Days Gone By - stories from the past

River towns were born when cotton was king

High price of cotton brought immigrants

The high price of cotton during the years following the close of the War of 1812 gave Alabama her first great influx of population. During 1818, land sales in Alabama reached a peak. The competition for good cotton acreage at Government auctions created comment throughout the country.

Birth of river towns

The planting of cotton along the rivers of Alabama gave birth to several towns between 1815 and 1818. St. Stephens was the head of the schooner navigation on the Tombigbee. It was a bustling community when Mobile was still in the hands of the Spain.

Above St. Stephens, Tuscaloosa was located at the head of boat navigation on the Black Warrior, and from there overland trade continued between Jones Valley to the Valley of the Tennessee.

Claiborne is now a ghost town

Claiborne grew up at the head of schooner navigation on the Alabama River cotton-planting community while the capital of the State was established at Cahawba/Cahaba where the river of that name flowed into the Alabama. The city of Selma was founded a few miles above the Cahaba.

“Today, Claiborne is a ghost town with no standing structures in place. A few important buildings were moved to other locations. Some can be seen today in nearby Perdue Hill, east of Claiborne on the Old Federal Road branch. Among these is an 1820s cottage occupied briefly in 1831 by William Barrett Travis, later co-commander of the Alamo during the 11-day siege of San Antonio de Bexar in the 1836 War of Texas Independence. Also in Perdue Hill is Masonic Lodge #3, originally built in Claiborne in 1824 and moved to its present location in 1884. General Lafayette addressed the citizens of Claiborne from this lodge.”1

 Montgomery had two towns

Near the center of Alabama, two towns were founded in 1817 and 1818. on a bluff near present-day Montgomery. Andrew Dexter from Massachusetts, founded the town of New Philadelphia and speculators named the Bibb Company founded the town of East Alabama. Both settlements were combined in 1819 and incorporated as the town of Montgomery.

Flat bottomed boats floated downstream

Cotton passed down the rivers to Mobile from these early towns on flat bottomed boats—crudely constructed affairs with pitched seams. Each boat could carry from fifty to a hundred bales and at the end of their journey, the boats were broken up. Keelboats, though not used as often as flat-bottomed boats were used when travel was more severe. The keel boats were about fifty feet in length and more durable and sea-worthy than the flat-bottomed boat, but they were more expensive to construct and were not used much except on a return trip but return trips were rare. A boat trip from Montgomery to Mobile took about two weeks while it took a month or six weeks to pole or warp back up the river.

A keel boat was loaded near the place of cotton production and from the Tennessee Valley, it was floated down the Holston to the Tennessee River. Then it ascended a small tributary of the Tennessee, the Hiwassee, and navigated to within twelve miles of the headwaters of the Coosa. “There was a portage across this stretch of land. Boat houses were constructed at either end of it, and arrangements were made for hauling the boats in wagons from one stream to the other.” Tennessee produce reached Montgomery by this course, and it is said that about twelve thousand gallons of whiskey were said to have been carried down this route.

Bank drafts drawn

The cotton grown in the Tennessee Valley had to be floated all the way down to Mobile or New Orleans before it could be marketed. Once a cotton crop was ginned baled, it was shipped. After the boat reached New Orleans or Mobile, bank drafts were received for the cotton which then had to be cashed and proceeds secured before returning home. This caused months of delay and entailed reliance upon forwarding agents, brokers, and banks. Small farmers were not able to afford this expense so they often sold their cotton at a reduced price to local merchants who provided them with his supplies. Sometimes they just turned their cotton crop over to a merchant who advanced him a certain percent of its value and paid the balance when the remittance came back from New Orleans or Mobile.

1Christopher, Raven M. and Waselkov, Gregory A. Archaeological Survey of the Old Federal Road in Alabama, Alabama Department of Transportation, Center for Archaeological Studies University of South Alabama, April 2012

1Christopher, Raven M. and Waselkov, Gregory A. Archaeological Survey of the Old Federal Road in Alabama, Alabama Department of Transportation, Center for Archaeological Studies University of South Alabama, April 201

1Abernethy, Thomas Perkins PHD, Professor of History, University of Chattanooga, The Formative Period in Alabama 1815-1828, Brown Printing Company, Montgomery, Alabama, 1922

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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. Where can we find this portage between the Hiwassee and Coosa on modern maps?

  2. […] were conveyed across the country—a distance of thirty-five miles from the prison in Claiborne. During the session of court they had to be guarded beneath the shades of the ancestral oaks, which […]

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