History of the Shoals by Harry E. Wallace
(as published in the TimesDaily February 25, 1999)
Presented here by permission of the TimesDaily and the author
History is more than facts, dates and famous personalities. History is alive.
The Shoals area has a wonderful and vibrant past that needs to be read, appreciated and further researched. This work is not definitive, but rather a compiled or highlighted history.
My Sincere hope is that this will encourage or inspire a thorough written history of the Shoals.
I have been fortunate to have had many mentors who have supported and encouraged my teaching.
It is with great personal satisfaction that this work is dedicated in memory of the following wonderful local historians: Bernard Cresap, Eva Dendy, Louis Eckl, Jill Knight Garrett, Eleanor F. Holder, Dallas and Mary Lancaster, Oscar Lewis, Maurine Maness, Turner Rice, Leatrice Timmons, C. Wilder Watts and Nicholas Winn III.
I also dedicate this in honor of the hard work and dedication of the following historians: Milton Baughn, Ren and Liz Burt, Harold T. Damsgard, Kenneth Johnson, Mary Jane McDaniel, William L. McDonald, John McWilliams, Ninon Parker, William C. Scott, Richard C. Sheridan, Sam Wade, Harold Whitlock and Milly Wright.
American Indian influence on the shoals area was and continues to be, tremendous. The Tennessee Valley was the ideal home for native cultures as long ago as 10,000 B.C.
The earliest known culture was the Paleo dating from about 10,000 to 8,000 B.C. Paleo man was an Ice Age hunter whose ancestors were believed to have crossed the Bering Strait from Asia.
His life was basically nomadic, following migrating herds as his main food source. To supplement his diet he may have gathered fruits, nuts, berries, roots and even bark.
These people hunted in teams with spears tipped with razor-sharp fluted points. Hunting required great skill, physical strength and courage.
They lived and traveled in small bands and it is believed they inbred for centuries. They lived mainly in caves and cliff shelters along major streams or along the migratory routes of their prey, as documented by local historian John McWilliams in his research of the Bear Creek area.
Their lifestyle was one often referred to as in balance with the environment. They lived off the land, produced very little and left little physical evidence of their presence.
Most of what survives of this culture consists of stone points, tools, broken bones and fire ashes.
The points, usually named for the sites where they were found, included Clovis, Cumberland, Redstone and Quad.
Local Paleo sites include Standfield-Worley Shelter and LaGrange Shelter in Colbert County and Dust Cave in Lauderdale.
No one really knows what caused the Paleo culture to change but theories include the belief that it was replaced by a more advanced race or that it was a victim of environmental or climatic forces that drove the larger animals, their food source, into extinction.
A new culture
The Archaic culture gradually replaced the Paleo culture by 5,000 to 3,000 B. C. Archaic man lived in larger bands and became somewhat more settled.
They continued to hunt but many of the larger prey were gone and man became dependent upon deer, bear, buffalo, turkey, fish and shellfish.
Hunting gradually became a more individual activity with the technological development of the throwing stick known as the atlatl. Called by its Aztec name, the atlatl increased the hunting yield by allowing more to hunt.
To supplement their diet, the Archaic people became avid harvesters and gatherers. To aid in the endeavor, plant-processing equipment was developed, including stone bowls, grinders, woven baskets and, in the latter years of the period, fiber pottery.
Man no longer was dependent on animal migration. Now he was governed by the seasons. In the fall and winter they lived in caves and cliff shelter, gathering nuts and roots and storing them for future use. In the spring and summer they moved to the river bottoms to hunt, fish and gather.
One of their staples became shellfish; mussels, clams and even snails by the thousands.
By discarding the shells, they developed large shell mounds along the river, often at the mouth of each tributary stream on the Tennessee River. On these mounds they erected huts and in these mounds they buried their dead.
