Location: Tupelo, Mississippi
History is a lot like onions (and ogres). It has layers. And northeast Mississippi, a crossroads since ancient times, has more layers than most.
On September 4, 1809, Governor Meriwether Lewis left St. Louis to begin an arduous journey to the Federal City (Washington, D.C.). Just three years after the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the 35-year-old Lewis was no longer the national hero he had once been. He now found himself deeply indebted, trapped in a political job in which he could not succeed, and accused of malfeasance by the War Department. Even as he embarked on a trip that he hoped would clear his name, he was battling demons that would lead to his death on the Natchez Trace just six weeks later. Whether those demons were severe physical illness, alcohol or drug addiction, mental illness, a political conspiracy to destroy him, or some combination of the above, are questions that historians still debate and that we explored in our first book, To the Ends of the Earth.
After traveling by boat down the Mississippi, Lewis spent a lengthy stint at Fort Pickering at the site of present-day Memphis, recovering from something (again, it’s not clear what). By September 22, he had weighed the risks of going to Washington by sea via New Orleans, or taking the rugged and dangerous Natchez Trace overland through the wilderness. There were significant risks involved in the sea voyage too, not least of which was potential capture of Lewis and the priceless Expedition journals by the British, with whom tensions were running high at the time. Lewis’s decision to take the Trace may have been ill-fated, but it was not naive; one of the most experienced wilderness travelers in the world, he was also familiar with the Trace and the resident Chickasaw Indians from his days as a young officer (a period of his life explored in our new novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe).
The route from Memphis to the main Chickasaw village, a place called Big Town, was called Pigeon Roost Road. And while the forests and their millions of passenger pigeons are long gone, you can still take a jaunt down Pigeon Roost’s successor road, today’s US 78, and meet up with the Natchez Trace Parkway at the crossroads where Big Town once stood. Today the bustling junction is known as Tupelo, Mississippi, and it just happens to be the birthplace of Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll.
The history of Tupelo and northeastern Mississippi has been called “dark and tragic.” Among the fiercest of Native American tribes, the Chickasaws first came to the notice of Europeans when the Indians violently drove off the advances of Hernando De Soto way back in the 1540s. They continued to take on all comers–British, French, and Americans–not meeting anyone tougher than themselves until Andrew Jackson came along and forced them out of their ancestral homeland and on to a reservation in Oklahoma. By that time, the Chickasaws were already sharing the area with hard, flinty backcountry settlers. Among these families were the Presleys (sometimes spelled Preslar, Presler, or Prisley). In fact, some of Elvis’s ancestors may already have been living in the area when Meriwether Lewis passed this way in 1809. It is strange to think of Meriwether Lewis sharing a bench at a backwoods tavern — or a song — with a great-great-granddad of the King.
There is some fascinating genealogical research about Elvis’s family on the internet. The key point is that the Presleys (as well as the Smiths, the family of Elvis’s mom) were poor, rootless, and landless. Unlike the frontier elite–people like the Lewises, the Clarks, and the Boones–the Presleys never made the leap over the Appalalachian Mountains to the west. Instead they remained trapped in an endless cycle of sharecropping and tenant farming, where they cleared and planted the land on behalf of an absentee landowner, who could just as easily turn around and sell the land out from under them as soon as it had been improved enough to become profitable.
So why didn’t the people try to better their situation? The answers are complex, but certainly much of the misery was due to their almost total isolation from the outside world and their lack of education (free public education was all but non-existent until well into the 20th century). The fact is that whites and blacks alike remained mired in a system rigged against them, each generation seemingly doomed to blinding ignorance, grinding poverty, broken families, and lives shortened by ill health and substance abuse.
Tupelo itself came into being as a rough-and-ready saloon town built to serve workers building the first railroad along the route of the old Pigeon Roost Road. Burned to the ground during the Civil War, it eventually rebuilt and became a shipping center for cotton, the economic king of the region. In 1935, when Elvis Presley (along with a stillborn twin) was welcomed into the world by his parents Vernon and Gladys (both age 19), there no reason to expect that he would ever be anything but a restless itinerant laborer like his forebears from time immemorial.
Given this pretty dismal history, there are surprises to be had when you visit Tupelo. For one thing, we found it to be much larger (population 34,000), prettier, and more prosperous-looking than we expected. It still seems to be a center of shipping, trucking, and commerce for this part of the state. And the house, though tiny, is hardly the shack it is sometimes described as. Solidly built by Vernon and his brother with $180 worth of materials, it is outfitted with a wood stove and outdoor water pump and privy, and probably stacked up pretty well against any of the young couple’s neighbors. Unfortunately, Vernon was never able to find steady employment, and the house was repossessed when Elvis was about three years old. The family beat around Tupelo in various housing for the next ten years before finally fleeing their impoverished lives and moving to Memphis in 1948.
The prodigious talent of Elvis Presley, his rise to unimaginable stardom, and his tragic squandering of his gifts are well-known to everyone (or should be) and there’s no need to rehash it all here. It’s worth noting, though, that he never forgot Tupelo. The area surrounding his birthplace is located in a very nice park that he funded for the city. Nor have the people forgotten him. It is well worth the time to tour the excellent visitor center and chapel that are adjacent to the park. I especially enjoyed reading the wall which contains interesting and touching reminiscences from the people of Tupelo about “the boy who dared to rock.”
From the Rhineland to Graceland (fascinating Presley genealogy)