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Ask Rufus: Not just the heroes of February

 

As early as 1814 blacks both free and slave served on Upper Tombigbee flatboats, keelboats and later steamboats. Two black crewmen were heroes of the steamboat Eliza Battle disaster in 1858. A c. 1915 photo of the crewmen on a Tombigbee/Alabama River steamboat.

As early as 1814 blacks both free and slave served on Upper Tombigbee flatboats, keelboats and later steamboats. Two black crewmen were heroes of the steamboat Eliza Battle disaster in 1858. A c. 1915 photo of the crewmen on a Tombigbee/Alabama River steamboat. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

I have a problem with February being Black History Month. The role of blacks in the exploration and settlement of the Tombigbee River Valley is so important and so significant it should be celebrated every month. Black history is American history. It began with the earliest European exploration, continued through colonial times, the earliest days of the town of Columbus and into today. 

 

When Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto's 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 who were under the command of Simon, a free black French officer. In an ill-fated attack against the Chickasaw village of Ackia (at present day Tupelo), the French were soundly defeated. It appears that Simon was one of the few French heroes of the battle. 

 

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 assault on the English Fort Charlotte in Mobile was a free black man. 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. By 1791, William Cooper, a free black contractor, was working and trading over the entire region from Baton Rouge to Mobile and up the Tombigbee. George Gaines in March 1814 transported supplies by flatboat from John Pitchlynn's at Plymouth Bluff to St. Stephens. He had a crew of five, including Dick, a black man. Earlier in January 1814, Gaines had sent a Choctaw Factory (trading post) boat up river from St. Stephens to Pitchlynn's. Two unnamed black men were hired to row the boat. Between 1806 and 1816, 22 different blacks were employed at various times by the U.S. Choctaw factory on the Tombigbee River.  

 

At the American victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson's army was as diverse as the American South. His troops included U.S. regular Army, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and Orleans militia, Free Men of Color, Jean Lafitte's Baratarian pirates and Choctaw Indians. On December 18, 1815, Gen. Jackson reviewed his troops. Jackson prepared addresses which were to be delivered to each unit by his Aid-de-Camp. The address to the two battalions of Free Men of Color was: 

 

"To The Men of Color"  

 

"Soldiers -- From the shores of Mobile I collected you to arms -- I invited you to share in the perils and to divide the glory of your white countrymen. I expected much from you, for I was not uninformed of those qualities which must render you so formidable to an invading foe. I knew that you could endure hunger and thirst and all the hardships of war. I knew that you loved the land of your nativity, and that, like ourselves, you had to defend all that is most dear to man -- But you surpass my hopes. I have found in you, united to these qualities, that noble enthusiasm which impels to great deeds.  

 

"Soldiers -- The President of the United States shall be informed of your conduct on the present occasion, and the voice of the Representatives of the American nation shall applaud your valor, as your General now praises your ardor. The enemy is near; his sails cover the lakes, but the brave are united; and if he finds us contending among ourselves, it will be for the prize of valor, and fame its noblest reward." 

 

Black men played a key role in the founding of Columbus. The first keelboat for Tombigbee River trade built at the site of present day Columbus was said to have been built by two black men in 1817. An interesting figure from the time of Columbus' founding was James Scott. During the mid-1820s, he sold lumber in Columbus and the 1822-1825 tax records indicate that no whites resided in his house, indicating Scott was a free black man. Dr. B.C. Barry began construction of a frame house in Columbus on the southwest corner of what is now Market Street and College Street in 1824. He purchased his lumber from James Scott.  

 

In 1842, Horace King, though a slave, was an engineer and bridge builder. He built several bridges in Lowndes County, including the first bridge over the Tombigbee. That bridge came off the top of the bluff at Fourth Avenue South. It was a wooden covered bridge, 420 feet long and 65 feet high. King was eventually given his freedom by his owner and then, as a free man, formed a partnership with his former owner. 

 

Isaac and Thomas Williams appeared in Columbus not long after 1840. They were "free men of color" who were from South Carolina. Isaac was a carpenter/laborer and Thomas was a blacksmith. Their business prospered and about 1843 they built a fine house for their family. It still stands across the corner from the present day Trotter Convention Center and is known as the Williams-Glass House.  

 

From the city's earliest days, black carpenters and contractors, both free and slave, were the builders of Columbus. Their history and contributions show an very important but little understood or recognized part of local history. 

 

During the early morning hours of March 1, 1858, the Steamboat Eliza Battle, while traveling from Columbus to Mobile, caught fire and burned on a freezing flooded Tombigbee River. It is considered the greatest disaster to occur on the Tombigbee, claiming the lives of at least 29 people. It was a night of horrors as passenger and crew faced either burning to death on the steamer or freezing to death in the river.  

 

Newspaper accounts named the captain and officers of the boat and honored their courageously helping save many lives, but they were not the only heroes. A slave serving as a cabin boy was cited for his "manly and noble conduct" but was only identified as the servant of Mrs King.  

 

Possibly the most courageous person that night was identified only as a deckhand who was a slave. That unknown hero had obtained a wooden plank with which he could safely float away from the burning boat without soaking in the freezing water. However, he saw a cold scared lady who was at a loss as to how to escape. He got her, put her on his plank raft and pushed her dry and safe away from the conflagration, knowing it would cost him his own life. Such are real heroes and such a sin to never know their names. 

 

Unfortunately, the names of so many of the blacks who played an important role in our earliest history have been lost. It is incumbent upon us to at least remember and celebrate their deeds. Such founders, builders and heroes should be celebrated whenever our history is told and not just in February.

 

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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