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Biography: James Robert Powell born Dec. 7, 1814 – photograph

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James_Powell_portraitJAMES ROBERT POWELL



(1814 -1883)


John Witherspoon DuBose

The year 1818, before Alabama had been admitted into the Union, a tall, fair-skin youth, yet in his teens, rode out, a solitary horseman, from his native county in Virginia into the interior of the wilderness of the Alabama territory. This was the beginning of a long life of adventure and enterprise spent in Alabama by James R. Powell.

Man of varied talents

He was a man of most varied talents and most indomitable energy. He literally sat by the cradle of one civilization in his adopted home; saw it nourish like a green bay tree; saw the forest fall in every county with astonishing rapidity, and the fertile new-cleared fields spring up in wealth; saw the rivers float the most magnificent steamers, laden with the riches of the earth and the chivalry and culture of a matchless society; saw all this mature and fructify and decay, and he followed it literally to the grave. Turning like a hero from the dead past, James R. Powell, in even rank with the foremost, and with brighter vision and fiercer resolve than the multitude, led the way of Alabama into the resurrection morn of her destiny.

Stopped first at Montgomery

Young Powell stopped first, on his ride into Alabama, at the little hamlet, on the hills above the Alabama River, called Montgomery. His faithful horse and less than $20 in cash were all the available assets at his command. He pursued his course from Montgomery into Lowndes, an adjoining county. Soon he sold his horse and found occupation, perhaps not regular or very remunerative. He became a contractor to carry the horse mails.

Later on he became a contractor to carry the mails by passenger stage coach. He became, as was the law of prosperity in those days, inevitably a cotton planter and a member of the legislature. His passenger and mail-coach line so prospered that it reached a position of serious competition with the line run by Robert Jemison, Esq., of Tuscaloosa. Mr. Jemison was a gentleman of great wealth, industry, enterprise, and intelligence. The brave Powell met hfrn on his own ground and joined a relentless contest with him. Finally, after both had been depleted in this mad rivalry, they came to terms of union. The organization became known as the stage line of Jemison, Powell, Ficklen & Co. It traversed Alabama from border to border at every point of the compass.

He remained in Montgomery during the Civil War

Colonel Powell did not raise a regiment and enter the field when the war opened, as may have been expected of so earnest a worker; nor did he become a soldier at any time during its progress. He remained at Montgomery an active supporter of the military establishment of the Confederacy in various practical ways.

Gifted with rare powers of persuasion, he exercised a marked influence in society, and directed this influence in behalf of the Confederate cause. Some examples of this activity may indicate the character of the man. When the great orator, William L. Yancey, the acknowledged representative of the Southern zeal and motive, returned from an unsuccessful mission to England in behalf of his Government, Colonel Powell, knowing Mr. Yancey personally, and appreciating his proud spirit and the personal distress which the rebuff his mission had encountered across the seas had visited upon him, invited several fellow-townsmen to unite with him in presenting the great statesman a splendid horse, handsomely accoutred, for the promotion of his health and amusement in his favorite exercise of riding. Mr. Yancey wrote a beautiful and eloquent expression of his gratitude to his neighbors and friends. The first name on the list of donors was James R. Powell.

Slander is many tongued and exhaustless in resources, hence this act of private and neighborly esteem for a public servant was industriously poisoned to the public ear. It was promptly announced by partisan foes of the statesman that the citizens of his city of abode had sent around to his residence, before breakfast, a fully-equipped war horse, with a suggestion that he should take the field to combat for his principles! Mr. Yancey had been unanimously elected by the Alabama Legislature to the Confederate Senate. He had sent three sons, only one of the number being a man, into the Confederate army.

Winter of 1863, the Alabama River froze

Another characteristic incident of Colonel Powell’s services to the Confederacy may be noted with propriety. When, in the winter of 1863, the Alabama River was found sheeted with ice, a phenomenon of so rare occurrence that few, if any, of the citizens had ever before witnessed it, Colonel Powell promptly bent every available resource at his command to harvest the priceless crop.

The ports of the Confederacy were effectually closed to importations of the article and artificial ice was then unknown. When the wind veered around and the accustomed climate of the latitude began to melt the coating over the river, so successful had Colonel Powell’s ice harvest appeared that he was offered $40,000 for it. He refused to entertain any proposition of sale, but presented the whole supply to the Confederate Army Hospital Department, for use in Georgia and Alabama hospitals for soldiers.

During the war Colonel Powell purchased a large area of cotton lands on the Yazoo River, Mississippi.

Hired labor to cultivate lands after the war

Immediately after hostilities ceased he began to hire labor to cultivate these lands. He made a contract with a young gentleman of great enterprise, John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, grandson of the famous statesman, to operate these rich cotton plantations.

