|Publisher:||University of Alabama Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||8.60(w) x 11.00(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||3 Months to 18 Years|
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Tuscaloosans secure the state capital ... only to lose it
AS 1819 WAS DRAWING TO A CLOSE so was Alabama's territorial stage. On December 13, the legislature decided to incorporate the frontier village at the Falls of the Black Warrior. The next day, Alabama would join the Union as the twenty-second state.
Confusion abounded. To begin with, the legislators had jumped the gun by deeming themselves the General Assembly of the State of Alabama — it was still the Territory of Alabama. Then came the problem of spelling — sometimes Tuscaloosa and at other times Tuskaloosa — within the same document. No matter the spelling, the name had never been in doubt. Following the reports from Hernando de Soto's ill-fated 1540 expedition, the European mapmakers charged with tracing his route placed the Indian towns he described prominently on their maps. They had no way of knowing that the European diseases his men unknowingly introduced had drastically reduced the native population, perhaps by as much as 90 percent. The towns were gone, but the names stayed. The location of Chief Tuscaloosa's town moved about on the maps as subsequent explorers failed to find it. The name finally stayed put at the end of an extensive series of shoals where the Black Warrior River left the Appalachian Mountains' foothills.
Richard Breckenridge found "as handsome a situation for a town as I ever saw," upon reaching those shoals on August 27, 1816. He noted "some excellent land and some good springs." Only four days later, a merchant arrived with his load of sugar, coffee, rum, wine, dry goods, and a thousand oranges. James Crump had left Mobile twenty days earlier by boat, making his way against the current. He sold the dry goods and rum at the village before transferring his remaining wares to a couple of wagons and heading up the road to Huntsville, which he reached 120 miles and eight days later. Only a half-dozen oranges spoiled.
American settlers had only started coming to what they called the Falls of the Black Warrior a few months before Breckenridge and Crump's 1816 stopovers. The Treaty of Fort Stephens, signed that October with the Choctaws, would legitimize the settlers' intrusion into the Tombigbee and Black Warrior River valleys. Questions about land ownership would continue — but no longer with the Indians.
Breckenridge reached the falls from the north, tromping down the Huntsville Road beneath a nearly unbroken canopy of enormous longleaf pines. Unlike most mature forests, which were hardwood, the South's frequent lightning strikes ignited the underbrush and hardwood seedlings but left the fire-resistant longleaf pines to thrive. The resulting trees were spaced so far apart that early settlers reported not needing roads to drive their wagons through the forests. There were exceptions. Northeast of the falls in higher country and especially on the northern slopes — where the ground never quite dried out enough for regular fires to start — the longleaf pines disappeared, replaced by a hardwood forest primarily of oaks, hickory, sweetgum, chestnut, and beech. Within the forests lived all sorts of wild animals from elk and deer to wolves and bears. Huge wild swine, the descendants of de Soto's roving pantry, wandered at their leisure. None of the settlers knew then that beneath the forest northeast of the falls lay the enormous Warrior Coal Field along with deposits of limestone and iron ore.
The Black Warrior River that Crump managed to negotiate began high on the South Cumberland Plateau as nameless streams became the Mulberry and Locust Forks. These in turn merged to become the Black Warrior proper, which flowed southwest through the Appalachian foothills, gaining momentum and size as it was fed by more creeks and streams. The river passed through a magnificent series of shoals, stretching for miles, where exquisite spider lilies grew. After the last of these, the river entered the coastal plain and began meandering lazily through softer sediments until it emptied into the Tombigbee River, where Demopolis would be founded by French exiles. Along both banks of that route from the falls to Demopolis grew a nearly continuous band of native cane, or bamboo. This thirty-foot "magnificent reed," in the words of one visitor, kept the water "perfectly clear" by holding back the soil. The "Nile of the Western Country," as a promotional piece labeled the Black Warrior in 1818, stretched 169 miles from its beginnings in the foothills to its end at the Tombigbee.
THE ACTUAL FALLS OF THE BLACK WARRIOR were a couple of miles upstream, where the water poured over a ledge stretching from bank to bank. The ceaseless sound it created could be heard throughout Tuscaloosa and prompted many to try their hands at describing its intoxicating sight and sound. "Hark!" wrote one captivated by its beauty in 1835, the "faint roar of its waters dashing over the numerous ledges of sandstone, shelving and irregular, which fill up its bed here for miles. The sound comes up, sudden and fitful, on the night winds like the echo of distant music to the ear — now quick and loud like a smothered blast; now soft and faint, and slow — now gradually dying away; even mournful and plaintive, but never ceasing, the varying sound."
Although known as the Falls of the Black Warrior, the actual waterfall was a ledge of several feet in height stretching from bank to bank perhaps two miles upriver from the settlement. The river plunging over the shelf there produced a soft roar that could be heard for several miles. The sound breaks "the silence of the primeval woods which overshadow them, even yet," one Tuscaloosan would write years later. Its "ceaseless monotone, not unlike the moan of pines shaken by the winds ... floats ... by night like an echo from the past, and a voice of the ever ongoing present, blended in one stream of sound." The constant voice of the falls stood out because about the only other sounds were the chirps of birds as they soared in the skies or perched in the trees. And not just the familiar birds of today — the region was home to the now-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker and passenger pigeon.
