Desoto is believed to have crossed the Tombigbee near present day Columbus in 1540.
For much of the 19th century the land between the Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers was considered neutral hunting ground for the Choctaws to the west and the Creeks to the east. As Indian lands became more and more scarce, a dispute arose between the two tribes for the ownership of these lands. As an alternative to warfare, the two tribes settled the dispute by playing a game of stickball at a location near present day Tuscaloosa. Though the Creeks won the contest, the Choctaws refused to acknowledge their defeat and the two tribes went into battle just south of Pickensville. The battle was also indecisive. Such intra-tribal land disputes made it easy for settlers to continue their steady march.
The Choctaws were a widely dispersed people spreading from Tennessee to Tampa. It is for this reason that the trade jargon of Southern Indian tribes was primarily based on the Choctaw language. The Choctaw people were short in stature, flattened their children’s heads, wore long hair, and were called Choctaw by the Creeks, the Creek word for “red.”(Cruising Guide)
The Choctaws were also masterful farmers. Staple crops included corn, beans, melons, and squash and they used their surpluses for trade.
During the colonial period the Choctaws, like other tribes, were encouraged to draw allegiances that primarily benefited the trading positions of the European powers. Bienville, the frenchman of Mobile, after killing the pro-British Choctaw chief, courted the Choctaws most aggressively, even building the fort Tombecbe, claiming it was to protect the Choctaws from the Chickasaws, their old enemies.
The Choctaws also aligned themselves with the Spanish and British during the American Revolution.
The Choctaw chief Pushmataha assisted the Americans in the Creek Indian War of 1813. After the defeat of the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend, the reward to the Choctaws was the loss of much of their land the Americans claimed belonged to the Creeks.
After the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, the majority of all remaining Choctaws were relocated to Arkansas. Today over 5,000 Choctaws remain in east-central Mississippi near the town of Philadelphia.
The well-known Shawnee Indian Chief Tecumseh visited the basin in 1812 as he traveled throughout the south spreading his message of war and ousting of American settlers. (Furtado et. all 1989:70) It was around this time that settlers began constructing many small fortifications, such as Fort Mims on the Tensaw River which was the site of Alabama’s most famous massacre. In 1814 this conflict between settlers and the Upper Creeks ended at the battle of Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa The Creeks lost all of their land following the Treaty of Fort Jackson the following year. In 1816 the Chickasaw Treaty gave substantial portions of the Tombigbee and Alabama lands to the United States for settlement. (Furtado et. all 1989:70)
The Chickasaws were invited to Mobile almost immediately upon its first incarnation at 27-mile bluff in 1702. Though Iberville courted both the Chickasaws and Choctaws with peace, tensions between the Chickasaws and the French began almost immediately. By 1736, Iberville’s brother and new governor of Mobile, Bienville decided to annihilate the Chickasaws in a military campaign. Their frequent raids on shipping ports and their strong ties with the English, had become an unacceptable nuisance to the French. Despite having two forces, one approaching from the north, and one from the south, Bienville’s assaults were repelled, both in 1736 and during a second campaign in 1739-1740.
These failed campaigns led to the construction of Fort Tombecbe on the Tombigbee River in 1735. The fort was located at Jones Bluff near present day Eppes Station and was used as a trading post with the Choctaw Indians. The fort represented the first permanent settlement in the Tombigbee Basin and was occupied until 1763 when the French lost possession of Louisiana. (Futado et. all 1989:62)
Also in 1817 the French Bonapartist settled at modern day Demopolis (Greek for “city of the people”).
“So within a few decades of the establishment of American control of the Tombigbee valley, the Indian tribes which had earlier played such an important role in the struggle for empire, passed from the political scene.” (Furtado et. all 1989:71)
First mention of a Tennessee / Tombigbee Waterway
The first known recommendation to build a water transportation route connecting the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers was made by a French explorer, the Marquis de Montcalm, to Louis XV of France in about 1760 or 1770. At that time, rivers were the only practical means of transporting supplies and commerce from coastal settlements into the interior settlements. A connecting link between the two rivers was considered by the French explorer to be needed if the French were successful in settling this region of the south. (Tenn / Tom)
European settlement during this period was distinctly concentrated throughout the Black Belt due to the high fertility of the soil for corn, cotton and sweet potato production. (Furtado et. all 1989: 58)
The first settlement by the early frontiersmen was made by Josiah Tilly in 1817 on a bluff of the river about a half mile above today’s Pickensville. (Rivers of AL)
Washington County was Alabama’s first county, created in 1800 by approval of the Mississippi territorial governor. The town of St. Stephens in Washington County would become Alabama’s first territorial capital until the formation of the state in 1819 when the capital was moved to Huntsville. One of the areas earliest industries was salt mining first began in 1809. A large salt dome was discovered in 1948 at the town of McIntosh (Rivers of AL)
From the early 1800’s to about 1910, paddle driven steamboats plied the free flowing Tombigbee River carrying passengers and goods as far north as Amory, Mississippi and returning with tottering stacks of cotton bales, logs and other commodities. The first steamboat ever to be constructed in Alabama was built in St. Stephens, Washington County in 1818. It was appropriately named the Alabama. (Rivers of AL)
Today’s town of Columbus, Mississippi, also called the Friendly City, wasn’t called Columbus until 1821 when its name was changed from Possum Town to Columbus. Possum Town was a name given by the Chickasaw Indians, due to the opossum-like features of Spirus Roach, the town’s local trader. In this same year Franklin Academy, the first free public school in Mississippi, opens its doors.
