“The Old Federal Road in Alabama”
Authors: Kathryn H. Braund, Gregory A. Waselkov, and Raven M. Christopher
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
Price: $24.95 (Paper)
The Alabama Bicentennial has seen the publication of many new books on our state: general histories, histories of particular periods, especially the Civil War, a number of biographies of notable men and women, several histories of individual cities—Mobile, Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, Selma—and now we have a volume devoted to a road.
As the authors make clear, before 1800 or so, there was no road across Alabama.
There were Indian footpaths, wide enough for individuals to walk, Indian file. The hunters, warriors, travelers used these paths to get from one village to another, from one hunting ground to the next.
In 1803, a letter put into the United States mail in Washington, D. C. went first across the Appalachians then to Nashville, and down the Natchez Trace to New Orleans. That letter travelled 1,500 miles and took over a month. The route was infested with robbers and in many stretches travelers had to carry their own food, water and fodder.
Clearly, a short-cut was needed and the Federal Road provided that shorter route, from Columbus, Georgia west to Montgomery and then south to Mobile.
It wasn’t easy.
The Creek Indians became more and more hostile as travelers and settlers encroached on their lands. At times they attacked and real progress was made on the road only after the Creek Wars ended in the expulsion of the tribe to the Territories.
Sadly, as naturalist Charles Lyell noted, white settlement and creation of cotton fields destroyed stands of timber from 120 to 320 years old. He wrote “no such trees will be seen by posterity.”
As the authors explain, and illustrate in a rich collection of maps and drawings from the era, just making a road four feet wide was nearly impossible. The woods were thick and there were swamps, streams and rivers to get through. Road builders and, later, road travelers had to face accident, drowning, snakebite, illness and occasionally, robbery or murder. There were very few eateries or hostels of any kind, and these charged exorbitant rates and offered terrible food, usually cornbread and venison, that ranged from “tolerable” to “rancid.”
Travelers slept in cold, dirty, sometimes crowded rooms. Some tavern keepers actually got rich gouging the public.
Most travelers, too poor to afford an inn, camped in the woods, with or without a shelter, summer and winter.
Many of the more literate travelers wrote down their impressions and they are pretty much unanimous.
They “cursed the road, particularly the segment through the Creek Nation.”
The authors describe the wagons, carts and coaches used, all fiercely uncomfortable and none sturdy enough for the task. If your vehicle broke down, you had to repair it yourself or “depend on the services and help of innkeepers or residents along the road.”
When completed, the Road changed the region forever. It became “a conduit that enabled both immigration and deportation on massive scales.” As Alabama fever set in, “settlers and the enslaved replaced the indigenous population” and the Creeks, sometimes in irons, were marched westward by the thousands: “warriors, ... half-clad females and …naked babes trudging through the mire under the residue of their ever scanty stock of camp furniture, and household utensils.”
Most of the Old Federal Road became today’s highways, but the authors provide detailed information on how to find and drive surviving short stretches of the thoroughfare that brought the planters and slaves into Alabama and provided a part of the Trail of Tears.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.