Abbreviated History of Marion County  E-mail

AN ABBREVIATED HISTORY OF MARION COUNTY ALABAMA

By:  The Marion County Historical and Genealogical Societies

For:  The Marion County Chamber of Commerce and all interested citizens

Primary Contributors: Bill Mayhall, Nannette Lawhon, Robert Couch, John Allman

Edited by:  Dr. John M. Allman, III  On Basis of Key Source Materials


The scenic beauty of the hill country of Northwest Alabama today draws residents and visitors to its forests and streams, much as with pioneer settlers in the early years of the county.

 Marion County was created by the Alabama Territorial Legislature on February 13, 1818, drawing its name from the great Southern Revolutionary War General, Francis Marion.  Initially the county encompassed land along the Tombigbee River that now makes up parts of several counties in the state of Mississippi (Monroe and Lowndes).  In fact, before 1821, the first two county seats were located on the Tombigbee in what is now Mississippi.  All lands east of the Tombigbee and Southeast of Gaines’ Trace had been considered Alabama territory until the state line was officially determined in 1820-21.  Thus, when first formed in 1818, greater Marion County stretched half the North-South length of the Alabama Territory along the Tombigbee to its convergence with the Warrior River.

Indeed, in the initial description of the county drawn up by the Alabama Territorial Legislature in 1818, Marion was the largest territorial county.  Then, by 1819-20 the county was reduced in size by the Legislature and the establishment of the Mississippi state line.  However, the county remained extensively large into 1824, retaining most of present day Walker, Winston, Fayette and Lamar Counties within its boundaries.

All the lands that were at one time encompassed in Marion County initially served as “hunting grounds” of the Chickasaw Indian Domain before the vast Indian Cessions across the Alabama region in 1816.  The Chickasaws were one of the three “civilized tribes” of the South and played a key role in the pioneer settlement of the county; providing corn to establish new immigrants, and trade goods for early county seats.

A key Indian location is marked by three large mounds on the Buttahatchee River just south of Hamilton, Alabama, at the so-called “Military Ford”, where Andrew Jackson’s Military Road crossed that river.  However, Indian arrowheads, grinding stones, and pottery are found throughout the county.

By the winter of 1817-18, just prior to county creation, approximately 1000 pioneer settlers had arrived in what would become “greater Marion County” on February 13, 1818.  This sparse settlement was thus scattered throughout what became Marion, Fayette, Lamar, Walker and Winston Counties Alabama; and most of Monroe and Lowndes Counties Mississippi.  Most early settlers came from Tennessee, but sizable numbers came from Kentucky, Georgia and the Carolinas.  By the mid 1850’s an extensive number of settlers came especially from Georgia.  The earliest initial settlement in what was considered Marion County was along the Tombigbee River, but the hill country received numerous pioneers in the 1820’s.  Indeed, in the early antebellum years, Alabama was considered a part of the Western frontier where federal lands could be obtained by grant and reasonable purchase prices, thus settlement came fast.

The earliest road into the Marion region was Gaines’ Trace built between 1807 and 1810 by Indian Agents and Federal Troops to connect Tennessee with the Tombigbee and the coastal Mobile, Alabama area.  This road provided an early route of settlement and served as a boundary between Marion County and the Chickasaw Indians along the northwest corner of the county between 1818 and 1832.  Branches of Gaines’ Trace extended from both Florence and the Huntsville-Moulton area in the Tennessee Valley to the first evolving community in early Marion County, the Cotton Gin Port settlement on the Tombigbee River near present day Amory, Mississippi.  Tree blazings that marked this old road can still be found north and west of Hamilton within present county boundaries.

The Gin Port destination of the road had been established as a community by the placement of a Cotton Gin by the US Government during President Jefferson’s first term.  President Washington had requested the gin to reward the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians for their support in the Revolutionary War; and to further “civilize” these southern tribes.

Thus, as the first village in Marion County, Cotton Gin Port was designated as the county seat in 1818 by the Alabama Territorial Legislature in session at St. Stephens.  The first Territorial Judge appointed to establish county government was John Dabney Terrell, Sr.; who traveled to the Gin Port in the winter of 1817-18 and established the officialdom of Marion County, Alabama.  Strangely enough Marion’s first county seat is today a “ghost town” located near the town of Amory in the state of Mississippi.

