The historic origins of modern Tuscaloosa began prior to 1816, however, THE LEGAL ORIGIN of Tuscaloosa's story began 200 years ago this coming, October 4, when the signing of the TREATY OF THE CHOCTAW INDIAN TRADING HOUSE (located somewhere underneath the Sumter County side of the present-day Interstate 20/59 bridge) on October 4, 1816, EXTINGUISHED ALL INDIAN TITLE to all the land now within the boundaries of Tuscaloosa County.
In commemoration of this important bicentennial anniversary, I have reprinted my article first published in Old Tuscaloosa Magazine,
FRONTIER TUSCALOOSA- "Gettin' By On What We Had!"
When we review the progress of most endeavors, we usually find that the first years are always the toughest. So it was with Tuscaloosa. The story of the modern city of Tuscaloosa begins in 1816 when Indian title to this land was completely extinguished by the Treaty of the Choctaw Indian Trading House signed on October 4, 1816 at Strother Gaines' trading post on Factory Creek in Sumter County (Any archaeological remains of this old trading post were probably destroyed during the construction of the Interstate 20-59 bridge that crosses the Tombigbee.)
All of this good land for growing cotton lay vacant and enterprising heads of households from the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia poured into West Alabama to prospect for the most fertile land from which to make their fortunes. For five years, from 1816 until 1821, progress in this remote back country was nil and the rowdy frontier town that haphazardly rose on top of River Hill faced continuous problems produced by a lack of land ownership and adequate transportation.
Every person who settled in Tuscaloosa was a "squatter" and many factors complicated the land situation, making it impossible for anyone to own land within the town's boundaries. Before any public land in West Alabama was offered for sale, the land that contains Tuscaloosa's original city had been reserved from entry. By an act of Congress which formed Alabama Territory ( called "Mobile Territory" in the original legislation) on March 3, 1817, all of the land that is now north of 15th Street between Queen City Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard was reserved for a town site. The earliest settlers in Tuscaloosa could not buy the land they lived on until it was surveyed. Even if they had the money to pay cash, our earliest pioneers could not obtain titles for the land they claimed. The town's survey did not occur until the spring of 1821. In the absence of property lines and titles, the frontier town with a population of between 600 and 800 sprang up in a climate free of almost any governmental authority.
William R. Smith, in his REMINISCENCES... , describes the rustic settlement of his childhood:
"...the place presented nothing as a village but a rude cluster of log huts, heterogeneously arranged, with little regard with regularity as to streets. My own very dim recollections open here in 1821. Even then there was scarcely a plank or brick in the village. It was full of shrubby little oak and pine saplings, and literally swarming with the native Indians. Here the red men resorted to trade and to drink, and here they came to exhibit their skill at their favorite sport of ball playing."
This form of field hockey appears to have been the predecessor of the Crimson Tide's present proud Saturday afternoon football tradition. An early Greene County newspaper includes this advertisement:
By a special appointment made by a party at the Choctaws
A grand DANCE and BALL-PLAY,
will take place on Saturday next, in the vicinity of this place, on which occasion
50 OR 60 INDIANS
all choice players
will attend on that day!
The Captain of the party makes the following requests,which it is hoped, will be observed by the citizens and those who may attend, not to give gratuitously, or sell, to any of the Players or Indians of the nation, who may accompany him,
ANY SPIRITOUS LIQUORS
In their old age, many of Alabama's earliest settlers fondly recalled these spectacular athletic contests. General Thomas Woodward described the excitement of a Creek ball play in 1825:
"The old man(the Chief) then turned to his people, and said to them,... that every man must do his best-show himself a man, and should one get hurt he must retire without complaining, and by no means show anything like ill humor. The speech ended, about two hundred stripped to the buff, paired themselves off and went at it. It was a ball play sure enough, and I would travel further to see such a show that I would to see any other performed by man, and willingly pay high for it, at that!"
With such a large and idle illiterate population of American men passing through town on exploratory trips to the newly opened wilderness, Tuscaloosa was the frequent destination of professional gamblers. In a letter to his wife, Clarissa, William Ely expresses his disgust at Tuscaloosa's favorite vices:
"...they disipate their time and money and would their morals if they had any, without enjoyment, in lounging about taverns, stores, tipling and gambling houses, or making and attending horse races, cockfights, called chicken fights,shooting at a mark, hunting or fighting.
Notwithstanding such are their habits, I think them a very avaricious people. Money is their god and cotton is the idol of their devotions."
