February 11, 2012 8:23:00 PM
When the topic of Antebellum Black History comes up, most people immediately think of the horrors of slavery. While those horrors cannot be diminished, there is a whole world of Black History that needs to be brought to the forefront. That is the roles of blacks, both free and slave, in the settlement and development of the Tombigbee River Valley.
The influence of blacks in the Tombigbee Valley began with the earliest European exploration. When the Hernando de Soto expedition passed through this area in 1540-1541, seven or eight free Blacks served with him. The French military forces operating along the Tombigbee out of Mobile in 1736 included a company of black soldiers. They were under the command of Simon, a free black French officer. During the American Revolution, free Blacks served in American and Spanish forces fighting the British in the Mobile area. The first man wounded in the 1780 Spanish-American assault on the English Fort Charlotte in Mobile was a free black man. And Lorenzo Montero, another free black, commanded a cannon in a Spanish battery during the assault against the British. Unfortunately the names of many of the blacks who played an important role in our earliest history have been lost.
After American independence, the role of blacks continued to expand. The names of several of those path finders have been preserved. The earliest court records in Monroe County record the activities of William Cooper, a free black man who was trading along the Tombigbee River as early as 1790. Cooper was both a horse trader and a contractor. In the early 1790s, he was selling horses for $15 a head and even traded a horse to acquire a slave by the name of Medlang, with whom he had fallen in love. She was a servant of John Turnbull of Natchez/Baton Rouge. At that time, horse racing was a popular sport and Cooper traded his horse "Cooper's Grey" to Turnbull for his bride. In 1794, Cooper was hired to build a fort on the Tombigbee, probably at St. Stephens, which is north of Mobile.
In 1808, a free black man by the name of Betsey Lewis and 4 members of her family were living in the lower Tombigbee area. It might have been at her house that U.S. Choctaw Factor George Gaines stayed while traveling in 1810. He recorded that on Nov. 5 he "paid negro woman on 1st evening of journey for food, corn and fodder, 2.50."
In March 1814, Gaines transported supplies by flatboat from John Pitchlynn's at Plymouth Bluff to St. Stephens. He had a crew of five, including Dick, an black man. Earlier in Jan. 1814, Gaines had sent a factory (trading post) boat up river from St Stephens to Pitchlynn's at "the mouth of Tibbee" and then returned to St Stephens. Two unnamed black men were hired to row the boat. Their supplies for the trip were listed: "1 gallon whiskey, 50 lbs of bacon, 2 bushel potatoes, venison, jerky, 3 doz eggs, 1 bushel peas."
Between 1806 and 1816, 22 different black people were employed at various times by the U.S. Choctaw factory (trading post) on the lower Tombigbee River. Unfortunately, only first names are provided in the records and slave and free are listed together. In a previous column, I told the story of the "Free Men of Color" who stood with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in Jan. 1815.
In the history of Columbus, free blacks had an early impact. In 1822, there was a lumber dealer in Columbus by the name of James Scott who was providing materials for the construction of houses in the new town. County records indicate that there were no whites in his household, thereby implying that he was black. By 1843, Isaac and Thomas Williams were living in Columbus with their families. Both were black. Isaac was a laborer and probably a contractor; Thomas was a blacksmith.
The first major construction project in Columbus was the building of a bridge across the Tombigbee River. The bridge was built by Horace King, an black engineer who in the mid 1800s was considered the best bridge builder in the south. He earned that reputation while a slave, though he later purchased his freedom and entered into partnership with his former owner. King built the Columbus Tombigbee bridge in 1842. It was a wooden covered bridge that came off of the river bluff at 4th Avenue South and was 420 feet long and 65 feet high. He also built bridges over the Luxapalila and Yellow Creek, both of which survived into the 20th Century. A 1936 Memphis Commercial Appeal article said the Luxapalila bridge was 94 years old and was the oldest bridge in Mississippi.
The history of Columbus is filled with blacks who played key but often forgotten roles in the town's settlement and development.
Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.