Phenix City: The Early Years (1800 - 1900)
Several sources were used for this Spotlight: The Triumph of the Ecunnau-Nuxulgee by William W. Winn; Red Clay, White Water, and Blues by Virginia E. Causey,
Flowing through Time: A History of the Lower Chattahoochee River by Lynn Willoughby, and
Phenix City by John Lyles.
In 1800, aside from the Indians, there were only 1,250 persons, including 494 slaves, in the area that would become the state of Alabama. In 1810, this portion of the population still numbered less than 10,000. Just ten years later – largely as a result of three factors – the growth of cotton culture, the opening of the Federal Road in 1811, and the successful conclusion to the War of 1812 – an unprecedented influx of non-indigenous people swept across the state. This Great Migration, as it is generally known, swelled the population of settlers and slaves in Alabama in 1820 to 144,317.
The Alabama Legislature passed its first extension laws in 1827 and 1828. To the Creek chiefs and headmen, they were not just benign legal documents but actual instruments of conquest. Frontier whites invariably interpreted such laws as invitations to intrude on the Creek Nation, a problem that had been building.
At the same time, in the summer of 1828, surveyor Edward Lloyd Thomas had roughly laid out of the forest the future city of Columbus. As the story goes, traders and other individuals who preferred a less-regulated frontier culture gravitated to the Creek Indian towns on the other side of the Chattahoochee River. Thus, Phenix City’s reputation as a wild and untamed place appears even in early references.
Congress passed the 1830 Removal Act authorizing the president to remove all eastern Indians to lands west of the Mississippi River. In May 1831, more than 120 Columbus residents signed a letter imploring Andrew Jackson to remove the Creeks. Negotiated in 1832, the Treaty of Cusseta did not require the Creek’s removal but was intended to make their land available to white settlement.
Almost immediately, acquisition of property and property rights from between three and four thousand Creeks had begun on both sides of the river. Intimidation and fraud were used to make it happen. In June 1832, local entrepreneur Daniel MacDougald and Robert Collins from Macon paid $35,000 for the one square mile across the Chattahoochee from Columbus that the treaty had awarded to Chief Benjamin Marshall. This was the land where the western abutments for the new covered bridge (pictured above) being constructed over the river would be located and they intended to sell lots in a new town, Girard.
The city of Columbus had advertised for proposals to build a new four-hundred-foot-long covered bridge. John Godwin of Cheraw, South Carolina, and his then slave, Horace King (pictured above, Godwin gave King his freedom in 1846), won the job bidding $14,000. The city charged tolls to pay for it.
The only problem was that Alabama residents felt that since the western abutments rested near the new town of Girard, they wanted to share in the profits from the bridge. Early in 1834, the Alabama Legislature granted to private Girard citizens the ownership of the land under the western abutment. The lawmakers claimed that these private interests were entitled to half of the bridge tolls. Columbus did not agree to share the profits of their bridge. The affair went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled that Georgia had jurisdiction to the high-water mark on both sides of the river. By this decision, the Girard businessmen were excluded not only from any income from the bridge but from other river enterprises as well. This ruling stands today and is the reason why Alabama could not utilize the river for economic development as Columbus has since that time.
To be clear, there was a lot of gambling and rough behavior going on in the early days on both sides of the river. The area along Front Avenue near present-day 10th Street in Columbus was called Battle Row because it was the site of frequent “trials of manhood” – violent disputes settled outside the law.
A Swedish scholar C.D. Arfwedson, who was passing through in 1833, was appalled at Columbus’ roughness. No civilized person could remain in town, he declared, because “the manners of the people were uncouth…Many individuals, there called gentlemen, would in other places receive a very different appellation.”
Across the Chattahoochee, Indian Territory was not under the control of law. A “number of dissolute people had founded a village, for which their lawless pursuits and atrocious misdeed had procured the name of Sodom. Scarcely a day passed without some human blood being shed in its vicinity; and, not satisfied with murdering each other, they cross the river clandestinely, and pursue their bloody vocation even in Columbus.”
Irish comedian Tyrone Power visited the next year and described the inhabitants of Sodom as “minions o’ the moon,” outlaws from the neighboring states. Gamblers, and other desperate men, here find security from their numbers, and from the vicinity of a thinly inhabited Indian country, whose people hold them in terror, yet dare not refuse them a hiding place.” These miscreants came into Columbus “in force all armed to the teeth,” got drunk, and then fled back across the river, unmolested by outnumbered local marshals.
What had originally been called Sodom, soon became the city of Girard. Girard was named for a young Philadelphia Philanthropist and slave dealer, Stephen Girard, who acquired much of the land in this area. When Russell County was formed December 18, 1832, Girard became the county seat, with the first session of court convening October 14, 1833.
