What’s the saying? The more things change, the more they remain the same.
As the suburban towns and cities in Shelby County begin anew their march to the ballot on establishing municipal school districts, I came across a passage about the establishment of Shelby County in John E. Harkins’ superb history of the city, “Metropolis of the American Nile.”
It seems the legislation establishing Shelby County as of May 1820 did not say where the seat of the county would be. And even then Shelby County had towns other than Memphis. In fact, it had bigger and older towns.
John Overton, one of the four founders of the city who was the most active promoter of its business and commerce, had already been to the Tennessee legislature to make his thoughts known on the new county.
They included a rejected proposal to shape Shelby County as a triangle missing much of the present county above the Wolf River. But the idea never made it past another key figure in the origins of Memphis, General James Winchester.
Overton was back in Nashville in 1822 promoting a bill the legislature passed to hold a referendum to gauge the preference for the location of the county seat with a four member commission then making the actual selection. His legislation also deleted the standard practice of locating a county seat within three miles of the geographical center of the county.
The referendum never happened. Two years later, the legislature passed a new act deleting the popular vote and moving the decision directly to the commission. The commission didn’t pick Egypt or Big Creek to the north of Memphis. They instead chose Sanderlin’s bluff which was uninhabited and about 10 miles east of Memphis. The state appointed a commission to lay out what would become Raleigh.
But Raleigh took several tries.
“When this commission failed to report back,” Harkins writes, “the state appointed still a third commission which finally completed the task. Within two years, Raleigh was laid out.”
By 1836, Raleigh was bigger and more prosperous than Memphis.
Some court functions were later shared with Memphis, according to Harkins history and Memphis suddenly began to prosper in the 1840s. But the county seat didn’t return to Memphis until the 1860s.