Gurley Lions Club serving the Gurley community since 1948
Gurley Lions Club serving the Gurley community since 1948

From Our Past XXIII

History of Madison County

Introduction: Old files found in one of the Lawler homesite trunks revealed a handwritten historical research paper written by Ruby W. Lawler during her tenure as a Chairwoman for the Program Committee of the Gurley Historical Society. This research paper was written sometime around 1952. Ruby W. Lawler was one of the two daughters of Captain Elijah F. and Matilda Walker of Gurley. The information is most interesting as some of the information was taken from notes from a former history teacher of the Robert Donnell Academy and other early Madison County records and reports. You will find that some of the descriptive language used in the early records are difficult to understand, especially in the description of boundaries and certain landmarks. Many boundaries were marked by land owner’s names, of which all are long departed and much of the land has changed owners several times. The “current” facts and locations she refers to would be around 1952.

Following is a re-print of that research paper as it reveals some generally unknown facts about Madison County and many interesting facts long forgotten. This information is a vital part of Gurley history and certainly deserves its place in the From Our Past series of the Gurley website.

Preface by Ruby W. Lawler: “Some years back, in this club (Gurley Historical Society), I was assigned the history of Gurley and Madison County. For the information and data, I wrote a former teacher of the old Robert Donnell Academy and she sent me bits of history gathered and saved from her teaching career, along with the early history of Madison County taken from the “History of Old Madison County” by Thomas J. Taylor, Probate Judge, 1866 to his death in 1894. Also, information was taken from a copy of “Early History of Huntsville” by General Edward C. Betts, a “Report on Madison County” compiled by James Record, and a Historical Brochure of Huntsville (1951) compiled by the Huntsville Industrial Expansion Committee.”

Ruby W. Lawler

The History of Madison County: The Eastern boundary of Old Madison County began at the intersection of the Cherokee and Chickasaw Indian boundaries on the J. H. Hobbs plantation, on the east side of the Tennessee River, nearly opposite the southern extremity of Hobbs Island, running north 28 degrees 30 minutes, and east through Dr. Logan’s, J. D. W.Smith’s, and Jackson Lee’s plantations. The line further ran east across the mountains, thence through the plantations of Samual Green and W. O. Carpenter, crossing Flint River at the corner of W. O. Carpenter’s farm, where it continues through the Flemmings, McClungs, DeBows, and Graysons land to Keels Mountain and cornered north of Guilford Bennetts. From that point the line is very irregular but the general direction is a little northeast, passing up Hurricane Creek and running one mile east of Maysville and New Market, running from the latter place northwest on a straight line to the Tennessee boundary. (Today it would be almost impossible to trace the old boundaries based upon this description, without a great deal of historical research of old deeds and surveys.)

The county was about twenty five miles wide on the Tennessee line, about thirty miles in length north and south and when the Tennessee River was made the boundary line, the county line was about three miles on the Tennessee River. Old Madison County contained 322,000 acres or a little over five hundred square miles.

In 1819, Jackson County was formed having its boundary on the old Madison County line to the Flint River. In 1821, Decatur County was created out of a part of Jackson County, very irregular in form, extending from the Tennessee line to the Tennessee River, over forty miles in length with a breadth of about five miles on the state line. Decatur County was not much more than five miles wide and at its greatest, not more than twenty five miles wide. Woodville was the county seat.

Decatur County was short lived for in 1824, Decatur County was abolished and Madison County extended to its present eastward limits. Thus it happened that some of our citizens were born in the Cherokee Nation, lived in Jackson and Decatur Counties, and died in Madison County without changing their places of abode.

Although the Mississippi Territory had been ceded to the U.S. Government in 1802, “Old Madison County” never came in existence until 1807 when it was ceded by both Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians. Both Indian tribes claimed it as their hunting grounds, but it was never actually inhabited by either tribe.

Madison County is unique among the other original counties in the state, in that it is the only county in Alabama to extend its boundaries to make it larger. All the other original counties had to contract theirs to make room for the creation of new counties as the growth of the state necessitated.

First Settlers in Madison County

First Settlers: Judge Taylor, in his letters dealing with early life in Madison County, tells us that Joesph and Isaac Criner, accompanied by Stephen McBroom, explored the northern part of the county in 1804 and built a small cabin on the banks of a stream which is now known as Mountain Fork of the Flint River. Isaac Criner was my (Ruby W. Lawler) great grandfather. Stephen McBroom was the great grandfather of Allen McClain.

Issac Criner was personally known to Judge Taylor and in his letters, he gives Criner’s narrative, in Criner’s own words, the events that occurred in those days. He says, “In the early part of 1805, my brother Joesph and I came to Mountain Fork and built a cabin for Joesph and his family, then one for myself. Shortly after the erection of these cabins, a fellow named John Hunt and another man named Bean came to our cabins and spent the night, continuing their journey the next morning.”

