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Autauga Genealogical Society

Autauga County History

 

Autauga County is located in the central part of Alabama, wholly within the coastal plain. The county has also held a central role in the Indian or aboriginal history of the state, its political history, agricultural history, and early industrial development. It is bounded on the north side by Chilton County, south by Lowndes County, east by Elmore County and Montgomery County, and west by Dallas County.

 

Historians agree that the name "Autauga" comes from the Creek Indian language. However, there are many differing opinions on its meaning. Autauga may mean "plenty," "land of plenty," "pure water," "border," or "corn dumpling."  Each definition has its supporters.  Whatever the meaning of the word, the county was named for the Indian town, Atagi, which was located on the western bank of the Alabama River where Atagi (now Autauga) Creek joined the river. These Indians were members of the Alibamo tribe who once inhabited the county. The site of this Indian village and stream would continue to be significant throughout Autauga County's history.

 

Early settlers entered Autauga County after the Creek Indian War terminated in 1814 with the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. They sought farmland and homesteads in the fertile soil of the area. The influx of settlers resulted in the formation of Alabama Territory separate from Mississippi in 1817. Seven counties were formed with St. Stephens becoming the capitol. The area was originally part of Montgomery County, but the territorial legislature at St. Stephens created the new county of Autauga on November 21, 1818. Alabama became the 22nd state on December 14, 1819. Autauga is thus a county older than the state. By Act of December 13, 1820 its borders in the north and northwest were enlarged. The borders of Old Autauga reached from Wetumpka and the Coosa River on the east, to near Clanton on the north.

 

The Act that created Autauga County provided that for the time being court should be held at Jackson's Mill on Autauga Creek. However, the legislation also contained the traditional escape clause of that era. If there was a lack of necessary buildings for holding of court at Jackson's Mill, then court could "adjourn to such other places contiguous thereto as may seem proper." Little is known of this first court site.

 

On November 22, 1819, one year and one day after the county was created, the territorial legislature appointed Robert Gaston, Zachariah Pope, Alex R. Hutchinson, Alsey Pollard and Zacchaus Powell to select a site for the permanent county seat of Autauga County. The five commissioners were also authorized to contract for and supervise the construction of a courthouse, jail and public pillory. Finally, the commissioners received authorization to purchase up to 40 acres for the public buildings of the county and they were allowed payment of $15 each for their services.

 

Meanwhile, the former Indian village of Atagi had been abandoned and by 1817 was overgrown in peach and plum trees. In 1817 white settlers established the town of Washington on the Atagi site. This town was named for George Washington and would also be known as Washington Ferry due to the river crossing at that point.

 

A group of investors had purchased land at this location at various government land sales. This land syndicate, consisting of Captain J. P. House, General Thomas Woodward, and Dr. Alexander Hutchinson, offered to give Autauga County land for the courthouse and jail if the courthouse were located at Washington. The commissioners accepted this offer and Washington became the first permanent county seat. Moulton and Murphy constructed a brick courthouse between 1820 and 1821. The woodwork was done by Mount, a northern man. Capt. House erected the first hotel. The first Circuit Court held in Washington was in that hotel, in the fall of 1820, before the courthouse was completed. The jail was built by Thomas Keith and was constructed of hewed logs and built double. A key supposedly to this jail was plowed up in the early 1950s on the farm of Oscar Jones.

 

The first settlers were John Mathews and sons, Wade Cox, his son-in-law, Kitchens, Holbrooks, Charles Rush, Abe Graham, David Goss, Moulton, Murphy and others. Edwin Fay was one of the early attorneys and also taught school. The first merchants were Lynch and Ted Robinson, Pickett and Lot Porter, Holbrooks and Doster. Wade Cox was proprietor of the tavern and operated the ferry. The first physicians were Hutchinson and Edwards. Rev. Mark Howard was an early Methodist minister who preached out of his home before any churches were established. The first sheriff of Autauga County was Capt. J. P. House. He was appointed by Gov. William Wyatt Bibb and re-elected by the people after his first term. His deputies were Benjamin Fitzpatrick and William H. House.