The scheme attracted wide attention and created no small adverse comment in some parts of the older Cotton States. Mr. Calhoun appointed agents to collect select negro laborers in several parts of South Carolina and in Alabama. The planters were very much in earnest in their efforts to make cotton at fifty cents per pound. Soon Colonel Powell’s example excited many other similar efforts. The Lower Mississippi Valley drew to it thousands of the best trained labor of the older plantations which could not be replaced. This loss was keenly felt by the planters who lost the labor, much of which had been born and bred on their lands, and which they had believed to be as fixed as the land itself in their service. No increase of wages or increase of shares in the crops to be grown could avail to stop the exodus until those who had gone out first began to return with information of the hard work, sickly climate, and strange experiences they had encountered as emigrants.

The enterprise of Colonel Powell in colonizing his lands on the Yazoo River was in the line of that leadership which ever distinguished the man. The step was well adapted to the prevailing conditions. Its execution touched harshly upon the sensibilities of the planters who had never been before compelled to enter the market to compete for the privilege of hiring “hands.” But Colonel Powell had the sagacity to realize first in his class a legitimate opportunity which all land owners must seek in course of brief time; that is, that under the new era labor must be free to hire itself.

Colonel Powell was elected president of the Elyton Land Company

Colonel Powell came to Birmingham soon after the railroad crossing had been fixed which was to determine the site of the town. On the organization of the Elyton Land Company he became its first president.

There was much work to be done through the influence of this corporation, which was of a widely different character from the work now falling to it. To found a city, in the wilderness of a State fresh from the devastations (sic) visited upon it by the Federal Government, and which was, at the very period of Colonel Powell’s accession to the presidency of the new corporation, governed most disastrously by aliens and negroes, was his task.

The founder must himself receive the “pardon” of his Government to become a citizen of the town of his own building. The city to be built must depend upon lines of transportation, then so feeble that, as to one, the Alabama & Chattanooga, it was shackled by law suits, and no regular trains or regular traffic existed over the line. The South & North had not been completed, and its completion was either doubtful or certain of delays and difficulties.

Even so late as 1875, five years after the organization of the Elyton Land Company and the initiation of its efforts to build the city of Birmingham, the people of Alabama, upon meeting in convention to deliberate and frame a new constitution for the State, sent one forth to be ratified, and which was ratified by a very great majority of the popular vote, which actually omitted all provision for the proper government of a new city.

Alabama cities oppressed by debts

No general impression had, as late as 1875, taken possession of the popular mind in Alabama that the venture of the Elyton Land Company would materialize into respectable proportions. The cities of Alabama and many of the counties, and the State in the aggregate, had been enormously oppressed by debts voted upon the taxpayers by the non-taxpayers. The new constitution was framed in the interest of reform in the taxing feature of government. Thus cities were prohibited, by one of its provisions, from laying a heavier tax for municipal purposes than one-quarter of 1 per cent, of the assessed value of their property. The assessed value of Birmingham property was so low that, under this limitation, it was seen to be impracticable that the city should perform many municipal acts necessary to its growth and efficient self-government.

These obstructive conditions were fully known to the president of the Elyton Land Company. They did not for an instant damp his ardor or slacken his persistency. The iron ores, analyzed, were found to be near by in unexampled profusion. The coal seams had been tested and proven. The great agricultural regions to the North and the South were distant less than a half day’s journey by rail. The forests all around Red Mountain were rich in timber. The lime quarries had long turned out the best product in their line. The stone for building, the clay for the brick kiln, were in sight. The immeasurable wealth of the marble fields of the adjoining counties of Bibb and Talladega was known and duly treasured in the general estimate.

Colonel Powell rose to the occasion

Colonel Powell’s nature rose to the exigencies of the occasion. He carried no morbid sentiment into this, his supreme opportunity. He saw plainly into the political future and reasoned deeper than the accidents of the situation in Alabama. Revolutions in government must need make changes in the habits of the people. The South had been happy under industrial and social conditions, which had passed away forever. Must that great change forever debar the South from recuperation?

Colonel Powell answered this fearful inquiry in the negative, and his tones took volume from the emotions of his heart and from the vigor of his intellect: “Yes, we may pass over in sorrow and in silence the depths of the darkness that is in man if we rejoice in the purer visions he has attained to.” Unconscious of his own powers, however, yet in obedience to an enthusiasm which underlies heroism in all forms, Colonel Powell worked steadily to the light he saw ahead, and wavered not a moment in his confidence.

He held office until 1875

Colonel Powell became President, as we have said, of the Elyton Land Company at its organization, and held the office until 1875, when Dr. Caldwell was elected to fill the vacancy occasioned by his resignation.

Under his administration the water works were built, which now (1887) are sufficient for 40,000 population. The completion of the works gave character to the city. It proved the faith of the company in its venture.

