Thursday, December 08, 2005

Bibb County:home of the #7 Alabama license plates
Bibb County was originally created as Cahawba County by the Alabama Territorial Legislature on 1818 Feb. 7. Alterations were made to the boundaries in 1818, 1819, 1820, 1821 and 1868. The county name was changed to Bibb on 1820 Dec. 4, in honor of Alabama's first governor, William Wyatt Bibb.
The county is located near the center of the state and is drained by the Cahaba River. The terrain is very hilly and there are significant mineral deposits in the northern part of the county. Bibb County encompasses 625 square miles. The county seat is located at Centreville, the site of the falls in the Cahaba River. Other towns include Blocton, West Blocton, Brent, Six Mile and Ashby.

Centreville, the county seat, was laid out in city blocks in 1822 making its city blocks some of the oldest in Alabama.

A superb place to begin exploring Bibb County's heritage is the following chapter of Bibb County history entitled MRS. CHOTARD'S RIVER TOWN by Rhoda Coleman Ellison. Mrs. Sarah Chotard, the original owner of Centreville and the woman who had its city blocks laid out in 1822, had a daughter named Eliza who married William Proctor Gould who inherited John McKee's estate in Boligee.This plantation, Hill of Howth, was originally constructed using Indian labor and until its demolition in the Sixties , was the oldest home in all of West Alabama. I have collected numerous bottles from the artesian spring which still flows at the foot of the hill.

Colonel McKee opened the Land Office in Tuscaloosa and was Tuscaloosa's first representative to Congress. He was a strong supporter of the establishment of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and he assisted many Tuscaloosa residents in getting their War of 1812 veteren's benefits.
By 1822, a year before this unfavorable verdict, Mrs. Chotard had located as another part of her grant the quarter section in Bibb County already cleared and occupied by the straggling little village of Centreville.9 She must have seen several advantages in this location. According to tradition, she expected that its position near the center of the state might recommend it as the future site of the capital. In the previous year, when the usual flooding of the town of Cahaba by the Alabama River was more serious than in the past, speculation had begun that the capital would need to be relocated.

Yet an even more significant reason for Mrs. Chotard's choice of the location at the Falls of Cahaba must have been that it was at the head of navigation on the Cahaba River. From the moment that the first U.S. government surveyor saw this site in the spring of 1817, he expected that here, as also at the Falls of Black Warrior, an important commercial town "would spring up at no distant day."10 Mrs. Chotard, residing with her daughter in the booming little river town of Tuscaloosa, saw the prediction beginning to be fulfilled there. She must also have heard of the budding traffic in flatboats during certain seasons between Centreville and Mobile. These conveyances typically forty feet long and twelve feet wide, built with a covered section in which the oarsmen (more accurately called polemen) slept and cooked, could carry from fifty to a hundred bales of cotton to market.11

By the end of the decade, Bibb farmers were depending on a fleet of these heavy barges. John Logan, a colorful character who had migrated from North Carolina by way of Tennessee to Centreville by 182812, came to be called "captain" of the , flatboats. Besides these vessels, it was hoped that steamboats from Mobile would soon travel up to Centreville, especially after the first one reached Montgomery in 1821. Snags and sandbars in the Cahaba, however, were especially hazardous when the river was low. For that reason, plans to improve the channel must have been under discussion in the early1820s, though the act to incorporate the Cahaba Navigation Company was not approved by the state legislature until January 10, 1827. 13

One further attraction in this location may have been its recent acquisition of mail service, a further promise of communication for the prospective commercial city. The first post office in the county was established at Centreville in 182 1, the first local postmark bearing the date of February 1, 1821. Only half a year earlier, in the summer of 1820, William Ely had complained to his wife in Hartford, Connecticut: "I wrote you a few lines from the Falls of the Cahawba River about 10 days ago, and sent it 40 miles to a Post Office, by a private Conveyance, to be forwarded thence by Mail, but whether it will ever reach you or not is quite uncertain."14 A map of postal routes in Alabama in the early 1820s shows the Falls of Cahaba in a strategic position at the crossroads of the two chief lines: the east-west road from Augusta, Georgia, to Tuscaloosa and thence by a spur to Columbus, Mississippi and the north-south road from Washington, Tennessee, to Cahaba and St. Stephens. 15 Bibb's mail service, only by horseback before the first stagecoaches in 1830, was irregular and painfully slow, but Centreville's location on the route was advantageous.

Because of government red tape or her dilatoriness, Mrs. Chotard's patent to this land was not issued until October 10, 1823, but by the fall of 1822 the intrepid widow had apparently come to Centreville and employed Thomas Crawford as her surveyor. The squatters had probably built their shops on the riverbanks where they could be accessible to the flatboat traffic, sometimes using them also as residences, and erecting public buildings and other residences to the rear on the west side of the river. It is impossible to locate the sites of either shops or residences before Mrs. Chotard introduced lot ownership. Only on rare occasions is a privately owned house mentioned in the records, as when the county court minute of April 1820 note a temporary move of the sessions to "the east bank occupied by Henry Moody," and those of July 1820 record the payment of house rent to Stephen Potts for a similar use. The original village had undoubtedly grown up in its first few years without any preconceived plan, but now Mrs. Chotard, through the labors of Crawford, set about putting it in order, apparently without regard to any of the log cabin claims already staked out. He signed the plot of her town on Christmas Day 1822.16 In one margin he wrote two names, "Centerville" and "Williamsburg," as if she might be planning to choose between them.

Evidently some problems had arisen in completing the survey, however, for only a week later, on New Year's Day 1823, Mrs. Chotard was appealing for assistance to none other than the popular hero, General Andrew Jackson, at his home in Tennessee. It is not known how she had become acquainted with him, but he was obviously on friendly terms with both her and her daughter, Eliza Chotard McGee, with whom she was then living in Tuscaloosa. Mrs. Chotard must have been around fifty years old at this time, and her request of the general in her New Year's Day letter reveals that she was still exercising the aggressiveness and tenacity that had kept her land claim alive for three decades.

According to Jackson's reply of March 3, she had urged him to instruct General John Coffee, director of the U.S. Public Land Surveys in northern Alabama, to run a line midway across her quarter section. Jackson stoutly refused to do this, assuring her that Coffee lacked authority for such a line from Congress or from the commissioners of the land office at Washington.

Here's some more information about Mrs. Chotard's daughter, Eliza Chotard Gould.


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