Andrew Jackson and the founding of Memphis

Andrew Jackson et al., [Manuscript plat detailing division of a 5000-acre tract in Shelby County, Tennessee, including a plot assigned to Jackson.] [Shelby County, TN, ca. 1836.]
Manuscript in ink and watercolor on wove paper, with some later pencil annotations, 7 ½”h x 11”w at sheet edge.

A remarkable plat detailing divisions of a large tract along the Mississippi River, owned by Andrew Jackson and his close associates and forming the heart of modern-day Memphis, Tennessee.

The text below the survey identifies the tract as “Grant No. 283 for 5000 acres granted by North Carolina to John Rice.” Located on the east bank of the Mississippi River just below the mouth of the Wolf River, it was purchased in 1783 by Rice from the State of North Carolina (which controlled the territory until 1790). The tract was an extraordinary acquisition, as the location was arguably the single most promising spot along the Mississippi between the mouth of the Ohio and Natchez:

“The place was described as being the only site for a town of any magnitude on the Mississippi River between the mouth of the Ohio and Natchez, no other place on either side being sufficiently high and dry, level and extensive and the country back of it was seen to be comparatively elevated, level and dry, of great extent and well drained, well adapted to the growth of blue and herd grass and clover and to cotton, corn, wheat and tobacco.” (Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee, p. 865)

After Rice died in 1791, his heirs sold the tract to John Overton in 1794 for $500. Overton divided the tract with his close friend and business partner, Andrew Jackson, who subsequently divided his share with General James Winchester, probably around 1818. At the time of the original grant to Rice in 1783 and the subsequent divisions between Overton, Jackson and Winchester, the land was still under the control of the Chickasaw Indians, and there was little the trio could do to develop the site. In 1819 however, the Chickasaw finally ceded the territory, and the three lost no time in laying out the future city of Memphis on a “Town Reserve” along the Mississippi, encompassing the 1500 westernmost acres of the parcel (The original plan may be viewed here.) Sales of land in the new city began in 1822. Also in 1822 the three men agreed to a subdivision of the remaining 3500 acres into a total of eight parcels, four owned by Overton, three by Winchester and one by Jackson. By the time he assumed the Presidency in 1828, Jackson had sold his share to one John McLemore.

The 1822 subdivision of 3500 acres was surveyed by Deputy Surveyor William Lawrence, whose work is recorded on this plat. The area covered is roughly four by two miles and includes the heart of modern-day Memphis, bordered on the south by Union Avenue, on the east by East Parkway North, and on the north by Vollontine Avenue, with the Mississippi to the west. The plat indicates the boundaries of each of the eight parcels, as well as the owner and acreage of each, while to the west is the 1500-acre Town Reserve that would become the historic core of downtown. Reflecting later land sales, several of the parcels are redrawn in watercolor accompanied by pencil annotations. A southward-pointing arrow indicates the flow of the Mississippi, what appears to be Mud Island and the Wolf River Lagoon appear at the far northwestern corner of the survey.

The plat is accompanied by the following text:

“We agree to the above division of part of Grant number 283 for 5,000 acres granted by North Carolina to John Rice agreeably to the names undersigned as above in each section of subdivision having balloted for the same and relinquished accompanying and further agree that Mr. William Lawrence shall as nearly may be run out the sections or subdivisions to exact in the number of acres marked above making the lines corners and then the number of acres of marked above marking the lines, corners, etc.”

This text is followed by the names of Jackson, Overton and Winchester, all executed in the same hand.

The plat is endorsed on the verso, “State of Ten / Shelby co. copy, / “The within plat & division together with the certificates were duly recorded in Book E. page 319” / AB Taylor R[egister]S[helby] C[ounty].” Register Abram B. Taylor was a native of Wilson County, Tennessee, who served with Jackson in the War of 1812 and moved to Shelby County around 1833. In 1848-49 he served as mayor of South Memphis, and from 1852-54 he was mayor of the consolidated city of Memphis. From Registry records we know the plat was recorded by Taylor in Book E on June 8, 1836, from which I derive the approximate date this copy was drawn up. Why the plat was entered so long after the 1822 division agreement, I cannot say. Nor can I venture the purpose for which this particular copy was made.

Lingering questions notwithstanding, a remarkable artifact linking Andrew Jackson and the early history of Memphis.

Goodspeed Publishing Co., A History of Tennessee from the Earliest Times to the Present (1886-87). J.M. Keating, History of the City of Memphis, (1888). Samuel Gordon Heiskell and John Sevier, Andrew Jackson and Early Tennessee History (1920). Memphis Trust Company, A Brief Sketch of the Overton Family and the John Rice Grant (1904).  Many thanks to Terry Thompson of Memphis, who provided considerable research assistance.


Mild toning, vertical centerfold, upper edge unevenly trimmed, and minor chipping & dog-earing to lower edge.