 

The first county judge was a man named Ashby, who lived one and a half miles below Washington, in the vicinity of Phil Fitzpatrick, who represented the county at that time. The next county judge was Ed Terry, the third was Alvin A. McWhorter, who held the office until the county seat or courthouse was changed to Kingston, he then resigned and Henly Brown, who was then clerk, was appointed judge in his place in 1832. He was elected twice by the legislature to that office and was elected Probate Judge by the people, at every election until 1862, when on account of his health he retired from public life. G. W. Benson was elected to fill the office.

 

The first jury at Washington met on April 12, 1820. This jury was presided over by John A. Elmore, Sr., who was chief justice of the Court of Justices of the Peace. He had fought in the Revolutionary War and moved to Alabama in 1819. Elmore was a resident of the eastern portion of Autauga County and was prominent in Alabama politics. He died in 1834. When Autauga County was subdivided on February 15, 1866, the new county created was named Elmore in his honor.

 

For a time Washington rivaled Montgomery politically, socially and industrially. Its population was also greater. Although little theaters and such forms of entertainment may seem of recent origin, such is not the case, as the act of the legislature which incorporated Washington allowed puppet shows to be one of the two taxable items in the town.

 

According to Tanner's Post Route, map of 1833, there were five post offices in Autauga County. These were Coosada, Washington, Vernon, Independence, and Statesville. Today Washington and Vernon are ghost towns. Coosada still exists in a small way in Elmore County. The others too are now but small hamlets.

 

Until 1866 the eastern boundary of Autauga County extended to the Coosa River, so Coosada (Koasati) Indian town site was in this county. Dr. William Wyatt Bibb, the newly appointed governor of the territory in 1818, selected this place to settle. According to the plat of the town, the first property owners were: D. H. Mayhew, Ross A. Pope, John D. Bibb, John McRhea, Bolling Hall, J. B. Clopton, Ann T. Robinson, Mary W. Bibb, Mr. Reese, Mr. Roberts, Mr. Dudley, Mr. Bradford and a square conveyed to Governor Bibb in trust for the "Trustees of the Academy." Today at least half of this square is in the river as the map shows the spring at the ferry landing in the center of the square, whereas now the river bank has caved and the spring is at the water's edge.

 

Front Street in Coosada fronted the Alabama River. There were East, Water, Center, Court, Spring and Dock Streets. The squares were two lots wide by four lots long. Each lot was six poles square. The streets were five poles wide. At the site the river flows almost west so the town was north of the river. New Coosada, where the Bibb homestead was located and where the Halls and Jacksons subsequently lived, is back a mile from the river. The Lewis family and several other Georgians settled in this latter locality.

 

Vernon Landing as the place was generally called, was a noted steamboat stop of the former days. It was located on a great bend of the Alabama River, three miles southwest of the present Autaugaville and just above the mouth of Swift Creek. Vernon, like Washington town, is named in honor of George Washington, whose home was Mt. Vernon. The first roadway in the county ran from Washington, through Vernon and on by the mouth of Mulberry Creek to Selma.

 

One of the most memorable events in the history of the town occurred on the night of May 25, 1826 when sparks from its boiler furnace caught the steamboat "Alabama" on fire and threatened to explode a large quantity of black powder on board. The frightened passengers fled the boat as the crew continued to unload the freight. They managed to clear away most of the cargo before the boat exploded.

 

The firm of Davis & Perkins operated the first mercantile business at Vernon, with Bullard & Chase arriving soon afterward. Seaborn Mims was the first tavern keeper.  "Pickett's Mills", named for Colonel Albert J. Pickett, is on a point near old Vernon bluff. It is located on the creek and not the river, and is said by some to have been the next settlement in the county after Washington. However the Thompson family claims that Will N. Thompson, Sr. made the first permanent settlement, even before Washington was founded, at a place about where Reese's Ferry Bridge (U. S. Highway 31) is today. The growth of Autaugaville, only three miles away, brought about the decline and death of Vernon in 1849.

