COLBERT COUNTY, ALABAMA
No one knows the origin of the name Muscle Shoals but there are many theories. One theory is that it relates to piles of mussel shells found along the shoals but another theory relates that it derives its name from the Indians, who attempted to navigate the strong current and the word ‘muscle’ was a symbol of the strength required to paddle the rapids.
Muscle Shoals recorded history dates back to the 1780s when three Cherokee villages were located along the Tennessee River. One of these stood a few miles above the head of Muscle Shoals, on the south side of the river. Another in 1787, stood at the foot of the shoals, on the same side of the river. It consisted of only a few cabins.
Largest Indian Settlement
The largest Indian settlement, in 1798, stood at the shoals on the south side of the river, along the banks and about the mouth of Town Creek. It extended southwardly from the shoals about a mile and a half and for some distance up and down the river. DOUBLEHEAD and KATAGISKEE were its chiefs.
COLONEL JOHN DONELSON of Nashville was one of the first to become interested in Muscle Shoals. In his journal he recorded, “after running until about ten o’clock, we came in sight of the Muscle Shoals….the water being high made a terrible roaring…we did not know how soon we should be dashed to pieces…. encamped on the northern shore, not far below the shoals, for the night.” After he settled near Nashville, Colonel Donelson became involved in a speculation to develop the Muscle Shoals area. He died before achieving this goal but Gov. Sevier, another speculator tried again to settle Muscle Shoals.
The state of Georgia, under the treaties made between Spain, Great Britain and the United States, in 1782 and 1783, felt it had a right to the extensive territory lying between the Chattahoochee and the Mississippi and did not recognize the right of the Federal Government to make treaties with the Indians, respecting the territory she claimed.
At times the Indians harassed settlers in Tennessee so COL. ROBERTSON of Nashville, Tennessee led an expedition to Muscle Shoals in June 1787 with 130 men and attacked an Indian town in retaliation. The Indian attacks slowed considerably after the raid but renewed their attacks in time.
In 1795, for the sum of sixty thousand dollars, the Legislature of Georgia sold to ZACHARIAH COXE, MATHIAS MAHER and other associates, called the Tennessee Company, all the territory comprising the whole of North Alabama. WASHINGTON, became alarmed at the collision which he supposed would take place between the Federal Government, Georgia, Spain and the Indians, in consequence of this and other extraordinary sales of territory by Georgia and issued a proclamation against the whole enterprise. But the Tennessee Company did not heed him.
The following letter appeared in an advertisement in North Carolina:
Advertisement of the proprietors of the Tennessee Company
Augusta, Geo. September 2,1790.
This is to inform those who wish to become adventurers to the Tennessee Company’s purchase, that the said company will embark, from the confluence of Holston and French Broad rivers, on the tenth day of January next, for the purpose of forming a settlement on the said purchase at or near the Muscle Shoals. And, for the encouragement of migration to the aforesaid -intended settlement, the said Tennessee Company have thought proper to set apart four Hundred and eighty thousand acres of land in the said purchase, to lie in a true square, on the south side of the Tennessee river: which said tract of country, so set apart for the encouragement of migration, will be first laid off into bounties of five hundred acres of land, each: and to every family who may become adventurers to the aforesaid settlement will be allowed a bounty, as aforesaid, of five hundred acres each, and to every single man, half a bounty; that is. to say, two hundred and fifty acres each, until the whole of the land so set apart is appropriated.
Preference to the adventurers will be given by ballot. It is desired that those who wish to become adventurers will rendezvous, at the place appointed for setting out, time enough previous to the tenth of January to have their boats and necessary provisions prepared to embark.
Z AC H AM AH COX,
Agents to the Tennessee Company
Those who wish to be further interested in land on the Tennessee river may be supplied on reasonable terms, by applying at the abovementioned place of rendezvous, on the first of January next,- at which time and place the proprietors of the Tennessee Company purchase (as holding the land on the north side of the Tennessee river, commonly called the Bent) will open an office for the sale of the same. The said office will continue at the confluence of Holston and French Broad rivers until the tenth of January, and after, at the intended settlement of the Tennessee, until the whole of the land, or that part of the Bent (included by the Tennessee Company purchase) is sold, amounting, in the whole, to about six hundred thousand acres of the most valuable part of the said Bent.
