Located in southwestern Alabama on the Alabama River along a spur of the Old Federal Road, the town of Claiborne, Monroe County, was a significant center of political and economic life in the region. It was one of the area’s earliest settlements and home to three future governors. The town is mostly abandoned but still contains several important historical sites such as the plantation of politician and judge James Dellet and the Perdue Hill Masonic Lodge.
Claiborne, 1850s Claiborne began as a stockade fort established in late 1813 by troops under Gen. Ferdinand Leigh Claiborne. Named Fort Claiborne, it was constructed to protect white settlers in this part of the Mississippi Territory from hostile Creek Indians and was used as a base of operations in the Creek War of 1813-14. The site lay about 20 miles due west of the location of the July Battle of Burnt Corn Creek and 30 miles due east of the territorial capital at St. Stephens. Future Alabama first lady Sarah Ann Haynesworth Gayle moved with her family to Claiborne after the Creek War. In 1815, David Holmes, governor of the Mississippi Territory, created Monroe County, and in 1819, the town of Claiborne, which grew up around the fort, was named the county seat. Future governor John Gayle opened a law practice in Claiborne in 1818, and after his marriage to Sarah, the couple lived there until 1828. Future governor John Murphy established a plantation outside Claiborne in 1818, and future governor Arthur Bagby moved from Virginia to Claiborne around that time as well, also establishing a law practice there in 1819. Shearley’s Tavern, which catered to travelers on the Federal Road, was located in the town by 1819. Claiborne remained the county seat until the designation was given to Monroeville in 1832.
Steamboat John Quill On April 5, 1825, Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de la Lafayette visited Claiborne during his trip to Mobile, Mobile County, at Dellet’s request, and he hosted celebrations for the visiting dignitary. Lafayette also reportedly dedicated the Perdue Hill Masonic Lodge, which was built in 1823 and is considered to be one of the state’s oldest standing buildings.
Claiborne became one of two major shipping points in Monroe County (the other being Bell’s Landing) because it provided access to staple and luxury goods from Mobile for nearby cities and towns. By 1830, Claiborne had two major hotels, the Washington Hall and the Claiborne Hotel, as well many flourishing businesses, including a cotton warehouse. As a sign of Claiborne’s importance to the cotton trade in Alabama, William Locklin constructed Alabama’s first Eli Whitney-designed cotton gin in 1817 in Claiborne.
Deer’s Store, ca. 1930 After the war, Claiborne suffered an economic downturn like many other cotton centers in the South. This downturn was compounded with an outbreak of yellow fever that killed a significant portion of the city’s population. By 1872, its population was 350 and continued to decrease as people moved to Mobile. Claiborne’s population decline in the nineteenth century can also likely be attributed to the railroads, such as the Louisville and Nashville Railroad from Pensacola, Florida, to Selma, Dallas County, having bypassed the town on both sides of the Alabama River.
Today, Claiborne is largely abandoned but the area attracts visitors to see the remaining important historical sites nearby. James Dellet’s plantation and house still stand on the west side of the Alabama River. Two other historic structures—the home of Alamo veteran William Travis and the Perdue Hill Masonic Lodge—were both moved to Perdue Hill, just to the south of Claiborne. The city also contains three historic cemeteries that are open to visitors. Historic markers commemorate the town, the fort, the Travis home, and the Dellet plantation.
Brantley, Mary. Early Settlers Along the Old Federal Road in Monroe & Conecuh Counties, Alabama. Baltimore, Md.: Gateway Press, 1976.
Monroe County Heritage Book Committee. The Heritage of Monroe County, Alabama. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, 2004.
Stuart, Harris. Dead Towns of Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 1977.