A century ago, on July 31, 1915, a group of Arkansas militiamen raided a camp of bootleggers and other lawbreakers on what was then known as Island 37 on the Mississippi River. Sam Mauldin, sheriff of Mississippi County, Arkansas, was killed in the raid. The criminal case that came out of the incident brought to light the problems created by a border dispute between Arkansas and Tennessee.
Not long after this incident, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case called State of Arkansas v. State of Tennessee. This is one of several times that questions about Tennessee’s western boundary have made it to the high court.
A few years ago, with the help of historian and surveyor Bart Crattie, I wrote columns about Tennessee’s southern and northern boundaries. The main point of each article was that the boundaries are not exactly where they were originally intended to be (35 degrees north on one side; 36 degrees, 30 minutes north on the other) because of human error. The surveyors who originally laid out the boundaries used crude equipment and worked under difficult conditions. They did their best, and their errors are understandable.
As for the western boundary, surely this is simple, right? Tennessee’s western boundary is the Mississippi River, correct?
Tennessee’s western boundary is not where the Mississippi River is today. Over the years, the river has moved, causing confusion among the states of Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri about exactly where the boundaries lie.
Under the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court, the western border of Tennessee cannot be moved because of geographic changes caused by the movement of the river. Therefore, Tennessee’s boundary with Arkansas lies where we think the main channel of the Mississippi River was in 1836, when Arkansas became a state. Tennessee’s boundary with Missouri is where the river was when Missouri became a state in 1821.
Like so many historic topics, the short summary is not nearly as interesting as the details. All the way from Lake County to Shelby County, there are stories and even legends about places where the river has moved. The best source of this material is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers book called “Historic Names and Places of the Lower Mississippi River” by Marion Bragg.
Here are some of these tales, starting in the north and moving south:
There is a part of Kentucky known as Kentucky Bend that is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and one side by Lake County, Tennessee. Few people live there today. But Mark Twain, in his book “Life on the Mississippi,” described a feud between two families who lived there and attended the same church. “Half the church and half the aisle was in Kentucky, the other half in Tennessee,” he wrote. “Sundays you’d see the families drive up, all in their Sunday clothes, men, women, and children, and fill up the aisle, and set down, quiet and orderly, one lot on the Tennessee side of the church and the other on the Kentucky side.”
Moving downstream, the Lake County seat of Tiptonville used to be located along the river (at about mile 873 on the river, using the numeric system that starts at the Gulf of Mexico). But the river has moved. Now Tiptonville is more than a mile from the river.
Further south in Tipton County is a bend in the river known as Little Prairie Bend. Because of erosion, the bend isn’t shaped the way it once was. However, it was here, in the winter of 1820-21, that artist John James Audubon shot and killed the bald eagle he illustrated in his monumental work “Birds of America.”
Moving south, there formerly was a river town called Ashport at about mile 796, in present-day Lauderdale County. It had “several small warehouses and a big steam-powered sawmill,” Bragg wrote. However, the river eventually washed most of the original 200-acre town away.
Downstream and around the bend from Ashport is Plum Point, once considered one of the most dangerous places on the river. “A multitude of snags, half-concealed tree trunks, and sandbars gave even the most adventurous pilot cold chills, and the currents that foamed around the point were enough to frighten a timid flatboatman half to death,” Bragg wrote. Over the years, the Army Corps of Engineers has made Plum Point safe for boats.
Just downstream from Plum Point was once a Confederate fort called Fort Pillow. As history buffs will tell you, Fort Pillow fell to Confederate cavalry led by Nathan Bedford Forrest in April 1862 in one of the Civil War’s most controversial battles. Since then, the Mississippi has moved so much that today you can hardly see the river from Fort Pillow State Historic Park.
Continuing southward, the river passes the former site of the town of Randolph at about mile 771. I have written extensively about Randolph on the Tennessee History for Kids website (under “virtual tours”). Randolph may be the most interesting ghost town in the Volunteer State. It once rivaled Memphis to become Tennessee’s premier city on the Mississippi River but declined because of (among other things) a shifting of the river current. Once big enough to have a hotel and a newspaper, Randolph now consists of little more than a few houses and a historic marker.
Just downstream and across the river from the former site of Randolph is the community of Reverie. Due to the movement of the river, this Tipton County town has the distinction of being the most populous Tennessee community on the west side of the Mississippi River. It is such a long drive to the rest of the county that the state of Tennessee pays Arkansas to educate Reverie’s children.
Continuing southward, there are many places in Tipton and Shelby counties where the river has “straightened itself” over the years, leaving much Tennessee land west of the river. One of these places is Centennial Cutoff, named for the fact that the river made the shift during a single day in the year 1876. Centennial Cutoff removed a bend in the river that was called “Devil’s Elbow” and created a new island, Island 37. Because of confusion about which state owned the island, it became a harbor for lawbreakers, which is why the Arkansas militia raided the island in July 1915. In the 1918 case known as State of Arkansas v. State of Tennessee, the Supreme Court ruled that the piece of land then known as Island 37 was still part of Tennessee. Today the river has completely shifted to the east side of what was once known as Island 37; the land is attached to the Arkansas side but still part of Tennessee.
The saddest story associated with the movement of the Mississippi River comes from the Sultana disaster. In April 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded just north of Memphis, killing as many as 1,800 people in the deadliest maritime accident in American history. Most of the victims were U.S. Army soldiers on their way home from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps.
Memphis attorney and historian Jerry Potter has spent many years researching the Sultana disaster and writing the book “The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster.” His study led him to ask whatever became of the wreckage of the Sultana. As it turns out, the Mississippi River upstream of Memphis had changed course. The place where the Sultana exploded and sank is now in Arkansas.
In 1982, Potter found riverboat parts on the former location of the river on the Arkansas side. Using metal detectors, he determined that there was a very large object buried about 30 feet below the surface of the earth. However, the land is so close to the Mississippi River that it would be very difficult and expensive to dig there.
“While I’m about 90 percent certain that we found the Sultana, I’m not 100 percent sure,” Potter says.
The remains of the deadliest shipwreck in American history, therefore, lie under a farmer’s field in Arkansas.