Ask Rufus: The Columbus landscape of 1817

December 11, 2017 11:05:23 AM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


The first Anglo-American settlement in northeast Mississippi occurred at Cotton Gin Port on the Tombigbee (near present day Amory) in 1801. Following that settlement, John Pitchlynn established his residence at Plymouth Bluff, four miles north of present-day downtown Columbus in 1810.  


In 1816, after the conclusion of the War of !812 and the Creek Indian War, the Choctaws and Chickasaws ceded all of their claims to lands east of the Tombigbee River to the United States. The future site of Columbus was in the Choctaw cession. Also in 1816, Congress approved Andrew Jackson's request to construct a military road from Nashville to New Orleans.  


The Military Road's survey was completed in early September 1817, and the location of its Tombigbee River crossing was set at a point about four miles south of John Pitchlynn's house. It was the Treaty of 1816 and the construction of the Military Road that opened the land and set the site of Columbus. It is interesting to think of what the Tombigbee Bluff at Columbus looked like before the town made it's imprint on the land. 


One of the first Anglo-Americans to settle at the site of Columbus was Gideon Lincecum, who in 1818 moved his family from Tuscaloosa and built a house on the banks of the Tombigbee in the area of the present day John C. Stennis Lock and Dam public boat ramp. In 1819 he moved three miles downriver and built a house and store on what is now the Elks Club/Gilmer block downtown. 


Lincecum's account of that move -- found in his fascinating book, "Adventures of a Frontier Naturalist" -- is the earliest description of Columbus at its founding. Lincecum paints a vivid image of a wild and beautiful forest teeming with game before it was cleared. His last two campsites before arriving at the Tombigbee were at two creeks the Choctaws called "Lua Copesa" (which means Cold Fire) and "Lookse-ok-pullia" (which means "a terrapin floating on the water"). His next camp was on the banks of the Tombigbee three miles north of present day downtown. 


Lincecum's descriptions present Columbus in its primeval setting. "At our camp near Cold Fire creek (Just south of Columbus on Highway 69 it is now incorrectly called Coal Fire), there certainly must have been half a dozen packs of them (wolves) around the camp and they came so near we could hear them snapping their teeth." At the Luxapalila camp: "It was full of blue-winged teal, swarming like wild pigeons. ... We heard the panthers scream; the raccoons complained; the owls came near and hooted awfully; and the wolves howled all night." On the journey which had taken 12 days, hundreds of "fat turkeys" had been seen. 


At what is now where Catfish Alley intersects with Main Street in downtown Columbus, Lincecum killed a "big buck with a chair frame (antlers) on his head." The deer fell at the base of a large pine tree, and after cutting the deer's throat, Lincecum cleaned his knife by cutting into the tree with it. The Eagle Hotel was built in that location and its sign post stood where the large pine had been. That later became the site of the Gilmer Hotel.  


Lincecum expressed delight at the beauty of his campsite three miles from present downtown. It was situated in a bend of the river near a canebrake that came almost to the water's edge. It was on a low bluff where a spring flowed from the roots of a large sycamore tree splashing onto a rock extending out from the base of the bluff. On the first night he camped there, at least 40 turkeys lit in nearby trees. The next morning he shot one that dressed out at 29-1/2 pounds. He explored the river around his camp and found "plenty of bear and deer signs." Fishing in the river was excellent and several catfish over 80 pounds were caught. Lincecum said that Choctaws were living only two miles across the river as was John Pitchlynn who turned out to be a cousin. 


Two hundred years ago what is now the Island across from Columbus was a favorite hunting ground of Choctaw Indians who called it "Shonk Colohenocoby" or "Crooked Cypress." Its long association with Native American hunting was shown by the finding of a 2,000-year-old small spear point embedded in a buried cypress knee during the construction of the Tenn-Tom Waterway cut-off. Lincecum called the area "White Slue." He described it as a "string of ponds and lakes" and said.  


The Old Macon Road remnant on The Island constitutes the remains of Andrew Jackson's Military Road from Nashville to New Orleans. 


When the Military Road was completed to the Tombigbee, Lincecum went down "to see what kind of a place it was." He found the site that would become Columbus "a beautifully elevated situation." He thought it "an eligible town site, and would be a town as soon as the country should settle up."  


He decided to saw boards for a house and then return to the site. After having sawed a thousand boards, he returned to the town site in 1819. When he arrived back at the creek (Moores Creek) where he planned on landing, he found a keel-boat with goods from Tuscaloosa already there. Lincecum bought the goods and the boat and then built his house and store at a spot about 50 yards west of the big pine tree where the year before he had killed a big buck. 


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