 

Another factor in the decline of both Vernon and Washington as commercial and population centers was the sickness that prevailed at all river locations. Families were deterred from building permanently in these areas by the fevers that appeared about the first of July and continued until the frost.

 

The town of Independence was named in honor of the Declaration of Independence.  It was a busy community in 1829 when Will N. Thompson served as its postmaster at a salary of $17.45 per year. When the courthouse moved from Washington to Kingston Mr. Thompson moved to that place and built a tavern, kept public house and a store, remaining there for the remainder of his life. He served as postmaster at Kingston, and at one time occupied the position of Clerk of the County Court. The village of Independence began to decline in 1836 and by 1840 most of the business establishments had left. In that year it was the site of a tan yard, a grocery, a blacksmith, and a woodshop.

 

Other early communities of note were Statesville which dates from 1829 and Dutch Bend which was settled in about 1820 by families of German descent who had moved here from Orangeburgh District, South Carolina. During the Creek War (1813-14) Dutch Bend became a place of refuge for the Creeks after their defeat at the Holy Ground. Here, William Weatherford's wife, Sapoth Lanie, died two days after the battle. Hamilton on the ridge between Little and Big Mulberry Creeks flourished in 1836, but was short lived. The community of Ezell's Store was opened in 1819 when Mr. Ezell bought in a fine stock of goods from Charleston in a one-horse peddler wagon. Daniel Gordon joined Ezell in 1821 and for many years they operated a pole boat freight service from along the Alabama River from Mobile. In 1825 Mr. Ezell bought three buffalo from a Mexican who had brought a herd of western horses into the county. The experiment of raising buffalo was not a successful one, as he could not keep them penned. They were eventually killed and used for food. Milton was another village which years ago was worthy of attention. Between 1828 and 1830 William Collins, who the following year sold out to John Prince, and he not long afterwards, to William Kirk, opened a store there. For several years the village continued to improve and from 1834 to 1840 was one of the most prosperous villages in Autauga County.

 

Among the most famous of our early county residents were William Wyatt Bibb, the first governor of Alabama and the only governor of Alabama Territory and Gen. John A. Elmore, already mentioned.

 

William Railford Pickett came to Autauga County in 1818. He served in both branches of the general assembly and was three times on the presidential electoral ticket of his party.

 

Albert J. Pickett grew up in Vernon. He is most famous as the state's early historian and author of "History of Alabama", written in 1851.

 

Other prominent Autauga County residents include Benjamin Fitzpatrick, governor of Alabama at the time of its secession from the Union; Dixon Hall, member of both houses of the legislature; Crawford M. Jackson, a leading citizen and planter, also represented the county in the state constitutional convention. He served as speaker of the House in 1857; and Thomas S. Woodward who came from South Carolina and settled in Washington in 1818. He was president of the Senate.

 

Washington remained the county seat of Autauga County for approximately ten years. However, as the county grew, dissatisfaction over the courthouse location rose. Washington was located on the southern edge of the county. It was inconvenient to many citizens of the county, some of who lived as far as 40 miles away.

 

On December 28, 1827, the legislature responded to the dissatisfaction, authorizing an election to be held in August 1828, for the purpose of determining the wishes of the citizens on removal of the courthouse.  The actual vote tally of that election is lost to history. However, on December 2, 1830, the legislature again appointed a five-member commission to select a seat of justice. This time the commissioners were charged to select a courthouse site with due regard to "centrality, population, health, and general convenience."

