LAUDERDALE COUNTY, ALABAMA
HISTORICAL ADDRESS OF
HON. WM. B. WOOD,
JULY 4, 1876
As published in the Florence Gazette
July to September 1876.
Fellow citizens: - The time allotted me – two weeks – for the preparation of this address, will be sufficient apology for any inaccuracies or omissions which may be made. Indeed it cannot be expected that anything like a full or very perfect history of the County can be embodied in an address on an occasion like the present. If I shall be able to mention some of the most prominent men who have lived in, and the leading events of which have occurred, since the organization of this County, I will consider myself fortunate, and, us having answered the demands which you have made upon me.
Turning back the leaves of memory for fifty years, there is spread out before me, an extended panorama of men and things, which at the time of the existence and occurrence of most of them, appeared quite insignificant to their contemporaries, but at this distance of time, when generations have passed away, and but few of the actors, or witnesses, of those events remain, they appear to possess greater interest to us now than ever before; whether they will be of like interest to my audience, I have some misgivings; but as they relate to your fathers and mothers, and to your grand sires and grandmothers, I hope you may at least find it entertaining.
It is natural and very proper that we should look at the brightest and best pages of the record. We have forgotten – as we ought to have done – the faults and foibles of our ancestry, and after the lapse of a few decades, we only see their good deeds; and remember their patriotism, enterprise, triumphs, works of beneficence and useful lives. Calling up the long list of the brave, intelligent and good men, who first rescued this land from the savage Indian, and made it the abode of civilization, refinement and wealth, we find in their characters much to excite our admiration and reverence, and cause us to feel a just pride that we sprung from such noble ancestors. It seems to me that the representative men of forty or fifty years ago, were governed by a higher standard of principles in all their business transactions, social intercourse and political contests, than those of the present age. There is, it is true, more of learning, science, enterprise, and I may say, of religion, in the world now than at any former period, but there is also a degeneracy, corruption, venality and dishonesty in high places as well as low places, that our fathers never dreamed of. The degeneracy of the present time, in this country, may be, and no doubt is, a legitimate result of the demoralization produced by the late civil war. The evils of that unfortunate struggle, it is to be feared, will not be fully eradicated for generations yet to come.
About the beginning of the present century vague reports from those hardy [souls] were carried to the older States of Virginia, North & south Carolina, Georgia, and others, that farther West there still lay a land of beauty, fertility and wealth surpassing any thing that had yet been discovered in the New World; and, that perhaps the most beautiful spot of this beautiful country, was the Tennessee river. This broad, deep stream, of clear, bright water, after breaking through the mountain gorges of East Tennessee, penetrated a lovely valley with the mountain ranges on the South, gradually subsiding towards the West, and a broad level country stretching away Northward, was represented as a perfect El Dorado. All of this country then belonged to the State of Georgia.
In Putman’s history of Middle Tennessee, I find that, in the year 1779, Col. John Donelson, with his own family and servants, the wife and five children of Col. Robertson, left Fort Patrick Henry, on the Holston river, in a boat which he called the Adventurer, to descend the Tennessee river. The water being too low for them to go over the shoals, they were detained two months near the poor Valley shoals. Here they were joined by other boats, filled with emigrants, bound on the same voyage, or for the Illinois, or for Natchez. There were about forty boats in the squadron. Col. Donelson and his party were emigrating to the Cumberland; most of the men under the lead of Col. Robertson had gone by the way of the Gap, through the country, whilst the wives and children, with much of the household property of these emigrants, were to come by way of the river Tennessee, to the upper end of the Muscle Shoals, where, according to the journal of Col. Donelson, the Robertson party were to have marked some trees, and left signs which should indicate, no only “that they had been there,” but “that it was practicable for Col. Donelson and his party to go across by land” to the Cumberland. In 1785 Col. Donelson Savier and others, by authority from the State of Georgia, established a county called Houston, opposite the Indian town of Nickajack, in the bend of the Tennessee opposite the Muscle Shoals. They opened a land office; Col. Donelson was appointed Surveyor, and authorized to issue land-warrants. There were eighty or ninety men in the party. They appointed Justices of the Peace and other officers, elected Valentine Sevier, to represent them in the Legislature of Georgia.
A plat and deed for ten thousand acres, located at the mouth of the Blue Water, opposite Muscle shoals, “to John Sevier, one of the Commissioners of the Tennessee Land Company,” is now in the possession of the Historical Society of Tennessee.