The first settlers came to the falls for several reasons. The flat land on the south side was high enough above the river to escape its periodic floods, and the soil could easily grow corn and cotton. Well over a hundred native species of fish — an important food source — could be found in the river. Perhaps most important, anyone traveling between north and south Alabama had to pass through their settlement, the state's most inland port. Crump was just the first of thousands — and probably tens of thousands — who over the next several decades would have to transfer from horse to boat, or vice versa, at the falls.
Judging by the number of people who were arriving, many voiced the same opinion as one young man who wrote back home that "this section of the country promises to be very agreeable." Only six months after Breckinridge and Crump arrived, boats were traveling regularly to the falls with settlers and goods. During the spring of 1818, Tennesseans arrived daily by way of the Huntsville Road — so many, according to one of them, that the "small log cabin village" they found upon arrival would grow within a few months "to be a considerable town." Indeed, the inhabitants numbered some three hundred earlier that year, and by September the population had doubled to six hundred.
Perhaps Tuscaloosa was a "considerable town" to the Tennesseans, but it was little more than a crude frontier village to one New Englander. "What they call their houses," he wrote in a long and detailed letter to his wife back home, "are either the most despicable rough dirty & uncomfortable rolling log Cabins, or less durable & more mean buildings." Those "mean buildings" were built of clapboard sawn with a whipsaw and nailed in place — when nails were to be had. The New Englander searched for words to express how bad things were, almost repeating himself a few pages later: "They all live in dirty, small Sod & mud Cabins, or in those of a more mean construction, & are generally almost destitute of all the Comforts & conveniences of Life." Few buildings had even a single pane of glass. Some had no floors but dirt; others used split timbers laid directly on the ground; while still others were raised on pilings high enough for hogs, dogs, cats, and fowl to retreat beneath to escape bad weather. "I have sometimes been very much anoyed," the correspondent continued, "by the growling, squealing, barking, squalling & cackling of those animals und[er] the floor where I slept." His room had no ceiling; and the roof, like the floors, was of split oak timbers "thro which the Rains at times pour, litterally, in Streams." He could only keep his door shut by setting a chair against it. The detached kitchen was simply the "filthiest Place you can conceive of" — and he was describing Charles Lewin's establishment, "which is the best tavern in this place & where I have the best accommodation the Establishment affords."
By 1821, when the New Englander was complaining, Tuscaloosa had grown to about twenty stores, mostly small shanties lined up along a single street. Prices were notoriously high: flour at $25 a barrel; 62 1/2 cents a pound for coffee, 37 1/2 cents a pound for bacon; and beef was simply unavailable. Most of the meat seems to have come from fishing, as it may have throughout much of the nineteenth century. The streets were in such bad repair that the four or five residents who kept coaches could not use them. Shoes were caked in mud. The Baptists and Methodists both had houses of worship, but they were of the same poor construction as the cabins and were "generally left open for hogs &c to enter at pleasure." In fact, a sow had recently given birth to six or seven piglets under the coarse square box that served as the Methodist minister's pulpit. Despite the difficulties in transportation, someone had managed to get a billiard table all the way to the falls. First things first.
These settlers were technically squatters. They could not own their own property because the land was still in a legal morass that went back almost three years before statehood. On the same day in March 1817 that the Territory of Alabama was carved out of the Territory of Mississippi, Congress passed another act reserving up to ten prospective townsites for public land sales. The territorial government then reserved section twenty-two south of the Black Warrior for what would officially become Tuscaloosa in late 1819. But meanwhile, Congress threw a wrench into the works by subsidizing the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons by granting the institution up to thirty-six square miles of public land. William H. Ely, a retired businessman who was active in promoting the Connecticut Asylum, was appointed its commissioner and charged with selecting and selling the tracts. He made his way to Alabama, where public land was abundant.
Ely first reached Tuscaloosa in mid-1820, only six months after its incorporation. He, too, recognized that the small but growing settlement was "destined at no distant period to be a place of considerable Importance," so he chose four and a half sections of land for the Connecticut Asylum on the west and south sides of the section set aside for the Tuscaloosa townsite. With the river to the north, this left the only public land to the east, but at least clear title was available. Ely then sold the land he had selected to a group of local investors, who proceeded to subdivide and resell it to individuals. They incorporated the western tract separately as the "lower part of the Town of Tuskaloosa," and the new residents were soon erecting businesses, a dozen or so storehouses, a hotel, and substantial houses. Lawyers moved to the "New Town" after a jail and handsome brick courthouse were built. That did not last long, however. Newtown merged with Tuscaloosa within a few years, and in 1842 a tornado wiped away much of the once thriving west end of Tuscaloosa.
