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St. Stephens Historical Overview

by John Sledge

"Hobuckintoopa" the Indians called it. Situated atop limestone bluffs overlooking the Tombigbee River, it offered numerous advantages for a settlement--plentiful water and game and a commanding elevation above the river, where the first shoals north of Mobile made it a natural stopping place for travelers. In 1772 an Englishman observed that "sloops and schooners may come up to this rapid; therefore I judge some considerable settlement will take place."

Though the French had settled what would become the Alabama Gulf Coast first, by 1780 the area was in Spanish hands. Determined to secure their position upcountry, the Spanish built a fort on the site in 1789, which they called San Estaban. Originally a simple enclosure with plank walls, the fortification was enlarged and improved, eventually consisting of cut limestone blocks and heavy cannon. One contemporary called it "formidable." Surrounding buildings included a blockhouse, church and commandant’s house, all plastered, and a collection of more flimsy shelters covered in cypress bark.

By 1796 the fort and surrounding fledgling community had over three hundred residents, nearly a third of them African slaves. After Andrew Ellicott’s survey of 1799 established the boundary between American and Spanish territory at the thirty-first parallel some distance to the south, San Estaban was surrendered to the United States, becoming St. Stephens. Lt. John McClary of the Second Cavalry took possession of the fort in the name of the young Republic.

Under American control, St. Stephens quickly emerged as one of the most important towns in the Mississippi Territory, and filled with ambitious, energetic new settlers, most of whom had pushed down from the Carolinas. Not many of these men were of good character. In 1804 a territorial judge complained to Thomas Jefferson, "The present inhabitants (with few exceptions) are illiterate, wild and savage, of depraved morals, unworthy of public confidence or private esteem." Frontier rowdiness was a fact of life in early St. Stephans, but significant business ventures flourished also. A federal land sales office was opened, as was a "factory" to conduct trade with the Choctaws in deer pelts, beads and other items.

The settlement soon evolved into a town proper and became less of a rough and tumble military outpost. By 1807, lots and streets were laid out and a road opened to Natchez. In 1815, St. Stephens was incorporated by the Mississippi Territorial Legislature and grew to over forty houses. When Mississippi became a state in 1817, St. Stephens became the principal seat of the Alabama Territory. The quality of the population improved. A visitor from the eastern seaboard noted, "The country has undergone an almost entire change in its inhabitants, changing the worst of men for a better class." Among these early citizens were Henry Hitchcock, the territory’s first attorney general and a grandson of revolutionary hero Ethan Allen; James G. Lyon, a merchant who sold wood to the steamboat crews and lived over his store; and George Gaines, head of the "factory" and later a member of both the Alabama and Mississippi legislatures. Among the more colorful residents was Silas Dinsmore, an early wit who lost his minor government office by smarting off to officials. When from distant Washington they inquired how far the Tombigbee "ran up the country" he responded that it did "not run up the country at all, but down."

By 1820, St. Stephens was a bustling community. The local newspaper, the Halcyon and Tombeckbe Advertiser, extolled the town’s "pure air" and "spacious streets" and declared, "an air of comfort prevails at St. Stephens and recommends it as a pleasant residence." The population stood at several thousand. There was a theatre ("She Stoops to Conquer" was performed in 1819 with tickets a dollar each), several hotels, a bank, numerous stores and a school, Washington Academy, the first chartered in Alabama. Recognizing the importance of river travel, several enterprising men built a steamboat, the Tombeckbe, and launched it "amid the shouts and huzzahs" of residents. The Tombeckbe could accommodate up to thirty passengers and was to "ply regularly from New Orleans to Tuskaloosa, via Mobile, Blakeley, Jackson, St. Stephens, etc."

Despite the optimism and achievements of these years, St. Stephens was doomed. When Alabama became a state in 1819, Governor William Wyatt Bibb, who had secretly acquired federal lands near the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers in Dallas County, succeeded in making this new location the site of the state capital. Robbed of its political importance, St. Stephens suffered further from yellow fever epidemics and the spreading use of shallow draft river vessels which could effectively navigate the shoals. Just after Alabama’s statehood, a visitor to St. Stephens accurately remarked, "It’s thought to be at the extent of its greatness."

Over subsequent years, residents scattered to more promising locales, and by the Civil War St. Stephens was a virtual ghost town. Gradually the buildings fell into ruin, country people quarried the fort’s limestone blocks for various construction projects and thick woods covered the site. So matters stood for nearly 150 years, with few people visiting the site other than the occasional history buff. Yet old St. Stephens will soon be reborn as an historic and natural park, a place where all Alabamians can learn about their fascinating past.