Saturday, September 7, 2019

Tennessee History: How Newspaper Ads Grew a State

By Michelle Shocklee

When we moved to Tennessee in October 2017, we didn't know a lot about the history of our new home. We'd simply accepted a job far, far from our people in Texas, but we were excited to embrace the adventure God put in front of us. Little did I know the history of this place would completely captivate me. So much so, my new historical novel releasing in Fall 2020 from Tyndale House Publishers is set right here in Tennessee. It's a time-slip story, and I can't wait to share it with you! Stay tuned!

One of the more interesting tidbits about Tennessee's history is what happened after the war of 1812. A settlement named Nashville had already been established on the Cumberland River, and the territory had already become a state in 1796. Lead by Andrew Jackson, the U.S. government proceeded to purchase land west of the Tennessee River and east of the Mississippi River from the Chickasaw Indian nation. Newspapers of that era referred to it as the Chickasaw Purchase, and after it occurred, the Chickasaw Indians relocated to present-day Mississippi. With land now available to white settlers, towns were needed. But instead of developing naturally with families moving in and starting a settlement, these towns were created by investors. Wealthy investors, usually businessmen from larger eastern cities, hired surveyors to scout the untamed land, relying on their expertise to find the best locations for a population to grow. Once an area had been chosen, roads, lots, and a town square were plotted out.

An ad from the Jackson Gazette, July 9, 1825.
But now what? What good is a plotted-out town without citizens to make it their home?

That's where newspaper ads came in. These ads not only advertised residential and business lots for sale in a town that didn't actually exist, but they made the new town and surrounding area sound like a settler's paradise. "Never-failing water," "excellent land," and "one of the healthiest counties in the Western District" described the brand new town of Sommerville in an 1825 ad. In August 1824, the Jackson Gazette informed readers that “on Monday the 20th of September next, the Commissioners of the town of Lexington will proceed to sell the balance of the lots remaining unsold in said town."

The ads worked. People flocked to western Tennessee, creating one of America's first land rushes. Newspapers like the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette reported in July 1820 that “the town of Memphis has been laid off by the proprietors on the Chickasaw Bluff, on the east bank of the Mississippi, 224 miles below the mouth of the Ohio. The site of this town is believed to be the handsomest on the Mississippi below St. Louis.” Interestingly, the man responsible for the ad, John Overton, was from Nashville. He later built The Maxwell House Hotel, the largest and most prestigious hotel in the city at the time. I particularly like the fact that he called potential residents of the town "adventurers"
and truly wanted them to make Memphis their permanent home.

An ad in the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, July 3, 1824, 
Most of the towns founded by advertisements are still in existence today. People came from eastern states as well as Europe to settle in the beautiful, hilly land. One town, however, did not fair as well. The Memphis Advertiser ran ads for a Tipton County community called Randolph in the fall of 1827. Located on the Mississippi River about 40 miles upstream from Memphis, Randolph had hotels, a newspaper, and a thriving cotton trade within only a few years. From its early years, however, Randolph was doomed. An 1834 cholera epidemic was so bad that, as the Nashville newspaper reported, “It was with great difficulty that coffins, even of the coarsest material, could be procured to bury the dead — so sudden and fatal were the attacks.” Randolph later lost out to Memphis for the U.S. mail route and the railroads.Today there is little left of the town of Randolph.

When we packed up our U-Haul two years ago and drove away from Texas where we'd lived for 35+ years, I felt a little of what those early settlers must have experienced so long ago. I can well imagine the excitement and expectations that swirled through them as they loaded their wagons and moved to the beautiful but unknown state of Tennessee. I like to think I'm a bit of an adventurer too!

Your turn! Have you ever moved to a new town, city, state, country? Tell me about it!

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of thirty-two years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at


Adella Rose Ellis knows her father has plans for her future, but she longs for the freedom to forge her own destiny. When the son of Luther Ellis's longtime friend arrives on the plantation to work as the new overseer, Adella can't help but fall for his charm and captivating hazel eyes. But a surprise betrothal to an older man, followed by a devastating revelation, forces Adella to choose the path that will either save her family's future or endanger the lives of the people most dear to her heart.

Seth Brantley never wanted to be an overseer. After a runaway slave shot him, ending his career as a Texas Ranger and leaving him with a painful limp, a job on the plantation owned by his father's friend is just what he needs to bide his time before heading to Oregon where a man can start over. What he hadn't bargained on was falling in love with the planter's daughter or finding that everything he once believed about Negroes wasn't true. Amid secrets unraveling and the hatching of a dangerous plan, Seth must become the very thing he'd spent the past four years chasing down: an outlaw.


  1. After a broken engagement I joined my parents as they traveled cross country to Southern California for my dad's new job. They settled in Orange County, south of L.A. proper, but I wanted to live in L.A. as I wanted to work for an advertising agency. I set out only with one acquaintance, a gal who was friends of a mutual friend. I found a studio apartment, got a job at an ad agency and then answered an ad for a woman seeing a new roommate. Nowadays I would never advise a single 20 something woman to do that. But the woman and I hit it off and we were roommates for around 3-4 years until she became engaged. Blame it on youth, ignorance or whatever, but I was pretty bold to do that. I could have just lived with my parents and made do, but I set out on my own. I didn't have the relationship I do now with God, back then but I firmly believe that He was there watching over me and protecting me and in His due time he pursued me and my heart and took me out of California and back to the Midwest where I still live today. Oh, and my parents didn't stay out west either and we ended up a few miles from each other :-),

    1. Pam, you were definitely an adventurer! Isn't it amazing to look back on our lives and see God's hand all over it? <3 Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yes, my husband and I moved from our home state of Vermont to Maine in June of 2004. Change of my husband's employment brought the move, and we did so with neither one of us having a job to come to. We didn't have a place to live until one weekend a couple of months before our move when we saw an apartment and asked for it, then had to wait almost a month for the landlord to decide we were really serious about moving!!!! We were in our 50's at this point in our lives and were leaving all of our family and friends behind, except a son and his family who were the reason for the adventure...being closer to our new grandchild was a huge benefit. All the rest was way beyond anything we had ever thought of doing in our lives. We were convinced the Lord was leading us the whole way, which made it a bit easier to take this on. Thankfully, my husband found a job within a month of the move.