The merchant prince of Memphis, Napoleon Hill was born in 1830, the second of eleven children of Duncan and Olivia L. Bills Hill. Hill's physician father died in 1844, leaving his widow an estate valued at more than forty thousand dollars, including Longwood plantation in Marshall County, Mississippi. At age sixteen Hill moved to Bolivar, where he clerked in a dry goods store. Three years later, he joined the California Gold Rush and reportedly accumulated several thousand dollars before returning to Tennessee. By 1857 Hill was back in Memphis after a brief stopover in Bolivar. He opened a wholesale grocery and cotton commission house on the eve of the Civil War.
In postwar Memphis, Hill became one of the leading businessmen among the cotton and merchant houses of the day. He also invested in banking and real estate, as well as in New South industrial development. As Memphis rose to prominence as the world's leading cotton spot market and one of the nation's largest wholesale grocery distribution centers, Hill became wealthy, powerful, and socially prominent. The city's cotton merchants organized the Memphis Cotton Exchange in 1873; Hill headed it in the early 1880s. Unlike in other southern cities, Memphis cotton men (instead of the railroads) owned and operated the city's cotton compress and storage facilities. In 1887 Hill succeeded founder Henry Montgomery as head of the Merchants' Cotton Press and Storage Company with its giant warehouses and daily compress output of six thousand bales. In 1885 Hill, Sam Tate, and Robert B. Snowden formed Citizens Railway Company, a streetcar line serving the Fort Pickering, Cole's Mill, Scotland, Elmwood Cemetery, and Leath Orphan Asylum areas. The line was soon absorbed by Memphis City Railroad Company. Hill's biggest investment was in Hill, Fontaine and Company, a cotton and wholesale grocery business. In addition to his other investments, Hill owned 1,250 shares of Pratt Coal and Coke Company, developers of the Birmingham, Alabama, steel industry. He was also a strong investor in Union and Planters Bank and served as a bank director.
Hill lived ostentatiously in a mansion he built at the present site of the Sterick Building. He died in 1909 and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
John Harkins, Metropolis of the American Nile: Memphis and Shelby County (1982); Robert A. Sigas, Cotton Row to Beale Street: A Business History of Memphis (1979)