander-lin built and operated a saw and grist mill on the Wolf River. There were several hotels well known for the hospitality, notably one run by Tom Allen, whose wife was known as one of the best cooks in West Tennessee. An academy for boys was opened in 1829, and in 1837 the Raleigh Female Academy was built. At one time 400 students were attending both academies.

By 1834 the small frame courthouse was replaced with a two-story brick building. The old courthouse was sold, using the proceeds to build a fence around the public square. The square was the center of activity. Andrew Jackson, John Overton and John McLemore hitched their horses there many times. In 1842 a permanent jail was built with 18-inch brick walls, iron-barred cells and a dungeon. Outside was a willow tree on which the sheriff hanged criminals sentenced to death.

In 1836 Raleigh was a thriving town at the peak of its prosperity with more than 1,500 people. Except for river commerce, it was as good of a town as Memphis was. During the years the courts were in Raleigh, many lawyers practiced in other counties, some in Somerville, some in Memphis. By 1840 plank roads had been built to all important places in Tennessee and Mississippi. Lawyers often “rode the circuit” together in hacks or on horseback, and some even walked. Local history includes many stories of the practical jokes they played on each other as they relaxed after tiring days in the courtroom. O.F. Vedder said of these pioneer lawyers: “they were not all great men, but from the meagre traditions we have of them handed down from father to son, there were many who would challenge comparison … with any of this day. They read less and thought more. They grounded their cases upon elementary and eternal principles and not precedents alone, and thus preserved these principles in greater purity and simplicity.”

These were also the days of oratory. Everyone in the county would come to court to hear the attorneys plead their cases, where a lawyer’s eloquence largely influenced people’s estimate of him. He took his time and spoke to the people as well as to the court and jury.

But by 1850 Memphis had grown to a population of 40,000 because of the cotton trade, the steam-boat and the railroads. Courts were moving back there, and in 1843 a criminal court of Shelby County was established in Memphis. By 1860 it was agreed to move all of the courts to Memphis, but the Civil War delayed the move. The removal of the county seat from Raleigh to Memphis was accomplished in May 1966. The courthouse was torn down and the bricks were used for a courthouse in Bartlett that housed the circuit courts for Shelby County. The jail stood deserted for many years, but in 1908 Mr. and Mrs. John T. Willins bought the property and remodeled the jail into a home, which they named Echoes. They lived there until Mr. Willins’ death in 1964.

The Civil War ravaged the South, with land values plummeting and population dwindling, and in 1866 Raleigh lost its principal source of revenue with the removal of the courts. This created an extended state of economic depression and reduced the population to barely 300 permanent residents. But one asset remained: its spring-fed hills.

Continued next week.

Sources from the Bartlett Museum files: “I Remember Raleigh” by M. Winslow Chapman, “Along the Old Stage-coach Road, by Ellen Davies Rodgers.


Written by By Suzanne Griffith Coleman, special to the Express.