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Walker County History...

                          A BRIEF HISTORY OF WALKER COUNTY

                                    Submitted by Ruth Teaford Baker

Our readers enjoy the history of Walker county, Alabama and surrounding areas. Mrs. Mamie Karrh was noted for many years for her historical writing.  She shared unselfishly of her knowledge of the region and has been an inspiration to me to do the same. Today, we will walk back through time with her to the early 1800’s.

“Three powerful Indian tribes once occupied the territory now known as Walker County, Alabama.  The Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws ranged in the area.  The Creeks and Choctaws disputed the land between the Tombigbee River and the Warrior River.  The Creeks won this area by force, and fought the advance of the white man.  The Choctaws, on the other hand, were a friendly tribe.

After the Creeks were driven out of this territory in 1813, a few emigrants came to occupy the land that had been held by these Indians.  Settlement in the area was slow, because of its remoteness from navigable waters. 

In 1816, Richard Beckenbridge made a horseback trip from Columbus, Mississippi, through this section.  His journal states that he traveled two weeks before meeting a soul or seeing a house.  On August 20, he came upon a few deserted Indian cabins at the junction of Sipsey and Mulberry Forks.

The amended land-grant law of 1819 (small tracts purchased from the Government for  $1.25 an acre) brought a host of settlers into this area.  The Indian trails were thronged with people from all classes of the social level seeking land under this new act.  From wealthy planters with their slaves to the poorest, walking with their possessions on their backs, they came, each seeking land in this wilderness territory.

It was those of the poorer class, who before 1820, turned aside into the hill country of Walker county.  These people, known as squatters, were few and widely separated.  Slaveholders sought the valleys.

Mathias Turner, one of General Jackson’s Tennessee Volunteers, settled on a creek in the lower part of the county.  He became a famous hunter, and gave the name Wolf Creek to the stream, because of the number of wolves found on the banks.

William Guthrie came down from Tennessee and settled on Lost Creek near Holly Grove.  With him came his three sons, Robert, John., and Isham.  Henry Sides came with several married sons and settled near Pleasant Grove.  David and William Payne, James Elliot, William Butt, and David Murphy were among these pioneers.

The first problem of these early settlers was to build homes, with the few implements they had brought.  These first cabins were of logs, having only one door and window.  As glass windows were unknown, a kind of crude shutter was pegged on over openings for protection.  Later, these simple houses were replaced by larger ones of hewn logs.

The success of any pioneer settlement depended upon its transportation.  Lack of roads retarded these early settlers.  The white men followed trails that had been used by the Indians.  Alabama was crisscrossed by these trails that had led from one of the tribe’s territory to another.  These trails became roads for the settlers, and the development of one of these trails was important to the development of Walker County, Alabama.

  

WALKER COUNTY HISTORY CONTINUES -- Part II

 Submitted by Ruth Teaford Baker

We continue the story of the earliest of the settlements in Walker County.  As we have stated, the lack of navigable waters and roads inhibited the fast movement of people into the area.

On December 16, 1819, the construction of a road from Big Shoals Creek in Lauderdale County to Tuscaloosa was authorized.  John Byler was given the contract for construction, and by 1822 the road was completed.  This was a toll road.  Byler Road entered Walker County from Fayette, passed through Eldridge, and left the county at the Winston County line.  This road gave the settlers a way to haul their products to the main trading center in Tuscaloosa, which served as the chief outlet until the railroads came years later. 

New settlers now began to flow into Walker County and among them were many who had trades other than farming.  Dr. Edward G. Musgrove came in from Blount County before 1822 and settled on the present site of Jasper.  John Key came in with his family in 1822 and settled near the community of Hillard, and there erected a gristmill.  In 1823 James Cain came from South Carolina and settled on a tributary of Lost Creek, known still as Cain Creek.  There he engaged in farming and raising stock.  Mr. Cain began the operation of a stave plant, a gin, and a gristmill.

In 1833 Jesse Johnston settled near Wilmington in Walker County.  He married Burburn LeCrone, a native of Holland.  He and his son Allen H., who served in the Confederate Army, were farmers, although Allen did a little teaching before joining the army.  He was married twice.  By his first marriage, he had four daughters, and by his second, he had seven sons.  One daughter became Mrs. A.P. Waldrop, mother of Amos Waldrop.

Settlers in the hill country were becoming numerous, and not dependent upon farming.  They felt justified in starting the movement for a separate county, and when Dr. Musgrove offered to give the site for a court house, it was accepted by the legislature.  On December 26, 1823, Walker County was established from portions of Tuscaloosa and Marion, and included all of the present county of Winston. 

The new county was named in honor of John W. Walker of Madison County, one of Alabama’s first U.S. Senators.  The County seat was named Jasper, in memory of Sergeant William Jasper, a Revolutionary hero from South Carolina.  Dr. Musgrove was the first judge of the county court.  Two rocks served as a courthouse.  The judge sat on one and the jury on the other.  The first courthouse, built of logs, was built in 1823.

If this early history were continued, it would next see how coal was found  by accident. The story was told that two young men were camping on Lost Creek one night. They picked up black stones out of the creek bed and arranged in a circle to contain their campfire.  They cooked their evening meal on the fire and made a place to sleep on the ground. They then stretched out for a night’s sleep.   

Imagine their surprise when they awakened later and found the stones which they had place around their fire were glowing and burning. No one but the devil could have caused this to happen, they thought. Being frightened by this strange sight, they left their camping site in a hurry. Their weird tale of the burning stone caused wiser men to seek the cause, and this led to  coal being discovered.

The first load of coal from the Warrior field to Mobile was shipped in 1827 by Levi Reed and James Gridle who dug it from the Locust Fork ( now Little Warrior).

Outcroppings of coal made it easy to mine, and high prices offered an important industry.  James Cain and Steve Busby became active in mining  handling, and shipping coal.  They were the first coal operators in Walker County.  They sold their coal in Mobile for $10.00 a ton and their 70 X 25 feet flatboats for $75.00.  “Black Diamonds” and “White Gold” brought to the hill people of Walker County the flush times of the 1830’s.  And looking forward to the later 1800’s and the 1900’s, the huge underground mines brought into the area thousands of workers from many European countries.

These happenings led to the many cycles of “boom and bust” in the economy of Walker county.  The large mines closed, and an exodus of workers from the South flowed North for jobs.  Then, as now, the only hope for stable growth has always been diversified job opportunities.  The next dream is centered on the new Corridor X interstate bringing those industries in to replace the lost mining jobs. And history goes on.

 More on Walker County history and the WPA...