St. Stephens

The now-abandoned settlement of St. Stephens sat atop a limestone bluff overlooking the Tombigbee River and hosted Alabama's first seat of government. The location, approximately 67 miles north of Mobile in present-day Washington County, had been occupied by the Spanish before its cession to the United States in 1799. The town later served as the capital of the Alabama Territory between 1817 and 1819 before the government abandoned it in favor of Cahaba. Today, the site of the town is referred to as Old St. Stephens and is a historical park and archeological site.

Early British explorers recognized the potential for a settlement at the site because of the rocky shoals below that prevented river traffic further northward. Although the British never constructed a settlement there, Spain recognized its strategic importance when it assumed control of the region in its treaty with Britain after the American Revolution. Accordingly, in 1789 Spain built a fort named Fort San Esteban. Spain moved quickly to bring a sense of permanency to the fort by constructing an outer system of earthen works for its protection, as well as a church and a house for the fort's commandant. Spanish citizens living near Mobile responded by applying for land grants near the fort.

Spain's stay proved temporary, however, as the fort soon was turned over to the United States in the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo, which redrew the boundary between the United States and neighboring Spanish territory at the 31st parallel. Deciding not to challenge a survey by Andrew Ellicott that put Fort San Esteban just north of the boundary line and within American territory, Spain abandoned the fort, allowing American lieutenant John McLary to assume control and raise the U.S. flag on May 5, 1799.

Ephraim Kirby By 1803, the United States had opened a "factory" or trading post at the site, which was now known as St. Stephens. This post established a brisk trade with the Choctaw Indians and thus was dubbed the Choctaw Trading House. George Strother Gaines became head of the Choctaw agency in 1805 and continued to use the old Spanish blockhouse as the agency's store. A building formerly used by the Spanish as a warehouse became a land office and a post office in January 1805. Because St. Stephens was the largest population center of the Alabama portion of the Mississippi Territory, the territorial legislature created a new court district for Washington County in which Fort St. Stephens was located. In 1804, Ephraim Kirby was appointed the first judge and thus became the first American to adjudicate disputes on Alabama soil.

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Initially inhabited by frontiersmen, the town began to attract a more settled commercial class as it continued to grow. In response to a petition from the citizens living around Fort St. Stephens, for official recognition, the Mississippi Territorial Legislature chartered the town of St. Stephens on January 8, 1807. The charter was amended in 1811 and the town renamed "Saint Stephens." It was amended yet again in 1815, and the town regained the original form of its name. In 1811, the territorial legislature chartered Washington Academy, Alabama's first school, while also authorizing a lottery to provide it finances. In 1815, the town began to expand significantly when the legislature authorized a survey of the town site and the sale of lots. By 1816, some 40 houses had been built in St. Stephens, as compared with only nine the year before.

When Mississippi became a state in 1817, Alabama became a separate territory, with former Georgian William Wyatt Bibb as territorial governor. St. Stephens was chosen as the seat of government for the Alabama Territory and served as its capital between 1817 and 1819. Because of St. Stephens's short reign as the seat of government, no permanent capitol building was constructed. Thus, the first session of the Alabama Territorial Assembly met in the Douglass Hotel in January 1818. Legislators met for the second session on November 2, 1819. When that session adjourned on November 21, 1819, St. Stephens's days as a prominent town were numbered. Political maneuvering of the governor resulted in Cahaba being designated as the new capital when Alabama became a state in 1819.

Excavation of Old St. Stephens While serving as Alabama's territorial capital, the town grew at a remarkable rate. By 1819, it had more than 500 homes, nearly 10 times the number just three years before, and a population of several thousand. Approximately twenty stores and other commercial establishments, including two hotels, legal and medical offices, a theater, and the Tombeckbe Bank, Alabama's first chartered bank, also served the town. The capital city attracted several prominent citizens, including Henry Hitchcock, the state's first attorney general and later a chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court; Thomas Eastin, the publisher of The Halcyon and Tombeckbe Advertiser; Lewis Sewall, Alabama's first poet; Reuben S. Saffold, another chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court; and Israel Pickens, a member of the 1819 Constitutional Convention and the third governor of Alabama.

St. Stephens's importance diminished when the seat of government was moved; the town's decline was compounded by the development of shallow-draft watercraft, which allowed travelers to pass over its nearby shoals and proceed further upstream. These factors, combined with a series of yellow fever epidemics in the 1820s and 1830s, brought about the town's ultimate demise. By 1833, the once-thriving town had been reduced to a small village, with most of its citizens having moved two miles west to establish a new settlement at a railroad crossroads, which they named New St. Stephens. Citizens continued to leave the original St. Stephens at such a rate that the town was in virtual ruins by the onset of the Civil War.

St. Stephens Historical Park Today, the site of the old town of St. Stephens, now known as the St. Stephens Historical Park, is one of the most important archaeological sites in the state. The St. Stephens Historical Commission, incorporated in 1988, sponsors and promotes historical research and archaeological studies of Old St. Stephens. In 1999, it received a grant from the Alabama Historical Commission to continue archaeological studies with the goal of completing a map of the old town site denoting the location of streets, building foundations, cellar depressions, and cisterns. Future plans include excavating some of the old building sites. The St. Stephens Historical Park also provides visitors with many recreational activities, including fishing, kayaking, improved and primitive camping, biking, bird watching, horseback riding, picnicking, and hiking.

Further Reading

  • Abernathy, Thomas Perkins. The Formative Period of Alabama, 1815-1828. 1922. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1965.
  • Brantley Jr., William H. Three Capitals: A Book about the First Three Capitals of Alabama: St. Stephens, Huntsville & Cahaba, 1818-1826. 1912. Reprint, University: University of Alabama Press, 1976.
  • Lewis, Herbert James. Lost Capitals of Alabama. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2014.
  • Old St. Stephens: Historical Records Survey. Compiled by Jacqueline A. Matte, Doris Brown, and Barbara Waddell. Mobile, Ala.: St. Stephens Historical Commission, 1997.

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