Ask Rufus: A story of early Columbus

December 7, 2019 10:09:42 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


It is always interesting when different early accounts and stories merge into a single narrative. I was recently rereading a letter to the editor that the late Doug Stone had once sent to The Commercial Dispatch and found just such a story about Columbus' early times.


The letter contained an excerpt from George Brown's 1877 autobiography. Brown had written that in 1821 he was in South Carolina studying medicine when his brother Ovid Brown came for a visit and convinced him to come to the new town of Columbus. There he could continue his medical studies "under the direction of Doctor Barry a very popular physician of that place."


I found it strange that Brown would want to leave South Carolina to study under a doctor in a remote frontier town. However, like the pieces of a puzzle, several different accounts fit together to tell a story.



In his 1877 autobiography Brown described his first impressions of Columbus in the fall 1821:


"My brother kept a hotel and I boarded with him. The now flourishing city of Columbus consisted then of two rows of cabins about 200 yards long -- not a brick house in the place, and but one framed house -- and that was a hotel kept by Richard Barry. (Gideon Lincecum's 1819 residence was the first frame building.) I assisted to dig stumps out of the street. The Choctaw Indians occupied the lands on the opposite side of the river. They came over frequently to trade and were very peaceable and friendly. It was in the spring or Summer in 1822 (actually March 1823) that the first steamboat arrived at this place that ever came up the Tombigbee river. The name of it was the Cotton Plant."


George Brown would spend 18 months in Columbus with his brother Ovid.


Ovid P. Brown had settled in Columbus in 1819 where he lived in a log home which his son, Stephen, described in 1861 as being "situated on the south side of Main Street upon the brow of the hill, a few hundred yards east of the old Columbus Ferry." The earliest accounts of Ovid have him as the captain of a keelboat transporting salt and sugar to Columbus from Mobile in 1819. The Mobile Gazette of February 2, 1820, reported that Brown's barge, Southern Trader, had cleared the port of Mobile for Columbus.


There remains the question of who Dr. Barry was and why a frontier doctor would have been a good doctor to study medicine under.


Dr. B.C. Barry may have been a frontier doctor but in the summer of 1821, a successful surgery he and Dr. Henderson performed on a patient at Barry's Columbus office made national news. This would have been on Ovid's mind when he visited George in the fall of 1821 and would have made a real impression on George. Barry's office was in a small two-story framed house with Dr. Barry's office on the first floor and the Masonic Lodge on the second (the present site of the Varsity Building).


The account of the operation was first carried in The Mississippi State Gazette of Natchez on July 14, 1821, under the headline "Interesting Operation" and it later appeared in newspapers from St. Louis to Boston. According to the Natchez paper:


"On the 25th of March ..., Doctors Henderson and Barry of Columbus performed an operation of Lithotomy (removal of kidney or Gall stones) on Tishee Mingo, Chief speaker of the Chickasaw nation. They extracted nineteen separate cohuti, weighing in the whole between two and three ounces. The patient is supposed to be in his 63rd year, and was much emaciated by the disease and very far exhausted by the operation. His recovery has been rapid, and he at this time is considered out of danger. [communicated by a spectator.]"


With the national coverage the operation received, George Brown's wanting to study medicine under Dr. Barry makes sense. Dr. Barry had moved to Columbus in 1819 and died in 1824. The records in the probate of his estate show that when he died, he had a house under construction on the southwest corner of Fifth Street South and College Street. Claims filed in the estate for building materials allowed the late Sam Kaye to reconstruct the appearance of the house, which was a 16-by-40 foot frame dwelling. That site was close to what was the early route of the Columbus-Pickensville Road. At the time of his death, in addition to his medical practice, Barry was involved in the contract to provide mail service on the route.


It is always interesting to fit various seemingly unrelated pieces of history together to tell a story lost in time.


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