Alabama's Moving Capital: St. Stephens

Apr 26, 2018

Sign near the old town of St. Stephens Alabama
Credit Stan Ingold

We’re almost halfway through Alabama’s bicentennial celebrations. One interesting aspect of Alabama’s history is the number of cities that served as capital of the yellowhammer state. A-P-R’s Stan Ingold went to each one to find out more about Alabama’s moving capitals. Today, we go visit St. Stephens, Alabama’s capital when it was just a territory…

This wooded area about an hour north of Mobile was once home to a bustling city during the frontier days of the American South. This is the location of St. Stephens, the town that served as Alabama’s territorial capital from 1817 to 1819.

“It was the biggest place with the most population of any place in the territory.”

That’s retired archeologist George Shorter. He used to work at the University of South Alabama, but now he spends much of his time piecing together the remains of this frontier city.

“Washington County stretched all the way from Mississippi all the way across to Georgia. So probably this was the biggest area of population, but you had a pretty good number of people living around Huntsville too.”

The area had changed hands a number of times throughout its history, belonging to the Choctaw Indians, French, English and Spanish before the United States took control in 1799…

“We can brag that we have a lot of firsts. Down at St. Stephens which was on the bluff over here on May 5th 1799, that was the first time an American flag flew over the territory that would become Alabama, we like the bragging rights on that one.”

You can see there has been a lot of work done to preserve where the old town once stood. One of the areas undergoing excavation by archeologists is of particular importance…  

Excavation site for the Douglas Hotel
Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio

“This is the Douglas Hotel, probably built around maybe 1815, Thomas Douglas was the proprietor, this is right again at the main street in town and when the legislature it may have been the only hotel in town.”

This is where the territorial legislature of Alabama met for the first time. Shorter says the two main chambers were a little unbalanced when it came to the number of lawmakers…

“There were thirteen of them. They met in two rooms of the hotel. The legislative branch had twelve members, that’s a pretty good number for the congress. But the senate, which would have been called the board of commissioners, only had one person.”

But, Shorter says, that didn’t stop him from following the rules…

“And the funny thing about that, there were originally three that were elected or appointed. One of them died and the other one just didn’t show up. So the one guy that showed up went ahead called the senate into session and reviewed, made motions, elected himself president, just did all the stuff he needed to do.”

Information placard about the Douglas Hotel, St. Stephens, Alabama
Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio

       This first meeting is where the legislature started drawing up judicial districts and counties. But there was another step that was crucial to the establishment of Alabama…

“The most important thing that comes from that first meeting of the territorial legislature is the census, you have to have the count.”

That’s Scotty Kirkland. He is the Coordinator of Exhibits and Publications at the Alabama Department of History and Archives. He says the idea of Alabama becoming a state Alabama’s path to statehood had a national impact as well as a local one, and a central reason was slavery…

“There is great interest in having Alabama and Mississippi enter the Union as quickly as possible to off-set Free states that are preparing to enter.”

Kirkland says that may be the biggest contribution of the government that met at St. Stephens…

“For reasons of local politics, statewide economics and national politics the census is the key that we get out of St. Stephens.”

Alabama had to have sixty-thousand people living in the territory before it could apply for statehood. In November of 1818 the territorial legislature files filed for statehood. In that same meeting, state officials plans planned to make a temporary move to Huntsville where Alabama officially becomes a state. By 1833, just 25 years later, St. Stephens is was little more than a village.

However, that isn’t where the story ends…

“I’m the seventh generation of my family to be here in this local area.”

That is Jennifer Faith, she is the Director of the St. Stephen’s Historical Park. Her ancestors came to St. Stephens after joining Andrew Jackson’s military campaign in the southeast. While it was Politics and commerce that drove the region back then, people come to St. Stephens today for a very different reason.  Its tourism that keep people coming to St. Stephens…  

Lake and campground in the St. Stephens Historical Park
Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio

“Guests from out of town and a lot of times they come because of the recreational opportunities. Our favorite part is when they also explore the historical side. We exist because of the historical side. If it were not a historical side, the rest would not have been developed.”

Faith says they try to make it as easy as possible for people to learn while they are visiting…

“So the goal is to take as much of that historical information and make it as accessible and engaging as we possibly can. Create exhibits that people with different learning styles can learn history through.”

She says they have a hands on approach that shows why so little of the original town is no longer there…

‘We have a limestone quarry so we have enough limestone to let every child take a little pebble of limestone and see that if you rub them together they do crumble. Because how do you explain a stone or brick building that disappeared within 200 years, bricks don’t do that, but if you show them that limestone does then they understand what happened.”

The bustling capital of territorial Alabama may not exist like it used to, but the next part of this series will show how a temporary capital. Although its status is a controversial one, it survived and continues to be one of the largest cities in the state.

Gate to old St. Stephens
Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio