While driving around Memphis, have you ever wondered how our major streets got their names? As it turns out, the best place to start is in south Memphis. Winchester Road, which stretches across the south end of town from Third Street downtown to Byhalia Road in Collierville, is probably best known for the section that cuts under a runway at Memphis International Airport. Read on to learn about the real Winchesters who played interesting roles in Memphis history. (PS, the family is distantly related to the rifle Winchesters… but no relation to Sam and Dean.)
– General James Winchester, a Middle Tennessean, sent his son to scope out the land that would eventually become Memphis in 1818. After deeming it a good investment, Winchester, Andrew Jackson, and John Overton bought the land from the Chickasaw tribe. They also gave Memphis its name.
– Marcus Winchester, the General’s aforementioned son, was Memphis’ first shopkeeper, postmaster, and mayor. He drew up many of the original city plans and named Winchester Road for himself. However, after he married a woman of mixed race (which was illegal in Tennessee at the time), he was largely shunned and his businesses failed.
Marcus also established the Winchester Cemetery at Poplar and Third. After the yellow fever epidemic, most of the bodies buried there were moved to Elmwood Cemetery, but Marcus remained interred there. According to multiple sources, his grave now lies somewhere under the parking lot on the west side of the intersection, across from 201 Poplar. Pretty harsh fate for the founder of our city.
– George Winchester, Marcus’s cousin, helped found the DeSoto Insurance Company, which became Union Planters Bank in 1869. (Union Planters remained one of Memphis’ most popular banks until it was purchased by Regions in 2004.)
– History is quiet on the subject of the Winchester family for the next century or so, during which time some moved away from the area. Jesse Winchester returned to Memphis with his family during the 1960s, when he was twelve years old. Witnessing the glory days of Memphis sound inspired Jesse to become a musician. In addition to releasing sixteen albums of his own, he wrote songs for many popular folk, blues, and country artists. He was also known for his opposition to the Vietnam War and lived in Canada for a decade after dodging the draft. Jesse died in 2014 and was honored during the In Memoriam portion of the Grammy Awards last weekend.
Stay tuned for more about how Memphis’ neighborhoods and well-traveled roads were named. You’ll never look at street signs the same way again!