By Matt Chaney, for chaneysblog.com
Posted Wednesday, February 9, 2022
Copyright ©2022 for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, FourWallsPublishing
Around Christmas Day, 1811, the first steamboat on the Mississippi River came down to the “Third Chickasaw Bluff,” imposing limestone uplift at the Tennessee shoreline, future site of Memphis. Atop the hills, Chickasaw Indian lookouts had watched the steamer trail smoke for miles, coming round the bend from the northwest. The braves were concerned about the strange machine and resolute in their response.
Steamboat New Orleans was a model of Fulton engineering in New York, built at Pittsburgh on the Monongahela, launched down the Ohio to the Mississippi. The sleek craft was wood and iron with sky blue hull, black trim, measuring 134-feet long by 20 at beam. The steamer swept in at Third Chickasaw Bluff traveling 9 to 10 mph, bellowing smoke and sparks, and canoes sprang from both sides of the river, loaded with warriors in body paint.
Boatmen hurried about the boiler deck, tossing wood blocks in fireboxes, arming themselves, readying battle positions. The steamer had passed through major earthquakes of the New Madrid seismic zone, bobbing along a volatile river amidst enormous shocks, collapsing banks and liquefying earth. Chaos reigned at villages and clearings, where structures tumbled and people panicked. But Chickasaw war parties posed a nightmare for Easterners aboard the steamboat, and they wouldn’t pause at the bluff. The New Orleans chugged ahead of the canoes and Chickasaw braves were content enough, chasing it off.
Theater man Noah Ludlow came along a few years afterward, on a flatboat full of actors for New Orleans. The Third Chickasaw Bluff stood higher than floodwater could reach, Ludlow marveled, recording a “beautiful site for a city” that stretched “southwardly on a plane.” Another traveler described the limestone as “delightful elevation” above a vast flatland of river, marsh and timber. “The bluff begins at the mouth of Wolf River and extends south about four miles.”
In 1819 white settlers laid out a town north on the bluff which they christened Memphis, for Egypt’s ancient city of the Nile Valley. Memphis trade catered to Indian tribes of western Tennessee, whose couriers followed narrow pathways through wilderness. Merchants exchanged supplies for “ponies, beef cattle, hides, furs and peltries,” recalled early Memphis resident Thomas P. Young. “Up to 1833 the Indian trade was better than the white, their annuities mostly spent in this place.”
“We had no sawmills, no cotton gins, no lumber to be had, and to build a shanty you had to get an empty flatboat which had sold out its load of produce, break her up, and build you a house… It was along about 1830 or 1831 before we had brickyards.”
“The Indian trade held up till cotton began to come in, and then we all went for cotton. I don’t remember the year when cotton first made its appearance, but think it was about 1829, increasing every year from that date.”
American treaties “settled” Indian land claims and thousands of native people were removed west of the Mississippi, including nations of the Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks. A greater depravation continued at Memphis, human bondage, ownership and trade of slaves of African descent, driven by cotton industry. Slave auctions were conducted at Auction Square, with bidding for Afro men, women and children on the sale block, as livestock, rendering families shattered among the suffering.
Cotton, steamboats and stagecoaches keyed development of the Memphis area in the 1830s. Town population increased as business and residential districts expanded; Shelby County gained farms, villages and roads. In 1840 cotton buyers shipped 35,000 bales from Memphis, primarily to New Orleans for international markets. In 1844 Memphis shipped 100,000 bales, sending steamboats stuffed with product, piled deck upon fluffy deck. “Memphis is the largest cotton market in the interior of the country,” proclaimed the New York Tribune.
Wagons poured into Memphis from every delta direction, including ferrying across the Mississippi from Arkansas. “In those days before the advent of railroads, cotton was hauled to Memphis by ox and mule teams for a hundred miles in the interior, and in the winter season the roads were very bad,” recalled John Hallum, early resident. “I have seen many caravans of cotton wagons five miles long.” At night wagons backed up on the short Memphis riverfront, stringing southward into woods and undergrowth. Farmers felled trees and lit bonfires to last the darkness.
The clearing of “savage forest” was undertaken everywhere, creating home lots and cotton fields, and a hot sector emerged below Union Avenue, southern boundary of Memphis. Investors platted South Memphis by 1839, after departure of Indian tribes, with streets laid out on the highest points of old Chickasaw Bluff. South Memphis was “regarded as the most beautiful portion of the bluff, and the property was eagerly sought,” read an account. “All this tended to draw most of the newcomers and many of the old citizens from North Memphis.”
Stately homes multiplied along a “muddy tree-bordered lane” to be known as Beal Street, where land magnate Robertson Topp constructed his mansion and grounds. Topp, an attorney and legislator, cleared acres of wood and tangle, utilizing a mass of slaves, reportedly owning hundreds of them for his various properties. The Topp estate took three years to complete, finished by “a small army of workmen” about 1843, according to Memphis writer William McCaskill. “Every packet [boat] brought new fixtures and equipment—rosewood furniture, French mirrors, silver hinges and door knobs, shrubbery and flowers. A Creole artist was brought from New Orleans to paint the frescoes, and a landscape architect from St. Louis came to design the garden.”
