Alabama – Cahawba (or Cahaba): A Capital Stripped of All But Its History

Old Cahawba Archaeological State Park: When I think of an archaeological site, places come to mind like ancient Egypt, Rome or Israel; or the Mayan ruins in Mexico; or even the pre-Columbian cliff dwellings that we have visited at Mesa Verde, Colorado.  Here at Cahawba, Alabama, the term felt jarring because archaeologists, park rangers and historians have been digging to discover the history of a town whose last resident died only a generation ago. 

Cahawba, or the now shortened version of its name Cahaba, was the first capital of Alabama, and at one point before the Civil War, it was the seat of the fifth richest county in the United States. 

Crocheron mansion columns

Today, the Alabama Historical Commission maintains the site as Old Cahawba Archaeological Park.  In the rebuilt house that serves as the park office, storyboards tell the history of the town, and signs along the empty streets provide historic photos that tell the story behind what are now vacant lots. 

In early times, there was a substantial Native American settlement on this rich bottom land that is located between the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers.  The regular flooding of the rivers enriched the soil and made for abundant crop yields capable of supporting a large community.  The residents lived in a walled village by the time European explorers and traders came.  The site was abandoned in the 1700s.

In 1817 President James Monroe appointed William Wyatt Bibb to be governor of the newly created Alabama Territory, and Bibb was elected governor when Alabama became a state in 1819.  He lobbied hard to make this undeveloped land the state capital, and in 1818 the planning commission started laying out the town with a neat grid of straight streets.  Meanwhile, the Federal Land Office auctioned off parcels of land to the newly arriving settlers.

By 1820, Cahawba was operating as the state capital.  Land in town that had “sold for $1.25 an acre went for $60 and $70 an acre.  By 1822, unimproved lots in the central part of town went for as high as $5,025.  Numerous stores, two newspapers, a theater, state bank, hotel, two ferries, and an imposing two-story brick capitol emerged” (Park Marker).

However, Cahawba’s role as a capital was quickly curtailed, and by 1825 the Alabama State Capital was moved to Tuscaloosa.  The seasonal flooding and disease-carrying mosquitoes had taken their toll.  However, Cahawba remained the seat of Dallas County, and although the town was temporarily depressed, the anticipated arrival of a railroad was enough to spark its revival. 

People came from near and far to profit in this growing commercial center.  Cahawba rose again…this time as a major distribution point for cotton.  Bales were loaded on vessels and shipped down river to the port of Mobile for distribution to mills in New England and England. 

In 1837, Richard Connor Crocheron arrived from New York to manage his uncle’s store, which had been in business since the founding of the town.  In 1843, Crocheron built a mansion with a beautiful columned face overlooking the scenic river, and his uncle’s bustling business was attached to the back wall of the house where it faced the street.  The family left town in the summers and traveled to Saratoga, New York, to avoid the oppressive heat.  However in 1850 when Crocheron’s wife died, he sold everything, freed his slaves, and moved north with his three daughters.  Now all that is left are the ruined columns in my opening photo. 

In 1849, Rev. James L. Cotten organized the conversion of a log-sided cotton warehouse into St. Paul’s Methodist Church.  The new church grew and over the years was further enhanced and a brick exterior was added.  Cotten led services for white parishioners in the church itself, and he also led services for black parishioners at another location. 

At that time, the town was still growing and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was built in 1854. 

Building was further stimulated with the1859 arrival of the long-awaited railroad connection.  Businesses mushroomed overnight.  Wealthy planters and rich businessmen built two-story mansions.  “Saltmarsh Hall” was built for the many balls and parties hosted by the social leaders; and an academy for girls also opened in town at that time. 

By 1860, Cahawba was home to 2,000 residents with about two-thirds of them being enslaved African Americans.  The town also had a population of free people of color; most of them earned their living by hiring out to work the local fields while others raised and sold poultry. 

During the Civil War, the railroad was seized and disassembled by the Confederate government so the rails could be used at another location that was more essential to the war effort.  In 1863, the army built a stockade around a large cotton warehouse on the riverbank and turned it into “Castle Morgan,” a prison for captured Union soldiers.

A major flood in 1865 brought additional hardship for the war-weary residents of both the town and the prison.  On April 8, days after Battle of Selma, Union General James Harrison Wilson rode into Cahaba under the protection of a white flag, to meet with Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and discuss a possible prisoner exchange. 

At this time, the Crocheron mansion was owned by Thomas W. Matthews, a slaveholder and rich planter, who supported the Union in the war.  The two men met and shared a “bountiful Southern dinner” with their host then they retired to discuss the proposed exchange.  The officers also sized each other up in anticipation of continued conflict, but no more fighting was to ensue.  The day after that dinner, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. 

