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.
The Spanish came to the New World in search of Asia. You know the story. Christopher Columbus convinced Queen Isabella he could find a shorter route to China, and she believed him enough to fund the trip. That is not the story for today. Instead, this story is of how the Spanish came to establish its northern most permanent settlement in Alabama – in Russell County near Holy Trinity.
If you travel down Alabama Highway 165 past Fort Mitchell to the intersection with County Road 54 (Terminal Road), you will see a historic marker for Fort Apalachicola. Not far from the marker, along the Chattahoochee River is what remains of the Spanish fort that stood from 1689 to 1691. The site is a protected area and is not open to the public.
The Spanish established the fort in an effort to deter the Creek Indians from trading with the English. It was feared that the Native Americans of the area might begin to support the English over the Spanish. Both the Spanish and the English were looking for ways to establish a foothold on the Southeastern United States,
The newly appointed governor of the Spanish colony of Florida Don Diego De Quiroga y Losada ordered the fort be built in Russell County. He made his decision without the approval of the Spanish king because the English were beginning to build communities in the area and establish trade with the Creeks. The Spanish governor saw the actions of the English as a threat to Spanish land claims. In 1689, he sent Captain Enrique Primo de Rivera along with 24 infantry to oversee the construction of the fort. The fort was constructed by Indians from Spanish mission villages in central Florida and among that group were about 100 Apalachee Indians, most of which were carpenters. The structure was designed as a square blockhouse with bastions on each corner and surrounded by a stockade of sawn wood and a dry moat. The entire site measured 72 feet across from the center of the moat to the center of the moat on the other side.
The fort, named Apalachicola, was to be a military and trade installation in what was then the colony of Florida. It was located in a big bend of the Chattahoochee River about 15 miles south of what is now Phenix City on the west side of the river in Russell County. The site was selected because of its proximity to Apalachicola, the head town of the Lower Creeks Indians in the middle of the eighteenth century. It was the northernmost fort in what was then the colony of Florida. The fort was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The moat is still visible today.
Fort Apalachicola’s construction was completed in 1689 and 20 soldiers were stationed there until 1691 when the Spanish king ordered the fort destroyed. He believed the fort was too far from St. Augustine to defend. The soldiers dismantled the fort and removed all of its metal items, including the nails and canons.
The fort faded into history until 1956 when it was rediscovered by Brother Finbar Ray, a Catholic monk living at the Holy Trinity monastery in Russell County. It was investigated soon after by Harold Huscher of the Smithsonian Institution and David Chase of the University of Alabama, who were both conducting research in the area.
The fort was in the hands of private owners until 1971 when it was sold to the Russell County Historic Commission for one dollar.
The moat is still very well defined and not filled in with dirt as were other Spanish moats surrounding forts. The moat itself has helped protect the outline of the old fort, as has the terrain surrounding the area. Even so, the site is under threat from erosion caused by the movement of the channel of the Chattahoochee River closer to the fort. Looting of historic artifacts is also a concern. Excavations near the fort site have uncovered English trade goods and other artifacts of Native Americans from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Some of the artifacts from the area are in the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga. The majority are located in the Antonio J. Waring Jr. Archeological Laboratory at the University of West Georgia.
Those artifacts collected through the research of the site by the University of Alabama were donated to Chattahoochee Valley Community College, but their location is unknown. Artifacts found at the site include broken vessels, smoking pipes, gun parts and beads.