Spanish and French Forts & Mounds on the Mississippi River in Memphis, TN

By Dr. Greg Little

(Greg Little is author of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Mounds & Earthworks. Photos and reconstructions of Desoto Mounds, Chucalissa, and Mound City can be found in the book.)

One of the oddest combinations of archaeological sites sits on the banks and bluffs of the Mississippi River in Memphis, TN and just across the river near West Memphis, Arkansas. The first written accounts of the area come from the chroniclers of Hernando Desoto who reached the river in 1541, somewhere near Memphis. Although the precise location of Desoto’s river crossing is highly controversial, Desoto noted the extensive mounds and walled villages that the Native Americans had constructed on both sides of the river. Remains of several of these are still present in the city: in Desoto Mounds Park (now called Chickasaw Heritage Park), which is just south of the I-55 bridge, Chucalissa Indian Town, a fortified mound-dominated village about 6 miles down the river in Memphis, and at Mound City, in Marion, Arkansas, just to the north of modern West Memphis. The mounds at Chucalissa and Chickasaw Park are inside protected grounds and can be visited, but only a few mounds remain at Mound City, across the river. These interesting ancient sites have quite a storied past and interesting story.

In 1682 the French explorer commonly known as La Salle, began what was his 5th expedition in French efforts to explore and claim the Mississippi River basin for eventual colonization. At what is today Peoria, IL, La Salle and 54 companions set out on canoes down the Illinois River to the Mississippi River and then further south. Reaching what is today Memphis, La Salle decided to come ashore at this spot because high bluffs and dense forests showed that the location was safe from flooding and La Salle’s crew needed to hunt for food. They had noted the presence of mounds and villages at several adjacent places but believed the high bluff could lend some protection. One of the hunters who was sent out from the expedition did not return to the camp that night and La Salle suspected the Chickasaw Indians who inhabited the area had captured him. La Salle decided to build a fort at the riverbank and mount an effort to find the missing member. The fort was named Prudhomme. The crude log stockade fort was erected quickly and the group remained for 10 days, after which the missing hunter just wandered into the camp. He had not been captured, only lost and quite exhausted. The location of this fort is controversial but was somewhere in what is downtown Memphis, probably at a site used later.

La Salle and his group left the fort and reached the mouth of the Mississippi in April 1682. He claimed the entire river basin for France and it was “controlled” by France until 1762. However, the French were never able to actually control the native tribes nor able to truly colonize anywhere except close to the mouth of the river (New Orleans). The river basin essentially remained under the control of the many native tribes and villages, including at several prominent mound village sites. The mound villages were then inhabited by the Chickasaws and Natchez, but had been built hundreds of years earlier.

Because of an uprising of the Natchez Indians, in 1739 Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, best known as Bienville, led an army of 1,200 Frenchmen and 2,400 blacks and Indians to what is now the downtown Memphis river bluff. At what is believed to be the former site of Fort Prudhomme, Bienville erected a huge stockade fort with three bastions facing toward the land and another two bastions facing the river. The fort extended down seven massive terraces to the river’s edge. The site is believed to be just to the north of Chickasaw Heritage Park, a mound village with at least 9 mounds including two huge platform mounds. Only the two platform mounds remain today. Oddly, the mound site, overlooking a huge and wide bend in the river, was a fort during the Civil War with cannons placed on and even inside the mounds.

Bienville’s fort was named Fort Assumption because it was finished on the Feast of Assumption day. It was located just on the north side of the I-55 Bridge and old railroad bridge where a modern church and local TV station is headquartered. The majority of the force at Fort Assumption left the next year (1740) after a peace treaty was arranged with the Chickasaw, but the treaty was tenuous and violated routinely. Another military venture against the Chickasaw (unsuccessful) was tried by the French in 1754, and in 1762 the French made a secret treaty ceding the land to Spain. And because they assisted the Americans during the Revolutionary War, Spain claimed all of what is today Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. But much of this territory remained controlled by tribes and brave colonists and explorers who had entered the area.

In the 1790’s Spain decided to secure the land near Memphis and in 1795 the Louisiana Governor Carondelet sent Lt. Gov. Manuel Gayoso de Lemos to the Memphis riverbanks to build a fort. In May 1795 Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas was built at the mouth of the Wolf River, where it empties into the Mississippi in downtown Memphis. (The Wolf River’s mouth has since been altered.) Fort Barrancas, a large, well-built stockade, had four bastions, each located on a corner. The site can be visited today, but a huge and now unused steel pyramid sits at the precise spot. The pyramid was once an arena for basketball and other Memphis sports and may become a Bass Pro Shop mega store. Nothing but a historical sign records the fort’s history. It is a bizarre and odd series of historical events at this important location.

In late 1795 Spain ceded the territory above Memphis and to the east to the new United States in the Treaty of San Lorenzo and the Spanish garrison moved to the other side of the river in 1797. Americans rebuilt Fort Barrancas and named it Fort Adams. The fort was rebuilt again and renamed Fort Pike still later.

Meanwhile the Spanish garrison erected another fort, called Fort Esperanza, on the other side of the river in the midst of a large complex of mounds at what is today Marion, Arkansas. The mounds were incorporated and enclosed by the fort’s defenses, and a large settlement, named Hopefield, gradually grew around Esperanza, which collected tariffs from boats moving on the river. At the time, Fort Esperanza was by the west banks of the Mississippi River, but earthquakes and movements by the river have left the actual river about a half-mile from the site. Unfortunately, the west side of the river does not have high bluffs and the area was flooded yearly, but the mounds provided refuge. In 1803, the Spanish abandoned the fort, but the fort continued in use and the town flourished. By 1859 the town of Hopefield was a bustling river port and was then touted as a place “destined to be one among the great cities of the West.” The town and fort were burned to the ground in the Civil War and later floods literally wiped away all traces—except for a few of the remaining mounds. In the early 1980's my wife and I did find some small remains of the Spanish fort by a small lake which was once part of the river.

Marion, Arkansas holds an annual festival in May called “Esperanza Bonanza,” a three-day event of music, food, and games near the site. It is all that remains of the Spanish heritage of the fort. But several streets and even a college in Memphis bear the names of some of the early explorers and officials who erected the forts. Perhaps appropriately, only the mounds near the old forts still remain, partly intact, and visible.