Ask Rufus: They called Columbus home

April 12, 2014 11:27:51 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


The past two weeks I have been helping with the Columbus Pilgrimage. I had not intended on doing so, but Nancy Carpenter of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau called and said they were short-handed and could I help with tour groups. Before I realized it, I was telling stories about Columbus to multiple tour groups on the double-decker bus.  


People, both local and from across America, seemed to enjoy stories of our local history. However, they were all amazed to hear of the range of notable people who have lived in Columbus. These were people, sometimes in the limelight and sometimes under the radar, who had a national and even international impact on history or culture. 


There was John Pitchlynn, the U.S. Interpreter for the Choctaw Indian Nation. He had been appointed to the position by George Washington and actually served as sub-Choctaw Agent and at times as acting agent. By the 1790s he was living on the Noxubee River near present day Macon. In 1810 he moved his residence to Plymouth Bluff on the Tombigbee River. The site is now the West Bank of the Stennis/Columbus Lock and Dam. In 1813, during the Creek Indian War phase of the War of 1812, a small fort and blockhouse named Fort Smith was constructed there. It became a supply depot and staging area for friendly Choctaw and Chickasaw warriors assembling to join with Andrew Jackson's forces in opposition to the Creek Indians. Among those passing through for supplies was David Crockett. Pitchlynn is credited with playing a major role in maintaining the alliance between the Choctaw Nation and the United States during the War of 1812 period. 


William Cocke moved to Columbus about 1818. He was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and an early settler in Tennessee. There he was a sometimes friend, sometimes foe of Andrew Jackson and was one of Tennessee's first two U.S. Senators. After the Creek War he became the U.S. Chickasaw Indian Agent. In Columbus he became president of the trustees of Franklin Academy in 1821. Franklin Academy, which is still an elementary school on its original site, was Mississippi's first public school. In the 1820s Cocke corresponded with his old friend from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, about Franklin and its students. 


Gideon Lincecum also arrived in Columbus about 1818. He was a true renaissance man of the 19th century. A self-taught man, he excelled in many fields. He wrote magazine articles on hunting, studied herbal medicine with a Choctaw Indian doctor, was in Texas in 1835 at the beginning of the Texas Revolution, and wrote papers on the evolution of ants which were published by Charles Darwin. In 1836 he returned to Mississippi from Texas. He moved his family to Texas in 1848. It is impossible to briefly sum up his accomplishments other than what is included on his headstone. He is buried on "founder's row" of the Texas State Cemetery in Austin where his marker reads, "Dr. Gideon Lincecum, A veteran of the War of 1812, Internationally famous botanist, Friend of Darwin, Born in Georgia, April 22, 1793, Died at Long Point, Washington County, Texas, November 28, 1873." 


Though he never was a full-time resident of Columbus, one of the most interesting figures in Columbus history was Horace King. He was a black man who was an engineer and bridge builder, first as a slave and later as a free man. King built the first bridge across the Tombigbee at Columbus in 1842. It was a wooden covered bridge. He also built covered bridges over at least three creeks in Lowndes County, one of which remained in use until about 1940. King became one of the most noted bridge builders in the South during the mid-1800s. 


Living in Columbus during the mid-1800s was Dr. William Spillman, a physician whose avocation was natural history. He collected Cretaceous period fossils around this area and sent them to the founding fathers of American Paleontology. Many of the specimens wound up as "type specimens" in the Smithsonian Institution. 


Also in Columbus was A.B. Meek, an author and poet who moved here from Alabama. In 1854 he read of the heroism of a British military unit and wrote a poem, "Balaklava," to honor it. Queen Victoria was so moved by the poem that she had it printed and distributed across England. Soon afterwards, Alfred Lord Tennyson decided to also write a poem about the same incident -- "The Charge of the Light Brigade." 


The Rev. Joseph Holt Ingraham was rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Aberdeen in the early 1850s and also served for a time at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Columbus. In 1858 he wrote a historical fiction novel about Moses titled, "The Pillar of Fire or Israel in Bondage." Ninty-six years later Cecile B. DeMille used that novel for much of the screenplay of "The Ten Commandments." In the movie's credits Ingraham is given top billing as writer.. 


Although Columbus has long celebrated Tennessee Williams as its native son, research by scholars is beginning to show Williams drew more from his experience in Columbus and with its people than previously recognized. Recent research by a film producer and by a writer, both in New York, may link some of Williams more notable characters and scenes with Columbus. In one of those interesting sidelights of history, the Columbus doctor who delivered Williams when he was born had once been stationed as a calvary surgeon at Fort Apache, where he knew and would sit and talk to Geronimo.  


Other interesting people associated with Columbus include "Red" Barber the famed sportscaster, and Henry Armstrong, an African-American boxer considered one of the five greatest boxers of all time. Additionally, there were Josh Meador, Walt Disney's long-time head of animation effects, and Clyde Kilby, biographer of C.S. Lewis and an editor for J.R.R. Tolkien. Meador grew up across the street from Kilby's wife and the home to which Kilby retired. Their houses were just a block down the street from the Meek and Spillman houses and only four blocks from Red Barber's childhood home. 


The list of Columbians who have made significant contributions to our state and nation could go on and on with too many other writers, sports figures, political figures, musicians and cultural figures to include in a short column. I will leave them for another day.  


Having spent two weeks riding around and talking with visitors, I found Pilgrimage this year to have been a great success, at least from the point of view of our visitors. Many of our out-of-town guests expressed suprise at how much Columbus has to offer. I encountered five or six people who were wandering about Southside neighborhoods looking at houses. They viewed our community as a wonderful place to which they might possibly retire or move. Sometimes we fail to see just how much potential is actually in Columbus and the Golden Triangle. It became very apparent to me that many of our visitors saw and realized that potential.

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