Ask Rufus: Early Roads


The old roads that once crossed the Golden Triangle are shown on this map published in 1839. Also shown as shaded areas are prairies.

The old roads that once crossed the Golden Triangle are shown on this map published in 1839. Also shown as shaded areas are prairies.
Photo by: Courtesy image/Billups-Garth Archives, Columbus-Lowndes Public Library



Rufus Ward



The last several weeks I have spent many days walking and enjoying the almost five miles of trails through woods and sloughs at MUW's Plymouth Bluff Center.


Cherokee Roses and Yaupon Holly in the woods mark old sites of human habitation and there is evidence of old roads. North of the center on the West Bank Access Road there is a historic marker placed by the state and national Society Daughters of the American Colonist.


The marker reads, in part:



PLYMOUTH "Frontier crossroads on Tombigbee River at intersection of (1) Big Trading Path (later Gaines Trace) connecting Chickasaws to the north with Choctaws, St. Stephens and Mobile to the south and (2) east-west trail that the Creeks used to reach the Mississippi River ..."


The reason for the settlement of Columbus in 1817 and its growth into an organized town in 1819 was its importance as the Tombigbee Ferry crossing on Andrew Jackson's Military Road that connected Nashville to New Orleans. With last year having been the bicentennial of Columbus officially being recognized as a town and this past March being the bicentennial of establishment of the Columbus Post Office, the Plymouth historic marker got me thinking about the early roads in the area.


The earliest mention of a local road I have found was the 1811 mention of a road that basically followed the "Big Trading Path." This road up the Tombigbee became known as the St. Stephens Trace.


The St. Stephens Trace is a little known, but very historic road that once ran from John Pitchlynn's residence at the present site of the John Stennis (Columbus) Lock and Dam to St. Stephens, which is about 50 miles north of Mobile. It evolved from an existing Indian trail and was the first important north-south road in what is now east Mississippi and west Alabama. In October 1814, Gen. John Coffee led 3,000 Tennessee Militia south to reinforce Jackson at Mobile prior to the fighting at New Orleans.


Coffee's route took him down the Natchez Trace to the Chickasaw villages (Tupelo), and from there down Gaines Old Trace to Pitchlynn's. On Oct. 14, 1814, Coffee wrote Jackson from Pitchlynn's that he expected to find better roads from "Peachland's" to Fort Stoddard than he had found from Tennessee to "Peachland's." The better road he referred to was the St. Stephens Trace. Present-day U.S. Highway 45 south between Columbus and Meridian roughly follows the route of the St. Stephens Trace.


After the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson realized the need for a better route between Nashville and New Orleans and petitioned congress for its construction. He considered the road necessary for the growth and protection of what was then the Southwestern United States.


On April 27, 1816, Congress approved the road and authorized its construction. As commander of the Military Division of the South, Jackson directed its construction. Capt. Hugh Young completed the survey of the Military Road in June 1817 and in September sent a report and map of the route to Jackson. He described to Jackson in a letter dated Sept. 14, 1817, the place of crossing the Tombigbee River; "From Noxubee the road runs with St. Stephen's trace to a point 7 miles from the Tombigby; being, for that distance, the best route in the direction of the places on the River, which I had chosen for a ferry." That Military Ferry site is now the location of the Tombigbee bridge in Columbus.


Construction of the Military Road was by troops from the 1st and 8th U.S. Army regiments and by a detachment of the Corps of Artillery.


By spring 1820 the road was nearing completion. However, there were some delays in construction toward its southern end. In response, Jackson on March 20, 1820, ordered Col. Zachary Taylor to take command of the troops at the southern end and complete the road. On May 17, 1820 Jackson wrote the Secretary of War that the road was open. It became one of the most important roads of its time but its days were short-lived. By the mid-1830s it was all but abandoned south of Columbus, though its use north of Columbus continued. Today it survives as Military Road in Columbus and Highway 12 north and on into northwest Alabama as sections of various highways.


When the Columbus post office was established in 1820 there would have only been two post roads, which were the principal highways of the time. They were the Military Road and what became known as the Upper Tuscaloosa-Columbus Road. That road also went to Marion Courthouse, which was the county seat of Marion County, Alabama. It was at the site of present-day Columbus Air Force Base. The settlement soon over across the Buttahatchie and was named Hamilton. The Upper Tuscaloosa Road survives as Highway 50 East and Waterworks Road and its northern route to Hamilton is Third Street North and Old Aberdeen Road.


In 1823 the post road to Tuscaloosa was changed to the Pickensville Road. The route of that road across present-day Columbus is evidenced by the offset streets between the river and MUW where the street grid was adjusted to account for the existing road. Another important early road was the Robinson Road from Columbus to Jackson.


On Aug. 8, 1821, the Mississippi State Gazette announced that "the War Department (would) receive proposals for OPENING A ROAD from Turner Brashears' old Stand, on the road leading from Natchez to Nashville, to a point near Columbus, on Tombigby. The road will be required to be well opened, twelve feet wide, good substantial bridges to be placed over the water courses, and the swamps causewayed." Much of this road still exist in Lowndes County being Motley, Mims and Guerry Roads between Columbus and Artesia.


In the 1820s there were many other roads constructed as the region was settled first east of the River and then after the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, in the Choctaw homelands. East of the Tombigbee Wolf Road c. 1820 is one of the oldest local roads. West of the River by 1822 there was a road to the Mayhew Mission. That road is basically Plymouth Road and Old West Point Road.


One road which was constructed in 1831 but was only used a few years was the Indian Emigration Road. It is the original Choctaw Trail of Tears and now is barely visible in a few places, lost in woods between Starkville and Line Creek.



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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