The sun sets across sparse corn and wheat fields, the wind blowing silently while songbirds chirp in cottonwood trees. Deer sprint through fields while wild turkeys run for cover. A handful of small fishing lakes and farmhouses dot the flat landscape and the sky is open and vast. Just beyond the farms and greenery, the mighty Mississippi River flows.
This sparse and serene landscape is as remote as an island, and to get here you have to mean it. "Kentucky Bend," or “New Madrid Bend,” is encircled on the north, east, and west by a snaking hairpin turn of the Mississippi River, while the southern portion is joined to the state of Tennessee. It’s literally an exclave of Kentucky, 30 square miles of land completely cut off from the rest of the state, all formed by a combination of surveyor mishaps and raging earthquakes.
In the early 1800s, an uplift of a fault running right through what is now Kentucky Bend dammed the Mississippi River in two places, causing river waterfalls and rapids with a 30-foot drop. Eyewitness accounts reported the river to flow backwards, saying they had to "hold onto their hats" while their riverboats shot upstream, capsizing while trees buckled into the river all around them. Islands were formed and demolished, logjams shot downstream, and a giant hole opened, soon to be filled with water and now called Reelfoot Lake. Church bells in Boston rang, and the nearby town of New Madrid sank 12 feet and was submerged, the course of the river permanently altered through the town.
No one knows for sure why the boundary of Kentucky Bend was drawn the way that it was—perhaps early surveyors simply incorrectly assumed the course of the Mississippi. Maybe they got lost, or the new bend in the river confused them while surveying. Either way, the boundary for Kentucky was drawn completely through the Mississippi River and out the other side, creating a little bubble of land belonging to Kentucky.
Tennessee disputed the boundary for decades, claiming that it was incorrectly drawn and sovereignty should belong to Tennessee. Even the residents of Kentucky Bend were divided. A church called Compromise was built right on the line of Kentucky and Tennessee, and families sat in church every Sunday morning on either the Kentucky side or the Tennessee side, depending on their loyalties.
As of the 2010 census, only about 18 people live on this peculiar peninsula. The last store closed in the 1960s, and the nearest school, hospital or library is in Tiptonville, Tennessee, about 10 miles away. There are no gas stations or voting booths, so residents drive the 40 miles to Hickman, Kentucky.
Kentucky Bend now offers residents a quiet way of life, but that wasn’t always the case. It was once the site of a lively community with hundreds of people, as well as cattle, horses, and sheep, all living in the Bend. When the Kentucky boundaries were drawn and the land was partitioned, word spread that the soil was extremely fertile and good for farming, thanks to its location in the floodplain of the Mississippi River. Hundreds of cotton farmers flocked to the Bend to carve out a living, and the population swelled to 300 for almost a century.
The famous family feud between the Watson and Darnell families took off around this time, too, an argument that was sparked by horse or cow ownership, and ended in sixty years’ feuding that was so dramatic that Mark Twain included it in his book Life on the Mississippi. After many bloody years, the feud ended when the last two Darnells tried to leave the Bend on a steamboat. As they were leaving, the Watsons murdered them, ending the family line.
How to Experience the Bend
To experience this unique and strange enclave of Kentucky, it’s best to explore by car or by boat. Drive through Tennessee on State Route 22, passing through the acres of corn and wheat fields that surround Tiptonville. After passing the state line into Kentucky, you are officially in Kentucky Bend. Keep an eye out for the small Madrid Bend families cemetery, a monument to those who have tamed the land.
After a little while the road becomes "Kentucky Bend Road," and you can follow it until the end. Private land abounds here, so unless you meet one of the friendly locals, it’s best to play it safe and stay in public areas.
To explore Kentucky Bend by boat, you can always take a paddle around on the Mississippi. There are several islands dotting the route, and you can also see the remains of the Saladin and the Congress, two boats that sunk in 1846 after a head-on collision.
Another option is to head to one of the area’s nature preserves or parks. Reelfoot Lake State Park, just outside of Tiptonville, is the perfect way to explore the unique natural environment. Otherworldly cypress trees lurk amongst wetlands, and the numerous basins provide solitude and opportunities for bird watching. Fishing opportunities abound, and the park and surrounding areas offer scenic cabins and campgrounds. The lake and wetlands were created by the New Madrid earthquakes, and visiting the lake is good visual for the tremendous power of the earthquakes.
On the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, check out the Donaldson Point Conservation Area or the Girvin Conservation Area. Both areas offer several miles of Mississippi River shoreline with boat ramps and facilities. Hardwood forests and ponds surround the river shores and the areas are a great representation of the Mississippi flatlands. Looking southwest across Donaldson Point, visitors can glimpse the shores of Kentucky Bend, imagining life a century ago on an island of Kentucky amidst the Mississippi River.
Written by Jacqui Levy for RootsRated in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.