Heritage Tours

The Heart of West Tennessee

The story of Brownsville is the story of people, places, music, and, above all else, cotton.  That story stretches all the way back to the 1820s when the rich, fertile frontier of West Tennessee’s coastal Mississippi River plains attracted the area’s first settlers.  For most of those earliest pioneers, it was far from easy.  The men and women, both black and white, who either ventured on their own or were brought west labored to create a new community just a few miles from the banks of the Hatchie River, what is still one of the last wild and unbridled tributaries of the mighty Mississippi.  In the process, they built homes, families, schools, and businesses.  They created new churches and new congregations.  Most were in search of a better life, some fought for their freedom against a current of unpopular change, and all struggled during hard times.  Today, Brownsville’s historic landscape reflects the transformation of almost two centuries of rural and community life in West Tennessee.  There are four historic districts and 450 historic properties.  From the cotton fields to the courthouse, you can not only see and hear Brownsville’s story, you can experience.

King Cotton

For much of West Tennessee’s history, cotton has been king.  In Brownsville, the story is no different.  The earliest settlers discovered that this major staple crop was a key to economic prosperity. Cotton was first planted in Haywood County in 1828 and quickly became the backbone of Brownsville’s agricultural economy. Hiram Bradford, who moved to the area from Louisiana in 1826, bought the first lot on the public square.  He also built the first cotton gin in the county along with Brownsville’s first store.

Like other areas of the South before the Civil War, the success of cotton rested on the establishment of a slave-based plantation system as the means of production.  Brownsville quickly became an export hub and the Hatchie River the main transportation corridor to move cotton downstream to Memphis or New Orleans.  The town grew rapidly.  In 1823, Brownsville’s population numbered 200.  By 1840, it increased to more than 5000 people with over sixty-percent living and working on the plantations and in the cotton warehouses as slaves.  James Bond, one of the state’s largest slaveholders, called Haywood County home.  In 1859, his five plantations yielded more than one thousand bales of cotton and nearly twenty-two thousand bushels of corn.  When he died in 1878, over 27,000 acres were divided amongst his heirs.  Bond owned an early steamboat that ran on the Hatchie River.  He was also an early investor in the Memphis and Ohio Railroad that brought the iron horse to Brownsville in 1856.  The railroad solidified the town as the nexus of the cotton economy in the region north and east of Memphis.

The Civil War (1861-1865) directly impacted Brownsville much as it did the rest of the South.  Though one of the largest slaveholding communities in the state, Haywood County voted to remain in the Union in a referendum vote in February 1861.  With the firing on Ft. Sumter in April, however, locals joined the majority of Tennesseans and reversed course, choosing secession.  In Brownsville, the war enhanced the importance of the railroad in moving men and materials.  Both sides fought for control of the Memphis and Ohio line, making the town a crossroads raided and occupied by both Federal and Confederate troops. The cotton industry in the South was embargoed during much of the war and most slaves, the backbone of production, left plantations.  Some slaves in the area joined United States Colored Regiments raised in Memphis.  Brownsville suffered as a result of the war.