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Ask Rufus: A Fire, Post Roads and a Bicentennial

 

An 1859 illustration of the arrival of a stage coach carrying mail and passengers at an early frontier village. The arrival on Jan. 1, 1821, of the first mail to be delivered to Columbus would have been an exciting but long awaited day as the Columbus Post Office had been established 10 months earlier on March 6, 1820.

An 1859 illustration of the arrival of a stage coach carrying mail and passengers at an early frontier village. The arrival on Jan. 1, 1821, of the first mail to be delivered to Columbus would have been an exciting but long awaited day as the Columbus Post Office had been established 10 months earlier on March 6, 1820. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

On May 18, 1820, the National Intelligencer of Washington published a list of new post roads that had been established by an act of Congress on May 13. The first route mentioned in Alabama was from Tuscaloosa to Columbus.

On May 18, 1820, the National Intelligencer of Washington published a list of new post roads that had been established by an act of Congress on May 13. The first route mentioned in Alabama was from Tuscaloosa to Columbus.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

There remains a lot of confusion over when the Columbus Bicentennial should be celebrated. To that we can add, 'Which Columbus is which?'  

 

While that may seem like an odd question, it seems there were four towns in Alabama named Columbus around 1819-22. 

 

The question to be answered is when was Columbus, Mississippi, officially recognized as a town. While Columbus was charted as a town in Mississippi on Feb. 10, 1821, it was referred to as the Town of Columbus by a Dec. 6, 1819, Alabama legislative act. Although Columbus was officially called a town in Alabama, I have found no record of it being incorporated in Alabama. That raises of the question of why it was officially called a town but not incorporated. 

 

The reason may be that at least three other early towns in Alabama also claimed the name of Columbus. One was on the Warrior River, one on the Tennessee River and one was two miles from the Alabama River in south Alabama. Also, several Alabama towns settled about the same time as Columbus were not incorporated until mid-November to late December 1820. By that time it was realized that the state line then being surveyed would probably put Columbus in Mississippi.  

 

Tuscaloosa, which is several years older than Columbus, was not incorporated until Dec. 13, 1819. Present-day Columbus, Mississippi, however, is the only Columbus I have found mentioned in 1817-21 Alabama legislative acts. 

 

The story of one of the other Columbus, Alabama, towns is an interesting one. In May 1822, several newspapers ran an article that reported: "Nearly the whole village Columbus, in the state of Mississippi, was destroyed by fire on the 19th of February." Around the same time other newspapers reported that: "One fell swoop --- A fire broke out in the town of Columbus, Alabama, on the 19th inst at 9 o'clock a.m. and continued until 3 p.m., which destroyed every building in town save one! We do not know the extent of this town." It sounded like it might be present-day Columbus. 

 

Then in digging further I found a series of newspaper reports from July 1822. The reports appeared in several papers and said: "The sympathy of many worthy persons was excited not long ago, by the intelligence that the town of Columbus, in Alabama, was entirely destroyed, with the exception of a single tenement. It turns out that this famous town consisted of one house, a stable, and a blacksmith's shop. If Noah Webster should ever publish his dictionary, we hope he will explain this word, so that we may know how far our feelings are to be moved when we read of so distressing a calamity." Definitely not Columbus, Mississippi, as the 1820 census showed 107 people living in the town and it grew significantly between 1820 and 1822. 

 

That brings us back to when did Columbus actually become a town. The legislative act which first mentioned Columbus concerned voting precincts in Marion County, Alabama. Marion County prior to 1821 included all of present-day Lowndes and Monroe counties south of Gaines Trace (Smithville area) and east of the Tombigbee.  

 

The act that passed on Dec. 6, 1819 read: "That separate elections shall be opened and held agreeable to law, in and for the county of Marion, at the house of -- M'Phaddin, in Wilson's settlement; at the house of Archibald Alexander, in Winn's settlement; at the house of John Woods, in Moore's settlement; at some suitable house in the town of Columbus; and at the house of Henry Grier, near the Buttawatche River in said county."  

 

Grier's house was near the Buttahatchie River at present-day Columbus Air Force Base. In February 1821, it was designated as the county seat of the newly created Monroe County, Mississippi. The settlement moved north across the river and became Hamilton. 

 

The rapid growth of Columbus, which had begun during the summer of 1819, is evident in post office records. On Feb. 29, 1820, the congressional committee on post offices and post roads was directed to look at establishing a post route in Alabama "... from Tuskaloosa to Columbus, in Marion County, by the court-house ..."  

 

The Columbus post office was established on March 6, 1820. On May 13, 1820, President James Monroe signed into law an act to create new postal routes in America. The first mentioned for Alabama was: "From Tuscaloosa, by Marion County Court House, to Columbus." Then on Aug. 22, 1822, Return J. Meigs Jr., the postmaster general (Return was his name), issued a call for "Proposals For Carrying Mails of United States." The proposals were to be submitted by Oct. 11, with service to start in December. Postal route 70 was "From Tuscaloosa by Marion c. h. to Columbus, once in two weeks." 

 

According to the history of Columbus published in the 1848 edition of Oscar Keeler's Almanac, the first mail to be delivered to Columbus by the U.S. Post Office arrived on Jan. 1, 1821. From the first congressional call for mail service to Columbus until the first mail delivery occurred was almost a year. As the December 1819 Alabama act that referred to the Town of Columbus also set Henry Grier's house as the seat of justice and the location for a "log court-house" to be built, it was the apparent moving force for the establishment of a new post route to the Marion County Courthouse and Columbus. The 1819 legislative act also clearly distinguished between settlements in the county and the Town of Columbus. 

 

If the official recognition of Columbus being a town is the date to be celebrated as its bicentennial then that date is Dec. 6, 1819. The granting of a charter to Columbus by the Mississippi Legislature on Feb. 10, 1821 occurred 14 months after Alabama recognized Columbus as a town, 11 months after the Columbus post office was established and almost a year after Congress addressed the need for a postal route to and a post office at the Town of Columbus. 

 

Thanks to Carolyn Kaye for her help digging into and transcribing early records for me.

 

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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