 

The commissioners chose the town of Kingston, which various sources claim was named for a town in England or one in north Georgia. Kingston was located in the approximate center of Autauga County. It was situated about eight miles northeast of the town of Independence. Although it was at the center of the county, Kingston was not the center of population. One newspaper editor in Wetumpka scornfully referred to it as the "Great Sahara" because of its location in the wilderness. Kingston never really prospered as a county seat. Its population remained quite small. In addition to the county officers there was one "grocery keeper", a tavern keeper and one physician. The actual move of the county seat to Kingston took place in August 1832. Henly Brown, Meshack Holman and Edmund S. Dorgan (judge) were kept busy superintending the removal of the county records, etc. from Washington to the new county seat. William Walker built the courthouse at Kingston at a cost of $6,400.00.

 

After removal of the courthouse to Kingston, Washington gradually declined and by 1879 was all but deserted. Today all that exists at the site of this once prominent town are the remains of the cemetery. Overgrown with weeds and trees, the few headstones are difficult to read. The large brick walls that surrounded private lots have crumbled and many of the monuments have toppled. The site is on property owned by International Paper.

 

Kingston is best known as the old home of General Edmund Shackleford, who was long associated with the State militia and was once in command at Tuskegee, when cooperating with Generals Winfield Scott and James Jessup during the Indian troubles of 1836.

 

The only historic event of significance to take place in Kingston was a great rally in 1863. The rally was called for the purpose of raising a quota of soldiers from Autauga County for the Confederate Army. A big barbecue was held and a number of patriotic speeches delivered. One of the leaders at this rally who volunteered to equip the soldiers was a transplanted northerner who had arrived in the county only a few years after Kingston was selected county seat. In 1863, he was Alabama's leading industrialist and a very wealthy man. His name was Daniel Pratt…

 

Daniel Pratt, who was born in Temple, New Hampshire in 1799, was an architect and builder by trade. He had moved to Georgia in 1819, eventually winding up in Clinton, Georgia where he managed Samuel Griswold's Gin Factory in 1831. It was here that Pratt learned the manufacture and sales of cotton gins.

 

In 1832 he persuaded Griswold to build a branch of the factory in central Alabama. However, Griswold changed his mind due to Indian uprisings in the area. Pratt was determined to carry out the plan and purchased material for fifty gins and in 1833 he, his wife and two Negro servants began their journey to Alabama. He settled temporarily on Mortar Creek where he assembled and painted the fifty gins he had brought from Georgia. They sold very quickly to the local planters and Pratt began to look for a more permanent location. He leased a waterpower site on Autauga Creek near Washington, known as McNeil's Mill for five years. For the next five years Pratt produced an average of two hundred gins annually.

 

Daniel Pratt determined to expand his facilities so in the fall of 1835 he purchased from Joseph May, the present site of Prattville. The two deciding factors in the selection were the availability of waterpower for the mills and the abundance of yellow heart pine for the manufacture of the gins.

 

Pratt moved the Gin Factory to its present location in 1839 and began to build a town modeled after New England mill towns. The Pratt Gin Company became the largest Gin Factory in the world and the demand was so great that in 1854 a new brick factory was built which had the capacity of 1500 gins annually.

 

Pratt once stated that his objective was, “…to give employment to as many operatives as means can justify, and to furnish them with educational and religious advantages.” He was a man of his word. He built small, comfortable homes for his workers and provided them with gardens so that they could grow their own food. He built a Methodist church building at a personal cost of $20, 000 and was responsible for the 1858 construction of the Prattville Male and Female Academy.

 

Other industries established in Prattville prior to 1850 that were connected to Pratt were the sash, door and blind factory, a horse mills factory, machine and blacksmith shops, a tin manufactory, a wagon manufactory, and a flouring mill. The sash, door and blind factory supplied articles for the many fine homes in central and south Alabama. The wagon manufactory became widely known manufacturing wagons, carts, drays, carriages, and buggies. The horse mills factory made mills for grinding corn. The tin manufactory made tin roofs, gutters, cooking utensils and any other kind of tinware. The flouring mill was built in 1840 and had the finest machinery available at that time.

 

The Prattville Manufacturing Company was, next to the gin factory, the most important factory. It was organized by Pratt and incorporated in 1846. It was to become one of the most successful cotton and woolen mills in the Antebellum South.

