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Ask Rufus: Documenting early Columbus 1817-1821

 

The site of Columbus was first settled in the fall of 1817. Ever since then the history of Columbus has been closely tied to the Tombigbee River.

The site of Columbus was first settled in the fall of 1817. Ever since then the history of Columbus has been closely tied to the Tombigbee River. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

It was 200 years ago, probably in October or November 1817, that the first house within the original town limits of Columbus was built. I have written several times about the circumstances surrounding the founding of Columbus. It is interesting, though, to examine the original sources that taken together establish when and how a bluff overlooking the Tombigbee River became Columbus. 

 

I've previously told how John Pitchlynn established his residence in 1810 on the Tombigbee River at Plymouth Bluff, four miles up-river from present-day downtown. The land upon which Columbus is located was ceded to the U.S. by the Choctaw Nation in 1816, and Anglo American settlers such as the Silas McBee family began settling in the area during 1817. 

 

It was at Pitchlynn's suggestion the Tombigbee River ferry crossing on Andrew Jacksons' Military Road from Nashville to New Orleans was set by September 1817, at the site of the present-day Tombigbee bridge at the foot of Main Street. 

 

In fall 1817, the first house within what became the original Town of Columbus was constructed. That house was built along what is now Third Street South between Main and College streets supposedly by a Thomas Thomas. A scattering of other people, possibly including William Cocke, arrived in 1818. The summer of 1819 saw a significant number of people build along the Military Road on the bluff line overlooking the Tombigbee Ferry.  

 

By December 1819, the settlement had grown into a town that at the suggestion of Silas McBee was named Columbus. There was confusion over the state line and the settlement believed they were in Alabama. In December 1819, Alabama officially recognized the "Town of Columbus" as a voting precinct in Marion County, Alabama. The Post Office Department established a post office in the town in 1820. 

 

After the state line was surveyed in the fall of 1820, it was realized that the Town of Columbus was not in Alabama but a few miles across the line in Mississippi. In response, the Mississippi Legislature on Feb. 10, 1821, chartered the Town of Columbus, Mississippi. Thomas Thomas' log house became Spirus Roach's general store/tavern. Roach had a grey beard, and he and his children were noted for having rather long, pointed noses -- a trait not unnoticed by the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians who traded with him.  

 

It was Jack Elliott of West Point, a former archaeologist and historian with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, who digging in the National Archives uncovered a wealth of material on John Pitchlynn. Through letters and documents he was able to establish that Pitchlynn moved to Plymouth Bluff about 1810, and in 1813 constructed there a small fort that became known as Fort Smith during the Creek Indian War. He also found records that a post office at Pitchlynn's closed and moved to Columbus in 1820. 

 

Research by James Atkinson, a former park service archaeologist with the Natchez Trace Parkway, found a copy of the original survey of Jackson's Military Road with a Sept. 14, 1817, letter mentioning Pitchlynn's suggestion for the ferry crossing. Atkinson's research on the Chickasaw Indian Agency brought to light William Cocke's movements between 1817 and 1819 and helps provide a possible explanation for the construction of the first house in 1817. 

 

For a long time the late Sam Kaye, Carolyn Kaye, Gary Lancaster and myself have worked together trying to piece the early history of Columbus together. The records we have found, when plugged into the research of others, presented a clearer view of what happened here between 1817 and 1821. 

 

There was an act of the Alabama Legislature on Dec. 6, 1819, that provided for a Marion County election precinct to be established at "some suitable house in the Town of Columbus." In 1819, Silas McBee of Columbus represented Marion County in the Alabama Legislature. I have a June 27, 1820, New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette newspaper that lists new post roads in Alabama. One was to Columbus. Research in the Alabama archives in Montgomery and in period newspapers established Columbus' Alabama ties, as did Mississippi legislative records from January and February 1821. 

 

There are a few early accounts of Columbus' earliest days. The best are by W.E. Gibbs in the Columbus Index in 1872, W.L. Lipscomb's History of Columbus from 1909 and Oscar Keeler's Almanac of 1848. It was Keeler who first told the story of Spirus Roach who "occupied and kept entertainment in the house built by Thomas Thomas. Because of the "peculiarities of himself (Roach) and family, the Indians named the place Shook-huttah-Tom-a-hah, or Opossum Town."  

 

It was 200 years ago that the site of the original town of Columbus was settled and 2019 will mark the bicentennial of Columbus' earliest known official recognition as a town.

 

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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