History of Reelfoot Lake and Lake County


The Earthquake | The Legend| Read The Legend | Davy Crockett | Civil War Lore | The Nightriders | General Cates | Reelfoot A Natural's Paradise | Other Known, Interesting Facts |


When you look across the waters of Reelfoot Lake, can you picture in your mind's eye that this entire countryside was once a dense woodland, pierced only by Indian trails and crudely constructed roads.

You stand on the threshold of one of America's historic sites, the land of Irvin S. Cobb's "Eighth Wonder of the World." It was only 35 years after the Declaration of Idependence was written that this young Nation began to hear reports that a catastrophe had occurred in the Mississippi Valley and a great lake had been formed in the Indian country.

The New Madrid Earthquake is rated to exceed the intensity of the Great Alaskan Earthquake of a few years ago. Our earthquake rivals the greatest quakes of history: Scicily, Lisbon, Caracas, Yokohoma, Tokyo, San Francisco, Valparaiso. Few people lived in the Reelfoot area in 1811-12 or the death rate would have been staggering.


The Earthquake

Spasms and convulsions rocked North and South America late in 1811. The force of the shock was centered in the Reelfoot Lake area, which was then a huge cypress forest. On Dec. 16 the earth's surface rose and sank and the bottom of the nearby Mississippi River went crazy, the river turned around and flowed backward, and poured into a hissing abyss.

Huge landslides and tangled forests slid down the bluffs, and more than 15,000 acres of forest land sank beneath the level of the river. As the land subsided the water poured over in a deluge and filled the basin to a depth of 20 feet.

Practically every variety of fish known from Yellowstone to Pennsylvania was swept into the basin. Cypress trees and willow fourished, but other trees under deep water died. Naked trunks remained and one of the world's greatest natural fish hatcheries resulted.

It was inevitable that the story of a lake with such a violent origin, surrounded by so much mystery, should be handed down from generation to generation in a colorful legend.


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The Legend |

The lake is named for a clubfooted Indian Chief of the Chickasaw Tribe. The chief is blamed in legend for the earthquake that caused the lake. Chief Reelfoot was in love with an Indian maiden who lived further south along the Mississippi River. She repulsed his offer of marriage because of Reelfoot's club foot. In revenge, he set out with some of his braves in canoes, raided her father's camp at night and kidnapped the girl.

Medicine men bitterly disapproved of Reelfoot's act and predicted it would bring disaster to his people. Their predictions were fulfilled, the legend says by the earthquake which wiped out the tribe and formed the lake.

As colorful as this legend may be, a young frontiersman who stood tall in the annals of history from Tennessee to the Alamo was soon to make a name for himself at Reelfoot.


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Davy Crockett

Histroical records show that Davy Crockett hunted in the "land of the shakes" during the early 1830's. Hungry animals and waterfowl which moved into the Reelfoot area made this a wildlife preserve of importance. He killed many bears (108 in a single year. Crockett said in his autobiography), and also killed deer for winter meat supply, and other animals for their pelts. He made camp on Bluebank Bayou which runs behind Cypress Point Motel. Crockett the frontiersman, Indian fighter and Congressman is well remembered. He has a church (Crockett Chapel Methodist), a town (Crockett Mills) and a county named after him in this vicinity. The cabin where he lived is near Rutherford, Tennessee, about an hours drive from Reelfoot Lake on highway 45W.

Col. Crockett went off to Texas to fight and die at the Alamo with Jim Bowie and Col. William Travis in 1836.

A greater conflict than Crockett ever dreamed of lay ahead, and the country would be plunged in a great civil war in 1861.


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Civil War Lore

The Reelfoot area is rich in Civil War lore and history. Battles raged across fields now under cultivation. Minnie balls, cannon shell and similar items are plowed up from time to time. Upriver at Columbus, Ky., a huge chain was forged and placed across the river to block the Union fleet -- a futile effort. Ten thousand soldiers of the Conferderate Army surrendered at Tiptonville. The important Battle of Island No. 10 was fought eight miles north of Tiptonville.

The war ended and the soldiers returned home. A peaceful heritage still was not theirs at tempestuous Reelfoot. A new kind of terror broke out -- The Nightriders -- in 1907.