Marion County’s second seat of justice was located just north of present-day Columbus, Mississippi, at the home of Henry Greer in 1819.  The site is on the lower Buttahatchee River near where it empties into the Tombigbee.  Thus, in 1819-20 the community of Columbus (now Mississippi) became the first real town in Marion County, Alabama; and basically served as the Marion Court Town.  However, before Marion’s first official post office could be established in 1820 the Federal Government determined the town was located on the Mississippi side of the Alabama state line, and designated Marion’s first projected official post office as Columbus, Mississippi.  Indeed, the establishment of the present day Alabama state line with Mississippi in 1820-21 deprived Marion County of all its “Tombigbee bottoms”, making most of the county “hills and valleys’ of northwest Alabama.

None-the-less, about the time the Alabama-Mississippi state line was officially confirmed, a significant new road was completed through the “heart” of the remaining county lands that would bring more settlers and a thriving commerce.  This very influential focus of early Marion transportation was none other than General Andrew Jackson’s Military Road; extending from the vicinity of Nashville, Tennessee and Florence, Alabama directly through the center of 1821-24 Marion County for about 100 miles.  The road passed through Russellville, and the future sites of Pikeville and Hamilton on its way to Columbus (now Mississippi); and thence in a fairly straight line to Madisonville and New Orleans, Louisiana.  It was built as a strategic short cut from Nashville to New Orleans for military and mail connections and civilian travel.

This very significant road of early Marion history had its beginning as an Indian trail and appears to have been roughly hacked out by several disbanded groups of General Andrew Jackson’s and General John Coffee’s troops returning from the Battle of New Orleans in the Spring of 1815.  The road was certainly discussed and planned during the War of 1812 by Andrew Jackson and no doubt cleared to some extent as an existing Indian trail by some of Jackson’s troops sometime between 1813 and 1815.  The road was clearly completed as a major “open road” thoroughfare between 1816 and 1820 according to government documents and correspondence.

In 1820-21 when Marion County lost her Tombigbee lands to the State of Mississippi, Jackson’s so-called “Military Road” became the county’s “life blood”.  Notably, the key location in the county at that time was the “Military Ford”, where Jackson’s Road crossed the Buttahatchee River.  And it was to an early evolving community there, (1818-20) that the Marion County Court was moved, when evacuating the Tombigbee communities in the spring of 1821.

Historical documentation indicates that the Military Ford became the first Marion Seat of Justice within present day Alabama.  Court was held under large trees and in local homes at the Ford by the first Territorial and County Judge, John Dabney Terrell, Sr.  A Court House was not planned for the Military Ford as a commission had been appointed by the Alabama Legislature to select the most centrally located site for a new Marion County seat in 1820-21.  Marion County’s first official post office, called Marion, was established here in 1821.

The Commission chosen site for the Marion Court would not be confirmed until mid-1821, upon the Military Road 7-8 miles south of the Ford.  The site chosen would be named Pikeville, to honor the slain hero of the War of 1812, General Zebulon Pike.  Pikeville would be surveyed in 1821, and have a court house built in 1822, but see little settlement, building or activity until 1823-24.  Marion County’s first official post office established at the Military Ford in 1821 would be moved to Pikeville in 1824.

Thus, Pikeville, as the selected and new permanent seat of justice for Marion County was destined to become the historical focus of the county in the antebellum period.  However, unfortunately, Pikeville was located on a rather narrow and isolated ridge along the Military Road among rather poor lands.  It would not attract many settlers or many nearby farming ventures.  Pikevelle would never become more than a village as county seat for 60 years, containing no more than 15 business establishments and 20-30 homes at its zenith in 1860.  The primary businesses around Pikeville from the 1820’s through the 1880’s, other than the county court, were tan yards or leather tanning and products such as shoes and saddles.  Pikeville was also noted for beaver hat production and several good hotels/taverns and saloons.  Pikeville society was ably led by Probate Judge John Dabney Terrell, Jr.; who mastered county politics and remained in office between the 1830’s and 1880’s.

