For most of its journey from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River takes a pretty direct path. Sure, it zigs east here and zags west there, but nothing too crazy. Around Kentucky, though, the river’s course gets a little convoluted. It turns north before heading south again in several places. These detours are what geologists call meanders and one notable example is the Kentucky Bend, also known as the New Madrid Bend, Madrid Bend, Bessie Bend and Bubbleland.
Map credit: Jim Efaw
The meander - caused by a series of earthquakes - is in the southwest corner of Kentucky, where the commonwealth stabs its pointy end between Missouri and Tennessee. It threw a monkey wrench in the work of surveyors plotting the line that would mark the border between Kentucky and Tennessee.
At the time the quakes occurred, the team hadn't yet pushed that far west and had only estimated where their line would meet the Mississippi. They soon found that the parallel they had chosen cut right through the meander’s loop, crossing the river twice and creating a small Kentuckian peninsula bound by their border on one side and the river, Kentucky’s western border, on the other three. All around the peninsula, the land on the other side of the river belonged to Missouri. The surveyors weren’t about to change their line, and the they certainly couldn’t move the river, so the 17.5 square mile, teardrop-shaped hunk of Kentucky wound up cut off from the rest of the state.
For a while, Kentucky and Tennessee fought over the Bend. Despite the clarity of the borderlines, Tennessee felt it had rights to the land and administered it as part of its Obion County until the mid-1800s, but eventually dropped its claim.
Tennessee no doubt regretted giving up on the Bend, since it turned out to be extremely fertile cotton-growing land. The 1870 Census counted more than 300 residents on the Bend, mostly cotton farmers. The small population even had their own cotton gin and a couple of sawmills.
Today, the Bend’s population is much smaller and the cotton business is bust. All that’s left is a handful of houses, a graveyard, a few fields of corn and wheat, and some small fishing lakes. Kids living on the Bend take a bus to Tiptonville, Tennessee, site of the nearest school (and boyhood home of rockabilly legend Carl Perkins). Tiptonville also provides the Bend’s residents with their closest medical care, grocery, and even mailing addresses. Elections require Benders to travel to the nearest voting machines in Hickman, Kentucky, which means a 40-mile trip and drive into Tennessee and then back into Kentucky. The closest library is 55 miles away in Fulton, but the few Benders with library cards are spared the trip by the librarian, who brings her bookmobile out to the Bend once a month.
Life on the Bend wasn’t always so dull. For sixty years, a violent feud – sparked by an argument over a horse, or maybe a cow – raged between the Darnell and Watson families. Mark Twain wrote about the feud in Life on the Mississippi, saying “in no part of the South has the vendetta flourished more briskly, or held out longer between warring families, than in this particular region…Every year or so, somebody was shot, on one side or the other, and as fast as one generation was laid out, their sons took up the feud and kept it a-going.”
The feud ended in the late 1800s when the last of the Darnells, an elderly father and his two sons, decided to flee the Bend by steamboat. The Watsons were told of the escape plans (word travels fast when there’s only 300 people) and showed up just as the Darnells were about to leave. They opened fire from the riverbank, killing the younger Darnells and snuffing out the family line.