Between 1805 to 1809, some wealthy and cultured slave owners came into the county in large numbers. They came from North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia.

Life of the Early Settlers: The life of these pioneers was very primitive as they drew solely on the resources of the surrounding wilderness for their necessities and comfort. Their houses contained no iron, being constructed entirely of wood logs. The floors were covered with well packed dirt and only in very rare cases was the floor covered with puncheon (a broad flat piece of rough dressed timber). For some time, these early Madison County pioneers lived a life of freedom from having to cultivate the soil, subsisting upon the abundant wildlife and other provisions of nature. After a while, they realized the unusual fertility of the soil then the clearing of land commenced and corn was planted. There were no grist mills in which to grind their corn into meal so they had to resort to the age old and primitive custom of using a crude mortar and pestle. It was made by hollowing out a hard stump in which they pounded the corn into meal. Little or no wheat was planted so they lived for a time without flour.
During those early years in the small settlements, all supplies received from the outside world had to be transported in by pack mules from settlements further north in Tennessee and Kentucky. Prior to the arrival of cotton and the cotton spinning wheel, buckskin was used almost exclusively for clothes, sewing threads or thongs, bedspreads, ropes, and many other assorted uses. Eventually, the cultivation of cotton was started and this, along with the spinning wheel, was to make a drastic change on the lives or these early settlers.
In Judge Taylor’s “History of Madison County”, he writes of the fertility of the soil upon which up to one thousand pounds of cotton could be produced per acre. This was seed cotton with a price in the mid 1800s of 20-25 cents per pound. Cotton was to become the leading money crop for the area.

By a proclamation of the Honorable Robert Williams, Governer of the Mississippi Territory, “Old Madison County” was created and established December 13, 1808 with a population of 5,000. The lands in Madison County were the first surveyed and sold in North Alabama. It was not until February 27, 1809 that the laws relating to the judicary and milita of this territory were immediately extended to the county of Madison.

Section two and six further providing “There shall be immediately organized in the county of Madison, Curcuit and County Courts and all the laws of a general nature, which now exist or may hereafter be passed, by the government of this territory and shall extend to and be binding on the inhabitants of the county of Madison.” The county was named after James Madison, then Secretary of State and who soon after became our fourth President” (1809-1817). An oil painting can be seen in the Circuit Court Room in the Huntsville Courthouse.
The first sheriff of Madison County was Stephen Neal who held office from 1809 to 1822. Crime in those days was usually confined to stealing a horse or a display of public drunkenness. In many cases, the locals would extract their own swift punishment without the need of the local sheriff.

President James Madison
President James Madison

Judge Taylor tells us the first court held in the county was known as inferior court which convened on the first Monday in January, 1810. Five Justices, including Judge Taylor, sat upon the bench with Leroy Pope as Chief Justice. The first business session of this court was held on the first Monday in November, 1810. Leroy Pope is affectionately referred to in the cronicle of the Times as the “Father of Huntsville”. J. W. Walker was the first lawyer admitted to the practice of law in the courts of the county, serving as Attorney General at the first session of the court and who later became one of the first U. S. Senators from Alabama.

On December 22, 1809, the Territorial Legislature created a commission to lay out the town (now Huntsville) and when so laid out, was to be called and known by the name of Twickenham. The name was given the settlement through the influence of Leroy Pope, who was a great admirer of the English poet Alexander Pope, though no relationship. The poet’s home was in Twickenham, England. The first lot sold in Twickenham was sold on July 4, 1810 which seems to mark the beginning of an era of phenomenal growth within the county.

Soon thereafter, John Hickman was awarded the contract for the construction of the first courthouse, which was completed in 1816 and stood upon the site of the present one (1952). In the basement of the courthouse, was located the first “Market House” which was later moved to the Holding Block on the east side of the square and finally to the northeast corner of the intersection of Washington and Clinton Streets, upon the site now occupied by the Twickenham Hotel.

Not unlike other towns, Twickenham had its local dissensions and internal strife and the name of the town was one of the primary reason for disagreement. Apparently, the settlement was divided into two powerful factions. One faction was “The Royal Party” led by Leroy Pope and the other was “The Castor Oil Party” led by John Hunt who operated a Castor Oil shop. Hunt was the same man that spent the night with Isaac Criner on his first trip into Alabama and he wanted the town to be renamed as “Huntsville”.