 

A wooden plank road was built from the site of the new village to the docks of Washington on the Alabama River. When it came time to erect signs directing travelers to the new site, the sign painter was about to list the name as "Pratt's Mill", but Amos Smith suggested the name "Prattville" as more appropriate for the emerging town. Daniel Pratt agreed and the town had its name.

 

As throughout the South, the War Between the States had its effect on Autauga County's economy. Cash was in very short supply. Goods and essentials were cut off by the Northern blockade and industry withered. Agricultural production was totally disrupted by the departure of the counties young men to join the army. Victory by the North meant the end of slavery and the cotton-based economy of the South. Plantations and factories closed. Autauga County's bright future as the center of industry in Alabama fell alongside the young men of the county and their cherished flag.

 

Following the War Between the States, Autauga County was reduced in area and population. In 1866, Elmore County was created from land taken from eastern Autauga County as well as Coosa, Tallapoosa, and Montgomery counties. In 1868, Baker County, later called Chilton, was created from land taken from northern Autauga County as well as Bibb, Perry, and Shelby counties. The population of Autauga County dropped from 16, 739 in 1860 to 11,623 in 1870.

 

In the midst of these changes, a movement began to relocate the courthouse. By 1868 Prattville had long since become the real center of wealth, population, and business activity in the county. That year the legislature named it the county seat, leaving Kingston to become nothing more than a ghost town.

 

Daniel Pratt was unanimously elected the growing town’s first mayor, and he served in that office until his death in 1873.

 

In 1899, the companies of Pratt, Winship, Eagle, Munger, and Smith, all gin manufacturers in Alabama, pooled their patents and resources and formed Continental Gin Company at the site of Daniel Pratt's factory in Prattville. Continental, now known as Continental Eagle Corporation, still operates today and is the largest manufacturer of cotton gins in the world.

 

The first courthouse built in Daniel Pratt's town was constructed in 1870 at 147 South Court Street directly across from the creek, dam and industrial complex in Prattville. The building is brick, rectangular, and two stories in height. It has seven windows lengthwise, and three windows along its width. The gabled roof has wide eaves supported by paired scrolled brackets. This building is an example of the Italianate style of architecture. A high-ceilinged courtroom occupied the second floor of the courthouse and county offices were found below. The jail was located behind the courthouse building.

 

The first Prattville courthouse and jail were sold for $5,000 sometime about 1905, and these proceeds were applied to the cost of the new courthouse and jail. The interior of this 1870 building is now gutted and serves as a warehouse. A service station was added to the west side of the building some time around 1924.

 

The second and present Prattville courthouse is located at 134 North Court Street. Construction began in 1905 and was concluded in 1906. The Bruce Architectural Company of Birmingham was the architect and Lewman & Company of Louisville, Kentucky, were the contractors. At the same time, Dobson & Bynum of Montgomery contracted to design and build a new jail.

 

Prattville’s population remained fairly constant from just after the Civil War until 1940. Then from 1940 to 1980, the town grew from 2,664 to 18,647. The population increased 30% between 1990 and 1998, making it one of the fastest growing cities in Alabama over the last ten years. The population of Prattville today is about 30,000. Growth in the county has not been confined to Prattville. East and central Autauga County, along the I-65 corridor has also seen phenomenal growth. The future looks bright for Autauga.

 

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Sources: "Autauga County Courthouse" by Samuel A. Rumore, Jr. [May 1995 Autauga Ancestry]; "Autauga's First Courthouse Finished in 1821" by Judge Frank Gaddis [Spring 1998 Autauga Ancestry]; "Through the Years: Old Towns in Autauga County" by Peter A. Brannon, March 5, 1933 Montgomery Advertiser;  "History of Autauga County" by Shadrack Mims; "Autauga Older Than State", Prattville Progress July 22, 1982; and "Daniel Pratt: Southern Industrialist" as appeared in The River Region Magazine.