In Southern History Series: Race War! The Form Mims Massacre, we saw how the Red Sticks faction of the Creek Indians launched a genocide against White settlers during the War of 1812. The Creek War of 1813-1814 ended badly for them when General Andrew Jackson defeated the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and forced them to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson.
The Treaty of Fort Jackson ceded to the United States most of the land that became southeast Alabama which is the region south of the Old Federal Road and which is roughly bounded today by Highway 80 from Phenix City to Montgomery and I-65 from Montgomery to Mobile.
After the Creek Indians officially lost their claim to southeast Alabama in 1814, the region was opened up to White settlement. Alabama joined the Union as a state in 1819.
This part of Alabama south of the Black Belt is known as the Wiregrass or the Piney Woods. In the Old South, it was what was called a White Belt, which is to say it was populated mainly by White yeoman settlers rather than large slave plantations. Even today, the Wiregrass is whiter than the rest of the state because its red clay soil was less suited for cotton plantations.
The Piney Woods or Wiregrass gets its name from the combination of longleaf pines and tall wiregrass which used to dominate the entire area. When Europeans arrived in the Wiregrass region, they were struck by this park like topography that made it so easy to traverse.
Geologically speaking, Southeast Alabama is roughly synonymous with the Dougherty Plain, the Southern Red Hills and the Chunnenuggee Hills. The Black Belt to the north is the Black Prairie. South Alabama, South Georgia and the Florida Panhandle used to be a sea of longleaf pines.
Even though the Creek Indians claimed Southeast Alabama, there were very few of them here outside of the northern fringes of the region and along the Chattahoochee River.
The following excerpt comes from Tommy Craig Brown’s book Deep in the Piney Woods: Southeastern Alabama from Statehood to the Civil War, 1800-1865:
“During the eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries, rivers served as important travel, transportation, and trade routes for the region’s first inhabitants, the Creek Indians. Major Creek towns could be found primarily along the banks of the Chattahoochee, while smaller settlements were located in present-day Butler and Conecuh counties on the Conecuh. The vast interior was sparsely settled with little more than scattered villages and hunting camps dotting the landscape. Paul Starrett notes that, “in lower Alabama in the vast section west of the Chattahoochee River there were no permanent villages of enough significance to appear on maps although there were some individual settlements of prominent mixed bloods to the east of the extreme lower Alabama River.”
The area that became Eufaula would only later be ceded by the Creek Indians who were deported to Oklahoma when Andrew Jackson was president in the 1830s. The vast swath of Southeast Alabama west of the Chattahoochee was more or less an empty wilderness.
“The defeat of the Red Sticks at the hands of Andrew Jackson and the subsequent removal of thousands of Native Americans further west spurred white migration and settlement. The 1814 Treaty of Fort Jackson ceded more than 23 million acres of Creek land in Alabama, Mississippi, and portions of Georgia to the US government. Twenty years later, the Third Treaty of Washington transferred all remaining Creek lands east of the Mississippi River into government hands. Both treaties resulted in massive numbers of white settlers and slaves pouring into Alabama in hopes of acquiring cheap and abundant federal land. In fact, the exodus from Eastern Seaboard states was so large that contemporaries hyperbolically called it “Alabama fever,” a condition that infected large numbers of Americans and spread rapidly throughout the east with overwhelming effect. “Scarce any of those who were attacked by it ever recover,” wrote Georgian Samuel McDonald, “it sooner or later carries them off to the westward.” James Graham made similar humorous observations from his Lincoln County, North Carolina, home: “as soon as one neighbor visits another who has just returned from Alabama he immediately discovers the same symptoms which are exhibited by the one who has seen alluring Alabama.
Historians have speculated upon the push-and-pull causes that precipitated migration, but most suggest that a combination of factors including economic downturns, soil exhaustion, lower crop yields, and pressing debt obligations in the east, combined with abundant and fertile lands available int he west, drove tens of thousands of Americans to leave their native eastern soils for greener pastures. One recently published history of Alabama finds that “those who flocked to Alabama were disillusioned with worn-out fields and poor economic conditions in the East and were attracted by cheap land from the Indian cession, high cotton prices, and dreams of wealth.” Lacy Ford notes that in South Carolina, “a steady stream of upper Piedmont whites flowed into the Southwest between 1830 and 1850, while during those same years whites abandoned the lower Piedmont for the cotton frontier in unprecedented numbers.” Ford estimates that by 1850 more than forty-five thousand former South Carolinians lived in all of Alabama and another twenty-six thousand had relocated to Mississippi. In his study of poor white people in North Carolina, Charles Bolton similarly argues that “poor whites, yeoman farmers, and rich planters … all joined the westward trek to the Old Southwest.” Alabama fever drained 280,000 of that state’s residents west; fifty thousand settled throughout Alabama and Mississippi. “The attracted for poor whites,” Bolton observes, “as for other classes of southerners, was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of lad that seemed suitable for growing cotton and making men wealthy.”
