This article needs additional citations for verification. (November 2008) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
|Location||Lake / Obion counties, Tennessee, U.S.|
|Basin countries||United States|
Reelfoot Lake is a shallow natural lake located in the northwest portion of U.S. state of Tennessee, in Lake and Obion counties. Much of it is really more of a swamp, with bayou-like ditches (some natural, some man-made) connecting more open bodies of water called basins, the largest of which is called Blue Basin. Reelfoot Lake is noted for its bald cypress trees and its nesting pairs of bald eagles.
Public use of the lake and grounds has been preserved since it was acquired by the state of Tennessee in the early 1900s and the area established as Reelfoot Lake State Park. Lake Isom, a similar, smaller lake to the immediate south, has been designated as a National Wildlife Refuge area.
According to the United States Geological Survey, Reelfoot Lake was formed in northwestern Tennessee when the region subsided during the 1811–12 New Madrid earthquakes, which were centered around New Madrid, Missouri. The earthquakes resulted in several major changes in the landforms over a widespread area, with shocks being felt as far away as Quebec, Canada.
20th century nightriders
Original landowners and their descendants retained title to ground under the water, but local people grew used to treating it as a common resource. Farmers, fishermen and landowners all derived their livelihoods from the lake and nearby lands.  In the early 20th century, however, outside parties began to try to take over control of the lake and its lands. A group of investors bought up most of the land around the shoreline, and organized as the West Tennessee Land Company. In this period, major planters in both Kentucky and Tennessee, sometimes based in cities, were also expanding large-scale cotton cultivation into this area.
Beginning in the spring of 1908, the Reelfoot area was marked by widespread lawlessness in western Kentucky and Tennessee as white farmers and residents organized as Night Riders to resist the acquisition by the West Tennessee Land Company of the lake and surrounding lands. They were also reacting to the expansion of large-scale cotton production into this area, which had been dominated by yeomen farmers.
The troubles began when a group of landowners purchased almost the entire shoreline of the lake. They formed the West Tennessee Land Company to enforce what they saw to be their legal rights, including the ownership of the lake, and most importantly its fishing rights. Most of the Night Riders were from families who had derived much of their living from fishing the lake for generations, joined by their friends and supporters. They expanded the reach of their violence, expressing other social tensions by attacking and threatening black individuals and families in the area. A mob of 50 masked Night Riders lynched all seven members of the David Walker family on the night of October 3, 1908, in Fulton County, Kentucky. The lynchings received national coverage and Governor Augustus E. Willson strongly condemned the murders, but no one was ever prosecuted for them.
Related violence by Night Riders in Tennessee culminated on October 19, 1908 with the kidnapping of two white attorneys, engaged by the West Tennessee Land Company to enforce its claims: Captain Quentin Rankin, also a shareholder in the Company, was lynched by being hanged and shot; Colonel R. Z. Taylor was wounded but escaped by swimming across the lake in the dark. As reported by the Nashville Banner, Taylor escaped, although he was initially reported as killed. His grandson became known as the author Peter Taylor.
Governor Malcolm Rice Patterson of Tennessee directed an investigation of Rankin's murder and ordered in the state militia to suppress the violence. Hundreds of suspects were arrested, and six men were convicted and sentenced to death for the murder.
The governor soon declared the lake to be part of the public domain; the legislature authorized acquisition in 1909, but court challenges over the rights at low water delayed full acquisition for years. The state finally acquired the land and lake, years after constructing levees from 1917-1920 to maintain the water level in order to settle property rights issues. The Tennessee State Park and Forestry Commission was ordered to determine the precise boundaries and was ultimately given responsibility for this and other state parks, to guarantee public use. A system of parks, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, and public boat ramps has been developed through federal-state cooperation.
Reelfoot Lake today
Reelfoot is the only large natural lake in Tennessee. Lake County, Tennessee, in which it is located, was named for it. Until 2003, Reelfoot was the world's only legal commercial fishery for crappie, a species of sunfish. It was served in restaurants near the shore. The area is popular for recreational boating, fishing, and waterfowl hunting.
Since 1930, water levels in the lake have been regulated by the construction and operation of a spillway at the southern end, where the Running Reelfoot Bayou flows out of it. This structure was controversial[why?] when first built. In 1939 local residents attempted to blow it up, unsuccessfully.
