History: William Bartram blazed a trail

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[William Bartram, botanist. Bust portrait with sprig of fragrant jasmine tucked into his jacket below his cravat]
Source: LOC
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. 

William Bartram was America’s first native born naturalist/artist and the first author in the modern genre of writers who portrayed nature through personal experience as well as scientific observation. Bartram’s momentous southern journey took him from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to Florida, through the southeastern interior all the way to the Mississippi River. His work thus provides descriptions of the natural, relatively pristine eighteenth-century environment of eight modern states: North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee. William Bartram published an account of his adventure in 1791.

It quickly became an American classic and Bartram’s Travels has been described by one scholar as the most astounding verbal artifact of the early republic.

Bartram’s book became an immediate success in Europe where it influenced the romantic poets and armchair travelers who savored the descriptions of exotic, sub-tropical Florida as well as the relatively unexplored southeastern interior.

Particularly enlightening and appealing were Bartram’s accounts of the Seminole, Creek and Cherokee Indians. During the first quarter of the 19th century William Bartram became the grand old man of American natural science, advising and mentoring the first generation of naturalists who were beginning to explore the new territories being added to the young nation.

In the company of a group of traders bound for Mobile, Bartram entered Alabama in the summer of 1775 (incorrectly dated 1777 in his Travels) at Russell County, opposite the mouth of the Uchee Creek. This was the site of the town of Yuchi from which the Creek derives its name. Bartram described the town as “the largest, most compact and best situated Indian town I ever saw.” After enjoying “a little refreshment at this beautiful town,” Bartram and his companions traveled on to the capital of the Creek Confederacy, Apalachukla. The town visited by Bartram was apparently on the west bank of the Chattahoochee about a mile and a half below the mouth of the Ihagee Creek. Bartram’s “three days journey” between “Apalachucla town” (Apalachicola) and “Talasse” (Tallassee) evidently took him along an Indian trading path (and eventual Federal Road).

According to the late Peter Brannon, the trail led him west from Coweta, below the junction of Little Uchee and the Big Uchee Creeks and by what is now Knuckles’ Bridge. He joined the present Columbus to Eufaula highway at the old Double Branches crossing (about a mile west of Big Uchee Creek Bridge). From there he passed Old Fort Bainbridge, Creek Stand, Warrior Stand, and the future site of Fort Hull (1813). He apparently left the trail in the vicinity of Persimmon Creek in order to visit Tallassee. Perhaps the traders were headed there. From Tallassee, on the north bank of Euphaupe Creek at its junction with the Tallapoosa River, he proceeded down the east and south bank of the Tallapoosa to Coolome, some twelve miles east of Montgomery. Traveling in a southwesterly direction, Bartram’s party would have passed the present sites of Mitylene, Oak Grove Church, and Pinedale. The night’s camp was probably in the vicinity of Snowdoun. From here they continued south and west across Pinchona Creek (crossing the present Mobile Highway US 31 half a mile north of Moseley’s Store).

Bartram probably followed the trail which crossed Cubahatchee Creek close to the present US Highway 80 Bridge and crossed Okfuski Creek further to the west. The trail passed close to present Sandy Ridge, by Forts Deposit and Dale, a little east of Manningham, by Fort Bibb, and down the present county line between Conecuh and Monroe counties. The Federal road of 1805 branched about Burnt Corn Springs and the main highway crossed the Alabama River at Fort Claiborne, but, as Bartram was on his way to Mobile, he must have followed the left fork to cross Little River at about the same place our present road does (Mount Pleasant) and on south by Tensaw. Bartram continued his trip from here by water, going by boat down the Mobile River.

While in the Mobile country, he visited Pensacola, made trips up the Tombigbee for a short distance, and spent some time with Major Farmer, former British governor, at his plantation on an island near the head of the Delta.

Bartram described Mobile as “extending near half a mile back on the level plain above” the river:

“It has been near a mile in length, though now chiefly in ruins, many houses vacant and moldering to earth; yet there are a few good buildings inhabited by French gentlemen, English, Scotch and Irish, and emigrants from the Northern British colonies. Messrs. Swanson and McGillivary who have the management of the Indian trade, carried on to the Chicasaws, Chactaws, Upper and Lower Creeks, &c. have very extraordinary improvements in buildings.”

He specifically mentions Fort Conde (now restored) “which stands very near the bay, towards the lower end of the town” calling it “a large regular fortress of brick.” Bartram returned to Savannah in mid-July and spent the fall and winter on the coast of Georgia, exploring the Altamaha River, writing his report, and preparing his seeds for shipment to England. 

(Editor’s Note: The bulk of information on William Bartram comes from various sites dedicated to William Bartram and Russell County In Retrospect by Anne Kendrick Walker.)