There is little that remains of the government buildings, businesses, and residences that once made up the first capital of
Alabama. Now a historical park, the few enduring ruins of old Cahaba greet visitors among what remains of the town's former landscape
of roses, flowering vines, lilies, chinaberry trees, and gracefully flowing Spanish moss. Located in Dallas County, where the Cahaba River flows into the Alabama River, the town was initially known as Cahawba and served as the state's first capital from 1820 until
1825. When the capital was moved from Cahaba in 1826 to Tuscaloosa, many of its early residents followed. With the continuing improvement of river transportation and the emergence of the cotton economy, Cahaba boomed again during the 1840s and 1850s. But the Civil War, floods, and the loss of rail transportation all produced a steady decline in Cahaba's importance and economy, and by 1900,
it had become a ghost town.
Today there is little visible evidence of this once bustling and significant city. The Alabama Historical Commission, the caretaker for the Old Cahawba Archeological Site, is taking steps to preserve the site's few remaining structures and its buried artifacts for future generations of Alabamians. Although its government buildings, businesses, and residences have long since rotted and collapsed or have been sold for scrap, visitors can still see the few striking remains of once-great houses, walk on the deserted streets, and peer into the remnants of slave cabins.
History of the Site
The remains of a large village occupied by mound builders of the Mississippian Period (100-1550 AD) lie underneath those of Alabama's first capital. In Alabama, Mississippian culture would evolve into the Native American cultures of the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees. The name Cahaba, or Cahawba, comes from two Choctaw words meaning "water above." It is believed that a Choctaw town of considerable size existed at the site in the early eighteenth century but was abandoned well before Alabama became a territory. With the defeat of the Creeks in March 1814 at Horseshoe Bend, the lands in the valleys of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers were opened for white settlement.
On January 19, 1818, the first session of the Alabama Territorial Assembly met in the territorial capital of St. Stephens. There, assemblymen created 12 counties to accommodate the increasing numbers of settlers. The assembly also designated the "mouth of the Cahawba" as the seat of Dallas County. More importantly to Cahaba's future, the first assembly authorized five commissioners to propose a site for a permanent seat of state government, prompting groups from the Alabama-Cahaba and the Warrior-Tombigbee river basins to influence the selection of the capital site. The committee appointed by the assembly was dominated by the Warrior-Tombigbee group, which favored Tuscaloosa as the capital's location. Gov. William Wyatt Bibb, who was a supporter of the Alabama-Cahaba coalition, used his connections with the influential Broad River Group to arrange for a free grant of land at Cahaba from the federal government. When Governor Bibb announced this news at the assembly's second session in November 1818, he persuaded members to establish the seat of government permanently at the town of "Cahawba."
Not wishing to confront the governor, who had obtained the free land and held veto power, the Warrior-Tombigbee supporters waited for another opportunity to obtain the site for Tuscaloosa. When the Constitutional Convention convened in Huntsville in the summer of 1819, Cahaba's detractors immediately began their campaign to make sure that Cahaba would not remain the permanent capital by passing a constitutional provision designating it as the capital only until 1825, at which time the assembly was given the power to designate a different permanent seat of government without the governor's concurrence. If a designation were not so made at that time, the seat of government would continue at Cahaba. In an apparent effort to ensure that Cahaba would not continue as the seat of state government, the Territorial Assembly allocated only $10,000 to erect a building for the "temporary accommodation" of the General Assembly of the soon-to-be state.
Despite the opposition to Cahaba as the site of the state capital, many veterans of Gen. Andrew Jackson's campaign against the Creeks settled in the area, with the result that the land office in Milledgeville, Georgia, was relocated to Cahaba in 1819. Lots that had sold for $1.25 an acre were selling within weeks for between $60 and $70 an acre. By 1822, at least two prime lots in the center of town sold for more than $5,000. Early investors included many of Alabama's leading citizens, including Reuben Saffold, Samuel Dale, Jesse Beene, William Rufus King, Thomas Bibb, Israel Pickens, Gabriel Moore, Clement C. Clay, and Henry H. Hitchcock.
The new city in the wilderness grew rapidly with the construction of the capitol building by David and Nicholas Cocheron and the laying out of a street plan modeled after that of Philadelphia. No known picture exists of the capitol building, but it is believed to have been an imposing two-story structure topped by a copper dome that was undoubtedly an impressive site to those who settled in the area. As the capital, Cahaba became the focus of political and social life in Alabama. This bustling new metropolis on the banks of the Alabama River soon boasted numerous stores, a state bank, several hotels, two ferries, several physicians, eight lawyers, and two newspapers. By 1821, Cahaba had about 1,000 inhabitants, compared with only 600 in Montgomery, and two of the state's first steamboats, the Tensas and the Harriet, were navigating the Alabama River up to and beyond Cahaba, signaling the importance of river transportation to the town's future.
