This piece was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
One of the most perplexing and discouraging realities the modern world confronts us with is a disconnection from our past and the past in general. We are separated from the first European settlers of West Tennessee by just less than 200 years, but we have less in common with those ancestors than they themselves would have had with the Ancient Greeks or Romans. Time is a relative construction in this sense, just like it is in physics. Not all time is equal or the same, and for us two centuries is a vaster expanse than two millennia was for them. This statement has no value attached to it. It’s not an argument that our modern views and understanding are either better or worse than those possessed by our great, great, great-grandparents, or those possessed by Julius Caesar, Tacitus, Thucydides, or Xenophon. It is merely an observation that the worlds inhabited by these had more in common with each other than ours does with either. The speed at which they traveled and viewed the world and their close and constant proximity to death are just two fundamental ways that our worlds have been drastically separated. Therefore an attempt to understand the world of the first white settlers in West Tennessee is in many ways only slightly less of an effort than that of trying to understand the world of the Greeks or Romans. Those first settlers had a reason for the things they did, and if we want to understand why they made even the most fundamental of decisions we will need to make do the hard work necessary to bridge the gap those two centuries created. The answer, the river, flows through the middle of our city.
If I asked why our town is here, what would you answer? My current high school students would jokingly answer “Geography!” because of my emphasis in many history, literature, and even Latin lessons over the years of this overlooked area. If you want to understand why something happened in earlier times, the ground often has as much of an influence in decisions as human factors. The location of our city is no different.
Water, that all-important life-giver, is at the hub of the answer. We pass over the Forked Deer River hundreds—maybe even thousands—of times each year. Our disregard for this most fundamental feature of our topographical environment extends even to our pronunciation. Look at the word “Forked.” It’s monosyllabic, but we turn it into a polysyllabic oddity. The oldest parts of the city sit on a rise of land located on the northern edge of the more than mile-wide valley that holds the Forked Deer River. But what does the river have to do with the building of the city? Did they need its water for drinking, or was it for crops? This might be a common perception, but the truth is that the river’s importance lies almost 500 miles away near the mouth of the Mississippi River in the city of New Orleans—a place that was part of the United States for only twenty years at the time Jackson was founded. What made Jackson come to be was using the river as a source of transportation. Before there were railroads or roads, there was the river. And Jackson is situated at the furthest navigable point up the Forked Deer River.
I know you’re thinking, “Navigable by what? A canoe?” But the answer is surprisingly a lot bigger than a canoe. Before the railroads arrived in Jackson in the decade before the Civil War, almost all major transportation was done on the Forked Deer River. Even after the railroads, traffic on the river continued to such a degree that the river was proving to be dangerous to navigate because the number of old boats lost in the river threatened and hindered the safety of the boats still using the river. Almost $100,000 was appropriated by the State of Tennessee to clear the West Tennessee rivers of these obstructions. But what exactly were these boats that were doing all this transporting? There were two types of vessels: flatboats and paddle-wheeled steamboats. Once again, I sense your incredulity. I have seen riverboats, and there is no way that one of those ever came up the Forked Deer River. Well, you are both right and wrong.
Yes, one of the boats you are thinking of never made it up the Forked Deer River; boats like the SS. Natchez, the fastest steam powered paddleboat currently operating on the Mississippi, are over 250 feet long and almost fifty feet wide and draw six feet of water. A boat of these dimensions could never have made it to Jackson. But smaller vessels with lengths of around fifty feet, ten-foot beams, and drafts of one to two feet could and did easily make it up the river to Jackson during the spring and fall when the level of the river rose. They brought all sorts of luxuries from Memphis, New Orleans, and beyond, not just taking goods away to market like the flatboats which could obviously only travel one way.
The small size of the boats is not the only extenuating factor that made the Forked Deer River navigable. The river itself has changed drastically, especially in the last fifty years when both the Forked Deer and Obion Rivers were dredged and channeled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Both of the processes vastly changed the size and nature of the river. The size of the river was diminished by both the deepening and straightening of the channel allowed the water flow more quickly. The Hatchie River, located just south of Jackson, was preserved unchanged and gives a good feel of what the Forked Deer River must have been like, with its much wider and deeper steam and twisting, turning shape. It is easy to image flatboats like the ones that plied the rivers of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys slowly being poled down such a river, like Abraham Lincoln did beginning on the Sangamon River in Illinois—a river no bigger than the Forked Deer.
We have become disconnected from the land. I don’t mean in an agricultural sense, although that is true as well. I mean that we are separated from a sense of the way that the land moves, flows, rises, and falls around us. We pass over the earth at tremendous speed and cross what would have been vast distances with the twist of a wrist and the slight inflection of a foot. Obstacles that stood in the way of previous generations, we traverse without thought. We are detached from the earth in other ways, too. Our ability to change, sculpt, and transform the very earth has never been greater. Power over a thing often has not a salutary effect on the holder of the power. Our interest and concern for things are often inversely proportional to our power over them. This is an unfortunate fact about our nature but is nevertheless often true. These two truths together mean that both our interaction with topography and our desire to understand it are diminished nearly to the point of virtual nonexistence, but this does not have to be the case. With a little time and effort, we are able to see past our own time back into the past—our past—and understand why our city is here.
Kevin Vailes teaches whatever they ask him at the Augustine School in Jackson, though if he had his choice he would spend his time ruminating on the intricate complexities of the classical world and trying to get his Latin students to study their vocabulary. Kevin grew up in and around Jackson and went to Union University where he met his best friend and wife Elizabeth. They live in the Jackson’s historic LANA neighborhood in a 100+ year-old bungalow with their five children. He believes that stories are what bind us together and cause us to love and care for something, and he hopes that in sharing Jackson’s stories with you, you will fall in love with Jackson and care about it too.