Local Archaic sites include Cypress Creek, Seven Mile Island, Koger Island, Big and Little Bear creeks. Point types include Big and Little Sandy, Lost Lake, Dalton, Kirk, Wheeler, Pickwick, Plevna, Decatur, Buzzard Roost and Mulberry Creek.
The third cultural period ranged from 1,000 B. C. to A. D. and is called Woodland. During this time period, society was more stabilized and less dependent on hunting for survival.
Three technological developments made life easier: the bow, the loom, and the single most important development, fired clay pottery.
The earliest forms of pottery were made from clay and plant fibers and were not heat-resistant.
The introduction of fire tempering allowed Woodland man to have a permanent source of products for food storage and processing.
Woodland man practiced primitive agriculture by gathering and cultivating natural stands of rice, wild fruit and berries. They were not released from the seasonal changes and more time was available to build permanent settlements and to develop trade.
Archaeological excavations in known Woodland sites have revealed an extensive amount of trade items that include copper and mica from Appalachia, marine shells from the Gulf Coast, pipestone from the Great Lakes, obsidian from the Rockies, and galena.
One of the most interesting phases of the Woodland culture is called the Copena period dated about 300 A. D. Copena is derived from the presence of two major items in Woodland burials, copper and galena.
The most accepted theory to explain the Copena period is that it was a time of religious and political expression and that those buried with the items were of high social status.
Local Woodland sites exist all along the Tennessee River.
The final period was from about 1,000 to 1,500 and is known as the Mississippi culture.
The main features of this culture are the massive earthen mounds of the Mississippi Valley and its tributaries.
Commonly referred to as the "mound builders," they constructed the largest earthen structures in North America. The largest is Monk's Mound at Cohokia Mounds State Park just east of East St. Louis, IL. It stands more than 100 feet tall and its base covers 16 acres.
In the southeast, the largest mound village is Moundville in Hale County, Ala., along the banks of the Black Warrior River. Some 20 mounds still exist at a site that may have supported 3,000 to 4,000 inhabitants, with outlying settlements that may have raised the population to 10,000. some have suggested that the Florence mound and Shiloh mounds may have been part of the Moundville complex.
The Mississippi culture was based on intensive agriculture and thus a more stable and structured society existed, ruled by high-status individuals.
They may have separated themselves from the masses by their dress, where they lived and who they allowed to have power. This highly developed society included skilled artisans who made elaborate pottery, jewelry, effigies and pipes.
An elaborate religious system existed that consisted of a sun-god worship and included such symbols as the hand-eye, circle-cross and animal and human forms.
This agricultural society lived off the extensive production of maize, beans, squash, melons and rice.
Scientists have often asked why this culture lasted such a short time. Why were many of the large towns abandoned when Europeans arrived? Some believe they collapsed from heir own internal weaknesses. A growing population increased the demand for more goods and services, thus an ever-expanding bureaucracy collapsed from its own weight.
A competing or even complimenting theory suggests that a change in diet from one high in protein to one consisting mainly of corn caused the population to become more susceptible to disease. Some include that the Europeans introduced more diseases that finished the civilization.
When the first white Americans pushed their way into the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee valleys they encountered the massive mounds and began to question their source. Believing the natives to be too ignorant or savage to have built the structures, they developed alternative theories.
Some suggested a "super race" built the mounds and either moved to the Southern Hemisphere or were wiped out by the savages. Others believe the Vikings, Welsh, or even one of the lost tribes of Israel built them.
James Adair's "History of the American Indians" expresses the lost tribe theory. The "Lost Race" theory was one of racial superiority and to believe contrary would have necessitated better treatment for the natives.
This theory was used to push them farther west to provide land for Americans. The best example was the Trail of Tears of the 1830s. Evidence did exist to contradict the racism but it was largely ignored.
Most historians believe that a healthy society must recognize the contributions of its minorities and its ancestors. It must be the goal of all to encourage and even demand the inclusion of all parts of society.
The Shoals' history has been richly blessed by the contributions of the American Indians. Today's inhabitants have inherited their land, town sites and graveyards. It is important to be guardians of a vanished culture. It should be further studied and protected for future generations.