Planters, cotton buyers and slave traders erected more columned mansions along the road in South Memphis. The boggy thoroughfare, west to east, extended from its river landing uphill to a high plane, then over streams and knobs for a mile, ending at Pigeon Roost Road, headed to Mississippi. “They were fabulously wealthy, as wealth went in those days,” McCaskill wrote of residents on the gilded lane. “To the south and west of Memphis stretched their great plantations, where small armies of black men toiled from sunup to sundown in the blistering heat. Their cotton, piled high on the palatial river packets which ploughed the Mississippi, found a ready market in New Orleans. The black virgin soil was rich and cheap and it gave forth a harvest of abundance.”
The term “Beal Street” did not show in any document—whether plat or map, business proposal or advertisement, news text or book—until likely 1845, when South Memphis leaders applied for incorporation with lawmakers at Nashville. No document dated earlier suggested otherwise, none located for this book. Newspaper evidence and maps from 1819 to 1846, electronically available, indicated the streets of South Memphis weren’t publicly named until filings and hearings for incorporation.
A Nashville newspaper mentioned the Beal Street landing of South Memphis in the initial week of 1846. The township act of incorporation was ratified by legislators in June, and that summer the Memphis Enquirer began designating Beal Street in advertisements. The Memphis Eagle, among news-pages available for this book, was first to mention “Beale Street,” spelled with an “e,” 1849, for a gunfight between partner cabinetmakers, both wounded. Memphis and South Memphis merged the following year, with a combined population pushing 10,000.
Robertson Topp died in 1876, his fortune wiped out by the Civil War and business failures. He left no written record or direct quote regarding origin of Beale Street, but family members said Old Topp named the thoroughfare for a military hero unknown to them. None was sure of the name’s proper spelling, either, Beal or Beale.
The Locke family of Memphis, meanwhile, declared the namesake for Beale Street was an antebellum man of business and politics, not warfare. Gardner B. Locke, an early mayor of Memphis, was county assessor and tax collector in 1845-46. Locke bought and sold South Memphis properties, becoming acquainted with William M. Beal of New Orleans, himself a Shelby County landowner planning to relocate. Beal’s reputation preceded him at Memphis as a banker, investor and cotton broker known across the South, boasting heavy contacts in Washington.
For publicity and advertising of William M. Beal, appearing in historic newspapers, his career included the following: 1828, cotton trade at New Orleans and Nashville; 1831, lawsuit victory in western Tennessee, Obion County, north of Memphis; 1837, brokerage trade in Nashville and Selma; 1838 to 1839, brokerage trade in Jackson, Miss., and Louisville; from 1838 to 1840, Beal sold “Texian Bonds” issued by the “Texian government,” speculating on U.S. annexation, and a Vicksburg bank claimed $40,000 lost in a “swindle”; 1841 to 1843, slave trade in Kentucky, Beal purchased a young “negro man named John” in Union County then resold him at Hopkinsville, within 16 months; 1841, sugar plantation listed for sale by Beal, Gulf Coast; 1841, property purchases in Tallahatchie County, Miss., where Beal had a power partner in Senator Robert J. Walker of Natchez; and, 1844, controversy of the Texas Annexation bill which, if passed, figured to reap riches for co-investors Beal and Walker, alleged the Vicksburg Whig. In 1845 the U.S. Senate confirmed Walker as Secretary of the Treasury, setting up Beal for a federal post, and meanwhile Texas was granted statehood.
Beal died in 1850 at New Orleans, succumbing of sudden “paralysis.” His demise cast “gloom over a large circle in which he had moved for so long a time,” remarked the Times-Picayune. “He had many warm friends, among whom it was our pleasure to number all the editors of this newspaper… He was a native of Georgia, and removed to this city in 1823, when quite a young man.” Beal was 40-something at death and a federal treasury official in New Orleans, appointed by President Zachary Taylor. Beal granted emancipation for at least two slaves in his will: John B. Jordan and Stephen W. Rogers, who later appeared in news as freemen.
Gardner B. Locke died in 1860 at Memphis, apparently maintaining that Beal Street, or Beale, was named for his late associate William M. Beal. A son of Locke later declared as much, Charles G. Locke, longtime business manager and copywriter for the Memphis Public Ledger. C.G. Locke was a crippled former Confederate soldier who lived with his widowed mother. Relaying local tidbits through advertising, C.G. Locke identified William M. Beal as Beale Street’s namesake, stating the entrepreneur once intended to reside in South Memphis but “failed to carry out his plans.”
“The city government and the maps of the city generally spell Beal Street with the final ‘e,’ making it Beale,” Locke wrote in 1892. “The street was named in honor of Wm. M. Beal, who was a prominent merchant of New Orleans at the time South Memphis was laid off into streets. His name was Beal and not Beale.”
Matt Chaney is compiling companion books on Southern music, tentatively titled River Shows, Jazz, Blues and Country Music and, the sequel, Rockabillies in the Missouri Delta. See the page Stories from River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta. For more information, including Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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