By Hardy Jackson
Want to visit history? Visit Old St. Stephens.
Old St. Stephens is one of this state’s most important historical sites.
On a limestone bluff overlooking the shoals that let travelers ford the Tombigbee River, Indians, Spanish and French camped, settled and left behind evidence of their lives.
Then came the Americans. Some wandered in from the east, but more came from the west, from Mississippi and Louisiana, a reverse migration that did not always bring in the best of society. In 1801, about 500 people lived in and around St. Stephens, half of them slaves. By 1810, whites numbered 733, slaves more than 500.
Like most frontier settlements, local leaders rose from the circumstances. Harry Toulmin, a Scottish freethinker, came looking for a place “so far from civilization that he could be safe from Presbyterians” and found it there. He later became a judge, so it was said, because he was one of the few who could read the laws.
It is hardly surprising that Toulmin stood out in a population described as an “illiterate, wild and savage” bunch, a people “of depraved morals, unworthy of public confidence or private esteems.” But in time a better class arrived, the town was incorporated, and in 1811 the Mississippi Territorial Legislature, which governed what is now Alabama, authorized citizens to hold a lottery to raise money for a local academy.
St. Stephens was the jumping off point for one of the armies that defeated the Red Sticks in the Creek War, and when peace returned to the land St. Stephens prospered. More people arrived. A newspaper was set up, and the editor wrote glowingly of the “air of ease and comfort [that] prevails” and recommended it as “a pleasant residence.” By the end of the decade, there was a theater company, a hotel and an English blacksmith who was said to have introduced cowbells into the region. From the local shipyard, the first steamboat built in Alabama, the Tombeckbee, was launched in 1820.
But the event that gave St. Stephens its claim to fame occurred in 1817. Mississippi was declared a state, Alabama became a territory and St. Stephens became our first territorial capital. But fame was fleeting. The next year the territorial legislature met there and formed a committee to determine “the most eligible site for the seat of Territorial Government.”
It wouldn’t be St. Stephens.
A new capital was chosen, and the decline of the old began. Deprived of the activity that boosted the economy when courts and legislature met, St. Stephens’s businesses closed, folks moved away and in time the town was deserted. By mid-century, all that remained were ruts where roads once ran, crumbling foundations, spring flowers planted by a frontier wife and the graveyard.
Time passed; the land was sold and resold. In the 1930s, some men from across the river bought it up. They set to digging out the limestone and, after taking what they wanted, they left. Water filled the hole they dug and made a real nice lake.
And that’s how it remained until 1988 when citizens convinced the legislature to set up the St. Stephens Historical Commission for “acquiring, protecting and developing” the site for public use.
And a fine job they did.
Land was purchased. Roads were built. The lake was stocked for fishing. A swimming area was set aside. A store was built, along with camping facilities with RV hookups. It was as nice a state park as I have ever visited.
And history was preserved. Surviving sites were identified. Archeologists from state universities dug around and confirmed how important the place was. School kids visited and took part in an annual “Through the Eyes of a Child” event that gave participants a sense of what life was like back when St. Stephens was a real town.
The last time I was there, my son and I wandered about, saw what was left, talked of what the remains revealed and had a fine time.
It would be fun to go back.
Visit the Facebook page (www.facebook.com/SaintStephensPark) and plan your trip.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson, is professor emeritus of history at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.