Many of these "barberous People," Ely wrote back home indignantly, "are incensed against me." He seemed surprised that Tuscaloosans would resent an outsider dropping in, choosing the best lands, and then making them pay for what they had presumed was their own. When they let him know of their displeasure, he began leaving his room only when armed. Staying confined, he admitted, taxed severely "my health & spirits & render me quite unhappy."
So it was hardly surprising that Ely had little positive to say about Tuscaloosans. They paid little attention to religion, he charged. Flagrant crimes were frequent, and the guilty regularly escaped. Tuscaloosans were heard to utter gross and excessive profanity, even in front of their ministers. Everyone drank alcohol excessively (confirmed by Crump's having sold all his rum before continuing to Huntsville). Much of the population was "extreemly indolent, either too proud, or too lazy to work, or even think, they disipate their time & money, & would their morals if they had any, without enjoyment, lounging about Taverns, Stores, tipling and gambling houses, or in making & attending horse hunting or fighting." Their government, habits, and manners he found "more Mobocratic than I have ever anywhere else met with." Ely concluded that they were "a very avaricious People. Money is their God, & Cotton the Idol of their devotions." In this respect they differed scarcely from all those others who had caught Alabama Fever. As one put it simply, "I came here to make money."
Few stayed long at all. The vast majority were gone within two or three years. Gideon Lincecum, for example, set out from Eatonton, Georgia, in March 1818, "determined to seek a home in the wilderness." Six weeks later he arrived at the falls, where he made eight dollars a day sawing lumber with a whipsaw. But he was gone in November after hearing of even more desirable lands farther west. Lincecum had stayed in Tuscaloosa a little over six months.
Without a stable population, without enduring institutions, with no one to vouch for one's reputation, with rootless strangers coming and going in search of their main chance, with no loyalties except to oneself — in short, without much — Tuscaloosans of that era made poor material for creating communities. The Falls of the Black Warrior was just another outpost along the line where "barberous People" stopped awhile before moving on. Building a community requires better material than that.
THEY BLAMED IT ON THE RAIN. The state senate's Seat of Government Committee reported that Cahawba, the capital since 1820, was "liable to be inundated by the waters of both the Cahawba and Alabama rivers," making it at times "impracticable to reach the State House without a conveyance by water." As if that were not enough, the justices had been "reluctant to perform the hazardous duty of holding the Supreme Court" during June for fear of yellow fever. Flooding and disease may have been the pretext for moving the capital, and certainly those were concerns, but other issues — politics in particular — had been festering for years.
The maneuvering had started in 1818 when the territorial legislature met in St. Stephens. Those living in the Tennessee Valley wanted the capital in Huntsville, but they lacked the votes. The legislators from the Tennessee Valley could, however, make common cause with the residents along the Tombigbee and Black Warrior in west Alabama to make Tuscaloosa the capital since it was where the Huntsville Road met the riverboats. But wily Governor William Wyatt Bibb preempted their action by convincing the federal government into donating the land at the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers, which was easily reached by his supporters living along those rivers. (The Creek Nation in east Alabama did not figure into the considerations.) Cahawba would be Alabama's capital. The representatives from the Tennessee Valley were to be placated by having Huntsville named the temporary seat of government while Cahawba was readied.
The residents of north Alabama were not pleased. Those who favored Tuscaloosa wrote a provision into the state constitution calling for the 1825 legislature to reconsider the permanent site without the governor's concurrence. Despite some likely irregular voting in Jefferson County, which prompted a challenge, on December 13, 1825 — exactly six years to the day after its incorporation — Tuscaloosa became the state's new capital. South Alabamians could get there by steamboat and north Alabamians by horse, buggy, or wagon.
That still did not make traversing the young state any easier. The Black Warrior was only deep enough for boats during the winter months, and mountains and rivers restricted the number of major roads to three: The Natchez Trace, which ran from Nashville to Natchez, cut across the state's northwestern corner. The Federal Road began in Athens, Georgia, went through the Creek Nation to the territorial capital of Fort Stephens, and ended in New Orleans. And the Valley Road ran along the western side of the Appalachians from Knoxville to Huntsville; from there, the Huntsville Road, as the Valley Road was known in Alabama, continued through the mountains until it entered Tuscaloosa and became Broad Street (now University Boulevard), the town's main thoroughfare, which paralleled the river. New roads — the 1819 Byler Road north from Tuscaloosa to the Muscle Shoals, an 1821 road south from Tuscaloosa through Greensboro, and a later one from east Alabama through Tuscaloosa to Fort Tombigbee — kept Tuscaloosa at the center of things. Nonetheless, the Huntsville Road would remain the principal route between north and south Alabama.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tuscaloosa"
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Table of Contents
1. Tuscaloosans secure the state capital ... only to lose it,
2. Tuscaloosans become citizens of the Confederacy ... and reap the whirlwind,
3. Tuscaloosans recruit smokestack industries ... doggedly,
4. Tuscaloosans transform their everyday lives ... by building a modern city,
5. Tuscaloosans see the world ... and vice versa,
6. Tuscaloosans endure six minutes ... and everyone comes to lend a hand,
A Past That Lives with Today,
For Further Reading,