Ask Rufus: A potpourri of history


This 1859 illustration depicts how an old frontier village would have appeared. When people ask what the Columbus of almost 200 years ago looked like, it would have looked much like this image.

This 1859 illustration depicts how an old frontier village would have appeared. When people ask what the Columbus of almost 200 years ago looked like, it would have looked much like this image. Photo by: Courtesy photo


Rufus Ward



I have been writing this history column for eight years now and even though there are topics I have covered in several columns, I still have people ask me, "why don't you write about that topic or tell that story?" So here are the questions I am most often asked. 


Possibly the most frequent question I am asked is: How did Columbus get the name of Possum Town?  


The earliest history of the settlement of Columbus is found in Oscar Keeler's 1848 Almanac. There Keeler wrote that about the middle of June 1819, Spirus Roach came to the place that became Columbus. According to Keeler, "(Roach) occupied and kept entertainment in the cabin built by Thomas Thomas and from the peculiarities of himself and family, the Indians named the place... Opossum Town." The peculiarities were referred to, in some other accounts, as long pointed noses. 


Another common question is the meaning of Tombigbee. The earliest recorded name of the Tombigbee River was "The River of the Chicaca (Chickasaw)." That name dates to 1540 and the narratives of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto.  


In 1805, Mississippi Territorial Judge Harry Toulmin wrote that the name "Tombigby" came from the Choctaw word "Elome-gabee" which meant "box maker." Toulmin said the river was named for "a box maker who formerly lived on some of its headwaters." Pontotoc Land Office draughtsman Edward Fontaine wrote in 1848 that the Choctaws began calling the River "Itta-ombee-aye ika-abee" or wooden box-making river about 1730. He explained the Choctaws named the river to commemorate the French teaching them to make wooden boxes in which to ship furs. 


Another frequent question is whether Andrew Jackson marched down the road named after him on his way to the Battle of New Orleans. 


Work on Jackson's Military Road started in 1817, and it was completed in 1820. The road was constructed after the War of 1812 had ended and there is no evidence Jackson ever set foot on the part of the road where Columbus was established. Jackson ordered the road to be built to provide a direct route between Nashville and New Orleans to address the difficulties he experienced in getting troops to New Orleans during the War of 1812. Since Jackson was instrumental in getting congressional approval for the road and seeing to its construction, it was named after him.  


People are always interested in when the first house was built in Columbus and where.  


The Choctaw Treaty of 1816 opened the country east of the Tombigbee River and south of the mouth of Tibbee Creek for settlement. Columbus is located in the northwest corner of that cession. In the fall of 1817, a small log house was built on the Tombigbee bluff on what is now Third Street, about the present location of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau. Keeler's 1848 account of the founding of Columbus said the first house was built in the "latter part" of 1817 by Thomas Thomas, who had been run out of the Chickasaw Nation.  


Another possibility is that Thomas Cheadle built the house. He was employed by Chickasaw Agent William Cocke as a carpenter at the agency until Sept. 2, 1817. His leaving the agency just happens to coincide with the time that the future site of Columbus was selected as the Military Road Tombigbee crossing. It may not be coincidence that less than a year later in mid-June of 1818, William Cocke, the former Chickasaw Agent that Cheadle worked for had moved with his family at a new residence on the Tombigbee River. The exact location of that residence was not given, but by 1819 Cocke's residence was beside the 1817 cabin.  


The oldest surviving house in Columbus is the Cedars which was built between 1817 and 1824, probably in 1817 or 1818 by Vardy McBee. When it was constructed it was located three miles north of town on Military Road. The oldest known surviving house in the original town limits is the Ole Homestead on College Street. It was constructed between 1819 and 1829, most likely by Charles Abert when he moved to Columbus in 1825.  


I have often been asked when Columbus officially became a town. It was on February 10, 1821, that the Mississippi Legislature chartered the Town of Columbus. The town, though, already existed when that happened. On December 6, 1819, the Alabama Legislature established a Marion County, Alabama, voting precinct at "some suitable house in the town of Columbus." It was believed the Tombigbee would be the state line. By the 1820s, references to the town of Columbus are not uncommon, including the US Post Office establishing a post office in 1820. The 1820 US Census lists 83 free whites, one free black and 23 slaves living in Columbus, giving the town an 1820 population of 107. The year of the actual founding of the Town of Columbus clearly was 1819. 


Stories abound about tunnels under Columbus and people are often asking about them. Supposedly, these tunnels were brick-lined and built during the Civil War to provide escape routes from important buildings and prominent residences to the Tombigbee River. I have had numerous people tell me they have seen tunnel entrances or seen street cave-ins or construction expose a brick tunnel.  


The Civil War tunnels make a fascinating story, but they are only a story. Tunnels do exist, but they have nothing to do with the Civil War. They are actually a brick storm drainage system that was probably started by the city in the mid 1850s and expanded and completed during the 1870s.  


Wolfe -- or is it Wolf? -- Road in northeastern Lowndes County has generated many questions. Most road signs now say Wolfe Road but that is not its original spelling or meaning. That name is an example of people either not knowing or not appreciating history. It is one of the oldest roads in the area and dates to 1820 or before. In 1872 W.E. Gibbs told the story behind its name: "That part of our county ... was then (around 1820) a 'veritably a howling wilderness,' being made so by innumerable bands of predatory wolves, so numerous that the rearing of stock was an impossibility. The Wolf Road took its name from this fact."  


There is a wealth of history in east Mississippi and west Alabama and a lot more questions to answer and stories to tell.


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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