Hardeman County has been no stranger to significant historical events. The treaty with the Chickasaws that opened West Tennessee for settlement was signed on October 19, 1818, by Isaac Shelby and Andrew Jackson. Settlers began to arrive in 1819; among the first were Ezekiel Polk, grandfather of President James Polk and author of a now-famous epitaph, and War of 1812 veteran Colonel Thomas Hardeman who became the first county clerk and for whom the county was named. Rapid settlement occurred thereafter, with new arrivals coming from North and South Carolina, Virginia, northern Alabama, and Middle Tennessee.
Hardeman County was officially opened to settlers in 1820. In 1823, the first hamlet in Hardeman County was established along the banks of the river whose name the village bore, Hatchie Town. Given its location near the river, the town suffered from chronic pestilence and flooding and was ultimately relocated a mile to the south. An Act of the Tennessee State Legislature on October 18, 1825 designated Hatchie the county seat, but shortly afterward, its name was changed to Bolivar in honor of the famed South American patriot and liberator, Simon Bolivar. By the year 1830, ten mills were in operation on the banks of the Hatchie River and its tributaries, including three on Spring Creek, two on Clear Creek, (an offshoot of Clover Creek) and others on Pleasant Run Creek, Porter’s Creek, Piney Creek and Mill Creek. Many of the early mills also served as river ports and settlers entering the county often settled and formed communities that later became the towns still thriving in the county. Other settlers pushed inward, forming strong communities that banded together to fend off the bands of fierce Chickasaw warriors remaining in the wilderness. These warriors were reported to have been some of the finest and fiercest warriors in America.
As a result of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy, the Cherokee Nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and resettle in the Oklahoma Territory. Bolivar and Hardeman County paid witness to the resulting “Trail of Tears” on November 16, 1838 when a detachment of the tribe, under the direction of John Bell, crossed the Hatchie River near the old stage road. The party continued westward and crossed into Arkansas on November 24, 1838. Facing disease and privation from the long forced march, more than one quarter of the Cherokee Nation perished during this tragedy.
As a significant commercial thoroughfare in the 1830s and 1840s, the Hatchie River supported an active steamboat-based trade which brought wares manufactured in the north into the classic homes being built during the period. Some well-preserved examples of furniture are still located at The Pillars, the home of one-time cotton and retail magnate John Houston Bills.
Hardeman County was the scene of bitter fighting during the War Between the States, as was much of west Tennessee. Most notably, the Battle of Hatchie Bridge (also called Davis Bridge and Metamora Hill) on October 5, 1862, which resulted in an estimated 900 total casualties (US 500; CS 400). Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn retreated from Corinth, MS on October 4, 1862 but Union Major General William S. Rosecrans did not send forces in pursuit until the morning of October 5th. Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord, commanding a detachment of Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, was, pursuant to orders, advancing on Corinth to assist Rosecrans. On the night of October 4-5, he camped near Pocahontas. Between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. the next morning, his force encountered Union Maj. Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut’s 4th Division, District of Jackson, in the Confederates’ front. Ord took command of the now-combined Union forces and pushed Van Dorn’s advanced element, Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s Army of the West, back about five miles to the Hatchie River and across Davis Bridge. After accomplishing this, Ord was wounded in the ankle and Hurlbut assumed command. While Price’s men were hotly engaged with Ord’s force, Van Dorn’s scouts looked for and found another crossing of the Hatchie River. Van Dorn then led his army back to Holly Springs. Grant ordered Rosecrans to abandon the pursuit. Ord had forced Price to retreat, but the Confederates escaped capture or destruction. Although they should have done so, Rosecrans’s army had failed to capture or destroy Van Dorn’s force. It was the final engagement of the Iuka-Corinth Campaign of the American Civil War.
