North of Tiptonville, Tennessee, is an exclave of Kentucky surrounded by Tennessee on the south and the Mississippi River on the north, east, and west—and thereby isolated from the rest of the state. Some call this strange place “Bessie Bend,” but most locals call it the “Kentucky Bend” or the “New Madrid Bend.”
Jutting out into the middle of the Mississippi River, the tiny community on the Kentucky Bend consists of a smattering of houses, cotton fields, and a lone cemetery. Yet this little spit of land has fascinated outsiders for well over a century.
Located near the epicenter of the 1811-1812 New Madrid Earthquakes, which ranks among the strongest ever registered in the United States, many sources claim that nearby Reelfoot Lake was created as a result of these astounding shifts in the ground. A preponderance of “sand volcanoes” run like scars down the peninsula and remain the only signs of the massive geologic events.
The Mississippi River, central America’s preeminent determiner of East-West boundaries, was useless in marking ownership when it came to the Kentucky Bend. Missouri and Tennessee fought over the Bend until the mid-1800’s, when Tennessee finally relinquished its claim to Kentucky, which came out on top thanks to latitudinal jurisdiction.
With only a few hundred residents calling the Bend home at its peak, the cotton farmers managed to cultivate a legendary feud, as detailed in Mark Twain’s 1883 publication, Life on the Mississippi. Around 60 years of livestock-fueled rivalry between the Darnell and Watson families ended in a bloodbath when the Darnells attempted to flee the tumult by way of a secret steamship escape, only to be gunned down, dockside, by the Watsons. As the Darnell line was extinquished, the Watsons emerged “triumphant”, and the population of the Kentucky Bend began its precipitous decline to the estimated 17 or so residents living there today.
Nonetheless, this strange piece of American geography continues to intrigue, due as much to the volatile conditions that brought it to life, as to the ones that played a role in its decline.
Know Before You Go
First get to Tiptonville, Tennessee. Then head north on Rt. 22. You will find yourself pretty well stranded on the Bend (as many escapees from the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville have discovered to their horror).