None-the-less, Pikeville’s village status led to rapid community dissipation when its viable central location, thus its usefulness as a county seat, was diminished.  The formation of Lamar County from Marion and Fayette Counties in 1867-68 left no choice but to choose a more centrally located county town.  Thereby, Pikeville rapidly became a “ghost town” after the court was removed in 1883.

Today, Pikeville is a “must see” for history buffs, marked by ancient graveyards and store sites.  One key two-story building yet stands there today from the antebellum period.  It served as the home of Judge John Dabney Terrell, Jr. between 1860-1885.  It has remained in Terrell family hands and is fairly well preserved.  It holds many heirlooms from the Antebellum years, to include “foot wide” heart-of-pine wood walls that echo memories of the Marion Court between the 1820’s and 1860’s.  The greater significance of the building is defined by its use in part as the Marion Court House between the 1820’s and 1860’s, before Judge Terrell bought the olden Court House and remodeled it for his home.  Court House benches dating from some of the earliest sessions of the Marion Court yet remain in the home; this alone should attract more substantive interest than curiosity.  Indeed, a tomb to several unknown soldiers of the War of 1812 stands one mile South of Pikeville on an original portion of Jackson’s Military Road still in use today.  Pikeville should be visited by all interested in Marion County history.

Another very historical and revered region of the Marion landscape already mentioned in part is the Military Ford-Toll Gate community.  The Military Ford (now within the city limits of Hamilton) was the auspicious site where Jackson’s Military Road crossed the Buttahatchee River, focal stream of the county.  The first Marion Court in present day Alabama had also been held here in 1821.  But then, a Toll Gate was placed on the Military Road less than one mile north of the Ford in 1822-23.  And, this Toll Gate and its collection house on a revitalized Military Road Turnpike became the focal point of an evolving community in the 1820’s, which was called, “Toll Gate”.  This Toll Gate community soon absorbed the Military Ford neighborhood bringing a post office to be established there in 1838.  It remained through 1882, when its name was changed to Hamilton Post Office to reflect the new court town being built that year one mile north of the older Toll Gate location.

Initially, the Toll Gate on the Military Road Turnpike was established just south of the rear entrance to today’s Econo Lodge Inn.  It gave rise to an intersection there with another historical road, the road to Cotton Gin Port, the first Marion County Seat on the Tombigbee River.  The Gin Port Road ran westward from the Toll Gate, intersecting the Military Road at that point.  The Gin Port Road would become the Aberdeen Road over the years as new port towns were built on the Tombigbee.  This road also provided a connection to a road to East Port on the Tennessee River.

Thus, the early Toll Gate community evolved around roads, commerce and toll charges as county crops and livestock were shipped out the locality to the Tennessee and Tombigbee River ports and international trade.  The Military Road itself provided good connections with the port of Florence on the Tennessee River, and the port of Columbus on the Tombigbee.  The Toll Gate community became a dynamic locality in the county.

Therefore, when Pikeville lost its central location and its viability as the Court Town of Marion in the 1870’s the Toll Gate community was elected in 1881 to be the next county seat.  By the 1880’s it not only held a post office, a central county location, and the Military Ford and its giant Indian Mounds; but one of those mounds held the grave of the founding Territorial Judge, John D. Terrell, Sr.  The Judge’s home at the Ford had overlooked the Mounds; and he had elected to be buried sitting up with several belongings, Indian style, among Indian graves on the mounds.  Judge Terrell, Sr., had served many years as an Indian Agent and had been a personal friend of the Chickasaw Chiefs for decades.  His colorful burial in the Toll Gate-Military Ford community had certainly spoken well for the site in its campaign for county seat.

Notably, Toll Gate was voted to be county seat on the basis of the Toll Gate site or the nearest suitable place.  And, some fortuitous planning by the granddaughter of Judge Terrell, Sr., and her husband Albert J. Hamilton, enabled those two to offer the county 40 acres in 1881 for a court town about a mile north of the Toll Gate-Military Ford.  The acreage was approximately where downtown Hamilton, Alabama stands today, and the offer was accepted by the county.  A new court was built there in 1883.