In 1802 the United States purchased of the State of Georgia all the territory which forms the present States of Alabama and Mississippi, and it was called Mississippi Territory. It was at once opened to immigration, and emigrants from the older States began to pour into the new purchase, as it was called. As early as 1802, a party set out from North Carolina, who, with great difficulty, ascended the Blue Ridge, with their wagons, and descended through its gorges, into the valley of the Tennessee. Constructing flat boats at Knoxville, they floated down the Tennessee River, to the head of Muscle Shoals, where they disembarked at the house of Double Head; a Cherokee Chief. This party, however, did not remain in this valley, the lands belonging to the Indians, their title having not yet been extinguished.
It was not until 1812 that any considerable settlements of white people were made in this country. Madison county was being settled up pretty rapidly, and some of the emigrants, more adventurous, were crowding the poor Indian out of their reservations, driving them further west. I am not informed who were the first settlers in Lauderdale, but parties from the older States about this time, were formed, “to go and view out the land,” they traveled in squads, armed for defense, as well against the hostile Indians as the wild beasts that still roamed the forests. The report of Joshua’s spies in reference to Canaan, was scarcely more enhancing and inviting than the reports which were carried back by these pioneer parties. Often, as I have stood upon the mountain brow that overlooks this beautiful valley, and gazed upon the rich and lovely scene as it stretched away northward to the river, have I thought of the wonder and rapture which our fathers must have felt when they first beheld it in all its primeval loveliness and grandeur. We may form some idea of the estimate they placed upon it, when we remember that at the first land sales, many of these lands sold for $90 and $100 per acres, before a tree had been cut down, or a cabin built. There were, however, some settlers in this county previous to the year 1810. ‑‑‑‑ Our worthy and respected fellow-citizen, William Herman, Esq., who lives in the neighborhood of Centre Star, was born in this county, in the year 1810, and he is the oldest native born citizen of the county now living; perhaps the first white child born in this county. I have been told that his father’s house was burned by the United States troops who were sent into this county to drive out the white men who had settled upon the Indian lands. At the Time the soldiers went to the house of Henry D. Allen, who had built a cabin on Blue Water, three or four miles from where the town of Lexington now is, for the purpose of burning down his improvements. Capt. Allen was from home when the soldiers came. They told Mrs. Allen of their orders to burn the houses of all squatters on the land reserved for the Indians; that, however much as they regretted the necessity, their orders were imperative. It was near dinner time, and they were hungry; Mrs. Allen proposed to cook dinner for them; and like a sensible and shrewd woman, she prepared the best she had and seated them to partake of the last dinner in her humble home. After dinner a fire was kindled in one corner of the room, and company departed, leaving the poor woman and her little children to be the only spectators of the destruction of their home. They had not gone far when two of the soldiers, whose hearts had been touched by the kindness of Mrs. Allen, returned to the house and extinguished the fire before much damage had been done; thus the intuition of the woman and law of kindness did more than a whole troop of men could have accomplished. Hundreds of instances of like presence of mind, of our brave and noble women, occurred during the late war; what a thrilling history of trials and sufferings, of watching and endurance, and sometimes of triumphs, would the incidents of the war through which the women of the Border States passed, make, if they could only be collected together.
I cannot now call to mind any other of those early pioneer settlers, but may do so before I get through this historical sketch, and will ask the privilege of inserting their names wherever I can introduce them. Many parties from Kentucky and Tennessee had visited North Alabama prospecting for lands, trading with the Indians, and searching for gold and silver mines, of the existence of which they had heard some marvelous stories as coming from the Indians. There can be no doubt of the existence of silver ore somewhere in the county. The Indians had a great many silver ornaments of their own crude and quaint manufacture; I have seen many of them myself. It is a well known fact that Captain Chisholm, the great grand-father of our respected townsman, T. L. Chisholm Esq., visited this county, in the early part of the century, about 1808 or 9. He was on very friendly terms with the Cherokees, and the Chief Double-Head, was very much attached to him. At the invitation of double-Head he visited the cave where the Indians were smelting and working the silver ore. Before, however, he was permitted to enter the cave he was blindfolded, and his horse being led, was caused to travel many miles, by Indian paths and through the woods, so as to bewilder hi, that he might not retain any idea of the route he came. After he entered the cave the bandage was removed from his eyes and he was permitted to see the work of extracting the precious metal from the ore going on. Double-Head presented him with several bars – not quite as large as a fence rail – which he carried back with him to Tennessee. So well authenticated was the account of silver ore existing some where in the county, that for fifty years, at different times, the mania for discovering the cave has broken out, and prospecting has been carried on to a considerable extent. I think it was in the year 1840 that James Thompson, Levi Cassity and some others, were induced to explore a cave somewhere above Shoal Creek, wherein they found working tools and crucibles which had, evidently, belonged to the Indians, and they believed that they had “Struck Ile”, but for some cause they never carried out their design of revisiting the cave – I think the reason was, because the owner of the land refused to sell it. They consulted me about purchasing it, and made an effort to buy it, as I understood, but the owner would not part with it. Mr. Cassity died in 1849 and Mr. Thompson moved to Mississippi, and thus tended this exploring expedition The precious treasure is still hid away in its dark, and as yet, to the white man, undiscovered natural vaults, awaiting the time when some lucky dog shall stumble upon it, and be so transported with his good fortune as to lose his senses, go crazy, be taken to the lunatic asylum, and spend his days in dreaming over silver Caves and Castles and piles of treasures, found and lost.