Creek removal was a prelude to the coming fight over slavery, raising questions about state versus federal power. Russell County had a Black majority from about 1836 though the end of the 19th century. As early as 1840, there were approximately 14,000 people living in Russell County, and 54 percent were African American slaves. Over the next two decades, Russell County’s slave population increased to 58 percent of the total population. Although only 10 percent of the county’s population owned slaves in 1860, probably one in every three households included a slave owner.
The slave population was largely due to cotton culture. Cotton was king, and manufacturing in Russell County revolved around it. Ambrose Brannon, however, operated a whisky distillery that provided a ready cash market for corn and fruit products.
The Battle of Girard, also known as the Battle of Columbus, took place on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1865. It is considered to be the last land battle of the Civil War. The defenses of Columbus were concentrated on the Alabama side of the river and extended from Holland Creek to the high ground along Summerville. Road. Confederate General Howell Cobb commanded the forces defending Girard and Columbus. General James H. Wilson and 4,000 Union troops had previously taken over Tuscaloosa, Selma, and Montgomery. They were headed for Girard, Columbus, and Macon.
Cobb concentrated his defenses on the upper (14th Street Bridge) and railroad bridges and ordered the removal of planks from the Dillingham Bridge and the Clapps Factory Bridge north of Columbus. The first Federal units arrived in Girard via Crawford Road and drove toward the Dillingham Bridge. The Iron Works Battalion fired at the bridge, and the Federal guard withdrew.
Wilson switched up his attack. He came down Summerville Road and captured the upper bridge under the cover of darkness. It was a rare night attack illuminated only by the buildings in Girard that the Confederates had set on fire to light the battlefield. Wilson crossed the Chattahoochee shortly after 11:00PM and spent the night with Unionist Randolph Mott. The next day, Wilson ordered destruction of all property that could be made useful for further continuance of the war.
The decades following the Civil War were difficult years for farmers in Russell County. Former slaves and landless whites needed access to land and compensation for their labor, but cash-strapped landlords could not offer wages.
As the Russell Register proclaimed in 1876, “There is not one man in five hundred who can carry on a cash business.” The concept of sharecropping, or the crop lien system, was adopted. Sharecropping offered poor whites a means to eke out a living; it gave free Blacks some semblance of independence and the opportunity to become a proprietor; and it returned the planters’ plantations to productivity.
From its inception in 1851, the Eagle Mill represented the most important factor in Columbus’ growth. Its economic fingers extended into Alabama, where a considerable number of the mill’s workers resided in Girard. In 1860, Eagle mill acquired the faltering Howard Factory, established in 1849, and became the town’s largest industry. To provide housing for the workers of the expanding enterprise, the mill obtained property north of Girard and the village became Brownville.
However, in 1871, the U.S. Post Office confused the town of Brownville with another Brownville of earlier origin in Tuscaloosa County, and so the name Lively was chosen to replace Brownville. The reason for choosing the name Lively is not known, but local lore indicates that the name referred to the lawless nature of the area. After a few years, the town once again became known as Brownville, but confusion persisted about the town’s actual name because the U.S. Post Office still maintained the name Lively, and the railroad in town designated its depot “Knight’s Station.”
On February 23, 1883, the Alabama Legislature officially incorporated the town of Brownville. Fourteen years later, on February 19, 1897, the Legislature officially changed the name to Phenix City. Although no definitive source reveals why this name was chosen, possibilities include it being named after the Eagle & Phenix Mills in Columbus. Girard was still its own town at this point. The two towns don’t merge until after the turn of the century.
At the turn of the century, small retail shops and groceries were becoming the most common commercial enterprises in Girard and Phenix City. In addition to catering to urban dwellers, they drew customers and suppliers from the nearby countryside. Several small shops were often located next to one another (forerunner's of today's shopping centers).
Typically, the stores lined the principal streets in Girard and Phenix City nearest the bridges to Columbus. Phenix City's commercial district ran east to west from the bridge along Fourteenth and Sixteenth Streets to Broad Street. Pictured below is a view of Fourteenth Street, also known as Vinegar Hill. Muscogee Manufacturing Company can be seen in the background.
Next week: We will explore one of Phenix City’s oldest and most significant industries and businesses – Bickerstaff Brick Company. The last two Thursdays of the month will take you through the history of Phenix City from 1900 until the present.
Even being a Columbus native, I admit I did not know much about Phenix City’s history except for bits and pieces. This has been a great learning experience for me, and I am grateful for the many sources to draw from for not only the Spotlights, but also the daily posts on Facebook and Instagram. If I get something wrong, please let me know – you can always email me email@example.com.
Elizabeth B. Walden
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