History and Recreational Activity’s of Reelfoot Lake


Laura Brimm

The story and history behind the creation of Reelfoot lake are of scientific value. The formation was unique as well as historically viewed in the state of Tennessee.  Reelfoot is also an amazing fun-packed place to go for recreational activities throughout the year, especially in the summer.

Reelfoot lake has a lot of interesting history to it, land on the east side of the Mississippi river sank because of an earthquake, creating a deep hole that river water rushed in to fill. The lake has a surface area of nearly 23 square miles and an average depth of around 5 feet. It is full of cypress trees whose roots are tangled underwater and ground to create homes for snakes, turtles, fish, and other aquatic creatures. The Reelfoot land 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 living in the current occupation of West Tennessee, he was born with a deformed foot and walked with a rolling motion like a tire, so was nicknamed Kolopin, meaning Reelfoot. Along with its curious name, Reelfoot had many things happen there, the Reelfoot area at one time was marked by widespread lawlessness in western Kentucky and Tennessee, and White farmers and residents organized as Night Riders to resist the acquisition by the West Tennessee Land Company over the lake and surrounding land. 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 violence, expressing other social tensions by

attacking and threatening African American individuals and families in the area. A mob of 50 masked Night Riders murdered all seven members of the David Walker family on the night of October 3, 1908, in Fulton County, Kentucky. The killings received national coverage and Governor Agustus E. Willson strongly condemned the murders, but no one was ever prosecuted for them. And because of Governor Malcom Rice Patterson of Tennessee hundreds of suspects were arrested, and six men were convicted and sentenced to death for the murder. Soon he declared the lake to be part of publicly owned; 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 to settle property-rights issues. And this is just some of the history behind the Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee area.

Reelfoot lake was formed by the earthquakes that occurred along the New Madrid Fault in the winter of 1811–12. In the upheaval, the land was on the east side of the Mississippi river. Earthquakes are usually caused when rock underground suddenly breaks along a fault. This sudden and rapid release of energy causes seismic waves that make the ground shake. After a while, the rocks break because of all the pressure that’s pent up. When the rocks break, an earthquake occurs, and one of these earthquakes formed the Reelfoot lake. What happened there were a series of earthquakes that were felt even in Canada, and it caused an indent in the land where many farmlands were. This in turn eventually started a flood and the Mississippi river flowed backward for the first and one of the only times, into the area causing the Reelfoot lake.


Reelfoot has many other things to it as well other than the history of the lake. It has many recreational centers and activities like boat rides that take you around the lakes islands. One is the arts and crafts festival that happens every year, on your way there you can see people having yard sales at every house, and at the grounds, there are face painting booths, hot dog stands, homemade goods, wood carvings, build-a-bear stations, and other people coming setting up stands and selling the things they make. There are (were) also many restaurants like Blue Bank Resort where you can eat alligator bites with your family while feeding ducks off the docks and patio. Reelfoot also has a local visitor park with a display of wildlife like bald eagles, owls, snakes, turtles, and a long connection of docks you can walk on to see the lake and ecosystem, and on the inside many historical displays including Indian arrowheads. And many people, enjoy going to the spillway to watch the water smash on the concrete and fish off the bank. And cabins for overnight or weekend stays. Reelfoot is a fun place to be and an easy location to get to for people who live in West TN and want to enjoy some quality time either with themselves, a partner, or family.

In conclusion, Reelfoot lake is a place where history has been made on multiple occasions and has many fun activities to do while visiting there. Reelfoot is very important to Tennessee’s history as a whole and should be visited by residents of towns nearby.