An old man by the name of Amos Wilkes, told me that he came to this county before General Jackson opened the Military Road, which runs through this county, and which still remains the great thoroughfare from this place to Nashville. I do not know exactly when, the road was cut out, but it was somewhere between 1812 and 1814. Wilkes settled about 2 ½ miles from where we are now assembled, on the Military road; and there is to-day some old oak trees and a wall, to be seen just beyond Mr. Chas. Finley’s, where Wilkes built his cabin. He opened a blacksmith shop and a grocery, and did a thriving business with the Indians and emigrants. It was along this road that General Jackson marched his army of Kentuckian and Tennesseans when he went to New Orleans. He crossed the Tennessee river that the mouth of Cypress creek, which was ever afterwards called the Military Ferry.
Lauderdale County was named for, and in respect to the memory of, Colonel Lauderdale, a gallant officer who fell in the attack on the British forces led by Gen. Coffee on the night of 23d December 1814 at New Orleans. It was one of the original seven Counties which formed the Territory of Alabama. Hugh McVay was the representative in the Territorial Legislature of 1817 and delegate to the convention that formed the State Constitution in 1819.
It was about the year 1818 when immigration began to flow into this county. Some of the men, who afterwards became the most substantial of our citizens, walked all the way from Virginia and Kentucky to begin their fortunes and lay the foundations of a substantial and honorable reputation for themselves and their posterity. I will speak more particularly of them hereafter.
The Cypress Land Company composed of citizens of Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky organized about this period, and purchased the land whereon the town of Florence is located. The town was laid off and the lots sold in 1819. I have a list of the names of the purchasers and prices. It is not the original list but no doubt an exact copy. I think it is in the hand-writing of Dr. Levi Todd. I find some distinguished names on the list of purchasers, Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, James Madison, John McKinley, James Jackson, John Coffee, etc. The most astonishing prices were paid for the lots, some of them sold for $3,000, half acres lots. The lot on the river bank with the ferry privilege was bought by J. J. Winston for $10,100. The aggregate sales amounted to the sum of $310,513. Thus we see that Florence was worth more in its primeval state than it has ever been worth since.
You will very naturally wonder what were the expectations in regard to Florence which caused such extravagant prices to be given for the lots. I can tell you what I have heard from many of those who were present at the sales, some of them purchasers, and you will not be surprised that they expected a great city to be built up with an extensive commerce and, in the course of time to become the great centre of trade between the Northern cities and the vast country of rich and fertile lands lying south of the Tennessee river. The wonder is that their expectations were never realized.
Cast your eye over all that part of Alabama and Mississippi for two hundred miles South, and then along the Tennessee river north, East and West, within a range of fifty miles of this magnificent stream, and where do you find on the face of the globe, in its natural state, so grand and beautiful a country as that which was tributary to the Tennessee. At that time Nashville was a town of not much greater pretentions than Florence is now. Memphis was a mere Ferry known as Chickasaw Bluff. Louisville had not more than four or five thousand inhabitants. All this vast country, soon to be populated with its millions, and capable of sustaining its millions more, was thrown open to, and being rapidly settled up, by the anglo-saxon; the older States were pouring their emigrants, in almost one continuous stream, into its rich and inviting lands. The cultivation of cotton had just began; it brought a high price in the market. Here was to be the great cotton belt of the world. In a few years half the negroes of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and all of the negroes from the Northern States, which our Yankee brethren were more than anxious to sell to us before they should be emancipated, were to be employed in the cultivation of the great staple, which before the was called “King”, but at the present day is more appropriately called “The Devil.” It was, therefore, not unreasonable to conclude that somewhere on the Tennessee river, this broad, deep, placid stream, without an obstruction from the mouth to Colbert Shoals – no snags, nor bars, nor rapids, nor sucks for three hundred miles – a great city would grow up and become the centre of trade between the North and South. Florence being at the foot of the Muscle shoals, and at the head of navigation, with such a vast extent of country all around it to be supplied, it was not unreasonable to expect that it should, in the course of time, become a great city. Its location and advantages were such, that it seemed beyond all possibility, destined for the great central mart of the South-west. So thought such men as James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James Gadsden and others, who invested largely of their means in the purchase of lots.
