Landmarks of Dekalb County, Alabama

» DeKalb County Communities

» DeKalb County Timeline

» Trail of Tears › Benge Route Driving Tour [PDF]


The History of Dekalb County

January 9, 1836: DeKalb County, Alabama was established from land that was ceded to the federal government by the Cherokee Nation.

Much of this history was taken from the Landmarks publication, A Pictorial History of DeKalb County, Alabama, published by Landmarks of DeKalb County in 1971. Thanks are owed to the many people of DeKalb County who contributed materials and to the members of the Historical Committee who compiled the material: Sarah P. Sawyer, Mary C. Weatherly, Randall L. Cole and J. Clayton Keith.

Early History of DeKalb County

Map of Alabama / DeKalb CountyDeKalb County was once a part of the territory occupied by the Cherokee Indian nation. The coming of white men to the county occurred during the American Revolution when a British agent, Alexander Campbell, was sent here for the purpose of arousing the Cherokees against the southern colonies. In 1777, Campbell made his headquarters at Wills Town, a Cherokee Indian village located on Big Wills Creek near the present community of Lebanon. Campbell was successful in arousing a number of the Cherokees by promising them clothing and conquered territory in exchange for the scalps of white settlers.

After the revolution, Cherokees continued to occupy the territory as did increasing numbers of white settlers who came from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee. Missionaries came to convert the Indians.

In 1816, when the Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church sent missionaries to teach Christianity to the Indians, the Wills Town Mission was established at a location now in the northeastern section of Fort Payne. The mission was named after a half-breed Indian, Red Head Will, reputed to be buried nearby (other sources say that he left Wills Town and emigrated to Arkansas as early as 1796). The site of the mission is still marked by tile gravestones of the missionary, Reverend Ard Hoyt. The famous old council oak near Wills Town has been destroyed by lightning.

Red Head Will's Gravestone
Red Head Will’s purported gravestone. Others believe it to be a boundary stone

Living in the vicinity of Fort Payne during this period was a Cherokee known by white settlers as George Guess. His Indian name was Sequoyah. In 1821, while living at Wills Town. Sequoyah announced that he had developed an alphabet for the Cherokee language, a project that he had commenced twelve years earlier. The alphabet contained eighty-six symbols. Each symbol represented a syllable, thereby enabling one to read and write the Cherokee language by merely learning the alphabet. Sequoyah’s contribution to Cherokee culture gave rise in the Cherokee Nation to the publication of newspapers, Bibles, and other works, and won for him a respected place in Cherokee history.

As the immigration of settlers into the Cherokee country increased, friction between the two peoples grew. By 1830, there was a growing demand on the part of the settlers for the federal government to buy the land from the Indians and to move them off it, thereby making way for homesteads. A small group of Indians led by John Ridge, Andrew Ross and Elias Boudinot, who were opposed by a majority of the Cherokees, agreed to give up Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River. The Treaty of New Echota, signed December 29, 1835, ceded the Cherokee lands in Tennessee , Alabama, and Georgia to the federal government for a consideration of five million dollars and a joint interest in certain western Indian territory. A federal agent sent into Cherokee country to investigate the situation reported that a vast majority of the Cherokees were opposed to the signing of the treaty including the Nation’s chief, John Ross, and considered it not to be binding upon them.


Nevertheless, the treaty was enforced and federal troops were sent by President Andrew Jackson to transport the Indians westward. General Winfield Scott was placed in charge of these federal forces in 1838 and, on May 10, 1838, issued a proclamation to the Cherokees warning them that their emigration was to commence in haste, and that before “another moon had passed” every Cherokee man, woman, and child must be in motion to join his brethren in the far west.

Under Scott’s orders, troops were dispatched to various points throughout the Cherokee country, and stockade forts were established for gathering in and holding the Indians preparatory to removal. Federal troops were sent to the present site of Fort Payne where they found a site near a large spring on a lot later occupied by the city water plant in the southern part of Fort Payne. By April 1838 the fort had been established and a stockade completed.

When the Indians departed from the stockade at Fort Payne there were not enough wagons available to transport their personal property. The failure of the government to furnish transportation facilities required the Indians to leave behind many of their prized possessions and increased the sadness of their departure. The journey westward was filled with hardship and suffering, and one out of every seven Indians died before the party reached its new home in the west.

On September 29, 1838 the first group of captives left the fort and their homeland, with others following daily for several days, creating a caravan. They were led by a Cherokee, John Benge; his father-in-law Chief George Lowrey assisted him. They were allowed to leave without armed military escorts after General Winfield Scott agreed to plans worked out by John Ross and other Chiefs. By early October 1838, 1090 Cherokees who had been held at the fort were on the road to the western territory.

Today there is no fort or stockade standing as a stark reminder of what the Cherokees and other Indian tribes endured. Instead historic markers stand where Indians once gathered to learn to read and write using an alphabet created and taught by Indian Chief Sequoyah and one where a fort once stood and held Indians against their will.

Removal of the Indians opened up new land for settlement. The census of 1840 revealed that the population of DeKalb County was 5,929. Most of the settlers selected land in the valleys because more valley land had been cleared, communication was easier, and the soil appeared more suitable for farming. However, a few hardy pioneers settled in the mountains and, by 1860, they were scattered over both Lookout and Sand Mountains.

Creation of DeKalb County

On January 9, 1836 eleven days after the signing of the treaty of New Echota, Dekalb County was created by the legislature of Alabama and was one of three Alabama counties carved from the Cherokee cession of 1835 and is named for Baron Johann Sebastian DeKalb, an American Revolutionary War hero. The county seat is Fort Payne, a name derived from the fort that was built during the forced removal of Indians along the Trail of Tears.

Elections were held soon thereafter and the following were the first county officials: Judge of the County Court, Robert Hooks; Sheriff, Robert Murphy; Circuit Clerk, John Cunningham; County Clerk, Soloman C. Smith’; Justices of the Peace; William Withdraw and Benjamin F. Greene; Constable, A. H. Lamar.

By 1850, the population ot the county had grown to 8,245 including 506 slaves and 9 free Negroes. Since most settlers were financially unable to own slaves, large families were an economic necessity. The settlers’ chief crops were grain and vegetables. Cotton was grown primarily for domestic purposes. Farm families produced their own clothing from cotton and wool. Hogs provided the settlers with meat and lard and, for the most part, settlers were dependent upon the commercial world for only such things as guns, ammunition, and hardware.

Roads were poor and, prior to the advent of the railroad, travel was slow and tedious. A map of Alabama in 1856 shows a road connecting Chattanooga and Elyton, now Birmingham, which passed through Valley Head, Rawlingsville, North Bend, Lebanon, and Van Buren in DeKalb County. The road was crossed at Van Buren by another road connecting Rome, Georgia, with Gunter’s Landing on the Tennessee River. Rome was the trading center for people in the vicinity of Fort Payne. In traveling from Fort Payne to Rome, one could go south to Van Buren and then east to Rome by way of Blue Pond and Gaylesville.

The Civil War

In 1861, W. O. Winston and J. N. Franklin represented DeKalb County at the secession convention in Montgomery which passed the Ordinance of Secession on January ll, 186l. Both Winston and Franklin voted against secession.

The outbreak of the Civil War found Delkalb County’s citizens politically divided into three groups; (a) those favoring secession; (b) those opposed to secession; and (c) cooperationists. The cooperationists constituted a majority in the county as was the case in many of Alabama’s northern counties.

Cooperationists were opposed to immediate secession. They wished to call a southern convention to discuss the grievances of their section and, if secession became necessary, they proposed cooperation in seceding and forming a new nation instead of separate state action. Some of the cooperationists hoped by these tactics to produce delay so that compromise and sober second thought would prevent the dissolution of the union. Most of these moderates acquitted the legal right of secession but questioned its practicality and expediency.

No major battles were fought in DeKalb County during the Civil War, but several minor skirmishes took place during the Chickamauga campaign in the fall of 1863. On September 5, 1863, a salt works at Rawlingsville was destroyed by federal troops, and a skirmish occurred on the same day at Lebanon. Three days later, another skirmish took place at Winston Gap. In a letter to Major W. H. Sinclair of the Union Army, dated at Rawlingsville on September 4, 1863, Major General Alexander McCook, Commander of the 20th Corps of Rosecran’s Army, wrote: “The little children here tell me that there has (sic) been no regular soldiers in the vicinity for four months.” Apparently, the skirmishes were with local forces and not with regular Confederate detachments.

However, Confederate scouts were active in the area as is evidenced in a report of Lt. C. A. Nichols, Assistant inspector-General in the Confederate Army, which documented the presence of 40,000 federal troops at Whitehall near Valley Head on September 9, 1863. Another Confederate scout reported a force of four or five thousand federal troops encamped on Lookout Mountain on the same day.

The presence of the large encampment of federal troops near Valley Head was a part of the Union Army’s campaign to seize Chattanooga. General Rosecran of the Union Army anticipated that a direct advance against Chattanooga would force General Bragg of the Confederate Army to abandon Chattanooga and fall back to Rome. General McCook’s troops were to move from the Tennessee River across Sand Mountain to Valley Head and then, at the proper time, advance to Rome for the purpose of cutting off Bragg’s expected retreat.