To say the least, Mr. Ely did not have a taste for frontier living. A successful businessman, this 53-year old Connecticut native was in Alabama because he had devoted his life to charity and philanthropy. Indian title in West Alabama had been extinguished and Ely came here to locate and sell public lands donated by Congress to the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb. From its formation in 1815 until 1819, the asylum was supported by charity but in 1819, the U.S. government gave its support to this institution, the first of its type in our nation.
In 1819, Congress gave the institution an entire township, thirty-six square miles of public land. Ely came to Alabama because land was about to go on the market and he was authorized to buy thirty-six square miles of his choice in Alabama and then sell it to the highest bidder. Despite his highly critical letters about Tuscaloosa, he liked the area and considered it to be "a very healthy place." In fact he liked it so much that he bought four-and one-half square miles of land that spread out south of 15th Street and west of Martin Luther King Boulevard. In a letter to his wife dated "Tuscaloosa, 2nd June, 1821," Ely bragged that, "The population now may be from 6 to 800 souls, not one of whom,except a few to whom I sold land since I came here, have any title to the land they live on."
Tuscaloosans did not appreciate being hemmed in by a Connecticut Yankee, no matter how noble his cause may have been. He wrote to his boss, James H. Wells, Treasurer for the asylum about his fears in Tuscaloosa:
"My health is not very good, tho I am able to attend to business, but the constant care and anxiety I experience, both on account of my business and the hazard to myself, and the property in my custody among such a barbarous people, many of whom are incensed against me, and the confinement I find it prudent to subscribe to, never going out here unarmed; pray severly on my health and spirits and tender me quite unhappy."
William Ely knew the muddy streets of Tuscaloosa were filled with men who would love to give his Yankee ass a royal butt kicking.
It was not as if Tuscaloosa was populated with the criminally insane. These squatters were making a living in the wilderness without the support of any governmental agency. They lived here in spite of the government's laws and the government didn't have the guts to send troops to the Falls of the Black Warrior to burn their cabins and send these men of the forest packing.
Thomas Perkins Abernathy gave a great description of these citizens, "...the people of early Alabama farmed their patches of cotton and corn, lived a hardy, rugged life close to nature, were friendly toward their neighbors and hospitable toward strangers, made an honest living for themselves and their families, attended to their own business most of the time and only rarely had leisure to celebrate."
After crossing the Warrior River at Tuscaloosa on a flatboat in 1821, William Gilmore Simms commented on the people living in the surrounding area, "Like the people in all counties who live in remote interior situations and see few strangers who can teach anything, these people had a hundred questions to ask and as many remarks to make upon the answers. They were a hardy, frank, plain-spoken, unequivocal set who would share their hoecake and bacon, or take a fling or dash of fisticuffs with you according to the several positions of friend or foe which you might think proper to take. Among all the people of this soil good humor is almost the only rule which will enable the stranger to get along safely."
One leisure activity that lured our rustic predecessors was the barbeque. The folks who attended these congregations were greeted by neat rows of liquor bottles each handsomely adorned with a paper label which named the political candidate who furnished the rum and whiskey.
These fellows loved to horse around and they weren't blood thirsty, but they loved to get drunk and fight. William Ely, the cultured businessman from Hartford, Connecticut, did not appreciate Tuscaloosa's fondness for this "hardy form of sport":
"The highest and lowest classes in society, the one considering themselves above, and the other below the influence of public opinion, are much addicted to excessive drinking. And to have a reputation of being a brave, daring character, with property, whether with or without talents, learning or any other requisites for an office, will enable a candidate more surely to command the votes of the electors than all other requisite qualifications without it. And I am told that one of the representatives from this town actually fought himself into the legislature last year."
The center of the frontier town of Tuscaloosa is debatable but this author believes it was right across the street from where I now type this essay on the north side of the 2600 and 2700 blocks of University Boulevard. The late Matt Clinton states, "The first burial ground in what is now Tuscaloosa was the hillside at the northern end of 27th Avenue near 4th Street. Close to that spot were built the first Baptist and Methodist churches. The cemetery was north of the churches. It was destroyed when the cut of the L&N Railroad was made."
Simms says that, "The town was little more than hewn out of the woods. Piles of brick and timber crowded the main [street], indeed the only street in the place, and denoted the rawness and poverty of the region in all things which could please the eye and minister to the taste of the traveler. But it had other resources in my sight. The very incompleteness and rude want of finish indicated the fermenting character of life."
In his biographical information on Captain James H. Dearing, Mr. Clinton wrote:
"He [Dearing] came to Tuscaloosa on an exploratory trip during the first year of the town's existence, 1816. He stayed in a little 'shanty of a hotel' kept by Joshua Halbert [this hotel was located near the site of the old water tower, on the southwest corner at the intersection of 4th Street and 27th Avenue]."
