WHAT THE PROPRIETORS SAW
With the convention center, trolley, and now the FedExForum almost finished, how strange that the next big proposed downtown project hinges on interpretation of a document written in 1828, when wild bears and Indians roamed the town.
The Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) wants to remake downtown's front door or promenade by replacing some public buildings and parking garages with an apartment building and an office building up to 40 stories tall. Over half of the promenade would remain public park, sidewalks, or open space. A group called Friends of the Riverfront opposes the plan.
In 20 years of writing about downtown, I have heard numerous references to the city founders and "the heirs" and the founders' bequest that created the promenade between Front Street and the Mud Island parking garage. But until last week I had never looked at the original document itself or a copy of it. It was long past time to check the original sources.
So I visited the Shelby County Archives, where archivist John Dougan dug into the Shelby County Register's Office deed book of 1828 and produced a handwritten copy. The problem was that some of the writing was hard to decipher and some was illegible. A trip to the Memphis Room at the Central Library, however, turned up a transcription in J.M. Keating's History of the City of Memphis and Shelby County
, published in 1888.
Memphis was founded in 1819 -- a date that splits the difference between the appointment of commissioners for the Chickasaw Treaty in 1818 and the opening of a land office on the bluff in 1820. The names to remember are Overton, McLemore, and Winchester. John Overton was a judge. Marcus Winchester was the first mayor. And John McLemore was, according to historians, one of the most influential and enlightened men of his day. Together they were known as "the proprietors" of the land on which Memphis was founded.
What happened between 1819 and 1828 is relevant and instructive to what is happening today with the RDC and the riverfront.
Charles Crawford, professor of history at the University of Memphis, says the proprietors were "hardheaded, realistic businessmen." But they did a remarkable thing. They dedicated a web of squares, alleys, streets, and the promenade to public use while keeping the rights to operate a ferry or two at the waterfront.
Crawford agrees with Keating's judgment that "Up to that time (1820) no scheme, plan, or plat had ever been made for an American city on so generous a scale. Every emergency in the life of a leading commercial point was provided for."
So, did the early citizens of Memphis rise up in gratitude and call them blessed? No.
"The people of Memphis were opposed to the proprietors and did everything they could to hinder and hamper them," wrote Keating in 1888. One sore point was the promenade and access to the river. Someone cut a road through it to the river, then another, dividing the promenade into three parts.
In 1828, Judge Overton wrote a letter to William Lawrence and Winchester expressing his concern about the division of the promenade. He complained about the "great want of appreciation of the liberality of the proprietors in laying out the town" and suggested his critics were "stupid." Imagine a public official talking that way.
The proprietors, "having been informed that doubts have arisen in relation to their original intention," decided to restate their vision and file it in the record books. The language is a little cumbersome but worth quoting since it is likely to come up in public meetings, City Council sessions, and maybe even another court case:
"In relation to the piece of ground laid off and called the `Promenade,' said proprietors say that it was their original intention, is now, and forever will be, that the same should be public ground for such use only as the word imports, to which heretofore, by their acts, for that purpose, it was conceived all right was relinquished for themselves, their heirs, etc., and it is hereby expressly declared, in conformity with such intention, that we for ourselves, heirs and assigns, forever relinquish all claims to the same piece of ground called the `Promenade,' for the purpose above mentioned." (The entire document can be seen below
It was 1828. No one contemplated that bridges would some day be built across the river, much less the arenas and condominiums that followed.
Today, one thing Memphis arguably lacks is a skyline and Front Street worthy of its blufftop location. For better or worse, the vision of the proprietors is responsible for that. n
ADDENDUM: This is a transcript of the document filed in 1828 in the Shelby County Registers Office that establishes the public Promenade in downtown Memphis.
