Thursday, March 07, 1996

Land Grants Gave Rise to Memphis

Commercial Appeal
By Perre Magness

For many years before Tennessee became a state in 1796, North Carolina had been issuing grants in the western lands across the Appalachians.

For 10 pounds for every 100 acres, the speculator-controlled government of North Carolina sold lands that no federal court would have said had clear title. The state had no legal right to sell the land before the Chickasaw Cession of 1819, because the Chickasaws were the legal claimants to the land between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. Nevertheless, the claims were later recognized as legal.

Two of the earliest purchasers were John Rice and John Ramsey (or Ramsay), who received adjoining grants of 5,000 acres each on the Mississippi River at the Chickasaw Bluff. They paid about 5 cents an acre.

Rice moved from North Carolina to Nashville, and was killed by Indians while transporting goods on the Cumberland River in 1791. His brother Elisha Rice sold the grant for $500 to John Overton and his partners in land speculation - Andrew Jackson and the Winchester brothers - in 1794. On the bluff, the town of Memphis was laid out in 1819, after Jackson negotiated the Chickasaw Cession.

John Ramsey's grant bordered Rice's to the south.

John Ramsey was one of three Ramsey brothers living in Chatham County, N.C., at the time of the Revolutionary War. They were descendents of William Ramsey, a native of Scotland who settled in Virginia.

Ambrose Ramsey was a member of the General Assembly of North Carolina from 1777 to 1788, was commissioned a colonel in the North Carolina troops in 1775 and became a brigadier general in the Revolutionary War. Matthew Ramsey was a captain, and John Ramsey served as private in the Continental Army.

John Ramsey married Elizabeth Birdsong, a widow with one son. Together they had one son, John A. Ramsey, and six daughters: Lydia, who married Archibald McBryde; Fanny, who married John Tyson; Nancy (or Ann), who married Philip Alston; Mary, who married David Reid; Jane, who married Rev. Murdoch McMillan; and Sally, who married Thomas McCarroll.

Sometime between 1820 and 1830, four of the daughters, with their husbands and families, moved to West Tennessee and settled in Madison County in the Denmark neighborhood. Jane Ramsey Murdoch's family moved to Memphis. Sally Ramsey McCarroll's family settled in Marshall County, Miss., near Holly Springs.

John Ramsey died in 1801. In his will, he left his land to be divided equally among his children. He directed his executors to sell his claim to lands on the Chickasaw Bluff "should they think it most prudent to do so for the benefit of my children."

Some of the tract on the Mississippi was sold to John Overton. Delayed by red tape, the deed was issued on May 10, 1823, showing that Overton owned one-seventh, or a little more than 714 acres, and the Ramsey heirs owned six-sevenths, or a little more than 4,285.5 acres.

Nancy Alston sold her interest to John P. Smith in 1818. Abner Pillow purchased another interest. John C. McLemore purchased the interests of two of the Ramsey heirs. By 1837, the land was partitioned. The town of South Memphis was laid out on part of the Ramsey grant in 1840, and was incorporated in 1846. South Memphis was absorbed into Memphis three years later.

To the south of South Memphis (also on the Ramsey grant), McLemore founded the town of Fort Pickering in 1840.

Ramsey's only son, John A. Ramsey, never married and remained in Chatham County, N.C. As Memphis grew, he saw a good thing. In 1844, he arrived in Memphis and announced that he intended to sue for the recovery of South Memphis. He alleged that his father never parted with his interest in the grant during his lifetime, and that if any conveyance was done, it was done fraudulently by an executor.

Robertson Topp was one of the trustees and chief landowners in South Memphis. He was not going to take Ramsey's claim quietly. Calling Ramsey "a simpleminded young rascal," he said that the land had been conveyed several times, each legally recorded. On Dec. 29, 1844, he stated, "If young Mr. Ramsey does not immediately write a letter to the public removing the false impressions he has created, I will take steps to prevent his reckless course."

Topp was right. Unfortunately for the Ramsey heirs, they had sold their claims on the bluff too soon.

Sources: Gerald Capers, The Biography of a River Town (1966). John E. Harkins, Metropolis of the American Nile (Guild Bindery Press, 1982). J. M. Keating, History of the City of Memphis (Syracuse, N.Y. D. Mason & Co., 1888, reprinted 1977). J. P.Young, Standard History of Memphis (Knoxville: H. W. Crew & Co. 1912). Information from the John Ramsey McCarroll family.

A map from The Biography of a River Town shows early land grants of what would become the city of Memphis. Dotted lines show some familiar present-day landmarks, such as Overton Park, the Mid-South Fairgrounds and other sites.

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