Undoubted titles, in fee simple, to adventurers and purchasers, for land in the Tennessee Company, will be given.
Given under our hands, as proprietors to the Tennessee Company, this second day of September, 1790.
Proprietors Tennessee Company.
Block-house built for defense
ZACHARIAH COXE, with a number of his friends, floated down, on flat-boats from East Tennessee to the Muscle Shoals and here they built a block-house and other works of defense with the intention of selling much of the land north and south of the river.
But COXE soon found himself between two fires —the United States authorities and the Indians. The President issued a proclamation forbidding the settlement. Little attention was paid to this, but shortly afterward GLASS, a Cherokee chief, with sixty warriors appeared, and under his threats, the settlement was abandoned and the buildings burnt. COXE and his associates were presented at the next term of the court in the Knoxville district but the grand jury refused to find a bill.
In 1797, the indomitable COXE, still entertained the idea of occupying the Muscle Shoals area and built a large boat at the mouth of the Chucky to carry his colony to the Muscle Shoals. A large boat was necessary to transport the troops, guns and provision to carry into effect the settlement at the Muscle Shoals. It was of immense dimensions, and was, at that day, from its size and structure, called a ship—having, on all sides, such barricades as would make it impregnable to small arms. It was well provided with howitzers and small ordnance, and constituted a good floating battery.
To prevent the descent of this boat down the river, COL. THOMAS BUTLER, of the United States Army, issued orders to the troops under his command at SouthWest Point and Bell Canton on the Tennessee River, to exercise the utmost vigilance, and to fire upon and sink it. It was believed that the most suitable plan for defeating the expedition, was to allow it to pass unmolested, as far as Bell Canton. There the Holston was narrow, and the position otherwise favorable. Standing orders were issued on the 2nd November 1797, to the officer in charge of the battery, to “have his ordnance in perfect order, and the implements judiciously arranged, to prevent confusion, when it may be necessary to man the works.” A look-out boat was to be detached at proper intervals, to make discovery of the approach of COXE’S party, and signals were arranged, to prepare for the attack. Should any boat belonging to the expedition, approach within one mile of the battery, the commander was directed to fire one shot wide of it. Should this notice be disregarded, he was directed to fire on it, and, “if possible, sink all boats that may dare to pass your works.”
Gov. Sevier of Tennessee reacts
GOV. SEVIER of Tennessee wrote to COXE to know what were his intentions, and his letter and COXE’S reply were communicated to the Legislature and referred to a select committee, who reported “that from the papers before them it appears that no expedition of a hostile nature or plan inimical to the government is contemplated.”
On August 18, 1798, however, Coxe was arrested and imprisoned in Natchez on charges that he was illegally trading with Indians. Escaping to New Orleans, Coxe eventually reached Nashville, where he was again arrested and jailed. Although exonerated at his Nashville trial, Coxe was a beaten man and lost control of his Tennessee Company.
Steamboats rarely passed the shoals in the open river
The Muscle Shoals section of the Tennessee River was from the beginning, a barrier between the navigable waters of the upper and lower reaches of the Tennessee River. The shoals section was about 37 miles long, extending from the head of Browns Island to the railroad bridge at Florence, Ala. Above the shoals there was approximately 350 miles and below them 256 miles of river on which boats plied for all save a few of the low water months, even before any improvements were made. Steamboats rarely, and only under dire necessity, passed the shoals in the open river. There was record not more than six such passages according to records kept in 1927.
To make the Tennessee River more navigable, a canal project was authorized in 1831, but construction was abandoned in 1837. The project was revived in 1873 and the series of canals and locks were completed in 1890 resulting in improvement for commercial travel But it was the construction of Wilson Dam in 1924, that Muscle Shoals was finally made navigable.
(1) Professional memoirs, Corps of Engineers, United States Army and Engineer Department at Large, Volume 9 = U.S. Army Engineer School, United States. Army. Corps of Engineers Engineer School., 1917
(2) Mississippi, as a province, territory, and state: with …, Volume 1 By John Francis Hamtramck Claiborne -1880
(3) Dictionary of North Carolina biography vol. 6, 1994
(4) Cox, Isaac Joslin, and Reginald C. McCrane. Documents relating to Zachariah Cox. Cincinnati, Ohio 1913
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