Ask Rufus: The Beginning of a Town, June 1819


Oscar Keeler's 1848 history of Columbus told how Spirus Roach

Oscar Keeler's 1848 history of Columbus told how Spirus Roach "occupied and kept entertainment in the house built by Thomas Thomas (in 1817) and from the peculiarities of himself and family, the Indians named the place Shook-huttah-Tom-a-hah, or Opossum Town." Photo by: Drawing by Frank Swords


Rufus Ward



The founding of Columbus involved a series of settlements and events stretching from 1810 to 1819. The origins of the town are tied to John Pitchlynn's 1810 residence across the Tombigbee at Plymouth Bluff.


It was there that in 1813, Fort Smith, a fortified log blockhouse, was constructed. The fort becomes an important U.S. military meeting, supply and assembly point during the Creek Indian War phase of the War of 1812. In October 1814, none other than Davy Crockett arrived there to be resupplied on his way to join Gen. Coffee's Tennessee troops and Andrew Jackson. Crockett and Coffee's other scouts had missed their rendezvous with the army and did not catch up with it until near Mobile.


Then followed the two events that set the site that would become Columbus. In 1816 the land on which Columbus now sits was ceded to the U.S. by the Choctaw Nation, and Andrew Jackson received approval from Congress to build a Military Road from Nashville to New Orleans. The road's survey was completed by September 1817 and placed its Tombigbee ferry crossing at what is now the foot of Main Street in Columbus.



Settlers began moving into the newly ceded Choctaw lands east of the Tombigbee, and there having been no survey of the state line, the land upon which Columbus sits became part of Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. In February 1818, Marion County, Alabama, was formed from the northwestern part of Tuscaloosa County and Cotton Gin Port (near present-day Amory) was chosen as the county seat.


With the cession of Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek land east of the Tombigbee, settlers moved in. From Mobile northwest to Cotton Gin Port and northeast to the Falls of the Warrior River (Tuscaloosa), a new country had opened to settlement. Along the Tombigbee, Warrior and Alabama rivers, towns were founded and rapidly grew. Some, such as Columbus and Tuscaloosa, thrived while others, such as Pickensville and Coffeeville, are but shadows of their former glory. Some, such as Cotton Gin Port, are no more.


In the fall of 1817 the first house was built on the site that became Columbus, and Silas McBee and his family settled near the mouth of the misspelled Magby Creek. By mid-June of 1818, William Cocke was living with his family at a residence on the Tombigbee River, which may have been the 1817 house. It was around 1818 that the Cedars was constructed as a farmhouse near a spring on the Military Road, two miles north of what was the original town. A new settlement was growing, and June 1819 saw the arrival of several families who built houses at what is now downtown Columbus. The settlement began to organize as a town and Silas McBee suggested that the new town be called Columbus.


In 1819, the county seat of Marion County was moved to the house of Henry Greer to place it closer to the rapidly growing Columbus settlement, which was still believed to be in Alabama. Greer's house was located at the present site of Columbus Air Force Base. A settlement known as Hamilton soon arose just across the Buttahatchie River from Greer's house. Also in 1819, Silas McBee of Columbus represented Marion County in the Alabama Legislature, William Cocke's stepson, Bartlett Sims, was the sheriff of Marion County and Richard Barry was the county's notary public.


There are a few early accounts of Columbus that were written within 60 years of its founding when several early settlers were still living. The best are by W.E. Gibbs in the 1872 Columbus Index, Rev. George Shaeffer's account that was reprinted in W.L. Lipscomb's 1909 History of Columbus and Oscar Keeler's Almanac of 1848. Additional information is provided by brief historical accounts published in 1861 and 1891 and by official records and Indian agency records.


The earliest surviving narrative of the history of Columbus was written by Oscar Keeler in 1848. It states that in the latter part of the year 1817, a man named Thomas Thomas built a small split log hut in Columbus after the Indian agent (William Cocke) ran him out of the Chickasaw Nation for being an intruder. However, Keeler said there was no sign of the cabin having been occupied until around 1819. Keeler also told how Spirus Roach "occupied and kept entertainment in the house built by Thomas Thomas and from the peculiarities of himself and family, the Indians named the place Shook-huttah-Tom-a-hah, or Opossum Town." (The site of that first cabin was on present-day Third Street South about where the office of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau is now located.)


Keeler listed the following as coming to the new settlement "about the middle of June 1819: Thomas Sampson, William Viser, William Poor and Spirus Roach." Keeler then stated that shortly after the first group arrived "Thomas Townsend, Green Bailey, Dr. B.C. Barry, Silas Brown, Hancock Chisolm, William Connover, William Fernandes, John H. Leech and several other young men came to the place." Other records reflect Gideon Lincecum, Thomas Moore, Ovid Brown, Richard Barry and several others settled within what is the present-day Columbus city limits in 1819.


Although Keeler said the first house in 1817 was built by Thomas Thomas, 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 and Cocke was learning he would be replaced as Chickasaw Agent. By the following June, Cocke had moved to a house on the Tombigbee River. To add to the confusion some sources say that it was a Thomas Moore who built that first house on the Tombigbee bluff in 1817. I guess with all the confusion about what state the new settlement was in, the builder of the first house might as well be confusing too.


By mid-June 1819, a small collection of log cabins overlooking the Military Road's Tombigbee River ferry crossing was rapidly growing and though not yet officially recognized as a town it had taken the name of Columbus.



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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