At first the only craft on the Tennessee were barges and flat-boats. Flat-boat-men carried a long tin trumpet which they blew as they neared a town or landing. I have seen a fleet of forty or fifty boats descending the river in one day. They would come from East Tennessee to the head of the shoals and wait for a rise in the river to come over. ‑‑‑ When the rise did come the river would be full of boats, some containing produce, others immigrants, and looked like an extensive city of rude cabins floating gently down the beautiful river.
It was not long however, until a steamboat with its columns of black smoke rolling high above the tree tops, startling not only the denizens of the forest, but the civilized American, was seen plowing its way through the deep blue waters of the Tennessee, belching forth its steam in deep ground like the moaning of some unearthly monster. You could hear the steam from the scapepipe at least five miles. You must try, if you can, to imagine the wonder and fear of those who had never heard of a steamboat, when they first saw the monster approaching them with its fiery mouth wide open and uttering such fearful bellowings. Some thought that the old fellow from the bad world had made his escape and was going about seeking whom he might devour. I remember seeing a boat land at the wharf when I was a little boy; hundreds had gathered on the river bank to see it come into port; as it drew near so that we could hear the hissing of the steam and see the working of the engine, a fear seemed to come over all the women and children; and not a few men, so that many of the children began to cry and beg their parents to take them away; some began to talk of the danger of the boilers exploding, and by the time the boat was opposite the landing, the entire crowd was ready for a panic on the slightest alarm; just then the engineer opened the valve and commenced to blow off steam and such a stampede never was seen; the women and children screamed at the tope of their voices, and all rushed pell-mell to the woods for protection. For many years after, I never went on board of a steamboat without trembling from fear of being “blown up.” I am informed that Mrs. Till, the widow of Capt. Till, an old and perhaps one of the first steam boatmen on the Tennessee says the first steamboat ascended the Tennessee in the year 1820-1. There was great excitement and parade when a boat arrived. The Captain was the most consequential of men; he dressed like a Commodore in the United States Navy, and was feasted and toasted at every town on the river. They would frequently tie up for a week at Vicksburg and Natchez for the purpose of frolicking.
The first steam boat which came up was named Thomas Jefferson; she knocked a hole in her as she came over Colbert shoals, but managed to get to Florence where she remained all summer being repaired for the next winter. It was commanded by Capt. Ohitt [Best guess. Copy is poor.]; several hundred people assembled on the river-bank to see her depart. This was in 1821 or 1822.
Before steamboats, and for a long time after, the only means of obtaining sugar, coffee, salt and other groceries, was by barges or keel-boats, as they were called. It is almost incredible at this day to think that this was the only means of transportation, except wagons and packhorses. But then the wants of the people were few; we had coffee only for breakfast, and sugar in it but once a week – Sunday morning. The habit of drinking only one cup of coffee, and without sugar, grew upon me so strong in my youth that I have never changed it to this day. Fashions were not so arbitrary then as now, and did not change oftener than every four or five years. six yards of French [sic] calico would make a beautiful Sunday dress, and eight or more yards of silk or satin a most elaborate ball dress. The ladies depended on the rose and bloom of their checks, which nature and exercise had given, and the long suits of black and auburn hair which hung in ringlets from their heads for their beauty, rather than the cosmetics of the chemists, and the chignons and braids of the manufacturer. The ladies of the present age are beautiful and lovely, but you will pardon me for saying, that nearly a half century ago there was photographed upon my heart one beautiful picture of unadorned womanhood that then, and ever since, has appeared to my eyes, the most lovely among the then thousands that I have seen and admired – I have never seen a more lovely woman than my Mother.