Spending the night where Alabama began
Before Living Democracy, I had no idea that I would walk the land where Alabama began. Yet, for the third time during my summer in Washington County, I was walking around Old St. Stephens.
This time I was here for an overnight stay. Jennifer Faith, director of St. Stephens Historical Park and Museum, offered me a night in one of the cabins. I arrived in the afternoon on Wednesday, July 17, and received my keys to Green Cabin Number Three.
After unpacking, I settled in a wooden swing under a shade tree where I relaxed and reminisced about the history lesson on St. Stephens that Faith had given me a few weeks ago.
Faith provided me with the following information.
When Alabama was still part of the Mississippi Territory, St. Stephens was one of the primary settlements. It was home to Creek and Choctaw Native Americans. The settlement was located on a key point of the Tombigbee River, and early settlers came here to trade. French settlers established trade near here as early as 1714.
After the American Revolution, everything below the 31st Parallel was given to Spain. Yet, in 1799, the Spanish fort built at the top of their territory was peacefully ceded to America. As Spanish soldiers marched around and waited, Americans arrived. They raised a flag with 15 stars and stripes over the new American fort at St. Stephens. This was the same flag design Francis Scott Key observed when he wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner”.
The St. Stephens land office was not established until 1805, six years later. Over time, more people arrived. By 1816, there were 500 buildings in St. Stephens.
As stated before, this was all part of the Mississippi Territory. The agrarian economy of the territory relied on slave labor. It was decided that instead of becoming a state with two votes, the Mississippi Territory would be cut in half to become two states and get four votes in the Senate.
In 1817, Mississippi became a state and Alabama its own territory. As St. Stephens had the largest population, it became the capital. To make this happen, 14 people representing the Alabama House and Senate met at the Douglas Hotel. The only senator available, James Titus, nominated himself as the president and unanimously voted himself in. He then hired a recording secretary and a door keeper.
Over the next 14 days, whenever the House passed something, the door keeper brought it over to Titus and presented it. Each time, Titus made a motion to approve it and unanimously voted it in. In doing this, Titus took the necessary steps to make sure that Alabama became a state. In 1818, there was another meeting, this time at the Alston Stone House. Alabama’s statehood was finally official.
I contemplated all this history as I sat in a swing on the park grounds. I wonder how different history would have been if James Titus had never taken the steps he did? Or what if Mississippi and Alabama had never even been divided? Even going a step further, what if this land had been left to the Creek and Choctaw Native Americans who first inhabited it? Going over the history, it’s interesting to speculate about what could have happened and how one different decision can affect the entire outcome.
Still, as the breeze flows, I remembered that there was more to my history lesson and once again I contemplated what came next in this story.
After Alabama became a state, Governor William Wyatt Bibb decided to have the capital moved. He heard of a Cahaba land donation. This is where he moved the capital. However, he also made private arrangements to purchase land around the donated site in order to make a profit off it. Sadly, for him, a fatal fall off his horse meant that he would never be able to govern from the town he built.
St. Stephens continued to prosper for a time but soon met its demise. Though removal of the capital didn’t cause the town’s downfall, it certainly didn’t help the town prosper.
There is the story of a curse that some speculate may have contributed to the disintegration of St. Stephens. As Faith’s family lived in the area since 1818, she has heard this story all her life.
“It was a strange story,” she said. “St. Stephens had no official churches. The only church was the chapel at the fort. A minister comes to town, and they won’t allow him to preach. Not at the school. Not at the theater. Not anybody’s house. Not in a field.
“So, he curses us. He says, ‘Within 50 years, no brick will stand upon brick and only owls, bats, spiders, and snakes will inhabit the land.’ Unfortunately for us he was right.” Faith continued, “From the time I was the tiniest little girl, the next sentence is, ‘So we tarred and feathered him and put him on raft back into the river to Mobile where he came from.’”
The “no brick upon brick” phrase that the minister got from the Bible became true. At the time, bricks used in St. Stephens were made of limestone. After the decline and due to the lack of plastering the limestone, it crumbled.
Still, the demise came from more than the curse. One issue was the development of shallow bottom boats that could go past the shoals located above St. Stephens. If you lived upriver, you could go to your own boat landing and not come to St. Stephens for goods. Thus, the commercial development took a hit.
Another issue was health related. There were two yellow fever epidemics that shook the town. Soon, it became a sort of ghost town and was dubbed Old St. Stephens. The inhabitants had moved three miles inland and created new St. Stephens
In the mid 1980s, a visitor passing through in a boat on the Tombigbee River asked locals, “What was over there?” referring to Old St. Stephens. He was shocked to hear that was the place in which the Spanish fort had been and the site of the original capital. When this news reached state historical representatives, they invested in the property for history and recreation and it became St. Stephens Historical Park.
