Sam Kaye’s reconstruction of black bridge builder Horace King’s 1842 Tombigbee River bridge at Columbus. Photo by: Courtesy photo
January 5, 2013 8:42:29 PM
This past week I lost a close friend when Sam Kaye passed away and Columbus lost not only a good citizen, but a gold mine of its history.
Sam knew the development and building of Columbus like no one else. Where I like the overall story, Sam liked the little details that were behind the story and had caused it all to happen. It was his ability to look outside the box for answers that led him to often question local traditions and develop new theories about local history.
He always thought that Columbus was founded as part of a land-grabbing scheme. We never found the smoking gun but then in most, less than forthright, schemes you seldom do. We did, however find enough circumstantial evidence to question the historic account of the building of the first house in Columbus.
The earliest published account of the founding of Columbus was published in 1848 by Oscar Keeiler. He wrote: "In the latter part of the year 1817, Thomas Thomas, a man who had been driven out by the agent as an intruder in the Chickasaw nation, built a small split log hut upon the ground now known as the residence of C. D. Warren Esq." (present location of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau behind the Tennessee Williams Welcome center.)"
Sam thought that the timing was just too coincidental. In 1817 William Cocke was the Chickasaw Indian Agent and he learned that he was to be replaced. Research showed that one of Cocke's problems was that he was not driving intruders out of the Chickasaw nation and the Chickasaws were not at all pleased. In addition, in September 1817, Capt. Hugh Young completed marking the proposed route of Andrew Jackson's Military Road to the Tombigbee crossing point and Cocke would have had access to that report as the best route to Jackson was by way of the Chickasaw Agency.
Additional research showed no mention of the strange name Thomas Thomas in the 1817 Chickasaw Indian Agency records. What raised an eyebrow, though, was that after leaving his position as Indian agent, Cocke showed up residing on the prime real estate in the new town of Columbus. His property was located on the bluff overlooking the ferry and right next to Thomas' cabin. What was strange was that although Cocke arrived early he was not among the very first settlers but still had what was one of the two or three most valuable pieces of property. One does have to wonder.
Sam had questioned why Fourth Avenue South had been called Bridge Street when Columbus histories had always put the Tombigbee bridges in the area of the present bridge. He found references in Alabama to Horace King who, though a slave, was trained as an engineer and bridge builder. Digging into records at the University of Alabama and the Billups-Garth Archives, Lowndes County official records, Sam discovered that King had, in 1842, built a 420-foot long wooden covered bridge at the west end of Bridge Street, hence the street's name. Research also showed several other bridges built by King in Lowndes County, as well as an unsuccessful bid to build a bridge across the Pearl River at Jackson. Several 1930s photos of wooden covered bridges over the Luxapilia and Yellow Creek that were in the archives collection turned out to be bridges built by King almost 100 years earlier.
Over the past year, Sam was our advisor on the restoration of the Ole Homestead in Columbus. He would never cease to amaze me with his ability to take the most seemly insignificant architectural detail and read it like an encyclopedia.
For many years, Sam his wife Carolyn, Gary Lancaster and I have worked as a team, each with a different area of expertise, and we still have a lot of unfinished work to carry on. Sam had drafted a paper on stagecoach traffic in early Columbus and theories he had about Pitchlynn and Plymouth Buff still need exploration. He was a good friend and colleague and will be greatly missed.
Sam's passing bring to mind an address by Thomas B. Bailey in Columbus in 1853, who said: "We of the present are sentinels as it were on the watchtower of time...When our successors come to relieve us, and ask of us what mean the dents in this rusted armor, the broken blade, bloody plume, the fluttering scroll, be able to tell the associations that attach to each sacred relic, and hand down their history bright and burnished to remotest posterity."
Sam kept that trust.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.