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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
- Landmarks of DeKalb County, Alabama
- City of Fort Payne
- History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography Volume 1