William Ely describes the tavern where he stayed as Lewens Hotel and he states that this log structure was located across the street from a log cabin used as a Methodist Church. This was June of 1821, so possibly Halbert's establishment was being managed by Charles Lewin who was mentioned as the Tuscaloosa tavern keeper in 1842.
Ely describes Tuscaloosa as a "...town which contains twenty stores and little groceries or hucksters shops..." Written records on Tuscaloosa from between 1816 and 1821 are scant so William Ely's fifteen letters from Alabama are important documents. Acquired by the University of Alabama before 1950, these documents are a tangible witness to Tuscaloosa's earliest days. To sit in the Ganrud Reading Room at Special Collections and to hold and to read a fabulously detailed letter penned in one of Tuscaloosa's log taverns in 1821 is a profoundly moving experience.
When reading Ely, one main thing needs to be kept in mind. William Ely was accustomed to the finer things in life and he was miserable in Frontier Tuscaloosa. He complained to his wife that he was indeed "a stranger in a strange land," and was sick of his journey from the very beginning. A year before his letter from Lewen's Hotel, he wrote this on April 20, 1820:
"I am weary with traveling over mountains, thro' swamps and mud and living in the middle of piles of logs with no other windows than the large spaces between them (there not being a pane of glass to 5000 people in the country), of living on hog and corn with a few racoon, oh , how I long to return to a civilized and moral world." However, one year later, in 1821, Ely did discover panes of glass in some Tuscaloosa cabins and wrote that, "I have traveled about 240 miles south of the Tennessee River and except at this place [Tuscaloosa] have not seen a pane of glass in any house and I do not think there are as many panes of glass, as houses, in this place...They all live in dirty, small sod and mud cabins, or in those of a more mean construction, and are generally almost destitute of all the comforts and conveniences of life. Bacon, corn bread, or greasy hot half baked biscuits, about as often without, as with vegetables, with water, buttermilk and sour milk, constitute, with tea and coffee, for those that buy them, their general diet..."
Mr. Ely's inspection of his tavern's kitchen convinced him that Tuscaloosa did not meet New England's public health standards. He complained to his wife:
"The kitchen!! Oh the kitchen!!!! The filthiest place you can conceive of being occupied for cooking, is small, but contains two beds, in which and on the floor, from six to ten negroes of both sexes and various ages all unmarried sleep promiscuously."
Ely says that "The Methodist house is across the street from where I live- about three weeks since, under the pulpit, which is a coarse square box raised about two feet from the floor, a great old sow introduced to the light six or seven fine pigs. Whether the floor was even swept after it before the next meeting I could not tell as I could not discover that any dirt was missing and two or three times since when the people have assembled there the old sow with her pigs placed herself at the door and claimed and disputed for the right of possession and a person was obliged to go out several times and beat her away from the door."
Tuscaloosa's pioneer women did not escape Ely's poison pen: "I am told the females, ladies I should have said, have almost no taste or inclination for reading, mental accomplishments not being sought after by the other sex, are neglected by the females and their whole attention is directed to tricking off their persons in the best manner for catching a man to take care of, and support them, their courtships if they deserve the name, are generally very short, and on the part of the female at an early age, and there is generally very little of either sentiment or prudence in the connection between the sexes."
Ely was highly amused at the married ladies attempt at "high society." He wrote,"A coach with two or three servants, driving up, with three or four ladies, dressed in their crepes, cambricks, silks, laces, leghorns, lace veils, white or coloured kids, to one of these cabins, the ladies jumping out into the mud and clamboring, perhaps, over a dirty rail fence, and walking, sometimes over shoes in mud, to get to it, and then stooping to enter the door (as few of them are high enough to permit a man to enter without stooping), is a perfect burlesque on show and parade, on good sense and propriety."
In the summer of 1821, Ely left Tuscaloosa and never returned. During that summer, frontier Tuscaloosa and its shabby cabins and eight-hundred squatters came to an end. The Cotton Plant became the first steamboat to ever dock at Tuscaloosa. With Colonel John McKee opening a federal land office in town, men without capital were at the mercy of the men with the money. Many of the squatters moved into the back country. Abernathy describes them:
"Men of this class, being improvident by nature, did not come to seek wealth but merely to gain a subsistence or to enjoy the freedom of the forest. They built their simple cabins and planted their crops of corn between trees which they killed by girdling. Their greatest immediate problem was to live until the first crop was made, and here there was much difficulty."
Four years later, in December of 1825, Tuscaloosa was made the capital of Alabama and the little town at the Falls of the Black Warrior began to reap the fruits of its destiny.
The frontier and its people had vanished.
That rugged way of life would never return.