Columbus was the original head of navigation on the Tombigbee River. The rival upstream port of Aberdeen was accessible only during high-water. Horace King, the famed slave bridge builder, was commissioned to build the Columbus bridge in 1844. He was asked to build the bridge low enough that it prevented the passage of steamboats beneath it, thus permanently cutting Aberdeen off from all potential river trade. King was freed two years later in 1846, winning his freedom in a wager with his owner by completing a bridge project within a certain amount of time.
The town of Livingston, AL was founded in 1833 and named for Edward Livingston, a well-known statesman of the times. Soon afterward, they founded Livingston Female Academy, which is now the University of West Alabama (UWA). Livingston also became a health spa thanks to the attraction of its Bored Well, which many people believed had healing properties. Antebellum homes can be spotted in Livingston’s neighborhoods, and live oaks adorn the sidewalks. (Tombigbee Country)
Founded in 1830 with the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit, Gainesville was Alabama’s third-largest city until an 1855 fire destroyed most of it. (Tombigbee Country)
The Beginning of the Tenn-Tom Waterway
In 1810, the citizens of Knox County, Tennessee (current location of Knoxville) petitioned the U.S. Congress to build a waterway that would shorten their trade route down the Tennessee to New Orleans, Mobile and other ports along the Gulf of Mexico. Their proposal for a navigation channel connecting the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers would shorten the distance by more than 800 miles. Shortly after Alabama joined the union in 1819, the state hired an engineer to survey its rivers, including a possible connection with the Tennessee River.
The very first cement mill in the state was built in 1901 on the Tombigbee at Spocari, near Demopolis.
1866: Columbus women gather to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. They then establish the first Memorial Day, a holiday now observed by the nation.
Construction of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway
The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is the largest water resource project ever built in the United States. It is one of the engineering marvels of the world. The major features of the waterway are 10 locks and dams; a 175-foot deep canal connecting the Tennessee River with the Tombigbee River watershed; and, 234 miles of navigation channels. The federal project was designed and constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with annual appropriations from the U.S. Congress. (Tenn / Tom)
The Tenn-Tom is the largest earth moving project in history, requiring the excavation of nearly 310 million cubic yards of soil or the equivalent of more than 100-million dump truck loads. By comparison, the French dug about 105 million cubic yards in building the Suez Canal and a total of 210 million cubic yards of earth were removed from the Panama Canal.
The first engineering investigation of the waterway was during the Grant Administration in 1874-75. The study concluded that the U.S. Corps of Engineers could build such a project that included a total of 43 locks and a channel four feet deep; but its commercial limitations made it impractical. (Tenn / Tom)
Another investigation of the project was conducted in 1913. This study proposed a waterway with a six – foot channel and a total of 65 low lift locks. Congress, however, found its cost to be prohibitive and shelved the project. (Tenn / Tom)
The Corps conducted other studies in 1923, 1935, 1938 and 1945 that eventually led to congressional approval of the waterway in 1946. The development of the Tennessee River by TVA, especially the construction of the Pickwick Lock and Dam in 1938, helped decrease Tenn-Tom’s costs and increase its benefits. Strong opposition from key members of the Congress from other regions of the nation and from the railroad industry prevented any further development of the waterway until 1968 when President Johnson first budgeted funds to start the project’s engineering and design. (Tenn / Tom)
As part of his “Southern Strategy” for reelection, President Nixon included $1 million in the Corps of Engineers’ 1971 budget to start construction of the Tenn-Tom. On May 25, 1971, the President traveled to Mobile, Alabama, to participate with then Governor George Wallace and other elected officials from four states to symbolically start construction of the long awaited Tennessee -Tombigbee. However, the actual start of construction was delayed until December 1972 because of a lawsuit filed against the waterway by a small group of environmentalists. The federal courts eventually ruled in favor of the project. (Tenn / Tom)
Construction began in December 1972 with the building of the Howell Heflin Lock and Dam (formerly Gainesville LID) at the southern end of the waterway.
After 12 years of construction at a total cost of nearly $2 billion, the Tennessee- Tombigbee Waterway was completed on December 12, 1984. The last plug of earth was removed from the waterway channel at Amory, Mississippi, allowing the long awaited mixing of the waters of the Tombigbee with that of the Tennessee River. (Tenn / Tom)
The 10 locks are needed to raise and lower boats and commercial vessels a total of 341 feet, the difference in elevation between the southern and northern ends of the waterway.
One of the most challenging features of the waterway to design and construct was the so-called Divide Cut, a 27-mile canal that connects the Tenn-Tom with Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee River.
To build this navigation canal, which is 280 feet wide and 12 feet deep, required the removal of 150 million cubic yards of earth. Seven private contractors, using conventional equipment, completed this awesome task in less than 8 years.