In Faith’s understanding, the first director, a descendant of the McGrew Shoals who lived in the area, primarily focused on developing the historical aspects. The second director focused less on the history of the park but made the critical decisions to bring in cabins and expand recreationally. So, when Faith came along, she took the necessary steps to find the balance between history and recreation.
This is something I believe that Faith has done well.
Walk, Read, Relax
Deciding that I had sat on the swing and enjoyed the breeze for long enough, I decided to walk around and see more of the land. I visited the beach part of the park and saw a few families out enjoying the water. Not too far from there, RVs were parked in one of the campgrounds.
I also visited the “Indian Bath” site. Faith had armed me with a boat paddle to scare away snakes, and I “bravely” walked in the woods to see the natural spring. Before I moved, I wondered if Native Americans had actually bathed there.
I moved on further up the park to the Limestone Bluff. Looking down, I could see the river in the distance. It was a beautiful overlook. I continued moseying around Old St. Stephens when I decided the heat was more of a danger than the snakes. After returning my “weapon” to the store, I returned to my favorite spot in the wooden swing under the shade tree. Swinging in the shade, feeling the slight breeze, and hearing the bird in the branch above sing its tiny heart out, I was totally relaxed.
Eventually I returned to Green Cabin Number Three. The cabin was nice. It had a full bed, two bunk beds, a shower, refrigerator, and a microwave. One way that I settled in, was by reading the diary given to me by Faith.
Mary Welsh was born in Old St. Stephens in 1823. She spent most of her childhood there before moving away. Still, she returned to visit Old St. Stephens. In 1899, to celebrate the centennial of the town, she was asked to write her reminiscences.
The St. Stephens Historical Commission and the Washington County Museum Board of Directors have printed Welsh’s stories in a booklet. As Faith had gifted me a copy, there seemed like no better place to read it than in Old St. Stephens.
There were quite a few remarkable people that Welsh had written about in her diary. Some of which, I had never heard of and couldn’t help but wonder about, such as the two women of color whose attendance in religious service caused an uproar and led to the end of religious services in Old St. Stephens, as far as Welsh knew. She also wrote about Ann Hazard, a woman who educated the children and had a positive impact on Welsh. She even wrote about a place called Lover’s Leap and I couldn’t help but wonder about the mysterious people whose actions led to that being the name for one of the bluffs in Old Town.
It wasn’t until later that I learned the name was coined after a woman and her two suitors took their place on the bluff. The woman loved one man more than the other. In a plot to get rid of the man she didn’t love, she took both men up to the bluff and told them she would pick whoever was brave enough to jump and stay alive. She made the man she did not love, jump three times before he finally died. She celebrated his death by marrying the man she wanted from the very beginning. I can’t help but wonder what was going through both men’s minds.
After I finished the diary, I spent the rest of my time getting acquainted with my cabin for the night. At first, it was weird to be in the woods alone. But once I got over that, I began to enjoy the getaway. I read another book, listened to music and simply relaxed in the quiet cabin.
Courthouse and Museum
The next morning was spent sitting in a chair on the neighboring cabin’s porch to enjoy the view before my day started. Not long after, I was packed and ready to leave Green Cabin Number Three. On my way to turn in my key, I saw Hannah Harden who works at the park rescuing baby possums from their mom who had become roadkill.
After watching that excitement from a distance, I handed off my key and left to meet Jennifer Faith at the Old St. Stephens Courthouse and Museum. As a lover of museums, I enjoyed all the artifacts and information. My favorite part of the museum were the dolls created to represent important figures in St. Stephens. These dolls were created by Gail Brown. The clothing on the dolls replicates the time period and the items the individuals would have worn.
These dolls represent Choctaw Chief Pushmataha, Mahala Martin (also called Aunt Hagar), and Temperance Crawford. Chief Pushmataha was known as a pioneer for peace. When European settlers took over Native American land, he pushed to create harmony between the settlers and Native Americans.
Mahala Martin was a free woman of color who owned property in Old St. Stephens. She was well respected by those in the community, including Mary Welsh.
Temperance Crawford, whose husband was a judge in Old St. Stephens, was known to have pushed for women’s rights through underground efforts. It is said that she pushed for education and financial freedom for women.
Looking at the dolls, I wonder what life must have truly been like for each of these individuals. I feel honored to be able to walk the land that they called home.
The other thing I enjoyed seeing at the museum was the replica of what Old St. Stephens looked like. With everything I learned, I was still shocked at how Old St. Stephens looked. Instead of the grass and trees that cover the land, it looked like a modern town, full of businesses. The map was drawn by Judge Jerry L Turner. He owns the original, and the museum owns a copy. The only way to view the replica is to visit the museum itself.
To do so and learn more about the St. Stephens Historical Park and Museum, visit their website.
Visitors are also welcomed to attend two community events: Old St. Stephen’s Day, on the first Saturday in October, and the Old St. Stephens Community Reunion, on the first Saturday in May.
By Melissa Dennis
Last Updated: July 26, 2019