Days Gone By - stories from the past

Fort Payne is one of the few forts used to intern Cherokees in 1838 prior to their removal of which surface ruins can still be seen

Did you know that the city of Fort Payne, Alabama had its beginning as a frontier fort that was connected to the Trail of Tears tragedy. The original log stockade at Fort Payne surrounded a rough-hewn log house. All that remains of the fort is a stone chimney.

Little Wills Creek in the vicinity of Fort Payne, Alabama ca. 1880-1889 by O. W. Chase (Alabama Department of Archives and History)Little Wills Creek in the vicinity of Fort Payne, Alabama ca. 1880-1889 by O. W. Chase (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Willstown was the home of Sequoyah

Located on the western slope of the Lookout Mountains, the site of Fort Payne was the location of Willstown, an important village of the Cherokees who relocated to Thalequah, Oklahoma during the Cherokee Trail to Tears. For a time, Willstown was the home of Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee alphabet which enabled reading and writing in the Cherokee language. The place was named Willstown after its headman, a red-headed mixed-race man named Will Weber.

sequoyahSequoyah from Alabama Department of Archives and History

Stockade built to intern the Cherokees

Prior to the Indian removal, the US Army under the command of Major John Payne built a fort at Willstown that was later used to intern Cherokees until they were relocated to Oklahoma. In 1837, federal troops arrived in Wills Valley to establish the stockade to intern the Cherokees.

“The cabin site is part of local property seized by the military for Fort Payne, one of over 20 removal forts established in Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. Research indicates the cabin belonged to a Cherokee, Spirit/John Huss, and was built circa 1825. Military documents show that Cantonment Payne existed in the fall of 1837, became Fort Payne by December 1837, and was a major emigrating depot by summer of 1838. The majority of Cherokees who were forced by the military to leave their homes in Alabama left from Fort Payne. A detachment led by a Cherokee, John Benge, departed the fort for Indian Territory in October of 1838 and the fort was closed soon after. The only Trail of Tears detachment originating in Alabama, the first 38 miles of the Benge Route from the fort to Lake Guntersville have been identified and marked. Although the fort was used for only about a year, the cabin continued in use until the mid 1940s. Today a chimney, the cabin foundation, a nearby stacked stone well and evidence of a road bed remain. The Cabin Historic Site is one of four sites in Fort Payne certified by the National Park Service as original components of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.”i

Country tram with carpet cover man with a tram pulled by oxen ca. 1890 in Fort Payne photographer O. W. Chase Q3937Country tram with carpet cover man with a tram pulled by oxen ca. 1890 in Fort Payne by photographer O. W. Chase 

Marker for fort off Gault Avenue

A marker to the fort stands in Fort Payne’s downtown City Park. The actual site of the fort is preserved and fenced and not open to the public. However, the chimney of the old fort can be seen at the end of 4th Street SE, just off Gault Avenue in downtown Fort Payne.

Gault Ave., Looking North, Fort Payne, Alaca. 1930s (Alabama Department of Archives and History)Gault Ave., Looking North, Fort Payne, Alaca. 1930s (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

County Seat of Dekalb County

In the 1860s the area was still sparsely settled. In 1878, Fort Payne became the county seat of Dekalb County and it was incorporated as a town. When rail lines were completed between Birmingham and Chattanooga, Fort Payne was on the rail line between the two cities and in the late 1880s, Fort Payne experienced an explosive growth. Coal and iron deposits were discovered and investors and workers from the North flooded into the town. The population swelled from 450 to the thousands. A 125-room hotel was built and occupied an entire city block. This period is called the “Boom Days”, or the “Boom” by locals today.

Old Main Street looking towards the mountain from courthouse in Fort Payne, Alabama by O. W. Chase (Alabama Department of Archives and History)Old Main Street looking towards the mountain from the courthouse in Fort Payne, Alabama by O. W. Chase ca. 1889 (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Buildings along a wide dirt road in Fort Payne, Alabama ca. 1880-1889 by O. W. Chase (ADAH)Buildings along a wide dirt road in Fort Payne, Alabama ca. 1880-1889 by O. W. Chase(Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Economic Prosperity

Many notable and historic buildings in Fort Payne date back to this time of economic prosperity. Alabama’s oldest standing theater, the Fort Payne Opera House is one of these buildings as well as the Hardware Manufacturing Company (W. B. Davis Mill Building which house an antiques mall and deli), and the Fort Payne Depot Museum.

Depot museum by photographer Carol M. Highsmith May 8, 2010

Depot Museum Fort Payne by photographer Carol M. Highsmith 2010

W. B. Davis Hosiery Mill

However the “Boom” days did not last due to the coal deposits began to play out. Investors and promoters left Fort Payne and the economy declined. When the W. B. Davis Hosiery Mill started to operate in 1907, the downturn shifted again. Fort Payne became known as the ‘Sock Capital of the World.”

Today, Fort Payne is the home to many natural attractions such as nearby:

  • Little River Canyon National Preserve
  • DeSoto State Park
  • Manitou Cave
  • Guntersville Lake
  • Weiss Lake
  • Mentone

Waterfall in DeSoto State Park by photographer Carol M. Highsmith May 8, 2010Waterfall in DeSoto State Park by photographer Carol M. Highsmith May 8, 2010

The music group Alabama

The Grammy-winning country music group Alabama is also based in Fort Payne and their fan club and museum are popular attractions in Fort Payne.

Display of guitars by the group Alabama by photographer Carol M. Highsmith 2010Guitars from the Grammy-winninggroup Alabama  by photographer Carol M. Highsmith 2010

Annual Boom Day Festival

Each fall, the citizens of Fort Payne their heritage with the Boom Days Heritage Celebration. Activities include art and music festival, displays of Fort Payne’s history, and arts and crafts. Four blocks of the city’s downtown district are closed to traffic during the event.



  1. Landmarks of DeKalb County, Alabama
  2. City of Fort Payne
  3. Wikipedia
  4. History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography Volume 1


ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Pioneers: A Collection of Lost & Forgotten Stories

About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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    1. Let’s go. It’s such a beautiful town.

  1. Such a beautiful little town also. Let’s go check it out

  2. Boom Days festival this Saturday in Fort Payne!

  3. Sherry Maxwell..I told you they was coming..ARMAGEDDON ARMEGDON

  4. While John Benge’s removal party was camped at Gunter’s Landing, approximately 300 Cherokee escaped and hid in our local mountains! Many of their descendants are still in this area.

    1. Do you know any of the family last names who hid in the mountains. I was told that my Brock ancestors hid out.

  5. They also killed and buried many unruly Native Americans whom they thought would be troublemakers on the Trail of Tears. The fence company I worked for put fence over one mass grave to prevent looting of remains.

  6. Where’s this site located?

    1. The burial site is one of two- it is out of the city to the West.

    2. Location of Fort or what’s left of it?

  7. while Fort Mims and Burnt Corn Creek are ghost towns…. SMH

  8. My ancestors were there from about 1835-1865. If you are a Hughes or Russell descendant would love to hear from you!

  9. Regarding the downtown picture; the best way to identify the year of any photo is to look for the most recent car. In this case, the newest-model vehicle parked along the street is a 1941 model Chevrolet and no vehicles post-war; which suggests the picture was taken sometime during WWII.

  10. interesting place to visit need several days to see it all

  11. Sad part of a good city’s history……

  12. How can anyone trust a government run by same group of banker members that ordered the death march of the Cherokees?

  13. Thankfully my Cherokee ancestors had light blue eyes and English names. They farmed in Marshall and Blount Counties and were able to hide out and not get sent on the trail to Oklahoma.

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