It was not possible, indeed, to attract capital without them. The herculean task was appreciated by the president of the company before he resolved to undertake the construction of them, but he entered upon the responsibility, as he had entered upon all others in his previous eventful career, after earnest deliberation and with the courage of his convictions. We have shown that upon the completion of the water works the company was wholly without funds to meet its bonds issued as collateral on the loan received to pay for them. The course of Colonel Powell in this emergency had its due influence upon the continued life of the company.

He became 2nd mayor of Birmingham

After the untimely death of the first mayor, R. H. Henley, Colonel Powell was elected to succeed him. There were four competitors for the mayoralty at the election which chose him, and he received a small majority over the combined vote of the other three. He still retained his presidency of the land company.

Under his direction only, when president of the land company, Major Barker, an accomplished engineer, laid off the streets, avenues, and alleys of the city. Under his advice the land company made donations to the public of the streets, avenues, and alleys; to the city the parks; to the railroads the wide reservation bisecting the city from east to west; to the churches the lots on which to build houses of worship.

He was called the Duke of Birmingham

His was the directing mind, shaping the policy on the widest, most liberal, and politic ground. He gave his salary as mayor to the public schools. He invited capital and labor to come here and locate. He advertised the iron and coal resources of the surrounding country in every part of the United States and in Europe. His enthusiastic zeal knew no bounds, and so influential had become his position that he was generally known in Alabama by the sobriquet, “Duke of Birmingham.”

Suggested Press Association Convention be held in Birmingham

One of the most sagacious strokes of policy adopted by Colonel Powell, in his ceaseless efforts to publish to the world the fact that the Elyton Land Company had enlisted in the enterprise of building a city at the base of Red Mountain, occurred in his successful connection with the Alabama Press Association. He invited the association to meet at Birmingham at its annual spring convention of 1873.

At this meeting he was elected an honorary member. Admitted to the floor, he made a motion that the convention select Birmingham as the place for holding the next succeeding convention. The motion was stoutly opposed, but prevailed.

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Colonel Powell then proposed that the New York State Press Association, which would convene in annual session about the time of the meeting of the Alabama Association, should be invited here. This was a bold proposition and fell like a bomb into the meeting. The New York press had by a large majority supported the Grant Administrations in deposing the Southern State governments, and had approved of the latest suppression of a democratic legislature in the capitol of Alabama. Amid no small excitement this motion prevailed also, and the invitation was sent forward.

Showed guests the ore deposits

In the spring of 1874, the year following Black Friday and the cholera visitation to Birmingham, the meeting of the two associations occurred as had been agreed upon. Colonel Powell placed before the joint bodies all the information at his command favorable to the prospects of the new city, then appearing, for causes we have mentioned, in its most unpromising aspect. He showed the guests the ore deposits, the coal seams, and the authentic analysis of both ores and coal. The vast deposits and the seams could be readily seen with the naked eye, and their value understood. At once the press of New York, metropolitan and provincial, was ablaze with accounts, written direct from Birmingham, revealing the marvelous discoveries the letter-writers had made. Their reports were republished throughout the Union and in Europe. It was after reading these that Hon. Abram S. Hewitt, of New York, exclaimed: “The fact is plain. Alabama is to be the iron manufacturing center of the habitable globe.”

He remained in Birmingham in cholera epidemic

During the ravages of the cholera in the summer of 1873 Colonel Powell remained at his post, nursed the sick, and maintained order. The citizens presented him, as a testimonial of their esteem, a beautiful pocket knife of many blades, manufactured in England to their order, and at a cost of $130.

In 1874 Colonel Powell retired from Birmingham to his cotton plantations on the Yazoo. He yet owned large and valuable real estate in Montgomery.

In 1878 he was invited to return to Birmingham to canvass for re-election to the mayoralty. The solicitation was granted. After a campaign of much acrimony and activity he was defeated by a workingman. The defeat was bitterly resented by Colonel Powell. He made immediate arrangements to contest the election, but his contest was fruitless. He had aged, and misfortunes had thrown him out of the current of influence. The very forces he had been so influential in introducing had become too strong to be controlled by him.

He was killed in 1883

Returning to his plantations on the Yazoo, he met death from a pistol shot at the hands of a beardless youth in a neighboring tavern in the fall of 1883.

Colonel Powell had ever been a temperate man in his habits. Great energy, strong will, clear judgment of men and affairs, ready resources, and a kindly heart were the features of character which distinguished him.

In his later years his temper had become more imperious than the new elements of society which had overcome the South would well tolerate. When he ran for mayor last in Birmingham he brought less conciliation and sympathy to bear than an apparent assertion of authority and right to demand the office.