In the early 21st century, the 80-year-old spillway was regarded as obsolete by both the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the United States Army Corps of Engineers. They planned to replace it. A new spillway was completed in 2013 and became operational. This has helped regulate water levels and by doing so, helped the overall health of the lake and its species.
Poor agricultural practices have resulted in siltation of the lake occurring far more rapidly than it should. It was common practice for cotton and soybeans to be planted up to the water's edge until governmental agencies purchased the entire shoreline and forbade the practice. Siltation has been accelerated by the local custom of "burning out" the adjacent ditchlines every fall, increasing erosion and the drainage of soil in runoff to the lake.
The town of Samburg, Tennessee is the only incorporated municipality on the lake's shores.
Representation in other media
This article possibly contains original research. (June 2014) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Reelfoot Lake is said to be named for an Indian chief who had a deformed foot and was nicknamed "Reelfoot" by settlers in the early 19th century. A Chickasaw legend states that the name originated from a prince of a Chickasaw tribe inhabiting the present West Tennessee, who was born with a deformed foot and walked with a rolling motion, so was nicknamed Kolopin, meaning Reelfoot. When he became chief, Reelfoot determined to marry a Choctaw princess, but her father would not permit it. The Great Spirit warned Reelfoot that if he attempted to kidnap the maiden, his village and his people would be destroyed. Reelfoot disobeyed the Spirit, and seized the princess by force and carried her to Chickasaw territory, where he arranged a marriage ceremony.
In the middle of the ceremony, the Great Spirit stamped his foot in anger, causing the earth to quake, and the Father of the Waters raised the Mississippi River over its banks, inundating Reelfoot's homeland. The water flowed into the imprint left by the Spirit's foot, forming a beautiful lake beneath which Reelfoot, his bride, and his people lie buried.
Other origins are also cited, for example, in his 1911 story "Fishhead," Irvin S. Cobb claimed the lake "[took] its name from a fancied resemblance in its outline to the splayed, reeled foot of a cornfield Negro."
Though the legend is about the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes that once inhabited the area, these tribes left around the early 14th century, reserving this area as hunting grounds. Early maps of Tennessee, such as the Map of the Southern States of America, 1795, show the Red Foot River in the area where Reelfoot Lake was formed. In a later map, Tennessee and Kentucky 1835, drawn after the New Madrid earthquake, when the lake was formed, this was called Wood Lake because of all the standing trees in the water. It is likely then, that over the next few years (even before 1835), map makers separated the "d" in Red Foot and it became an "e" and "l", making it Reel Foot Tennessee 1827. According to the Matthew Carey map of 1796, the river is labeled Reel Foot River. This would imply that other map makers combined the "e" and "l" to make a "d" instead of the other way around.
- US Geological Survey. "Summary of 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquakes Sequence". USGS. Retrieved 8 August 2017.
- Grove, p. 14
- Jama McMurtery Grove, "Uneasy Waters: The Night Riders at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, 1908"], East Tennessee University; Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 1496. http://dc.etsu.edu etd/1496
- Special to The New York Times. (1908-10-21). "Night Riders Slay Lawyers". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-12-16.
- "Night Riders Slay Lawyers". The Bee (Earlington KY). 1908-10-22. p. 1. Retrieved 2012-02-08.
- "Lawyer Escapes Mob". The Bee (Earlington KY). 1908-10-22. p. 1. Retrieved 2012-02-08.
- Paul J. Vanderwood: Night Riders of Reelfoot Lake, Memphis State University Press, Memphis, Tennessee: Memphis State University Press, 1969
- Vanderwood (1969), Night Riders, pp. 9, 11-12, 144-147
- Jim Johnson, Rivers under Siege: The Troubled Saga of West Tennessee's Wetlands, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007, p. 90
- "U.S. Marshals". Usmarshals.warnerbros.com. Archived from the original on 2012-01-14. Retrieved 2011-12-16.
- Wilbur A. Nelson: "Reelfoot — an Earthquake Lake" in National Geographic Magazine, Vol. XLV, January 1962, p. 103.
- Reelfoot.com Reelfoot Lake Information and Outdoor Guide