November 18th, 2010
Some places let you know right away that significant things happened there, that significant people stood where you're standing. A sign didn't tell you. In fact, the places I'm talking about send you in search of a sign, a message, so that the feeling you're having will be justified by facts.
You know the feeling, the one where you turn to someone with you and ask, "Did you feel that?"
As published in The Daily News, November 19, 2010, and in The Memphis News, November 20-21, 2010
STAND HERE. SEE HUNDREDS OF YEARS.
He stood here centuries ago. Atop his ceremonial mound, his fortress center, he surveyed his world. The centuries have altered that view, but the majestic, sweeping turn of the great river before him must have commanded his eye as it commands ours today. Life and death for his people would come from that river, and he could literally see it coming from here.
He was the great Chief Chisca of the Chickasaws.
Another stood here, or very close to here, in May of 1541 and saw the Mississippi for the first time powerfully churning beneath the Chickasaw Bluffs, and for the first time understood why it was called, "the father of waters."
He was Hernando DeSoto.
French explorers stood here and built the first European structure in 1682, a simple cabin, to house them while they searched for a lost member of their expedition. The French built Fort Assumption here in 1739, hence the name of the neighborhood just east today, French Fort.
Fort Pickering stood here, built in 1801 and named after Washington's Secretary of War. In 1809, the commandant of Fort Pickering would greet Lewis and Clark as they passed this way. In that same year, an English traveler would write of his visit and tell of the cordial relationship between garrison soldiers and Chickasaw warriors, and of a party hosted by the commandant ending with the guests asleep on the floor beneath the tables. The founding of Memphis was still a decade away.
The commandant was Zachary Taylor, later the 12th president of the United States.
A battery stood here during the Civil War. After Memphis fell to Union forces in 1862, the all-but-gone Fort Pickering was rebuilt. They hollowed out Chisca's mound behind the battery and used it as an armory and powder magazine. The stone cannon mounts are still there on top, the bowl in the center, and a bricked-up, crypt-like entry Edgar Allan Poe would be proud of leads to chambers below from the side of the mound.
As you stand here today, looking west to the river, the National Ornamental Metal Museum is to your right, one of our unique treasures and precious metal indeed to our reputation for rare finds. It was claimed from the buildings of the U.S. Marine Hospital, the stately, ghostly remains of which still stand, long empty, eerily beckoning, and subject of another column.
Here is Chisca's mound, one of two in DeSoto Park – 11 acres and the epicenter of this region's history for undetermined centuries. No one knows how old these mounds are and you have to work very hard to figure out where you are. Signs are rarer than Chickasaw arrowheads.
Go and stand here. You will feel the past beneath your feet. You will see our most magnificent view of the Mississippi. And because it will probably be just you in this quiet, reflective place, don't think you're alone.
They're all here.
I’m a Memphian, and I've seen where the city's coming from.