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.
The early community known as Girard in Russell County was along the west bank of the Chattahoochee River in what is now present day Phenix City – lying from about 15th Street southward toward Fort Mitchell. It was originally the location of the reserve belonging to Benjamin Marshall, a mixed-blood Indian chief who lived in the region among the people of the Lower Creek towns.
The community got its name from Stephen Girard, a Frenchman and naturalized American, philanthropist, and banker. He personally saved the U.S. government from financial collapse during the War of 1812 and became one of the wealthiest people in America, estimated to have been the fourth richest American of all time based on the ratio of his fortune to contemporary GDP. Prior to his death in 1831, Girard purchased much of the Creek land that became Russell County.
Girard was born in Bordeaux, France. He lost the sight of his right eye at the age of eight and had little education. His father was a sea captain, and the son cruised to the Caribbean and back, was licensed as a captain in 1773, visited California in 1774, and thence with the assistance of a New York merchant began to trade to and from New Orleans and Port au Prince. In May 1776, he was driven into the port of Philadelphia by a British fleet and settled there as a merchant.
After the charter for the First Bank of the United States expired in 1811, Girard purchased most of its stock as well as the building and its furnishings on South Third Street in Philadelphia and opened his own bank, variously known as “Girard’s Bank,” or as “Girard Bank.” or also as “Stephen Girard’s Bank” or even the “Bank of Stephen Girard.” Girard was the sole proprietor of his bank, and thus avoided the Pennsylvania state law which prohibited an unincorporated association of persons from establishing a bank, and required a charter from the legislature for a banking corporation.
Girard hired George Simpson, the cashier of the First Bank, as cashier of the new bank, and with seven other employees, opened for business on May 18, 1812. He allowed the Trustees of the First Bank of the United States to use some offices and space in the vaults to continue the process of winding down the affairs of the closed bank at a very nominal rent.
Girard’s Bank was a principal source of government credit during the War of 1812. Towards the end of the war, when the financial credit of the U.S. government was at its lowest, Girard placed nearly all of his resources at the disposal of the government and underwrote up to 95 percent of the war loan issue, which enabled the United States to carry on the war. After the war, he became a large stockholder in and one of the directors of the Second Bank of the United States. Girard’s bank became the Girard Trust Company, and later Girard Bank. It merged with Mellon Bank in 1983, and was largely sold to Citizens Bank two decades later. Its monumental headquarters building still stands at Broad and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia.