An 1839 engraving of settlers on a river in the American south. William Cocke, a captain in the American Revolution, friend of Thomas Jefferson, associate of Daniel Boone, one of Tennessee's first two senators and Chickasaw Indian Agent from 1814-1818, likely settled with his family at the future site of Columbus between June 15 and June 27, 1818, making this weekend the 200th anniversary of the founding of Columbus. Photo by: Courtesy photo
June 16, 2018 10:02:24 PM
Although Columbus was not officially recognized as the "Town of Columbus" until a December 6, 1819, act of the Alabama legislature, its founding may have been 200 years ago this weekend.
The story of Columbus' beginnings is intertwined with events occurring between 1816 and 1818 at the Chickasaw Indian Agency southeast of Pontotoc. In 1816, the Chickasaws and Choctaws both ceded their lands east of the Tombigbee to the United States government. The land on the east side of the river and south of the mouth of Tibbee Creek, which became Columbus, had been Choctaw land. Land north of the mouth of Tibbee had been Chickasaw land.
On June 27, 1818, Col. Henry Sherburne wrote to the Secretary of War that he had arrived at the Chickasaw Indian Agency to assume his new position of agent and found "the agency house in a deserted state, Col. Cocke (the former agent) having taken himself & family about thirty miles off to a place he has or is about to purchase on the Tombigbee..."
On or about June 15, 1818, Chicksaw Indian agent William Cocke, his wife Kissiah Sims Cocke and the rest of their family had departed the Chickasaw Indian Agency. Cocke, a friend of Thomas Jefferson, one of Tennessee's first two US senators and and a sometimes friend, sometimes adversary of Andrew Jackson, had once again angered Jackson, resulting in his removal as agent.
By 1819 Cocke was living on the Tombigbee bluff at Columbus, 45 miles from the Chickasaw Agency. Col Cocke's move two hundred years ago this weekend probably is the actual founding of Columbus.
The earliest history of Columbus, which was written by Oscar Keeler in 1848, states that in the latter part of the year 1817, a man named Thomas Thomas built a small split log hut in Columbus after Cocke ran him out of the Chickasaw Nation for being an intruder. However, there was no sign of the cabin having been occupied until around 1819. Its site was on present day Third Street South about where the office of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau is now located. The cabin was built at the prime location on the bluff of the Tombigbee River overlooking what became the Military Road's Tombigbee ferry crossing.
From 1814 to September 1817, while Cocke was agent, carpenter Thomas Cheadle had worked under him at the Chickasaw Agency. He worked there until September 2, 1817. It was on September 30, 1817, that Capt. Hugh Young, surveyor of Military Road, reported to Andrew Jackson the location of the road's Tombigbee ferry crossing. Cocke would have learned of the ferry's location about that time, if not before.
Cocke also knew his position as Chickasaw agent would end in 1818.
The site where Cocke and his family were living in 1819 was next to that cabin built on the ridge above the Military Road's Tombigbee crossing in 1817. Was the builder of the first house in Columbus Thomas Thomas, an intruder run out of the Chickasaw Nation by William Cocke, or Thomas Cheadle, a carpenter sent by Cocke to build a house and stake a claim for him at a soon-to-be very valuable piece of real estate?
The timeline that develops for the founding of Columbus would be:
■ 1816 - The future site of Columbus is ceded by the Choctaw Nation to the United States government.
■ 1817- Chickasaw Indian agent William Cocke learned his position would end in 1818. The location of the Military Road's Tombigbee ferry crossing was located at the future site of Columbus where an individual either run out of or sent from the Chickasaw Nation built a small log house but did not move there.
■ 1818 - Cocke is replaced as Chickasaw agent in June. On June 15, he moves his family to the Tombigbee River and is residing there by June 27.
■ 1819 - Cocke is living in a two-story cross hall log house in Columbus (which was then believed to be in Alabama) at the southeast corner of Main Street and Third Street South next to the cabin built in 1817. On December 6, 1819, an Alabama legislative act officially makes the "Town of Columbus" a voting precinct in Marion County, which had been formed from the western part of Tuscaloosa County.
The pieces of a puzzle appear to have come together. In the summer of 1817 Cocke knew his time as Chickasaw agent was limited and by late September would have learned of the Military Road's Tombigbee ferry location. It was a place which would surely become a town as it was not only a ferry crossing but also the road's point of entry into the Indian Territory. In September or October he sent Cheadle, the carpenter who had been working for him at the agency, to build a cabin and stake a claim to the prime building location at the ferry crossing.
No one lived in the cabin until Cocke left the agency on June 15, 1818, and by June 27 was living on the Tombigbee "about thirty miles" from the agency. Forty-five miles is not far off from Col. Sherburne's guess of about thirty miles to Cocke's residence, as there were no accurate maps and roads were only paths through woods and across open prairies. There is also no indication that Cocke lived anywhere other than Columbus after leaving the agency.
The only other Tombigbee settlements were at Cotton Gin Port (near Amory) and Pitchlynn's (Stennis/Columbus Lock and Dam west bank) and Cocke's name is not associated with either. It then makes sense that Thomas' cabin was the family's temporary residence in 1818 until Cocke's more substantial house was completed in 1819. The arrival of William Cocke and his family at the future site of Columbus between June 15 and June 27, 1818, would mark the actual founding of the settlement that in 1819 became the Town of Columbus.
This column evolved out of conversations with Carolyn Kaye and Gary Lancaster and abstracts of Chickasaw Indian Agency records in the National Archives complied by Jim Atkinson.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]