The Wolf River is a small alluvial stream in West Tennessee and northern Mississippi, whose confluence with the Mississippi River was the site of various Chickasaw, French, Spanish and American communities and forts that eventually became Memphis, Tennessee.
Twenty-five species of freshwater mussels (unionidae) have been documented. Their dependence on good water quality makes them vulnerable to pollution.
A growing number of these species of plants and animals can be found in the urban reaches of the Wolf in Memphis, as the legacy of community action and the Clean Water Act slowly heals the degraded downstream section.
The Wolf River is estimated to be about 12,000 years old, formed by Midwestern glacier runoff carving the region’s soft alluvial soil. It is one of many rivers in West Tennessee and Mississippi that prompted the Chickasaw to call the region "the land that leaks."
Around 400 CE, a massive seismic event in the Ellendale Fault (part of the New Madrid Fault system) raised a low ridge across present-day east Memphis, diverting Nonconnah Creek away from the Wolf, causing it to flow directly into the Mississippi River several miles south of the Wolf's mouth. The lowermost section of the Nonconnah that continued to flow into the Wolf eventually became known as Cypress Creek.
The Mississippian culture thrived in this area until about the 16th century, as evidenced by mound sites and accounts by Hernando de Soto. Shortly after that, the Chickasaw nation settled northern Mississippi, western Tennessee, and eastern Arkansas.
In 1682, French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle claimed the region near the mouth of the Wolf River. The French alternately called the river Riviere de Mayot (or Margot), Blackbird River, and Riviere de Loup. The original Loup was rumored to be a Lenape Indian guide who disappeared along the river while guiding the French. The Delawares were also known as Les Loups or "The Wolves." According to one account, both the English and Chickasaw afterwards called the river "Loup" in their respective languages: "Wolf" and "Nashoba." During a multi-river voyage from Chicago, Illinois, to Biloxi, Mississippi, Jesuit priest Jacques Gravier made the following journal entry for 26 October, 1700, after reaching the mouth of the Wolf:
Concerned about American activities in their territory along the east bank of the Mississippi River, the Spanish colonial government erected Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas in 1795 near the Chickasaw Bluffs at the mouth of the Wolf River. The fort was dismantled in 1797 in accordance with Pinckney's Treaty.
In the early 19th century, the Wolf River was declared navigable, from Memphis to La Grange, by the Tennessee General Assembly, which appropriated funds to remove obstructions for keel boat travel. In 1888, Memphis stopped using Wolf River as its principal source of drinking water, switching to artesian wells, which are still used and which are recharged by the Wolf's watershed.
Because of its foul odor, the Wolf was dammed in 1960 near its mouth and diverted into the Mississippi north of Mud Island. The section of the Wolf downstream of this channel diversion became a slackwater harbor of the Mississippi known today as Wolf River Harbor, which separates Mud Island (actually a peninsula) from the Memphis "mainland." Completion of channelization of the Wolf from the Mississippi upstream to Gray's Creek, east of Germantown, Tennessee resulted in a lowered riverbed and diminished wetland habitat. In 1970, surface drainage, sewage, and industrial pollution caused a group of scientists and environmentalists to pronounce the river "dead" around Memphis.
In 1977 Mary Winslow Chapman published I Remember Raleigh, which including vivid descriptions of a pre-channelized Wolf River.
In 1985, the Wolf River Conservancy was founded by an alliance of conservation-minded real estate executives and local environmental advocates. In 1995 the "Ghost River" section of the Wolf was saved from timber auction by a coordinated effort of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, local conservation activists Lucius Burch and W.S. "Babe" Howard, and the Wolf River Conservancy. In 1997 the river was designated an American Heritage River by presidential proclamation under a special EPA program. In 2005 the Wolf River Restoration Project was commenced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis Office to stop rapid erosion known as "headcutting" at Collierville, Tennessee.
In 2007 the "Middle Wolf" Campaign attempted sprawl-proofing of the western Fayette County section. Completion of the Collierville-Arlington Parkway segment of Tenn-385 and I-269 outer loop expressway, including two (and potentially five) interchanges poised to become major drivers of suburban growth into forested sections of the Wolf River's floodplain and the surface-exposed sections of the Memphis Sands aquifer.