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.
Sections of the old Federal Road are visible today, but are no longer used for travel across Alabama. The road was originally designated as a postal route through the Indian frontier which stretched through Creek territory in lower Alabama. It became a dynamic feature of the American historical landscape. The road ushered in a new era of national expansion, communication and exploitation of Native American groups. It functioned as a major thoroughfare for the western migration of settlers and slaves into the Old Southwest for the first three decades of the nineteenth century. As a military road, it aided in the movement of troops to defend vulnerable western margins of the United States.
The Federal Road was not much more than a horse trail through the wilderness until after the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. President Thomas Jefferson saw the importance of safe and adequate transportation for military defense and commercial interests in the newly acquired settlements of Louisiana. He lobbied to build the road through Creek territory, recognizing that the future of southern commerce depended on easy access to the port of New Orleans.
By 1805, a series of treaties transferred millions of acres of Creek Confederacy land in Georgia to the federal government and officials began plans for a road through the territory. Congress appropriated $6,400 for the construction of a four-foot postal road from Athens, Georgia to New Orleans and construction began in August of 1806. The path was widened to 16 feet in 1811 when the United States feared attack of its Gulf Coast by Great Britain. The Federal Road’s logistical significance also brought on the construction of several forts, including Fort Mitchell.
With the advent of steamboats and railroads, travel over the Federal Road diminished considerably. In 1844, Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph improved communications across long distances, lessening the need for frontier postal roads.
Portions of the Federal Road can still be seen in Alabama in Russell, Macon, Monroe and Conecuh Counties, among others.
An earlier article told of how William Bartram used the road as he explored Alabama and its floral and fauna and the Marquis de la Lafayette traveled the road as he toured the United States for its 50th anniversary. But there were other famous historical figures that used the path including James Oglethorpe and Aaron Burr.
Oglethorpe was a British soldier, Member of Parliament, and philanthropist, as well as the founder of the colony of Georgia. He and the first colonists for Georgia settled at what is present day Savannah and set out to explore the land of the new colony which included lands between South Carolina and Florida and into what was later referred to as the Mississippi Territory. Oglethorpe used the trail which became the Federal Road for his exploration. This trail passed near the location which became Fort Mitchell.
Burr was an American politician and lawyer. He was the third vice president of the United States, serving during President Thomas Jefferson’s first term. Burr served as a Continental Army officer in the American Revolutionary War, after which he became a successful lawyer and politician. He was elected twice to the New York State Assembly, was appointed New York State Attorney General, was chosen as a U.S. senator from the State of New York, and reached the apex of his career as vice president. In the waning months of his tenure as president of the Senate, he oversaw the 1805 impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. Burr shot his political rival Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel in 1804, the last full year of his single term as vice president. He was never tried for the illegal duel and all charges against him were eventually dropped, but Hamilton’s death ended Burr’s political career.
Burr moved west to the Louisiana Territory in hopes of reviving his political career and to make a fortune through a scheme to steal land from the territory. He was arrested and taken to Richmond, Virginia to stand trial for treason. His trip from the west to Virginia took him along the Federal Road and through the area of Fort Mitchell. Burr was acquitted of the charges when no two people supported the charges against him. Those are just a couple of historic figures of the many who traveled the Federal Road through Russell County.