The end of the Civil War also marked the beginning of the end for Cahawba.  In 1866, the Dallas County Seat moved nine miles away to Selma, and local businesses and most of the town’s population followed. 

By 1870 the town’s population was less than 500 with mostly freedmen and their families remaining.  They developed garden plots and gradually began farming vacant fields to support their subsistence survival.  Members of this little community also used salvaged lumber and materials to build a school next to their church.

St. Paul’s Methodist Church had originally been a place of worship for white Methodists only, but after Emancipation, the black community wanted their own church.  The white members had moved away and the building was abandoned so it came to life once again as St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church.  However, in 1954 sparks from a nearby fire landed on the wooden steeple and caused a raging inferno.  The church’s “brick walls toppled” before help could arrive to fight the blaze.  By that time, the congregation had been reduced to seven people.  Only the partial remains of the front brick walls are still standing.   In an old garden, once lovingly planted and tended, hearty irises still grow amid a tangle of weeds.

In 1878, the old wooden St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was moved fourteen miles away to Martin’s Station.  Now it has been moved back Cahawba with the establishment of the park. 

In the late 1800s, a freedman purchased most of the old town site for $500 and had the abandoned structures demolished for their building materials.  He then shipped the salvaged pieces by steamboat to Mobile and Selma for use constructing those growing communities…therefore, by 1903 most of Cahawba’s buildings were gone.

The Fambro/Arthur House is the oldest of the four remaining homes in Cahawba, dating back to 1840.  The home originally belonged to Judge W.W. Fambro, and in 1894, the home was acquired by D. Ezekiel Arthur.  Arthur, a former slave, went in search of his mother and sisters after Emancipation.  He brought them back to Cahawba and the family settled there.  His daughter-in-law, Mattie Arthur, lived in the family home until her death in 1995, making her the last of the old family residents in Cahawba. 

Reminders of better times are the hundreds of pecan trees planted by Clifton Kirkpatrick, the “Duke of Cahaba” (1861-1930).  The Kirkpatricks bought their mansion after the Civil War and then began purchasing surrounding plots of land.  When his parents moved to Selma in 1889, they left the farm in Clifton’s capable hands.  He “turned the abandoned remains of Alabama’s first capital into a showcase farm of diversified, scientific agriculture by departing from the South’s one crop cotton system” (Interpretive Marker “The Duke of Cahaba”).  He was also involved in civic affairs and served in the Alabama House of Representatives, focusing largely on promoting education and farm interests.  He earned his nickname of “Duke” during a political campaign because he frequently took his visitors on tours of the remains of the historic town. 

A fire in 1935 destroyed the family’s once-magnificent mansion, leaving behind the two-story brick slave quarters that had been built in back of the main house in 1861.  After the fire, Kirkpatrick’s grandson added columns and a back wing to the two-story structure and created a home for his new bride. 

The other remaining residence along the deserted streets is an odd structure, which appears to have begun its life as a trailer that later gained an addition and lots of pink paint.  There was no sign to identify its history, so your imagination will have to fill in the blanks. 

Cahawba’s “New” Cemetery was established in 1852 (the first cemetery having been opened in 1820 and abandoned by 1850).  Although there doesn’t appear to be many graves, there is a sign that announces that “294 perpetual residents” have been detected. 

In the 1950s the graves were being opened and mutilated; and fencing and gates from around the graves were stolen.  In June of 1960 a resident heard loud sounds and went to investigate.  On the way, he was almost run over by a speeding car.  When he got to the cemetery, he discovered that almost all of the grave stones had been “smashed with a sledge hammer.”  On a happier note, as part of Alabama’s 2019 Bicentennial, many of the remaining gravestones were restored.

The town’s namesake, Cahaba River, begins in the southern Appalachian hills.  Here, at the end of its course, it makes a large loop that encircles most of this historic town.  The river itself is an Alabama Natural Wonder, “supporting 125 species of fish [it] is the most biologically diverse river for its size in the nation.”  (Interpretive Marker “Cahaba River”)

The fourth residence in Old Cahawba is my favorite of all.  It sits on the river bank on land next to where the Crocheron mansion once stood.  I found myself fanaticizing about a stay at this idyllic little cottage under the moss-draped trees, sitting on the front porch and listening to bird calls as we watch the river flow past…but our path was set and it was time to drive on to Selma. 

In light of the town’s sometimes glorious and sometimes sad history, I found our visit a restful sojourn in our travels.  Cahawba has certainly earned the peace she enjoys today.

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