George Strother Gaines (1784-1873) played a pivotal role in events that shaped the early development and history of Alabama and Mississippi. In a public service and business career that spanned nearly 70 years, Gaines was a federal trade agent to
the region's Indian tribes, a state senator, an explorer, and a supervisor of the removal of Choctaw Indians. He was also instrumental in developing and operating a state bank, overseeing Choctaw land claims, and promoting a railroad. Gaines spent his later years in Mississippi as a cattle rancher, legislator, and nursery owner.
Little is known about Gaines' early life. He was born May 1, 1784, in Surry County (later Stokes County), North Carolina, the 11th of 13 children in a distinguished family. His father, Revolutionary War veteran Captain James Gaines, and his mother, Elizabeth Strother Gaines, both came from prominent Virginia families. His older brother Edmund Pendleton Gaines rose to the rank of major general in the U.S. Army.
In 1804, Gaines was appointed by the federal government as assistant trader (known then as factor) with the Choctaw Trading House at St. Stephens, Mississippi Territory, in present-day Washington County, Alabama. Federal trading houses, or factories, were expected to provide quality goods at fair prices to local Indians and aid the federal government's efforts to encourage their Indian customers to adopt European American culture, as called for by the Plan of Civilization. When his new employer, Joseph Chambers, resigned as factor in 1806, Gaines replaced him and established a solid reputation with the tribes, particularly the Choctaws, as well as the settlers along the lower Tombigbee and Tensaw rivers.
In 1812, Gaines married his distant cousin Ann Gaines, and the couple would later have nine children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. He played a prominent role in defending the Mississippi Territory as settlers and Native Americans began to clash over land. Gaines convinced the Choctaws and Chickasaws to help defend the lower Tombigbee and Tensaw settlements after the destruction of Fort Mims by a Creek faction known as the Redsticks in 1813. He actively promoted the Choctaw and Chickasaw alliances and outfitted Choctaw volunteers to fight against the Creeks during the Creek War of 1813-1814.
In 1815, Gaines moved the trading house up the Tombigbee River closer to the Choctaws and Chickasaws on Factory Creek, near present-day Epes, Sumter County. Gaines's new Choctaw Trading House quickly became an economic and social center, and he became the first postmaster in that region. Under the important Treaty of Fort St. Stephens, signed on October 24, 1816, at the trading house, the Choctaws agreed to surrender all their lands east of the Tombigbee River, constituting present-day Hale and Marengo counties.
In 1817, Gaines advised French settlers to establish a settlement, known as the Vine and Olive Colony, at the White Bluff, below the junction of the Black Warrior and Tombigbee rivers in Marengo County. The main town site, which became Demopolis, was in fact outside the boundaries of their land grant, and the colonists later were forced to move. As the French settlers left or failed to make a living from their homesteads, Gaines and other early residents of Demopolis and Marengo County purchased their lands.
Gaines resigned as factor of the Choctaw Trading House in August 1818 to become secretary and cashier of the new Tombeckbee Bank in St. Stephens, the temporary capital of the new Alabama Territory. Hard times for the bank, exacerbated by the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1819, forced Gaines to resign in 1822. He moved his family to Demopolis to join his business partner, planter Allen Glover, and with him purchased the Choctaw Trading House from the federal government in 1822. Gaines assumed responsibility for its operation, and the Choctaws continued to receive their annuity goods at the old trading house.
Gaines entered into a brief political career when he was elected state senator for Marengo and Clarke counties in 1825. His two-year term coincided with the relocation of the state capital from Cahaba to Tuscaloosa. While senator, Gaines developed personal and political connections that would prove important to his future as a banker, businessman, and railroad lobbyist.
In the late summer of 1830, Gaines and Glover were contracted by the federal government to provide supplies for several thousand Choctaws attending a treaty conference held on Dancing Rabbit Creek near present-day Macon, Mississippi. The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, signed on September 15, 1830, provided for the removal of the Choctaws west of the Mississippi River. After the signing, Gaines accepted an appointment as exploring agent for the Choctaws and an official treaty commissioner. President Andrew Jackson's administration was anxious to remove the Choctaws and Chickasaws from Mississippi, and Gaines was charged with convincing the two tribes to share Choctaw lands west of the Mississippi River. In October 1830, Gaines organized a Choctaw party to find suitable lands in present-day Oklahoma before returning to Demopolis in March 1831. Gaines next received an appointment in August as superintendent for the first stage of Choctaw removal. He spent the next four months guiding approximately 6,000 Choctaws to their new lands west of the Mississippi River. Despite suffering numerous hardships during their overland trek, the first removal parties arrived in the new homeland in early March 1832.
Gaines expected to continue as removal agent, but he received notice in April 1832 that military personnel would oversee all future Indian removals to centralize control and cut expenses. The removal overseen by Gaines had cost the government three times the original estimate and was considered a failure by the War Department. Gaines believed the venture to have been a success because there were few deaths or other casualties among the Choctaw, and he was praised by the Mobile Commercial Register for his attention to the travelers' wellbeing. Subsequently, Gaines's expense accounts for the Choctaws' removal and subsistence met with the same fate as his previous reports as exploring agent. The government auditors either rejected or suspended numerous claims, and Gaines received only a partial settlement in 1843.
Gaines and his family moved in October 1832 to Mobile, where he was elected president of the Mobile branch of the State Bank of Alabama. Before Gaines could begin his second banking career, however, Alabama governor John Gayle appointed him as the state's agent to sell bonds to raise capital for the new branch banks. Gaines traveled to New York and negotiated the sale of $3.5 million in state bonds. He was annually reelected president of the Mobile branch through 1838.
Gaines's various business enterprises in Mobile continued through the 1840s. He sold his property in Demopolis in January 1843 and began farming and raising cattle on land inherited by his wife in Perry County, Mississippi, in 1845. He served on the Choctaw Claims Commission in 1844 and 1845 and as a lobbyist promoting the Mobile and Ohio Railroad in Alabama and Mississippi from 1847 to 1850. By 1856, Gaines had moved his family and slaves to a plantation near State Line, Mississippi, where he developed the Peachwood Nurseries. Gaines raised and sold a wide range of plants and trees, including bedding plants, flowering shrubs, fruit trees (especially apple and peach trees), and grapes.
Gaines died at his home on January 21, 1873. He was buried next to his wife, Ann, in the Peachwood cemetery, with a simple
marker over his grave that heralds him as a "statesman and pioneer."
Leftwich, George J. "Colonel George Strother Gaines and Other Pioneers in Mississippi Territory." Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society 1 (1904):442-56.
Pate, James P., ed. The Reminiscences of George Strother Gaines: Pioneer and Statesman of Early Alabama and Mississippi, 1805-1843. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
Plaisance, Aloysius. "The Choctaw Trading House, 1803-1822." Alabama Historical Quarterly 16 (Fall-Winter 1954): 393-423.
James P. Pate
University of Mississippi-Tupelo
Published February 20, 2008
Last updated October 27, 2014