On the evening of September 9, 1863, while in DeKalb County, McCook was informed that Bragg was retreating southward from Chattanooga, and he was ordered to move rapidly upon Summerville, Georgia, to intercept Bragg’s line of retreat and to attack his flank; however, the next day, after crossing Lookout Mountain, McCook learned that Bragg had not retreated very far from Chattanooga, and he was ordered to move to Chickamauga. McCook desired to take a mountain road to his destination, but felt that the route back through Valley Head was the only practical route. Taking this route delayed the arrival of his troops at Chickamauga a day, and General Rosecran later testified before a Congressional Committee that the “tardy arrival of McCook’s corps came near being fatal to us”.

The following is a list of Confederate units made up wholly or in part from DeKalb County: Company I, Yancy Guards, 10th Regt.; Company E, DeKalb Invincibles, 12th Regt; Company B, Wills Valley Guards, 48th Regt.; Company B, DeKalb Rifles, 49th Regt.; Company G, 44th Regt.; Company K, 58th Regt.; Companies A, B, C, and K, 3rd Confederate Regt.

Twelve of Alabama's last surviving Confederate veterans in 1940
Twelve of Alabama’s last surviving Confederate veterans in 1940 included W.U. Jacoway, third from left, and G.W. Chumley, second from right, both from DeKalb County
The Post War Period

On February 3, 1852, the legislature of Alabama granted a charter to the following DeKalb County citizens for the purpose of constructing and operating the Wills Valley Railroad: Humphrey McBrayer, William P. Scott, Lewis Rea, Thomas G. A. Cox, Richard Ramsey, Charles Stowers, A. J. Cheney, Thomas A. Patrick, Samuel M. Nicholson, Obediah W. Ward, M. C. Newman, Alfred Collins, Charles D. George, Stephen McBroom, A. J. Ward, Reuben Estes, John G. Winston, John M. Bruce, John M. Lankford, Jesse G. Beeson, Joseph Davenport, Hiram Allen, V. C. Larmore, William 0. Winston, Jacob Beene, B. F. Porter, John J. Humphries, George W. White, Gaines Blevins, Daniel B. Buckhalter, and Jacob Putnam. The charter authorized $300,000 of capital stock in shares of $50 each and allowed payment of stock subscriptions in materials, labor, and supplies needed for construction of the railroad. Construction was begun by the Wills Valley Railroad in 1858 at Wauhatchie, Tennessee, where it made connections with the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.

By 1860, the Wills Valley Railroad had been extended to Trenton, Georgia. In 1861, the railroad was consolidated with the Northeast and Southwest Railroad which was already serving southeast Alabama. Construction was suspended during the Civil War and was not resumed until 1868 when a group of Boston capitalists under the leadership of John C. Stanton, a carpetbagger, took over the charter and continued construction of the road under the name of the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad Company.

Stanton’s power in the state legislature enabled him to secure the state’s endorsement of bonds to the extent of $16,000 per mile for every five miles of railroad constructed. Stanton also obtained a loan of $2,000,000 from the state pursuant to an act providing for the issuance of bonds as the road progressed. However, Stanton obtained the issuance of the full amount within thirty days and used the proceeds to build the Stanton House Hotel and an opera house in Chattanooga.

Old County Jail, Fort Payne
Old County Jail located at corner of Grand Avenue and 2nd St. S.W., Fort Payne

The new road reached Birmingham in the fall of 1870, completing rail connections between Trenton, Georgia, and York, Alabama, but in January 1871, the company defaulted in payment of interest on the state-endorsed bonds. Following bankruptcy proceedings, the railroad was acquired in 1877 by Alabama Great Southern which has served Fort Payne since that time.

In 1876, Fort Payne became the county seat of DeKalb County. The coming of the railroad caused many citizens to feel that the county seat, which was Lebanon at that time, should be changed to a town served by the railroad. Lebanon had been the county seat for more than twenty-five years and previous to that, court had been held at Rawlingsville, Bootsville, Camden and Portersville. Rawlingsville was designated by the legislature to be DeKalb County’s first seat of justice. From Rawlingsville, the county seat was moved to Bootsville, then Camden, then Lebanon, then Portersville, back to Lebanon and then to Fort Payne.

DeKalb County was named for Baron DeKalb who was killed at Camden, South Carolina, in the Revolutionary War. It is probable that the naming of the county and one of its first county seats was influenced by the presence of settlers from South Carolina.

The first courthouse in Fort Payne was built with funds donated by Dr. A. B. Green. It stood on a site which is now the intersection of Grand Avenue and First Street. The bricks out of which the old courthouse was built were made on the construction site, the walls having been erected around the kiln in order to save hauling and handling. The building was used by the county until 1890 when a new building was constructed on the same site.

In 1887, fifty years after the removal of the Cherokees, Fort Payne was a town of approximately 500 people. Families residing in the town at that time included the Claytons, Greens, McCartneys, Duncans, Poes, Cravens, Hammonds, Garretts, Lyons, and Smiths.