Judge Taylor further tells us that John Hunt left the settlement shortly after the land sales of 1809 without perfecting his title to the lands purchased by him. Hunt, in failure to pay the Government for the same, returned to his old home state of Tennessee before the town he had founded was legally named Twickenham. History tells us that although the town itself was legally named Twickenham, the spring and settlement itself was still called and referred to as “Hunt’s Spring”. It is interesting to note that soon after, the will of the majority finally won out and the name of the town was renamed “Huntsville”, apparently reflecting strong anti-British sentiments that stirred throughout our new nation during in the war of 1812. It is most likely some North Alabama volunteers accompanied General Andrew Jackson and his small army of back woods volunteers to fight the British in the Battle of New Orleans. In any event, the name Twickenham was dropped and the new name adopted to honor the town’s original founder John Hunt.

On September 7, 1816, the first issue of a weekly newspaper appeared and was called “The Alabama Republican”. In 1816, the first census for Madison County was taken showing a population of 14,200. Four years later a second census was taken revealing an increase of 5,000 people. The aggregate population of 19,200 was three times that of any other county in the state. It is interesting to note, the census in 1950 showed the county population to be 73,032 inhabitants.

The Convention for Statehood: On March 2, 1819, the Territorial Constitutional Convention, by an act of the U. S. Congress, authorized the people of the Alabama territory to hold a convention in Huntsville for the purpose of drafting a state constitution. Pursuant to this act, an election was held throughout the Territory of Alabama in May 1819 for the purpose of choosing delegates to this convention, to be held on the first Monday of July following. At that time there were twenty two counties in the Territory of Alabama contributing a total of forty four delegates. Madison had the highest number of delegates (8) compared to the next highest, Monroe County (4).

Agreeable to what had been done, the Convention assembled at Huntsville on the first Monday of July with John W. Walker presiding. Other known delegates were Clement Comer Clay, Henry Chambers, Lemmel Mead, Gabriel Moore, and J, W. Taylor. The meetings were held in an assembly hall which occupied the northwest corner at the intersection of Franklin and Gates Streets. This hall has long been removed but now marked by a bronze tablet erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

The Convention unamously voted for statehood and after two years as the Territory of Alabama, on December 14, 1819, Alabama became the 22nd state admitted into the United States of America. Soon after it’s admission to the Union, the first session of the Legislature of the State of Alabama was held in that same building. Huntsville served for a short time as the temporary state capital. On November 21, Cahaba, located at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers, was designated by the territorial legislature as Alabama’s state capital. The selection of Cahaba was a victory for the Coosa/Alabama River contingent, which won out over a Tennessee/Tombigbee Rivers alliance group that wanted to place the capital at Tuscaloosa. Cahaba was more centrally located therefore seemed like the more desirable location for the state capital. The power struggle would continue between the two sections of the state however, in 1826 the capital was temporarily moved to Tuscaloosa, and finally in 1847 it was moved to Montgomery on the Alabama River.

The state of Alabama supposedly got the name Alabama from an Indian tribe by the same name in the central part of the state. The early spelling was different as interpreted by early Spanish, French, and English explorers but the pronunciation of the Tribe’s name was very much the same, as we know it today.

Alabama begins to grow: The first Governor was William Bibb who was inaugurated in Huntsville on November 9, 1819. Huntsville was then the temporary capital of the new state. Soon after, the seat of government was moved to Cahaba due to its more central geographical location.

Educational Facilities: The first instution of learning in Madison County to receive state aid was Green Bottom Academy. On November 25, 1812, a charter was granted the academy by an act of the Mississippi Territorial Legislature. For a number of years, it was the only institution affording any advanced education in the northern part of the state and many of the outstanding Alabama statesmen of the 1800s received their training at this school. The Huntsville Female College and The Huntsville Female Seminary were the older schools for women, with leading cultural and academic facilities. Among others of the earliest schools were the Huntsville Military Academy, Scientific and Classic School, Carlos Smith School and New Market Academy.

All of the early schools of Madison County were considered private however, the use of private schools was eventually replaced by the introduction of a free public school system in 1854. During the Civil War Federal troops burned most of the existing schools to the ground, setting the educational system back many years. The desire for public education remained strong and new schools were eventually built to satisify this need for education.

Early private schools were housed in magnificent buildings
These early private schools were housed in magnificent buildings and impressive grounds

The Huntsville Masonic Lodge was the first private organization chartered in the state, or at the time Territory of Alabama, as its charter was granted in 1811.

King Cotton: As early as 1820, provisions had been made for the consumption of the fast developing cotton crop in Madison and ajoining counties by the conversion of raw cotton into yarn. The first cotton factory, known as the Bell Factory, was located at Haughton’s Mill near Three Forks of the Flint River. Bell Factory
The name came from the loud bell that rang to call the hands to work. This plant was the first cotton spinning and weaving factory in Alabama. By 1952, only an old stone foundation remained of this mill.  The next few years would see the county’s cotton business grow into the main cash crop throughout the region and continue through the Civil War.