Another key piece of Civil War history includes the Battle of Middleburg. The Battle of Middleburg occurred on August 30, 1862 when Confereate General Frank C. Armstrong rode north from Holly Springs, Mississippi, to raid Federal supply lines in West Tennessee. Armstrong engaged a Union brigade commanded by Colonel Mortimer Leggett, and following a day-long battle featuring one of the few saber engagements between Union and Confederate cavalry forces, the Union troops retreated. The Confederates continued their foray northward until two days later when they were halted at the Battle of Britton Lane. The only marker denoting the battle site is on Tennessee Highway 18, south of Bolivar.
Thanks to an excellent reference book, Tennessee’s Civil War Battlefields: A Guide to Their History and Preservation, authored by Hardeman County resident and educator, Randy Bishop, extensive information about these two battles is readily available.
Contraband Camps were found in Union-occupied portions of the Confederacy. In these camps men, women, and children who were previously enslaved gained the protection of the Union Army. The first Contraband Camp was established in Grand Junction by John Eaton. The Union Army was largely unprepared to effectively manage the number of refugees that their successes on the battlefield brought. Refugees endured extremely difficult circumstances that included overcrowding, clothing shortages, food shortages, unsanitary conditions, and ceaseless danger. These circumstances influenced the progress of emancipation and were a driving force behind the Congressional creation of the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands.
Though much of downtown Bolivar was burned to the ground during the war, many pre-bellum homes still stand and mark Bolivar as an important destination for tourists who delight in close-hand inspection of the timeless architecture. Thanks to the restoration efforts of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, numerous examples of homes built by famed Philadelphia designer Fletcher Sloan, are open for viewing during the APTA’s Historic Homes Tour.
Although many of these originally settled communities vanished, their legacies have survived for years through their schools, churches, and cemeteries. In 1935 eighty-two schools remained as testament to these communities, one of which was the Allen-White School. Despite being unincorporated, the spirit of these communities remains strong.
The Cloverport Community on Highway 138, north of Toone, was established as a settlement before 1810, beside a port on Clover Creek where boats traveling up the Creek from the Hatchie River would unload their cargo. Cloverport settlers operated a variety of mills, including a mule-drawn sorghum mill. The community had one of the first steam-operated cotton gins. Several businesses in the area have remained in operation for more than 100 years, including Hooper Lumber Company. Five homes, built around the turn-of-the-century remain in Cloverport, including the Jim Little House, the J.M. Pipkin House, the McCauley House, the Chapman House and the McKissack House.
Essary Springs was established on the banks of the Hatchie River, south of Pocahontas, just below the Davis Bridge Battleground. The community was named for a mineral spring, thought to have medicinal powers, located on the farm of a pioneer family named Essary. The community had two general stores, a hotel, a boarding house, post office, and school. Hundreds made journeys to the picturesque springs each year for medicinal purposes. In 1888, resident A.G Freed and D.S. Nelms established the Freed School, the predecessor of Freed-Hardeman College, which is now Freed-Hardeman University. Part of the old school is still in use today as the Essary Springs Church of Christ.
The settlement of Middleburg dates to 1825. It is located on Highway 18, 7 miles south of Bolivar, on the site of the old stage route between Bolivar and LaGrange. Middleburg incorporated in 1860, at which time the city limits extended outward more than a mile from its present location to include six large plantations, more than 20 businesses, several churches, taverns, a hotel, a school, and a number of doctors.
During the Civil War in 1862, southern sympathizers burned the town shortly before it was captured by the 12th Michigan Infantry to prevent occupation by the north. It never recovered its former prominence.
Today, two Middleburg Baptist churches, several turn-of-the-century homes, old cemeteries, and the century-old Lax Country Store are all that remain of the once illustrious community.
The community of New Castle dates to the 1820’s when the Bowers plantation (later owned by the Chapleau’s) was established at the intersection of Somerville and Newcastle Roads in west central Hardeman County and the 12,000-acre Oscar Polk plantation was established on Hickory Valley Road. Both plantation houses still exist in the community and are beautifully restored. The town of New Castle sprang up approximately two miles north of these plantations after J.J. Polk opened a store in the area during the 1840’s. The store, as well as the town, was destroyed by a tornado in 1909. Wilson Well Company sits on the Polk Store site today. In addition to its businesses and churches, New Castle had academies for both boys and girls.
