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Ask Rufus: Stories that link history


This copy of the July 21, 1819, Mobile Gazette & Commercial Advertiser belonged to John Quincy Adams. It contains an article discussing the potential cession of Choctaw land at “the Military Crossing of the Beckbe.”

This copy of the July 21, 1819, Mobile Gazette & Commercial Advertiser belonged to John Quincy Adams. It contains an article discussing the potential cession of Choctaw land at “the Military Crossing of the Beckbe.” Photo by: Courtesy photo


Rufus Ward



I am frequently asked where I find the details of the stories in my column. Sometimes things just link together. A couple of weeks ago my column dealt with the construction of Andrew Jackson's Military Road. One problem with a column that only runs around 800 words is the inability to fully provide background material. So today I will delve into seemingly unrelated accounts that link together and help tell the story of the Military Road and the founding of Columbus.  


There is an 1810 Boston newspaper discussing an oversight in the Louisiana Purchase, an 1816 New York paper announcing a treaty with the Choctaws at St Stephens, Mississippi Territory, an 1818 book titled Emigrants Guide to the Western and Southwestern States and Territories and an 1819 Mobile paper that had been owned by John Quincy Adams. Interestingly, these old publications link to form a single story that led to the founding of Columbus.  


If you ask people, 'Where is the old Southwest?,' most will tell you it's Texas or New Mexico or Arizona. That would be true since the 1850s but in the very early 1800s the southwest referred to the Mississippi and Orleans Territories. The old Southwest was a true frontier with all of the confusion and problems that accompany rapid change and growth. 


In 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for about $15,000,000. There was, however, confusion as to whether or not Mobile was the territory of France or Spain at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. Spain claimed France had ceded Mobile to her and maintained control over Mobile and access from the Tombigbee River to the Gulf.  


By 1809 Spain was charging a duty on U.S. goods moving between the mouth of the Tombigbee and the Gulf and also attempting to prohibit the movement of U.S. military supplies up the river. A New York newspaper, The Columbian, addressed the problem in a Feb. 24, 1810, article. It told of unsuccessful U.S. attempts to purchase Mobile and a U.S. claim of a right of free navigation on the Tombigbee. 


U.S. efforts to circumvent Spanish interference led to a new supply route to government post on the lower Tombigbee. In 1810 U.S. Choctaw Interpreter and Sub-Agent John Pitchlynn moved to Plymouth Bluff. His residence there was to help facilitate the movement of U S government supplies along a new supply route from the north. 


On December 19, 1816, the Independent Chronicle of Boston announced in a front page article that, "Gen. John Coffee and John Rhea, who together with Col. John McKee, were appointed to treat with the Choctaw Indians, returned home last week, having accomplished the object of their mission." That was the Treaty of St. Stephens under which the Choctaw ceded their claim to all land east of the Tombigbee River. That land included the future site of Columbus. 


In 1818 William Darby and Dwight Theodore published a book titled "Emigrants Guide to the Western and Southwestern States and Territories." The Mississippi Territory along with Louisiana were the Southwest. There is minimal mention in the book of the Upper Tombigbee river Valley as it was just then opening for settlement by Euro-Americans. 


The area was described as, "The region watered by the Mobile River, and its confluent streams, has gained, within one or two years past, an attention from the American and foreign emigrant that the softness of the climate and extreme variety of the soil will long preserve." The book provides that the proposed state line between Alabama and Mississippi as shown on a land office map might "cross the Tombigbee twenty or thirty times." That mistaken impression led to Columbus being considered to be in Alabama until the official state line survey was completed in late 1820. 


Some of the first Euro-American settlers in Columbus arrived in 1818 and 1819 from Tuscaloosa and the Town of Columbus was established by the late summer of 1819. A copy of the July 21, 1819, Mobile Gazette & Commercial Advertiser, that had belonged to John Quincy Adams when he was U.S. Secretary of State, provides insight into the the rapid development occurring with the construction of the Military Road. 


The article tells of the return to Tuscaloosa from the "Tombeekbe" of a gentleman with news of discussions with the Choctaws about ceding additional land. The article refers to that land as west of the Tombigbee being "The District embraces the Military Crossing on the Beckbe (Tombigbee), where it has lately been determined, the great federal road from Nashville to New Orleans shall cross that river."  


Andrew Jackson sold congress on building the Military Road because of the problem with troop movements prior to the Battle of New Orleans. Just as important to the nation, though, was the need for a major transportation artery into the rapidly developing Southwest. Military Road was constructed beginning in 1817 and incorporated some of the older 1810 road, built to avoid Spanish Mobile, that went south from John Pitchlynn's. The Town of Columbus then grew up in 1819 at "the Military Crossing on the Beckbe." 


Isolated accounts found in old books and newspapers can often be linked together to tell a story. That story of historic events is usually far more complex and interesting than people realize.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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