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Development boom has complex relationship with search for signs of early-Memphis, pre-Memphis

By Published: March 25, 2019 4:00 AM CT

Guy Weaver has gone to work in advance of some of the city’s biggest construction projects.

The archaeologist and his company were excavating on the sites that became FedExForum and the headquarters of AutoZone before steel began rising from the ground.

And he knows his way around a cistern as well as the value of a deep well.

In the city’s current development boom, Weaver sees the potential to find out more about Memphis but also has concerns that once the new development is done, it’s too late to discover what it is built atop.

“This cultural resource is not renewable,” Weaver said Sunday after the latest in a series of lectures at Mallory-Neely House on the 200th anniversary of the city’s founding. “Once it’s destroyed, it’s gone.”

That includes the history of what was here before Memphis. Weaver would like to see more exploration of Chickasaw Heritage Park – the site of Native American mounds that predate the Chickasaws and other Native American nations. The area includes current plans for redevelopment.

The modern Chickasaw nation, now based in Ada, Oklahoma, also has expressed interest in recent years in a more thorough understanding of the Memphis mounds, including Chucalissa.


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“One of the big mysteries is the city on the bluff that preceded Memphis, which was a major metropolis,” Weaver said. “We need to know more about that.”

Since the Victorian Village home reopened for tours several years ago, the carriage house behind it has been where visitors buy tickets to tour the house that is part of the city’s museum system.

But this month, the museum system opened the first of its temporary exhibits with a set of 10 city and Downtown Memphis maps from the 1700s to the present.

“This is the first of many exhibits that are going to be in this space,” said Holly Jansen, the director of the city’s historic properties, which include the Magevney House further west on Adams Avenue, as well as Mallory-Neely. “We are trying to bring people back to Mallory-Neely. Repeat visitors have been a challenge here because we don’t really change anything in the house. That’s the point.”


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The lecture series continues April 28 at 4 p.m. with a talk on the history of vice in Memphis.

Along with the maps on display through the end of this year, there is a display case of items Weaver excavated in archaeological digs before FedExForum and AutoZone Park were built.

It includes bottles, broken china and a gun.

Weaver walked a group of 40 through the excavations he’s been a part of since the 1970s, the artifacts found and what they tell us about Memphis.

He’s found evidence of the walls of Fort Pickering, the original fort and the later version, and traced its borders. 

Weaver told those at the carriage house that the cobblestone river landing is the only one of its kind in America and perhaps the world. He prepared a preservation plan for the city of Memphis.

“And the city has been pretty careful in following that plan,” he said. “But with the new development that’s going on down there on the riverfront, we need to make sure that people are considering the impact of those world-class cultural resources.”

The Memphis River Parks Partnership applied in February for a $6.3 million construction permit to begin the long-delayed restoration of the cobblestones with state grant money.


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The restoration includes some new development to allow access to the river at varying levels. It has been delayed for years because of strict standards for renovating the rail crossings on the other side of Riverside Drive.

Weaver’s estimate is that there are about 900,000 paving stones and that the landing people see today once stretched well north to take in what is now Mississippi River Park and the area near the Pyramid. There were three major building periods from 1859 to 1870 with nine types of stones used that were laid in 12 patterns.

“The section that is exposed now is still much larger than any other exposed portion of cobblestones … up and down the Mississippi River,” Weaver said.

In 2000, he and his company excavated a part of the cobblestones as the Riverwalk portion above the cobblestones between Union and Beale was about to be built.

He not only found more details about the cobblestones, Weaver also found what was there before the cobblestones – an area he described as “mucky” with lots of shoes lost in the muck by those coming to and from the river.

“There’s cultural material underneath,” he said. “There’s a lot of be learned and we need to get a really good clear picture so we can preserve it in the best way possible.”

The excavations and digs are combined with source material including maps and even newspaper advertisements to form a more complete picture of what the artifacts mean.

An 1858 map of Memphis, one of the 10 maps in the current exhibit, shows the streets of Hopefield, the settlement directly across the river from Memphis on what is now the Arkansas flood plain.