The new planned county town was then named Hamilton in deference to the land donor, but to this day Hamilton is known as “Toll Gate” by old timers.

The first court house at Hamilton in 1882-83 was a wooden two-story structure, much like the Pikeville Court between 1860-1882, and much like hotels throughout the region, with large porches on the north and south sides of the building.  It stood approximately where today’s modern court stands in Hamilton.  Only one store stood around the Court House Square in the new town of Hamilton in 1883, when court opened there; that of William White.  Also, very few homes stood in Hamilton in 1883.  One of the earliest being the A. J. Hamilton home where it stands today.  Moreover, this home was built on an auspicious location, the home site of William H. Ragsdale, one of the early settlers of the Hamilton-Toll Gate region and one of the first 3 county judges.

Unfortunately, the first wooden court at Hamilton burned in 1887, destroying valuable records and county history collected since the 1820’s.  This incident makes it a challenge to piece together county history from surrogate sources; but this challenge has been a very worthwhile and productive one in recent years.

County court records have been held securely in tact since the 1887 fire, surviving another wooden court in Hamilton between 1887 and 1901.  In that year the historical “Sandstone- -Clock Tower Court” was completed in Hamilton to protect county records forever.  This Court has basically cement and brick, covered by local sandstone.  Indeed, the Sandstone Court of 1901 still serves the county, providing the thick fireproof interior walls of the current modern court that was extensively remodeled in 1960.

Fortunately, Hamilton unlike Pikeville has continued to thrive as an expanding court town since 1882-83.  By the 1980’s Hamilton became the regional foci of Marion County Commerce and the county job market.  Popular “franchise enterprises” from throughout the nation have accelerated Hamilton’s growth.  The A. J. Hamilton home is one of the key historical sites in the Hamilton Toll Gate area today, while portions of the olden Toll House have been preserved.  Also, lumber and stones from the Garland Terrell house at the Military Ford where the 1821 Marion Court met have also been preserved in the Hamilton region.

In addition to Pikeville and Tollgate/Hamilton, two other towns evolved in Antebellum Marion County.  The older was Moscow, on the Military Road, just south of the present day site of Sulligent in Lamar County.  However, Lamar County did not break away from Marion until 1867-68, thus Moscow should be considered an early Marion town.

Moscow, like Pikeville never did become more than a village (5-10 houses and 2-4 stores at any given time).  However, Moscow did serve as the commercial foci of southern Marion County as it was located on an early version of the “Columbus and Moulton” Road in the 1840’s as well as on the Military Road.  A Post Office was established here in 1833 as the community evolved.  However, as with Pikeville, Moscow would become a “ghost town” shortly after the 1880’s railroad sponsored new town growth in nearby Sulligent.

Moscow’s special claim to fame would be to nurture the southern Marion families who would break away from Pikeville and Judge Terrell and form Lamar County in 1867.  These families included none other than the Bankhead family of national fame.

Also noteworthy, an old Antebellum Tavern yet stands on the Military Road near Moscow, which more than any other regional building, reflects the un-remodeled architectural style of Pikeville and all olden Marion towns.  The old tavern near Moscow is well worth a visit as a Marion antiquity.

Finally, the youngest of the 4 evolving towns in Antebellum Marion County was/is Bexar, in the northwest corner of the county.  Bexar would have a later start than the other three towns because it lay west of Gaines’ Trace and remained Indian Territory until the 1832 treaties removing the “civilized tribes” from the South to Oklahoma Territory west of the Mississippi River.  Thus, the first post office was established at Bexar in 1843; but it still exists today as one of the older post offices in the county.

Bexar, like all early Marion communities only evolved into a village in size throughout its long history.  At its zenith about the time of the Civil War the town had 5-10 stores, several taverns, a gin and a Masonic Lodge.  The town was named for the famous mission fortress, the Alamo de la Bexar in San Antonio, Texas, where the battles to free Texas from Mexican control in the 1830’s and 1840’s began.  The famous battle cry, “Remember the Alamo”, spawned the Bexar town name.  The most noteworthy building of this community in early years was the Masonic Lodge, the first such lodge in the county.  Unfortunately, this building was burned by Union Troops during the Civil War.