Pine Top/Piney Grove
Prior to 1850, eighty farms bordered Piney Creek, in the beautiful hills of northeastern Hardeman County. The settlement thrived as Piney Grove until 1877, when a post office was established near Piney Grove Baptist Church and the community became known as Pine Top. A natural ground cover of wild peas and rich river bottom soil throughout the area supported the farming community. The farms were renowned for the high quality of their meat and produce. The goods of Piney were in such demand, that in 1877, a group of Toone businessmen paid for the building of a nine-mile road between the two communities to help the farmers transport their products across the Hatchie River bottom. Piney also had a clay pipe and two jug factories that shipped wares to markets in Brownsville.
The community of Rogers Springs is located in a heavily forested hilly area in the southern portion of Hardeman County, several miles east of Saulsbury off of Highway 57. It has been known by a variety of names through the years, including “Sixty-Four” (for it’s distance from Memphis on the railroad), “U-Bet”, “Needmore”, and “Hollywood”, but is best known as the first tourist attraction in the county. In the 1890’s, Gator Rogers purchased a farm just south of the community and constructed the Rustic Inn, an old log hotel, on a hillside above a reputedly medicinal spring. Rogers built a pavilion and bathing area in the spring and drew Memphians to his farm by staging elaborate balls and events at the Inn. Tourists came by train for years to bathe in the springs. The town was later named Rogers Springs in his honor. The Rustic Inn remained, largely untouched, with its original furnishings until the 1980’s, when it burned to the ground after being struck by lightning. Jessie James is rumored to have stayed there briefly. In addition to the Inn, Rogers Springs had three general merchandise stores, two cotton gins, and a full-time agent at the railroad depot. Today, the private lake community of Rogers Springs Lake is the biggest attraction in the area.
An old iron railroad bridge across the Hatchie River in District 12. which is located in central Hardeman County, is virtually all that is left of the community of Serles. In addition to the bridge, three original houses, a small store, and several barns are still standing. Serles grew briefly around the turn of the century, after the Gulf Mobile Railroad and Northern Railroad extended tracks through the area and built the iron bridge across the river in 1918. Shortly thereafter, the Morgan-Hitchcock Company of Jackson, purchased the land by the bridge for its timber. The company built a number of small houses and a larger boarding house as living quarters for their lumber crews and dug an artesian well in the center of town to supply fresh water for the community. A grocery store, a post office, and a one-room schoolhouse were also constructed. Large shipments of timber were transported by rail from the area. Wagon wheel spokes, made of red and white oak, were manufactures at Serles and shipped around the country. American Holly trees were harvested for use in making spindles for mills.
In the 1820’s settlers moving into Hardeman County crossed the Hatchie River by ferry a half-mile south of Hatchie Town, in an area that was once a trading post and ceremonial meeting grounds for the Choctaw Indians. After a Dutch family established a trading post at the ferry crossing, settlers established a community in the area they named Vildo. The Vildo settlement was later moved away from the river because of the prevalence of malaria and other mosquito-born diseases. In the 1900’s, the railroad built tracks in the area and Vildo was developed into town lots. In its prime, the community contained more than 40 homes, 9 stores, a gristmill, a sawmill, a cotton gin, a school, a stockyard, and five physicians. Residents exported native American Holly all over the country during the Christmas season. Vildo was also known for its traveling baseball team, prior to WWI. Little remains of the once thriving community today.
Library and Genealogical Research Center
Respected as one of the state of Tennessee’s best resources for genealogy research, the Bolivar-Hardeman County Library Genealogy Room offers extraordinary holdings for finding ancestors. Featuring thousands of volumes of published genealogy resources and records, the Genealogy Room is also one of the most visited. Guests utilize bound resources, internet sites, and other historical records to find accurate information about their family histories. The collection holds hard-to-find records for African-American and American Indian genealogy.