The centerpiece of Hopefield is a railroad depot before there were bridges across the river, when trains were ferried across the river.


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The southern part of the 1858 map shows the streets of Hopefield – Hopefield, Crittenden, North Depot, South Depot, Fulton and Granada avenues running north to south in the grid.

Front Street is at the river’s edge, then 2nd through 10th streets run from the river’s edge to the west with Fooy Avenue being the westernmost street.

The open land north of the street grid marked as “Winchester and Overton tracts” – a reference to the families of two of the Memphis founders – James Winchester and John Overton.

Judge Benjamin Fooy, the 18th-century representative of the Spanish government when the area was under the control of Spain and later the U.S. administrator of the Louisiana Purchase land from the French, also owned land on both sides of the river.

The first lot conveyed by the city’s founders on May 22, 1819, the date considered the city’s founding, went to Fooy – lot 32 on the southeast corner of Winchester and Front , now beneath the Interstate 40 overpass and across Winchester from what is today the Memphis Cook Convention Center.

Fooy died three years later and his home in Hopefield fell into the river about the time the 1858 map was published.

The place where the Wolf River meets the Mississippi River in Memphis also changed several times, along with an eddy where flatboats navigating the river on southbound journeys used to stop at the Memphis landing. When the position of the eddy changed, the landing site changed – moving farther south.

Hopefield was one of several rivals to Memphis in its early years, according to John M. Keating’s 1888 “History of the City of Memphis, Tennessee.”

“After his (Fooy’s) death, it became the resort of the most vicious and despicable classes, because of the inability of the citizens to cope with them,” Keating wrote.

Weaver said there has been a archaeological survey of the area that could include “Esperanza” – the fort Spain built across the river from Memphis in 1797 after abandoning a partially built Fort San Fernando in Memphis. Esperanza is Spanish for hope.

“It was the hub of very early settlers before the founding of Memphis,” Weaver said of Hopefield. “If you go across Interstate 40 and look down when the conditions are right, you will see some dark areas down in the fields before you get to the levee. Because of sedimentation, a lot of that could be preserved. But it may be 10, 15, 20 feet under sediment.”

The site of Hopefield has been mentioned as a possible place to be developed on the Delta Regional River Park’s existing five-mile set of trails on the flood plain.

<strong>The Civil War site of Fort Pickering shown on a map of Memphis commissioned by Union Gen.&nbsp; William T. Sherman is one of 10 maps on display through the end of this year in the carriage house at the Mallory-Neely House.</strong> (Bill Dries/Daily Memphian)

The Civil War site of Fort Pickering shown on a map of Memphis commissioned by Union Gen.  William T. Sherman is one of 10 maps on display through the end of this year in the carriage house at the Mallory-Neely House. (Bill Dries/Daily Memphian)

<strong>The first changing exhibit in the carriage house of the Mallory-Neely House is a set of 10 maps of Memphis from 1743 to the present,&nbsp; as well as artifacts from excavations of the areas where FedExForum and AutoZone headquarters now stand.</strong> (Bill Dries/Daily Memphian)&nbsp;

The first changing exhibit in the carriage house of the Mallory-Neely House is a set of 10 maps of Memphis from 1743 to the present,  as well as artifacts from excavations of the areas where FedExForum and AutoZone headquarters now stand. (Bill Dries/Daily Memphian) 

<strong>"One of the big mysteries is the city on the bluff that preceded Memphis," archaeologist Guy Weaver said Sunday after a talk at the Mallory-Neely House as part of city bicentennial lecture series.</strong> (Bill Dries/Daily Memphian)&nbsp;

"One of the big mysteries is the city on the bluff that preceded Memphis," archaeologist Guy Weaver said Sunday after a talk at the Mallory-Neely House as part of city bicentennial lecture series. (Bill Dries/Daily Memphian) 

Topics

Memphis@200 Mallory-Neely House Guy Weaver Holly Jansen
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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