There were a few other long standing smaller communities in Marion County during the antebellum period; three of which are mentioned here.

Bear Creek, in the northeast part of the county was originally called Allen’s Factory during Antebellum years.  It was named for the Allen family, who among others built two yarn-cloth factories on Bear Creek in the 1850’s.  The factories were burned during the Civil War and the Creek name asserted itself in the area.

Shottsville is also a community of long standing in the county about 15 miles northwest of Hamilton.  The region was once called Stone Town, given the large number of Stones living there.  This corner of the county remained Indian Territory into the 1830’s.  Then, as the community was more fully settled, it was named Shottsville around 1872, to honor L. C. Shotts, the first Post Master.

Pearce’s Mill evolved as a community near the so-called “Centre” location in the county selected to replace Pikeville as county seat in the 1870’s-before the election of the Toll Gate site for the Court.  The community was focused around an early wooden dam and mill built by John M. W. Pearce at that location in the 1850’s.  The site was revived after the Civil War by Mr. Pearce’s son, James P. (Big Jim) Pearce with the construction of a mill and a store.  The old store yet stands at Pearce’s Mill as a monument to late 1800’s architecture of Marion County.  James P. Pearce became an important county leader and politician about the time of the rise of the Hamilton Court.

The Civil War was a tragic time for the citizens of Northwest Alabama and Marion County.  Although the Marion Legislative delegation in Montgomery eventually voted for secession, many of the people of this rather rural and independent farmer oriented county wished not to become involved in the War.  Some residents sided with the Union and stayed at home, becoming known as “Tories” or “hold-outs”.  The Tories were concentrated in the hilly small farm oriented northern part of the county and many often raided Pikeville, Bexar and the expanding Toll Gate community in the vicinity of present day Hamilton.  This brought pro-Confederate atrocities against them, and an on-going local “civil war” was conducted in the county during the national Civil War.

Many historians suggest that Marion County of the 1860’s provided as many troops for the Union as for the Confederacy. This can hardly be doubted as Marion County by that time was basically a region of small scale yeoman farmers, who would not be well rewarded by secession.  There were few plantations and little slavery within the formal limits of the county by the end of the War.  Those institutions had been more concentrated along the Buttahatchee River in the southern part of the county that became Lamar County in 1867 (first formed as Sanford and Jones County).

Overall the Civil War and Reconstruction period was a grievous period of division and pain for Marion County.  Poe’s Batallion of the Confederate Army was stationed at Pikeville for a while early in the war to collect taxes, but was chased away by Tories and Unionists by mid-war.  Indeed, the “Stars and Stripes” stood above the Pikeville Court well into the war, where no one bothered it.  Then Judge John D. Terrell, Jr. finally placed the Confederate flag above the Pikeville Court after losing a son fighting for the South in Virginia; no one bothered this flag either.  Pikeville became a kink of neutral ground, respected by all sides.

Union troops identified as a portion of Wilson’s Raiders burned much of Bexar and the Hamilton/Toll Gate area.  The Helvingston Plantation Home in the Hamilton/Toll Gate region was a particular target of destruction.  It stood on the Military Road where the A. J. Hamilton home stands today and the Ragsdale home had stood in the 1820’s.

Union troops basically only marched through Pikeville where their long-stem German pipes were recalled years later.  The group that occupied Pikeville for a day or so were German in origin from around Minnesota.  Pikeville was no doubt spared because of the many pro-Unionist in the vicinity.

After the Civil War and Reconstruction period, beginning in the late 1870’s Marion County basically assumed its present shape and size.  Many pro-Unionist families moved on to Texas and the Western Frontier.  Marion County faced a period of isolation and poverty with its once rising liaison with planter port towns destroyed; they too were in shambles.  Pikeville, now located one mile from the Lamar County boundary haltingly guided the remains of greater Marion County in the 1870’s.

