A Brief History of Shelby County

Overton, Winchester, Jackson, Goodlett and Sanderlin. To many Shelby County residents, these are merely the names of streets, highways or districts.

But before their names became part of geography, John Overton, Marcus Winchester, Andrew Jackson, J.H. Goodlett, and Wilson Sanderlin were pioneers who created the social, economic, educational and governmental paths Shelby County residents still travel. These early settlers were the mayors, public officials and landowners whose contributions literally put Shelby County on the map.
The first Shelby County Quarterly Court, forerunner of today's Board of Commissioners, convened on May 1, 1820, and established governmental functions for a new wilderness county that still exists today in an urban government with a $650 million budget.

Shelby County was carved out of Chickasaw Indian hunting grounds. This land was purchased, along with the rest of western Tennessee, by the United States for a total of $300,000. Shelby County was drawn onto Tennessee maps on November 24, 1819, by an act of the state General Assembly.

Named for the first governor of Kentucky and Revolutionary War hero Isaac Shelby, the county's first government was appointed by the General Assembly. The five-man Quarterly Court was called into session in a log cabin near Main and Winchester in the raucous river settlement of Memphis.
That first Quarterly Court began working immediately to see that Shelby County Government preserved the peace, recorded deeds and decisions, helped the underprivileged, built roads, and collected taxes or fees to support government functions.

The court's first action was to commission a survey of the new county. Three years later and at a cost of $142.50, the surveyors reported the county contained 625 square miles. While population was harder to pin down, it was generally accepted that the new county had between 250 and 350 people. Today Shelby County is 784 square miles with a population of more than 850,000.
After deciding on a survey, the court quickly moved to build the first county road -- from Memphis to the county line in the direction of the "Taylor's Mill settlement on Forked Deer River." While the exact location is unknown, historians estimate that the first Shelby County road headed somewhere between present-day Dyersburg and Jackson, Tennessee. Shelby County today has built and maintains 1,400 miles of roads.

The first court of 1820 levied a property tax -- 6 and 1/4 cents per 100 acres of land -- so the poor could be helped -- an act that began the county's commitment to the disadvantaged. The only assistance given to the homeless and helpless in those days was room, board and a place to be buried with dignity. The minutes show that the court members set up a "Poor Commission" in 1821 to "inquire into the status of the poor and report back at the next meeting."

Today, the county still strives to assist the poor in finding food, housing and burial services, but it has also expanded into child care, employment, medical services and many other areas designed to break the cycle of poverty. For example, Shelby County Government distributes more than $2.5 million in food commodities each month using a distribution system that serves as a model for the nation. Elderly citizens who need nursing home care are assisted by the county, too -- more than 600 beds have been provided.

During that first court session, the pioneering legislators of Shelby County granted a ferry license. Today, Shelby County offers training to dozens of rivermen and women and works to protect the waterways, ports and bridges on the Mississippi and its tributaries.

The first court, acting to protect the population, set a bounty for animal pelts. Troublesome wolves, for example, paid $3. Today, county officials pass ordinances to ensure the safety of the people.

Today's Shelby County high-rise government buildings and regular County Commission meetings would have amazed those early court members. Shunning the log cabin built for court business, those legislators often went to someone's home for a meeting, got no quorum, and returned home without getting anything accomplished.

In 1827, Shelby County government moved into a small frame building outside Memphis in a town they named Raleigh as a favor to the first circuit clerk of Shelby County, who had moved from North Carolina and wanted to honor his native state. It is uncertain why Shelby County government moved to Raleigh, but in 1868 the county seat was brought back to Memphis.

During the Civil War years, the court members appointed a general commander of the home guard and authorized the guard to be furnished with arms and ammunition. Each home guard member was paid $10 per month for the service and that pay came from a special tax levied "for military purposes." Shelby County furnished at least 53 full companies of men to the Confederacy -- about 6,000 men -- at a time when the voting population was about that number.

After the War Between the States began, the court took $7,000 from the courthouse fund to support Confederate soldiers and their children. Today, Shelby County assists veterans of military service in obtaining more than $8 million in benefits each year.

From 1862 to 1864 -- roughly the years of the Civil War -- the Quarterly Court did not meet. But when it did resume, it seemed to be efficiency-minded. The Quarterly Court voted that no lawyer or any other person could speak twice on any subject unless in explanation and then only for five minutes. Today's county commissioners, whose meetings often last for hours, might wish its forums were so regulated.

