John Christmas McLemore

By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian 

The City of Memphis is largely credited with being founded by John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson, but many are unaware of a fourth proprietor who also shared a name with a major holiday.

John Christmas McLemore is considered to be the fourth founding father of Memphis. McLemore was not named after the holiday; though uncommon, it was his mother’s maiden name. McLemore was born in Orange County, North Carolina on January 1st, 1790. When he was 16 he moved to Nashville to train as a land surveyor with his uncle, William Christmas, who was the Surveyor General of the military district. He apprenticed for 5 years until his uncle died. Upon his uncle’s death, McLemore was appointed Surveyor General. 

McLemore’s wife, Elizabeth Donelson, was a niece of Andrew Jackson. Jackson and McLemore partnered in several land deals. Before Jackson ran for the presidency, he traded his shares of land in Memphis, over 600 acres, to John McLemore, for land elsewhere. McLemore moved to Memphis and dedicated himself to selling lots and promoting the new town. He acquired even more land south of Memphis where the abandoned Fort Pickering lay, and then founded the town of Fort Pickering. He had land holdings in other areas of West Tennessee as well, hence the names of the towns Christmasville and McLemoresville.McLemore was very forward-thinking about transportation. He envisioned a railroad that would reach from Memphis to LaGrange and even offered land for someone to build a depot. The Memphis and LaGrange Railway was chartered in 1834 but ran out of money by the time it reached White’s Station. 

McLemore lost a great deal of money in the failed railway attempt and again in the Panic of 1837. He went to California in the gold rush of 1849 with hopes of rebuilding his fortune. Soon after the Civil War broke out, McLemore returned to Memphis. He died at his daughter’s home in 1864. He is buried in the Chapel Hill section of Elmwood. Fort Pickering was annexed by Memphis shortly after McLemore’s death in 1868.

The McLemore family lot in the Chapel Hill section John C. McLemore headstone