1. The undersigned properties of the land on which the town of Memphis has been laid off, having been informed that doubts have arisen in relation to their original intention concerning the same, for the purpose of removing such doubts, do hereby make known and declare the following as their original and unequivocal designs and intentions in relation thereto:
First. All the ground laid off in said town as streets or alleys, we do say that it was always our intention that the same should forever remain as public streets and alleys, subject to the same rules and regulations as all streets and alleys in towns or cities, forever obligating ourselves, heirs or assigns, and by these presents, we do bind ourselves, our heirs, etc., that the above streets and alleys shall continue eastwardly as far as lots are laid off, and the streets, though not the alleys, as far east as Bayou Gayoso, agreeably to the last survey and sale.
Second. In relation to the ground laid off in said town as public squares, viz: Court, Exchange, Market and Auction Squares, it was the intention of the proprietors that they should forever remain as public grounds, not subject to private appropriation, but public uses only, according to the import of the above expressions, Court, Exchange, Market and Auction Squares.
Third. In relation to the piece of ground laid off and caled the Promenade, said proprietors say that it was their original intention, is now, and forever will be, that the same should be public ground for such use only as the word imports, to which heretofore, by their acts, for that purpose, it was conceived all right was relinquished for themselves, their heirs, etc., and it is hereby expressly declared, in conformity with such intention, that we, for ourselves, heirs and assigns, forever relinquish all claims to the same piece of ground caled the Promenade, for the purpose above mentioned. But nothing herein contained as to the Promenade shall bar the twon from authorising one or more ferries to be kept by the proprietors, their heirs or assigns, opposite said Promenade and the mouth of any of the cross-streets on Mississippi Row.
Fourth. In relation to the ground lying between the western boundary of the lots from No. 1 to 24 inclusive, and the same line continued in a direct course to the south bank of the Bayou Gayoso and the eastern margin of Wolf and Mississippi Rivers, and between Jackson street extended to the river and the said south bank of the bayou, it was the original intention of the proprietors that there should, on said ground, forever be a landing or landings for public purposes of navigation or trade, and that the same should be forever enjoyed for those purposes, obligatory on ourselves, heirs and assigns; but all other rights not inconsistent with the above public rights incident to me soil, it never was the intention of the proprietors to part with, such as keeping a ferry or ferries on any of the public ground, an exclusive right which they always held sacred, and never intended to part with in whole or in part.
Fifth. The first block of ground lying east of lots Nos. 329 and 330 and north of Poplar street, being 148 1/2 feet square, having heretofore been used as a public burying-place, the same is hereby given, granted and conveyed forever to the town of Memphis, provided the practice of burying henceforward cease therein.
Sixth. Inasmuch as they have been advised that it is the general wish of the citizens of the town that the public burying-place should be so moved out of the town, and being applied to by the corporation of Memphis for the purchase of four acres of ground on the Second Bayou for a burying-ground, in consideration of their desire to furnish said town of Memphis with every convenience which it wants, whether natural, sacred or commercial may require, they do hereby give, grant, bargain and sell forever to the citizens of the town of Memphis, and all their heirs and assigns forever, for a public burying-ground, subject to such regulations as to them may appear requisite, the following described lots of ground, viz. : Beginning at a black gum on the south bank of the Second Bayou; thence south twelve degrees east twenty poles seven and a half links to a stake, with white oak and a black oak pointers; thence south seventy-eight degrees west thirty poles to a stake, with a black gum pointer; thence north twelve degrees west twenty poles seven and a half links to a black oak on the bank of the Bayou, a gum and beech pointers near the mouth of a small ravine; thence up the south bank of the Second Bayou to the beginning, containing four acres, and including the present burying-ground; and they further declare and acknowledge that there shall forever be kept open a right of way not less than twenty feet wide from some point on the Alabama road, as it now runs opposite to the grave-yard, directly to it.
In witness whereof, we have hereunto set our hands and seals this 18th September, 1828.
Jno. Overton, [seal.]
One of the proprietors. Jno. C. McLemore, [seal.]
Geo. Winchester, [seal.]
Wm. Winchester, [seal.]
Surviving Owner by M. B. Winchester, Special Agent and Attorney in fact.
Witness: Rich. S. Williams,
Wm. Lawrence, M. B.