For reasons now obscured but probably related to the county's general support of the Confederacy, the court was abolished during the administration of William Brownlow, who was Tennessee's governor from 1865-1869. It was replaced by a five-man commission in 1868, but the court refused to die. A year later it was reestablished.

By 1870, one of the needs addressed by the Quarterly Court was the education of Shelby County youngsters. The first Shelby County-funded school opened in January 1871, and after five months of operation, the trustee for the school reported spending $554.20. Expansion of Shelby County education was slow because the public didn't seem to care -- plus there just wasn't room for all of the students when they did show up for school.

After 1870 and until the advent of the E.H. Crump era in politics in about 1910, information about county government is hard to come by. However, just prior to 1911, the membership of the court had grown to 50 men. Apparently the membership was tied to the population or the political strength of each settlement or town.

In 1911, legendary political boss, E.H. Crump of Memphis, secured several changes in county government, starting with a reduction in the number of members on the Quarterly Court. The number of civil districts was reduced from 19 to seven and limits were placed on the rights of towns to elect members. The actual number of districts wavered over the decades, but by 1965, it seemed to have settled at nine.

In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark Tennessee case that federal courts have the legal power over state legislative apportionment. And in 1964, a federal court issued a landmark decision ordering Tennessee to redraw legislative lines. Following this judicial lead, the legislature directed the Shelby County Court makeup to be apportioned in line with the population.

About this time the role of court chairman grew in importance, particularly in areas of finance and accounting. As a result, executive authority in the county was split between the office of the chairman and the three commissioners.

Concerned about this fuzzy line of authority, county government drew up a bill presented to the Tennessee Legislature which clearly outlined responsibilities for county government. That bill, which passed on March 21, 1974, restructured county government into its present form. Shelby County voters approved the change in a referendum in August 1974.

On Jan. 1, 1976, the position of commissioner was abolished as an executive job and the county's first mayor, Roy Nixon, took office. He was followed by William N. Morris, Jr., who was elected in 1978, 1982, 1986, and 1990. He was followed by Mayor Jim Rout who was elected in 1994,1998. He was followed by Mayor AC Wharton who was elected in 2002, 2006.  He was followed by Mayor Mark H. Luttrell, Jr., who was elected in 2010, 2014 and the current Mayor Lee Harris was elected in 2018.

Shelby County Government is like its various homes -- the shell changes but never the purpose. It began small in a log house and then a log courthouse serving a small community. Later, a growing Shelby County forced the government into larger quarters at the Overton Hotel on Poplar and Main.

And as the needs of its residents increased, Shelby County's government moved into a courthouse occupying an entire city block in downtown Memphis. This $1.6 million courthouse opened in 1909. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the courthouse features seven different marbles from Vermont, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Tennessee. The building, with its mahogany woodwork, bronze hardware and art groupings representing law, underwent extensive renovation from 1987 to 1991.

As the county continued to expand and change from a rural to an urban center, Shelby County Government responded with more services to a greater population. The 1909 courthouse became too small and in 1969, an administration building was built at 160 N. Main for $5.4 million dollars.

The $58 million dollar Shelby County Criminal Justice Center opened in 1981, replacing the old county jail. The 10-story facility at Poplar and Third in downtown Memphis also houses the Memphis Police Department, Shelby County Sheriff's Department, the Attorney General's office, City Court, Criminal Court and General Sessions Court.

Not only have the buildings of county government changed along with the nature of the population, but so has the form. In September 1986, the county began operating under a Home Rule Charter after voters overwhelmingly approved the change. This charter gave Shelby County the authority to adopt its own ordinances without requiring the approval of the state legislature. Under the charter, the Board of County Commissioners, descendant of that first Quarterly Court, can adopt or amend ordinances with either a majority or two-thirds vote.

Despite the evolution of the structure of county government, the changes in the county population, the differing buildings that housed government, one thing has remained constant: that vision of Shelby County first seen in the actions of its earliest Quarterly Courts.

For those early leaders, Shelby County was not just a place to be drawn on a map. It was their home, and people like Winchester, Overton and Jackson set the direction for future Shelby County residents. These pioneers, like county leaders today, worked to make this a place where citizens would be offered a special place for their families and themselves to find happiness, meaning and pride.