Sheffield, Alabama is considered a part of the Shoals region of Northern Alabama, also comprising Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, and Florence. It is located along the Tennessee River, from which the region draws its name, though the exact reason—whether because of its mussel-rich shallows, bicep-shaped curve, or strength-demanding rapids—is said to be uncertain.
The region was originally home to the Cherokee, Yuchi (who described the river as “singing”), and Chickasaw, and later the Shawnee and Chickamauga. The Chickamauga separated from the pro-American faction of the Cherokee and conducted frequent raids in the area, preventing the establishment of settlements for much of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Indeed, the area was the focus of many land disputes between peoples, nations, and states, including an unauthorized cessation obtained by Andrew Jacksonduring the War of 1812, which wasn’t officially recognized until his own administration enforced it under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Sheffield provided the embarkation point for the Trail of Tears, located at the present-day Spring Creek Boat Launch.
The organized settlement of the region was initiated by the Cypress Land Company, which laid out Florence in 1819 on the high plateau of the north bank of the Tennessee River, hoping to avoid flooding while capitalizing on the intersection of Jackson’s military road and the end of the Muscle Shoals rapids. During World War I, the US War Department began construction of a dam to power nitrate manufacturing, but it was not completed until 1924. The river was extensively developed to provide hydropower by the Roosevelt administration under the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Great Depression. Notable people from the area include W. C. Handy (Florence), Hellen Keller (Tuscumbia/Sheffield), and four senators (three from Sheffield alone).
Today, the quad cities of the Shoals are home to 147,287 people, 82% of whom are white and 14% of whom live below the poverty line. Though Florence is the site of the University of North Alabama (the oldest college in Alabama), the region is primarily known for its contributions to music during the mid-twentieth century owing to the cross pollination facilitated by the “colorblind” perspective of many musicians and businessmen. This led to the creation of several important recording studios here, including FAME studios, founded by Rick Hall above a drug store in Florence (now located in Muscle Shoals), and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, founded in Sheffield by FAME veterans The Swampers in an old coffin showroom. Recording studios in the Shoals have hosted an astounding number of recording artists including (selections based on my personal taste/knowledge) Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd(“Now Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers…”), Levon Helm, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, etc., etc. The region is steeped in music to this day.