The youth, who fired the shot which ended his life, slayed a grayhaired man who could not moderate a sense of injustice offered to his superior rights on the occasion.

Additional notes by Donna R. Causey – James R. Powell was born December 7, 1814 in Powellton, Brunswick County, Virginia to Addison and Catherine R. Powell. James R. Powell died December 10, 1883 in Mississippi and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama.

He was a teacher in Virginia. He settled in Wetumpka in 1836 and served many times as Sheriff of Coosa County, Alabama and served in the Alabama Senate in 1853 and 1855. He married Mary J. Smythe of Virginia in 1858 and they had a daughter named Mary.

(Excerpt below is fromHistory of Coosa County: by the Rev. George Evans Brewer, 1887)

His father was once wealthy, but lost his property. Powell came to Alabama and taught school for a short time. He had his father and family to come to Alabama, and for awhile they kept boarding house in Lowndesboro and Montgomery.

In 1836 he came to Wetumpka and commenced contracting for carrying mails. He was successful, and his business grew rapidly. He went later to Rockford, and built a good house, to which he added a long row of two-room cabins stretching along the street, used as sleeping apartments. They were comfortably arranged and furnished. For about twelve years they kept the leading hotel of the place, where the members of the court and bar usually stopped, and that drew the others who liked such association. It was also the feeding place of the many travelers of this popular stage line.

In 1843 Powell was elected sheriff of the county, In 1845 he and Howell Rose were elected to the House in the interest of the removal of the capital to Wetumpka. This was the first time Coosa had two representatives. In 1853 he served in the Senate from Coosa, holding over until 1857. In 1856 he moved to Montgomery where he remained until after the war. During the war he did much transportation for the Confederate government. He had already accumulated a good property, and during the war he invested his Confederate money as it was made in real estate in Alabama and Mississippi, and became rich.

During the winter of 1864, he saved a quantity of ice for which he was offered $40,000, but declined to sell, and gave most of it to the Confederate government to be used in the hospitals. His foresight, skill, courage in ventures, directed by excellent management, had enabled him from a poor young man, taking small mail contracts, to rise to the ownership and management of long expensive lines of stage coaches, from which he reaped good profit, and fought down strong opposition.

Powell was of rather an imperious disposition, and was not patient under opposition. He was over six feet, erect, with a good form; easy carriage, a sandy complexion, blue eyes, with strongly marked features. While making no claims to oratory, he could express himself well and clearly. He was a good conversationalist, and when he turned occasionally from the tension of business, he enjoyed well social recreation. His father died in Rockford. A younger brother, Addison, died early in his manhood. His mother was a fine specimen of the cultured Virginia matron. His sisters were tall, having fine figures, tastefully dressed, and with handsome intellectual faces, graceful carriage, combined with mental culture and the finish given by extensive travel, they were unusually attractive. One of these sisters, Mary, married Dr. Reese of Selma, and was the mother of Warren Reese, afterward Mayor of Montgomery, and Miss Kate Reese, who married Mr. Burton of Montgomery. Virginia, a queenly looking woman, married Thomas Clark of Talladega, of whom was born Thomas E. Clark. Margaret married James H. Weaver, once sheriff and representative of Coosa, and also Secretary of State. Laura married Joseph Phelan, several times Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate. He was also a Minister of the M. E. Church, South. She was an unusually handsome and attractive woman, the mother of two sons, Powell and Sidney. Colonel Powell was a devoted son and brother, giving the major part of his life to the well being, cultivation, enjoyment, and settlement in life of his father’s family. After all were grown and cared for, he married a Miss Smyth, who had-for some years been a teacher in Mississippi. She was very intelligent, and made him a brilliant wife, by whom there was one daughter, whose education was obtained at the best schools of Europe. Powell was not a member of the church. His wife was an Episcopalian, his mother and sisters Methodists. –


  1. Jefferson County and Birmingham, Alabama: Historical and Biographical, 1887 By John Witherspoon DuBose Southern Historical Press
  3. # 52139167 # 52139296

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  1. The more I read your articles the more I realize how little I know about Alabama history. Thanks for the wonderful articles.

  2. I love reading the stories. Amazing job! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Perhaps a typographical error, his birth year is mentioned as 1814, yet he left Virginia in 1818 on horseback to travel to Alabama? One more question: How did he get the title, “colonel?”

  4. […] Col. Powell introduced into our office on Saturday last Hon. W. L. Smith, Alex McFarlane, Col. W. B. McCrary and Eli Smith, of Flint, Michigan. They are gentlemen of wealth and education, who have been prospecting this section with a view to investment. The Iron Age goes to Flint, Michigan, now. […]

  5. […] Col. James Robert Powell earned the nickname Duke of Birmingham for his support of the new city of Birmingham (Wikipedia) […]

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