home
 Home  CGHS

Old Cahawba Website

Cahawba Genealogical
& Historical Society

Alabama Historical Commision

Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Information

Directions

Park Grounds
Open Daily:

9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Visitor Center:
Open Noon - 5 p.m.

Call 334-872-8058 for Holiday Hours


Linda_derry
Linda K. Derry

Linda has served as Park Director and Senior Archaeologist since 1986 after a long history with such renowned attractions as the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and service to Virginia’s, Massachusetts’, and Illinois’ State Historic Preservation Offices, and Boston University’s and Southern Illinois University’s Anthropology Departments.

An award winner and published writer, Linda holds multiple academic degrees and is uniquely qualified to oversee and manage the park.

 


Cahawba — where you don’t have to believe in ghosts to hear the past speak.


Cahawba vs Cahaba

In the 18th century, French and English explorers attempted to record the Native American name for the river that borders the area. In 1819 when the town was created, it was named after the river, “Cahawba.” The name was shortened in the 1850’s to “Cahaba.”

Donate NowCahawba was once Alabama’s state capital and then a thriving antebellum river town. It became a ghost town after the Civil War, and today is an important archaeological site and place of picturesque ruins.

Pipe

The derivation of the word "Cahawba" is uncertain. It might be a Creek Indian word for the native cane that historically covered the river valleys, or it may be a corruption of the Choctaw words for "water above." Either way, Cahawba harbors a history of multi-cultural inhabitants and settlements, and is highly prized for its archaeological and historical merit.

creekIndiansIndian Heritage:  Native Americans lived at Cahawba for more than 4,000 years.  The last Indians were a remnant of a great mound-builder culture, and they migrated from the coast about 1500 to build a fortified village on the banks of the Alabama River, with a ceremonial mound surrounded by a palisade and a moat.  The Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, is thought to have passed through or near Cahawba in 1540.  Shortly thereafter, Cahawba's Indian culture disappeared.

CapitalFirst State Capital:  In 1819, when Alabama achieved statehood, Cahawba was selected as the first state capital.  Governor William Wyatt Bibb intended to build a statehouse atop the ceremonial Indian mound, but that plan was never carried out.  However, the semi-circular Indian village remained the focal point of Bibb’s town plan. 

The town was laid out on 1,620 acres from federal land grants.  It spanned 14 blocks by six blocks, and was modeled on the city of Philadelphia.  Lots were auctioned, and the proceeds went into the state treasury.  Businesses were established, including hotels, a theater, two ferries, and two newspapers. The official state bank and the seat of Dallas County were located there, as well as a federal land office that issued patents for most of the land in Alabama’s Black Belt.  A two-story brick capitol was completed in 1820, and steamboat service on the Alabama River began in 1821.

TreeAll three branches of state government were based in Cahawba from 1820 to 1826.  The State Supreme Court met for eleven terms, the legislature met for six sessions, and four governors presided there.  In 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, visited during his tour of the United States to mark the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. But Cahawba’s days as the state capital were doomed.  According to Alabama’s 1819 Constitution, the General Assembly was to reconsider Cahawba as the permanent capital at the end of their 1825 session.  North Alabama political interests portrayed Cahawba as unhealthy and inaccessible when the river waters were high, and the Assembly moved the capital to Tuscaloosa in 1826.  A period of decline followed.

St.LukesPre-Civil War Affluence:  Within ten years, Cahawba began to recover, and the “w” was dropped from the name.  In the 1850’s, as the center of a large cotton growing region, Cahaba became a major shipping point to Mobile.  By the eve of the Civil War, it was the commercial and social center of a county with the 4th highest per capita wealth in the entire U.S.  This wealth was reflected in the residences, notably the Crocheron house overlooking the junction of the two rivers, and the Perine mansion, the largest private home in the state with one of the largest artesian wells in the world.  There were churches, academies for boys and girls, and businesses, including a hotel advertised as the second finest in the state.   

War and The Sultana Tragedy:  During the Civil War, two military units were formed in Cahaba and served with confederate forces throughout the war. A former cotton warehouse was converted into a prisoner of war camp for several thousand captured Union soldiers. At the end of the war, Union prisoners being returned to the North on the Steamboat Sultana died when the steamboat boilers exploded.  The Sultana Tragedy is among the worst maritime disasters in U.S. History. After a flood inundated the town in 1865, the county seat moved to Selma, and Cahaba went into its final decline.   Most residents moved away; houses were abandoned or relocated elsewhere.  The courthouse was used for political gatherings by freed slaves, and Cahaba became known as the “Mecca of the Radical Republican Party” in central Alabama. By 1870 the population was fewer than 500. Eventually the deserted town evolved into a large agricultural operation.

Decline and Decay:  By the early twentieth century, almost nothing remained of the deserted town. A surviving brick mansion burned in 1935, the 19th century bridge spanning the Cahaba River washed away in 1942, and the brick Methodist church burned in 1954.  Only two original structures still stand: a two-story brick slave quarters and a frame cottage raised atop a brick first floor.  Several streets are still intact, and three cemeteries remain. Brick chimneys and cellars can be seen, and house sites can be identified by still-flowering plants and shrubs.
Recent Revival Efforts:  In 1979, volunteers organized an annual festival, moving the Alabama Historical Commission to establish Old Cahawba as a state historic site.  The park remains uninhabited except by abundant wild life.  A temporary Visitor Center has been erected on the entrance road.

canoeOld Cahawba Today: Within the ghost town, archaeology is revealing stories, and preservationists are attempting to restore the remaining structures and cemeteries.  St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, built in 1854 and moved away when the town died, is being returned to the park at Old Cahawba and restored.  Aquatic wildlife is again thriving in the rivers. Along the entry road to the park, Alabama’s Forever Wild Program, with the help of the Nature Conservancy of Alabama, is restoring Alabama’s largest remnant of tall grass prairie.  As a gateway to the Black Belt Nature and Heritage Tourism Trail and the terminus of the Cahaba River Canoe Trail, Old Cahawba is emerging as an important tourist destination.  Cahaba’s story is one of dreams, growth, destruction, demise, renewal, and restoration – a valuable history lesson for generations to come.

 

TCF_BUG
©2017 The Cahaba Foundation | PO Box 465, Selma, Alabama 36702 | 334-874-8000
administrator@cahabafoundation.org