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The Nightriders

The 23,000 arces that submerged to form Reelfoot now comprise a lake 15 miles long and seven miles across at the greatest width. Conceived in turmoil and violence, Reelfoot country was to know more trouble in the form of the Nightriders, in 1907-09. The states of North Carolina and Tennessee had issued grants covering the Reelfoot Lake area long before there was any lake. When the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811 covered the land, owners of these lands beneath the lake claimed exclusive rights to the waters above. Settlers who came to the banks of Reelfoot Lake considered the lake free to all who cared to use it. When their livelihood was threatened, the settlers were ready to defend it. Natives formed a Nightrider organization. Criminal elements crept into the group.

Their deeds became more daring and brutal. The West Tennessee Land Company represented the land owners. The Nightriders fought for the settlers. More than 100 crimes were charged to the Nightriders. A land company lawyer, Col. R. Z. Taylor, escaped into the swamps. More than 30 shots were fired after Taylor and he was presumed dead. Two days later Taylor emerged from the swamps and was hidden by friends. Eventually, eight Nightriders were tried for murder and 300 were indicted on various charges. The state finally dropped the cases because it could not prosecute successfully.

World War I was approaching and the Nation would soon hear of another Tennessean who came from Reelfoot country.


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General Cates

(From 96th Company, 6th Marine Regiment History). A young lieutenant reported one day in July of 1918 at Soissons: "I am in an old abandoned French trench ... I have only two men left out of my company and 20 out of other companies ... I have no one on my left and only a few on my right. I will hold." When a relief outfit crawled in through the wire and shell holes the next day, it found Cates clad chiefly in helmet and pistol. His pants had been blown off. But Clifton B. Cates "did hold."

In 30 years from Soissons to Shanghai, Cates earned 29 decorations and now the pants he wore were those of a four-star General. He fought through 10 campaigns and led the first big Marine victory in the Pacific (Guadalcanal). He became the 19th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps (1948-1952). He was the first and only four-star Marine General from Tennessee. He was born in Lake County, Tennessee, not far from Reelfoot Lake. He hunted and fished the lake's bayous and cypress groves as a boy. General Cates died June 4, 1970.


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Reelfoot A Natural's Paradise

Lake County, which borders Reelfoot Lake, has no rocks, no streams, except man-made ones, and no hills; hence the saying by old timers that Lake County has no rocks, no rills, and no hills.

Since the mid 1930's Karl H. Maslowski, nationally known photographer and naturalist, of Cincinnati has done more to put Reelffot Lake on the map than any other individual. He has written and illustrated dozens of articles and produced several motion pictures about Reelfoot. A lecture film, "Earthquake Lake", has been shown at least 1,000 times in the U.S. and Cananda. "Secrets of Mystery Lake" was purchased and shown by Walt Disney in theatres in the United States and Europe and was televised on Disney's Mickey Mouse Theatre as a serial.

Malowski regards Cranetown in Big Ronaldson Slough as the most attractive "bird city" in the world. At least a thousand pairs of birds, including anhingas, cormorants, great blue herons, and common egrets nested in the crowns of cypress trees, some more than 100 feet tall.

His award winning column, "NATURALIST AFIELD", has been a regular Sunday feature of The Cincinnati Enquirer for three decades, and his illustrated articles on wildlife conservation and travel have appeared in publications all over the world. His illustrated lectures have been featured on all prominent courses throughout the U.S. and Canada for twenty five years. The National Audubon Society has used him as one of their Screen Tour speakers for a quarter century, and he has been a board member of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History for years.


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Other Known, Interesting Facts

The first store in the original town of Tiptonville was built by William Tipton in 1857. The town was rebuilt twice, and subsequently became known as a "town on wheels." Federal gun boats destroyed the business district in the Civil War. After it was rebuilt, the Mississippi river swallowed up the stores, and the town had had to be moved again. The old business district now far out in the river, was about 1 1/2 miles from the present site. All this was before the levees were built and the U.S. Engineers "harnessed Old Man River."


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Courtesy of Cypress Point Motel, Tiptonville, Tennessee



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