Huntsville develops into a thriving town: In 1851, a factory was built that would produce different styles of coaches and buggys. Buggys, then referred to as coaches as a more refined term, was the principal mode of transportation. As a matter of fact, the horse and buggy had not changed much in the past few centuries however, the more modern "coaches" had improved springs and coils to give them a somewhat less bumpy ride.

The horse and buggy would be the main source of transportation

The horse and buggy would be the main source of transportation and last throughout the nineteenth century. The automobile, or T Model Ford, would not show up in North Alabama until around 1909 or 1910.

Another mode of transportation was through the Tennessee River system. Early flat boats brought some early settlers to the area followed by more advanced cable ferries powered by horse and windlass. These were gradually replaced by motor driven ferries. As motor transportation developed, these ferries were slowly replaced by modern bridges and roads. A little known mode was through the use of man made canals within Madison County, used to transport goods down to the Indian and Flint rivers. By 1952, there was very little trace left of these enterprising canal systems.

Much of this earlier transportation was supplanted by the coming of the railroad in 1851. The old Memphis and Charleston Railroad was the forerunner of the Southern Railroad and laid its track right through the towns of Gurley and Huntsville. John Gurley built his famous "Gurley's Water Tank" next to the tracks to service the old steam engines that passed through Gurley.

Around the 1850s, Huntsville had developed into a thriving community also boasting three weekly newspapers, four architects, twenty four lawyers, three brick plants, three hotels, two doctors, seven schools, two stage lines, two civil engineers, two saloons, one flour mill, one cotton and wool mill, and one bank with capital assets of $500,000.

Historic Landmarks: Judge Taylor tells us that many of the first churches and religious societies of the state were organized in Huntsville. Between the years of 1818-1835, the Presbyterian, Cumberland Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopal congregations had erected houses of worship in Huntsville. The Presbyterians met and organized in 1818 and on October 13, 1822, started construction on the first Presbyterian church in the state. The site was situated in the southeast corner of Lincoln and Gates Streets and in 1859, a second structure was built on the same site to replace the original church.

Historic Churches of Huntsville
Some of the Historic Churches of Huntsville

Much of the wealth and refinement of the times was found in Huntsville and Madison County. Few parts of the state could equal Huntsville and its handsome homes. The list of Madison County's beautiful historic homes is both long and quite impressive. A good example shown below is Oaklawn, located on the west side of Meridian Pike. The home was built in 1844 and quartered many soldiers during the Spanish American War. It was also used as a hospital during the Civil War and is noted as one of the more beautiful colonial homes in America.

One of the more beautiful colonial homes in America

There are many such restored homes in Madison County and some of the most interesting homes of colorful historical figures were as follows:

Pope Home: 412 Echols Hill, Huntsville. Built in 1815, the home of Leroy Pope considered "The Father of Huntsville."

Walker Home: 412 McClung St., Huntsville. Home of the first Secretary of State of the Confederacy, Leroy Pope Walker. From this house came the order to fire the first shots at Fort Sumter, SC.

Clay Home: 440 Eustis St., Huntsville. Built in 1830, this was the home of one of the South's greatest Senators and Governors, Clement Comer Clay.

Neal Home: 558 Franklin St., Huntsville. Built in 1822, this home was the birthplace of John Hunt Morgan, famous Confederate Calvary Leader known as the "Rebel Raider".

Fearn Home: 517 Franklin St., Huntsville. Built in 1822, this home was the residence of Dr. Thomas Fearn who discovered the nature of quinine, with the consequent cure of malaria. He was also a physician who served with General Andrew Jackson in the Creek War of 1813.

Brickell Home: 614 Franklin St., Huntsville. Built in 1821, his house has the distinction of having housed the first indoor bathroom sewerage system in Huntsville (1870).

McClung Home: 415 McClung St., Huntsville. Built in 1838, this was the home of the famous legislator, James McClung.

The list of great historical homes and landmark sites goes on and on and far too long to list all of them. The Madison County Chamber of Commerce or Huntsville Historical Society can no doubt provide a complete list of these great historical homes and other worthwhile county landmarks.

The history of Madison County, Alabama is a study of the evolution and growth of a typical American population center. Its beginning is both colorful and historic and Madison County is an icon that demonstrates the way America developed and evolved into the great nation it is today. From the backwoods of the American frontier, Madison County had its beginnings as a true pioneer settlement then endured the trials and harsh experiences of a Civil War and the tough Reconstruction era to become one of the nations leading examples of American progress and development. Madison County has evolved into one of the major manufacturing, retailing, cultural, educational, agricultural, and scientific centers of the New South. The history of Madison County is a reflection of the history of America and Isaac and Joseph Criner would be very proud to see what they started back in 1804 when they stopped to have a drink of fresh water from a remote North Alabama spring.