History Series: Crawford produced men who shaped our country’s history

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Mark Clark

Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County. 

In the early days of what would become Russell County, the Creek Indians thrived. The Native Americans lived on this land long before the invasion of European explorers and even after British, Spanish and French people decided to stake a claim to the area.

Everything began to change in 1832 when the state of Alabama negotiated a treaty with the Creek Nation that gave the state control of the area we now call Russell County. Once the treaty was signed, the state designated the area to be known as Russell County in the same year. The county was much larger than it is today because it included the area we call Lee County. Because of the new dimensions, the county seat was moved from Girard to Crockettsville because it was more centrally located.

A permanent courthouse constructed of brick was built in the now growing community which changed from a frontier outpost to the center of the county’s government. The courthouse was completed in 1842 and the city had acquired churches, several small stores and a post office by the middle 1800s. 

Crockettsville was laid out by S.H. Baldwin in 1840, complete with lots and streets. The city limits extended about one-half mile in every direction from the courthouse which stood facing east at the current location of the Crawford United Methodist Church. Across the street to the east was the city’s jail. Golgotha Hill, the site of executions by hanging, was located about one-half of a mile north of the city. The city was on a regular stagecoach route from Clayton in Barbour County to Salem, now located in Lee County, in the northern portion of Russell County.

Across the street to the south was the Crawford Masonic Lodge, known as Tuckabatchee No. 96, was constructed in 1848 and served as the location of lodge meetings, school classes and church services over time. The building still stands today, thanks to a renovation project by the Russell County Commission, and is one of the oldest buildings of its type in the state.

The town name of Crockettsville was originally chosen to honor the well-known and revered Davy Crockett who served as a scout under General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. In 1843, the Alabama legislature changed the name of the town from Crockettsville to Crawford to honor William Harris Crawford, a distinguished Georgia teacher, lawyer, duelist and statesman. 

With the move of the seat of government to Crawford, came a growing number of people, among them, lawyers. Three lawyers in particular located to the new center of Russell County – Benjamin Hurt Baker, Solomon Heydenfeldt and Milton S. Latham – and went on to play significant roles in the early days of our country.

Little is known of Baker’s ancestry except that his mother was struck dead by lightning while rocking the cradle in which he lay. His early educational opportunities were limited and he acquired his education through reading. He moved to Russell County in 1836 and became its sheriff from 1840 to 1843. He read law in 1844 and became an Alabama legislator in 1847 in the House of Representatives. He was re-elected to the house in 1849. He succeeded Capt Abercrombie in the senate in 1851 and served to 1855. He represented the county in the constitutional convention in 1861. Baker served as a lieutenant colonel during the Civil War. He resigned his commission in `1863 due to health problems and died in Crawford that same year. His son Albert C. Baker was chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. Another son, Elisha Baker, served in the Alabama Legislature and son, Benjamin M. Baker, served as the first superintendent of education for the state of Texas and later as a judge in the thirty-first judicial district in Texas for 16 years. 

Heydenfeldt was a lawyer who moved to Russell County in 1841 and was admitted to the bar. Nine years later, he moved to California where in 1851 was selected to serve the state in the United States Senate. He served a year before being elected as an Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court. He was the second Jewish justice of the court, but the first to be elected by direct vote of the people. 

Latham moved to Russell County in 1845 after graduating from Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania. He first served the area as a teacher while he studying law. He was admitted to the State Bar in 1848 and worked as the Russell County circuit court clerk for two years. In 1850, he moved to California after the gold rush. In San Francisco, Latham became a recording clerk for the county and ten became district attorney for Sacramento. 

In 1859, Latham was elected governor of the state, a position he held for only five days as he was selected by the state legislature to fill a position in the U.S. Senate. He was the second California governor to resign from office. In 1879, Latham moved to New York City to become the president of the New York Mining and Stock Exchange. He died in 1882 at age 54.

Editor’s Note: The history of Crawford will continue in next week’s Citizen of East Alabama.