History: Lafayette’s visit to Alabama began in Russell County
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.
Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de la Lafayette, the last surviving general of the Revolutionary War honored Alabama with a visit in 1825. The former aide to George Washington was making a tour of the United States in honor of the nation’s 50th anniversary in 1824-25. Joining him on the tour was his son George Washington Lafayette.
Lafayette first came to America from France to support its war for independence from Great Britain. At the young age of 20, he was made a major general and served on Washington’s staff with distinction, fighting in important battles at Brandywine and Yorktown. After the war, Lafayette became embroiled in the French Revolution and eventually had to leave his home country because of his opposition to the Jacobin Party.
In 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to make a grand tour of what were then the 24 states of the United States. Lafayette accepted the invitation and arrived on August 15, 1824 at Staten Island, New York. Alabama governor Israel Pickens made a formal invitation for Lafayette to visit the state in December of that same year. The visit created great excitement and the legislature authorized the payment of entertainment expenses from public funds. Planning committees were appointed for the lavish festivities to be held in Montgomery, Cahaba and Mobile.
Lafayette made his way through the states with stops at Monticello to visit Thomas Jefferson and in Washington, D. C. where he met with President Monroe at the White House. He began his tour of the southern states in March 1825. And on March 31, Lafayette arrived at the Fort Mitchell crossing of the Chattahoochee River. His first steps in Alabama would be in Russell County.
The Frenchman and his touring party were met by a military escort and a welcoming party that included former congressman Bulling Hall, John Dandridge Bibb – brother of Alabama’s first two governors – Col. John Crowell and General Sam Dale.
The Marquis de la Lafayette was met at the river by a band of Native American Creeks numbering around 50 warriors led by its chief Chilly McIntosh. The group escorted the ferry across the water and asked Lafayette to remain in his carriage in order to keep his feet from getting wet when it disembarked on the Alabama side. The Creeks carried the carriage to dry land and the assisted in getting it to the top of the hill where the welcoming delegation waited. Speeches were made as Lafayette was introduced – which was not needed as the Frenchman was well-known to all in attendance.
Much to the disappointment of the Creeks, the Alabama militia took over the escorting of Lafayette. But, the warriors and their chief rushed ahead to their village to prepare a special event for the honored guest. The Creeks played a game of stick ball which was won by the side led by McIntosh. Ceremonies and dances followed before Lafayette moved on to Haynes Crabtree Tavern in Fort Mitchell for the night.
On the next day, Lafayette, escorted by the Alabama militia and 50 Creek warriors along with McIntosh, moved on to the tavern of Captain Kendall Lewis, who was the son-in-law of Big Warrior, the chief of the Upper Creeks. He traveled on to New Orleans from Alabama and then turned north to visit the Western states before returning to France to live out the remainder of his life.