But then, a new era of economic rejuvenation and education began quickly in the southern and eastern parts of the county with the penetration of railroads beginning in the late 1880’s.  A whole new string of “railroad towns” would revitalize Marion County.  Two entirely new towns, Guin and Winfield led the way.

The Kansas City, Memphis and Birmingham Railroad came across the old domain of greater Marion County in 1886-87, basically creating Amory and Gatman, Mississippi; and Sulligent, Guin, Winfield and Jasper, Alabama.  In the case of both Guin and Winfield, the railroads helped to survey and plan the town in return for about half the town lots deeded to the railroad.

There had been small communities evolving in both the vicinities of Guin and Winfield, but only the new towns received the “flag stops” and thus, prosperity for town growth.

Caudle had been evolving as a mill and store community just west and south of what was to become downtown Guin.  Its focus was near the Guin Town Park today.  Palo was an evolving community two miles south of what would become Winfield.  Neither of the early communities would receive a “flag stop”; both would be absorbed into the respective railroad towns, Guin and Winfield.

Guin, when incorporated in 1889, would be named for Dr. Jeremiah M. Guin, a principal land owner and donor of property to the railroad for the new town.  Lumber from Pikeville would be used to construct much of the new town of Guin; and many Pikeville families moved to nearby Guin in the 1880’s and 1890’s.

At Winfield, the railroad town evolved in approximately the same way.  However, there did not appear to be one principal landowner or collaborator with the Kansas City, Memphis and Birmingham Railroad here as in “Guin”.  The railroad itself appeared to be the prime factor in buying land and surveying the new town.  Luxapalilla was first considered for the name, then the evolving community was called Palo-Needmore, using more traditional names of nearby communities.  However, at the time of incorporation in 1891, the town was named for the victorious General Winfield Scott of Mexican War fame.  The Elisha Vickery family was among the earliest settlers, and mill and gin keepers in the Winfield region.

By 1900, both Winfield and Guin had surged ahead of Hamilton in population, given their locations upon railroad transport (300 people compared to 235 in Hamilton).  However, the historical mystique of the Toll Gate-Military Ford-Hamilton region and its central location preserved the county seat into an era of accelerated overall county development in the early 1900’s.

There are also several other present day towns in Marion County stemming primarily from the new railroad era around the turn of the century that certainly deserve some discussion.  For instance, the “twin towns” of Brilliant and Boston in the east central part of the county have been significant centers of development for years, especially with regard to coal and other mineral resources.

The first modern coal mines were opened in the Brilliant-Boston area in 1897-98, when a spur line of the railroad arrived from Winfield.  Brilliant was first called Gold Mine based on some early significant but limited gold ore in the region.  The area developed as “Boston” appeared to have derived its name in terms of honoring some early “Bostick” settlers in the area, and from the “big brother” city in Massachusetts.  The name “Brilliant” was derived from the Brilliant Coal Company; and the overall town site generally goes by that name today.

Hackleburg first evolved as a community in the north central part of the county in late Antebellum years along livestock drover routes from the Ohio Valley and Tennessee to South Alabama plantations.  The name was derived from the numerous hackle bushes in the vicinity that harmed the drover’s sheep in terms of wool and stomach conditions which could cause animal death.  However, the first cluster of stores forming up a town did not appear until the 1905-08 time frame and the arrival of the Illinois Central Railroad.  Robert Conchrane is the earliest known settler in this region.

In summary, the Marion County region and Marion towns have continued to evolve a better quality of life for local citizens during the last 175 years.  A trend toward migration to large cities after World War II has long ceased.  Improved transportation, expanding service industries and skilled work forces have triumphed among the rural oriented hills of Marion, especially in the past two decades.

Family ties have remained strong, and citizens have remained loyal to their communities; but not at the expense of newly arriving, inquiring minds.  School and church commitment to the needs of citizens make the county a very desirable place to live.

The investment of individual resources and talents provides nourishment to the youth and sustenance to adults.  Both visitors and new pioneer settlers are welcomed to join the established families of Marion County in revisiting the history and potential of Northwest Alabama.