Chickasaws and Cherokees
To examine native claims on the Shoals area is to look at the Chickasaws and Cherokees.
The Cherokees were the largest of the Southeastern tribes but had the least claim because they lived in present-day eastern Alabama, north Georgia and eastern Tennessee.
The Cherokee were constantly being driven west and south by continued encroachment by white settlers from the east.
The Chickasaws were the smallest of the southeastern tribes but held the strongest claim t the Shoals area due to their settlements in the northern regions of the present state of Mississippi and southwestern Tennessee.
Since both tribes held dual claims to the Shoals, both would work to keep white settlements out of the area.
The lack of white settlement at the shoals was largely because of the efforts of a very determined renegade Cherokee known as Dragging Canoe. The older Cherokee chiefs were willing to purchase peace with land cessions but younger leaders such as Dragging Canoe demanded resistance.
From towns at Chickamauga Creek below Lookout Mountain and five island towns below the present city of Chattanooga, these Chickamauga Cherokees and their allies, the Creeks, conducted raids as far as the Franklin settlement in east Tennessee and the Cumber land settlement of present-day Nashville.
By 1778, Dragging Canoe had more than 1,000 men with war party leadership from chiefs such as Bloody Fellow, Doublehead, John Watts, the Glass, Little Owl, Richard Justice and Bench. Supplies came from British and Spanish allies in Florida through the Creeks.
One supply depot for the renegades was Coldwater at the mouth of Coldwater Creek, now known as Spring Creek.
In 1787, Col. James Robertson and 130 men of the Cumberland Settlement were led by Chickasaw braves in an attack against Coldwater. Known as the Toka expedition, the attack resulted in 26 Indians dead, three French traders and a white woman killed and the complete destruction of the renegade trading post. Robertson lost no men and sent a strong message of retaliation against the renegade Cherokees and Creeks.
In 1788 Chief Old Tassel of the Cherokees and brother of Doublehead was murdered under a flag of truce by angry whites. Immediately, Doublehead began a personal vengeance campaign that lasted until 1794. In 1790, Doublehead established a town in present-day Lauderdale County at Bluewater Creek and from this town Doublehead and his braves exacted a high cost against white settlers.
Florence Historian William L. McDonald, quoting Haywood's "History of Tennessee," wrote, "He (Doublehead) shed with his own hands as much human blood as any man of his age in America."
The end of Double Head's bloody war was aided by the death of Dragging Canoe in 1792, the death of his half-breed Creek ally Alexander McGillivray in 1793, and the destruction of the Chickamauga island towns in 1794. Following peace talks in Philadelphia in 1794, Doublehead became an adept peacemaker.
At his town on Bluewater Doublehead established a plantation, became a landlord to white farmers, and in 1806 with the aid of legal and financial adviser John Chisholm, organized the Doublehead Company to dabble in land speculation.
Also in 1806 Doublehead helped negotiate the sale of tribal lands north of the Tennessee to the United State. For his assistance, Doublehead received a private reserve that stretched from Cypress Creek to Elk River and fro the Tennessee 10 miles inland.
Doublehead was now a marked man. In 1807, he was killed on the Hiwassee River by members of the Cherokee tribe
His death not only marked the end of the last of the great renegades but also sent the message that no chief was above tribal law.
Dealing with the Chickasaw
Chickasaw claims to the Shoals area were increased in 1801 when the United States wanted to widen the animal and Indian trail, later to be known as the Natchez Trace, through Chickasaw territory.
The government sent Gen. James Wilkinson to negotiate with the tribes to allow mail delivery into the Southwest.
George Colbert of the Chickasaw nation persuaded Wilkinson to move the Old Trace from the crossing at the mouth of Bear Creek to the site where the modern Trace crosses the Tennessee at Colbert's Ferry.