With the advent of river transportation and the completion of the capitol building, Cahaba received many visitors, including legislators, lawyers attending state and federal court, wealthy planters, and others seeking to do business with the state. Cahaba's most distinguished visitor arrived in 1825 with much pomp and circumstance. The Marquis de Lafayette, aging hero of the American and French revolutions, was on a triumphal tour of the United States. After visits to Montgomery and Selma, Lafayette arrived in Cahaba aboard the steamboat Anderson. With bands playing and patriotic colors flying, Lafayette was escorted up from the river, where he was greeted by a ceremonial arch, cheering throngs, ringing bells, and booming cannons. He was then honored with a public barbeque, followed by a dinner and a ball hosted by the affluent citizens of Cahaba. The state readily expended approximately $17,000 to entertain Lafayette, which was considerably more than it had spent on its own capitol building at Cahaba.
Soon after Lafayette's memorable visit, the Alabama General Assembly convened for its 1825 session that would decide Cahaba's fate as the state's permanent capital. By then, Cahaba had lost it most ardent supporter in Governor Bibb, who had died in 1820 from injuries suffered when he fell from his horse. The showdown over the capital was nevertheless still close, but the Tuscaloosa advocates, citing frequent flooding and health concerns in Cahaba, were able to pass a bill ordering the removal of the capital to Tuscaloosa, effective February 1, 1826. Although many citizens left Cahaba as a result of the loss of the capital, the town struggled on.
As the rich soil of the surrounding Black Belt began to attract wealthy cotton planters to the area and as river traffic continued to increase, Cahaba rebounded in the 1840s and 1850s as a bustling center of commerce. During this time, Dallas County was the wealthiest county in the state, as reflected in Cahaba by the construction of many magnificent homes, a renowned school for women, and Saltmarsh Hall, the site of frequent balls and social festivities. The advent of the Civil War, however, sounded the death knell for Cahaba, as the town lost its railroad terminus and, in 1866, its status as the county seat, to Selma. Cahaba then literally began closing up, and its population dwindled to about 300 by 1870. Those remaining were primarily former slaves, many of whom attended political meetings in the old courthouse, earning Cahaba the nickname, "Mecca of the Radical Republican Party." Quite a few of these freedmen went on to become landowners, and some achieved political office as a result of their newly obtained political freedom. By 1900, however, most of Cahaba's grand old buildings were gone. Many of the ruins were sold for scrap, and many of the old bricks were used to construct houses in Selma.
Old Cahaba Archaeological Site
In the early twentieth century, Cahaba became an important destination for various archaeological and historical societies. In 1926, the Cahaba Memorial Association sponsored riverboat pilgrimages to promote preservation of the site's cemeteries, ruins, and remaining structures. By 1943, the state had created the Cahaba Historical Commission to manage preservation projects at the site. However, lacking authority or regular state funding, the commission was unable to prevent the increasing loss of structures to vandals and the elements. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. In 1975, the authority over the site finally was transferred officially to the Alabama Historical Commission, which now maintains the site as the Old Cahawba Archaeological Site. The park includes a welcome center and education room, picnic area, hiking trails, interpretive signs, and a nature trail. Today, visitors may observe old artesian wells, collapsed cellars, chimney ruins, old cemeteries, and slave quarters. Also remaining is the foundation of the Cahaba Federal Prison, where more than 3,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned during the Civil War, and the Cocheron columns, today's most recognizable symbol of Cahaba's long-decayed mansions.
In 2008, a group of interested people founded The Cahaba Foundation to serve as a fundraising arm for the site. Since that time, the organization has been working to purchase land surrounding the park and soliciting donations to make improvements. In September 2011, the foundation donated ten contiguous parcels of land totaling 27 acres to the park and began a capital campaign to raise $2 million dollars for a new visitor complex and two additional historic buildings.
Abernathy, Thomas Perkins. The Formative Period of Alabama, 1815-1828. 1922. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1965.
Brantley Jr., William H. Three Capitals: A Book about the First Three Capitals of Alabama: St. Stephens, Huntsville & Cahaba, 1818-1826. 1912. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
Hobbs, Sam Earle. "History of Early Cahaba: Alabama's First Capital." Alabama Historical Quarterly 31 (Fall and Winter 1969): 155.
Keith, Todd. Old Cahawba. Brierfield, Ala.: Cahaba Trace Commission, 2003.
Neville, Bert. A Glance at Old Cahawba, Alabama's First Capital. Selma, Ala.: Coffee Printing Co., 1961.
Herbert J. "Jim" Lewis
Published May 20, 2008
Last updated December 5, 2013