Migration and settlement in the piney woods never became as robust as in the Black Belt or the Tennessee Valley. Settlement in the region’s interior – particularly the area lying between the Choctawhatchee and the Conecuh rivers – was especially problematic due to the area’s unreliable waterways and sandy soils. This area “is but thinly settled,” wrote William Campbell in 1838, “its remoteness from navigable water courses, and the absence of artificial communications, (except the miserable county roads, which scarcely answer for neighborhood purposes) have tended not only to prevent emigration to the country, but to induce many … to abandon their improvements and seek other lands, less generous in productions, but more accessible to market.” Nevertheless, the population of the piney woods on the whole rose steadily from 9,766 in 1820 to 27,775 in 1830 – a 184 percent increase over ten years – with most of that growth occurring along the region’s periphery. Over the next thirty years, the population grew threefold, from 27,775 residents in 1830 to 127,887 in 1860.”
The overwhelming majority of White settlers who came to the Piney Woods between 1814 and 1860 were natives of Georgia followed by South Carolinians and North Carolinians. 45,000 Whites left the South Carolina Upcountry to settle in Alabama. 50,000 Whites left North Carolina to settle in Alabama and Mississippi. Many who came were immigrants directly from England and Ireland.
The population of Henry County, AL in the extreme southeast corner of the state (Houston County, AL was only later split off in 1903) grew from 2,638 in 1820 to 4,020 in 1830 to 5,787 in 1840 to 9,019 in 1850 to 14,918 in 1860. Henry County, AL in 1860 was 53% lower class, 26% middle class and 21% upper class. It grew 421,618 bushels of corn, 12,034 bales of cotton and 138,025 bushels of sweet potatoes.
Of the 14,918 people in Henry County, AL in 1860, there were 439 slaveowners. 201 slaveholders owned 1 to 3 slaves, 226 owned 4 to 19 slaves and there were 62 planters who owned more than 20 slaves. There were 1,843 free White households in Henry County, AL in 1860. 27% of those households owned slaves. There were 4,433 black slaves who were 30 percent of the population of Henry County, AL in 1860.
Henry County, AL really wasn’t a stronghold of plantation slavery. 73% of White households didn’t own slaves. Only 14% of slaveowners in Henry County were planters. It was a region of White yeoman farmers who owned 33,938 swine, 7,367 cattle and 4,310 sheep who produced far more corn than cotton. Most people in Henry County grew their own cotton which they sold on the market and worked the fields with their children. The typical slaveowner in Henry County was a middle class farmer who may have owned a family of slaves. It was far more common to rent slaves who helped with farm work.
“Inasmuch as the piney woods contained some of the least populated counties in the state, that so many men assembled, organized, drilled, and headed off to war is remarkable. Yet thousands of men volunteered to serve in companies with colorful names such as the Coffee Rangers, Covington Grays, Henry Pioneers, and Dale Beauregards. The region’s soldiers also fought well in battles such as Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, and Franklin. …”
1,800 Confederate soldiers from the Piney Woods of Southeast Alabama fought with Robert E. Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia. Dozens of them died at Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg. More served in the Army of the Tennessee and fought at Shiloh and Franklin.
I’ve singled out Henry County, AL because in 1840 my direct ancestor Thomas Griffin moved with his wife and 7 children from near Fayetteville in Cumberland County, NC to a little farm in the Piney Woods outside of the county seat of Abbeville where he ultimately had 13 children. All 8 of his sons fought for the Confederacy. 2 of them died in Virginia and never came home. It was only after the war that my ancestor who was one of his sons moved north into the Black Belt in Barbour County, AL to work on the Montgomery-to-Eufaula railroad which was built during Reconstruction in 1870.
As far as I can tell, the Griffins were staunchly pro-Confederate, but like most White families in the Piney Woods never owned slaves and worked on their own farm. They arrived in 1840 and slavery was abolished in 1865. Slavery came and went in this area in a generation.