In addition to moving the Trace route, Colbert negotiated the construction of a home, outbuildings and a ferryboat for his business.
Arrell M. Gibson, author of "The Chickasaws," said that by 1800 mixed bloods dominated the Chickasaw tribe and the Colberts were the most dominant.
The rise of the Colberts can be attributed to James Logan Colbert, who, according to Trace historian Dawsan A. Phelps, was a Scotsman living among the Chickasaws as early as 1767.
In 1780 he was described as "a man of about 60 years, but still of good health, and a strong constitution.
"He had lived among the Indians for 40 years and had a rich holding among the Chickasaws, 150 Negro slaves and several sons by Chickasaw women."
Colbert had at least five sons who all rose to prominence in the tribe.
The eldest was reputed to be George, who was described as being largely illiterate, shrewd and possessing the ability to make money. He moved to the banks of the Tennessee in 1801 and operated a plantation and ferry on the site know as Georgetown until 1819.
Colbert became widely known for the high prices he charged travelers and government agents. Ferry rates were 50 cents per man and $1 for each horse and rider.
On one occasion Colbert complained that his prices reflected his expenses and that the government had not fulfilled their promises: his house was unfinished and the ferryboat was built with green wood and had rotted.
Two years later, Colbert was paid a negotiated price of $500 for his home and $50 for his boat.
In 1815, after Andrew Jackson's triumphant return via the Trace after the victory over the British at New Orleans, the government received a bill from George Colbert for $75,000 for housing, feeding and transporting the army.
In 1819, mainly because of complaints and white settlement, the government rerouted the mail through Florence and bypassed Colbert's Ferry. This action effectively put Colbert out of business.
After 1820, he moved back to Mississippi and eventually went to Oklahoma in 1837 on the Chickasaw removal.
Levi Colbert takes over
The most popular and most powerful of the Colberts was Levi. Like George, Levi owned and operated a stand along the Trace at Buzzard Sleep Creek, now Buzzard Roost.
Described as being largely illiterate but shrewd in business, Levi and his brothers exploited tribal customs and practiced white business tactics.
Thomas McKenney, commissioner of Indian Affairs, wrote in 1846 that "Levi was to the Chickasaws, what the soul is to the body.
"They move at his bidding. They agree or disagree to any measure that he and those over whom he knows hot to exercise his authority as the speaker of the nation may bid. As to their king, he is without power.
"Like all Indian kings, or the most of them, he is but the subject of some more able and intelligent mind; Levi Colbert is that mind."
After 1815, Levi retired to his plantation at Cotton Port Gin along the Tombigbee River and left his stand in the hands of his daughter and son-in-law, Kilpatrick Carter.
Levi strongly opposed the Indian Removal Act that required all eastern tribes to move west of the Mississippi.
In 1826 Levi led a delegation to the proposed land and returned two months later more determined not to move.
All negotiations with the Chickasaws were through Levi. Gen. John Coffee finally got the Chickasaws to sign at the Treaty of Franklin on Pontotoc Creek, Miss.
Coffee noted that things went well because Levi Colbert was too ill to attend the conference.
When Levi died at his Buzzard Roost stand in 1834, the last formidable opponent to removal was gone and no one was left to fill the vacuum Levi Colbert left.
A lesser known brother, William, also once operated a stand and ferry on the Duck River with John Gordon.
William led a Chickasaw force in Jackson's army against the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend.
At all formal gatherings, William would be seen wearing a military uniform given to him by Andrew Jackson.
Another brother was James, considered to have been the most civilized of the family.
His official status was interpreter and he was widely known for his stubbornness in negotiations.
He also operated a stand on the Natchez Trace near Tupelo and had a large plantation operated by slave labor.
Like Doublehead's legacy in Lauderdale County, the Colberts left a rich cultural heritage for the people of Colbert County.
Historian William L. McDonald has spoken and written that Doublehead and George Colbert were the first businessmen in the Muscle Shoals region and therefore deserve recognition for their influence.