COLBERT, BARTON, AND VINTON
EXTINCT TOMBIGBEE RIVER TOWNS
By Jack D. Elliott, Jr.
On the west bank of the Tombigbee River in eastern Clay County, an area that was part of Lowndes County from 1830-1872, there is a public landing named “Barton Ferry.” There has not, however, been a ferry in operation there for decades. A bit of digging into the history of the area will reveal that the landing’s name comes from the town of Barton that was founded in 1848, a time when the river was the only viable shipping route for the region. Further digging will reveal that there were actually two other antebellum river towns located adjacent to Barton: Colbert to the south and Vinton to the northwest. This area today is sparsely populated and heavily wooded, the last place one would expect to find a town, to say nothing of three towns. Why three towns?
Some have claimed that the three were founded in sequence. First Colbert, then when it was flooded, the inhabitants founded Barton on higher ground, then when it was flooded, they founded Vinton on even higher ground. This tale is only partially correct. Barton was on land above the flood level, so it never flooded. Furthermore, Vinton was not founded after Barton; it was established about the same time. Here I hope to present a fairly accurate rendition of the history of the three towns, all long dead now for over a century.
Part 1. Colbert
As the result of treaties in 1832 and 1834 the Chickasaw ceded their lands on the west bank of the Tombigbee River to the Federal Government. The subsequent survey and sales of the former Chickasaw lands led to a rush to purchase and settle the land, which in turn led to the opening of farms and roads and the founding of towns. It was in this context that Colbert, the earliest of the three towns was established.
About the same time that the Chickasaws were ceding their land, a ferry was founded on the Tombigbee River at the site that would become Colbert for the purpose of expediting the movement of people and to make money for the ferry owner. The earliest known ferry owner was Micajah Bennett and he was followed in 1834 by Silas McBee, who years earlier had surveyed the streets and blocks of Columbus.
The existence of a ferry at the site implies that the crossing was potentially a good place for urban development. Its site was level, being located on an old terrace of the Tombigbee, and considered to be above the flood level. Indeed it might have been above the previous flood levels. However with the increased clearing of lands for farming the average discharge of the river would increase and so would the flood levels. If anyone had realized this they might not have established Colbert at this location.
The site (specifically Fractional S6 T17-R8E) was selected by Margaret Allen, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, for her land allotment by the tenth article of the 1834 treaty between the United Stated and the Chickasaw tribe, a treaty that provided sizable allotments to prominent Chickasaws. Margaret (born ca 1796) was the daughter of William Colbert, a leader in the Chickasaw Nation. The Colberts were a family of mixed European and Chickasaw heritage who played a very prominent role in the politics of the Chickasaw Nation. Indeed William’s brother Levi (died 1834) was the most powerful leader in the tribe. Margaret was married to Major John L. Allen (born ca 1790), who had served as the Chickasaw Sub-Agent, a Federal employee with the Chickasaw Agency. The Allens evidently recognized the potential of the site for urban development and allied themselves with several others as town commissioners for the purpose of developing a town to be called Colbert, evidently named after Margaret’s family.
The town of Colbert was platted by November 1835, the month in which the first known public sale of lots occurred. The plat apparently consisted of 100 blocks subdivided into lots and included all of Fractional Section 6. Street names included Franklin, Jackson, Jefferson, Washington, and Tombigbee. Another sale of lots was advertised for October 18, 1836 and was to include “valuable lots in the business part of town, with a number of large and beautiful lots admirably situated for family residences.” The virtues of Colbert were extolled in glowing if not exaggerated terms in the newspaper advertisement:
“[Colbert] is situated on an elevated Bluff on the Tombecbee River.... It occupies a beautiful open plain–is well supplied with a number of pure, never-failing Springs; and is contiguous to the large and fertile Prairies.... The Bluffs on both sides of the river are above high water, and the landing is decidedly the best known on the river above Columbus. Colbert is nearly in a direct line between Pontitoc and Columbus; of course the great thoroughfare from Memphis via Pontitoc to Columbus, Tuscaloosa, &c. must necessarily cross the river at this point.
“The lands in the adjacent country are of a superior quality, and as the title to the same are now confirming, it is certain that a dense population will soon be dependent upon Colbert for their supplies.”
One notes with a sense of foreboding that the advertisement claimed that the site was “above high water.”
In April 1836, shortly after the first known sale of lots, steps were taken at the Lowndes County Board of Police (equivalent to Board of Supervisors) meeting to enhance the town. An election precinct was established there for the voters in Lowndes County living north of Tibbee Creek and west of the Tombigbee River. Juries were appointed to lay out roads that would provide the town with better access to the interior lands. Additionally Dr. E.F. Watkins was authorized to operate the Colbert Ferry.
Other improvements or attempted improvements were soon made. In 1838 the State Legislature incorporated the Colbert Bridge Company which was to build a bridge across the Tombigbee at Colbert. This venture would be a failure. The Colbert Troop, a local militia, was also chartered in 1838. Colbert Post Office was established March 24, 1838 and was served by a mail route which ran from Columbus to Houston. The town was chartered, rather belatedly, in 1846. The first election of town officers was to be held on the first Monday in May of that year.
Colbert by all appearances became a typical river trade town: a shipping point for cotton and a receiving point for trade goods, the location of stores, a church, school, physicians, and craftsmen. However, Colbert was certainly not large; there appears to have been on average only three stores operating there at any one time. Also, there was at least one warehouse there for use in storing cotton while waiting for steamboats to arrive to ship it to Mobile. Additionally there was a tavern or inn operated in the mid-1840s by Wiley J. Hines and in 1847 by William K. Sisson. In 1844 Joel Leftwich donated a lot to the Christian Church in Colbert, with the stipulation that they erect a church building and allow any other denomination of Christians the privilege of preaching or worshiping in the building when the appointment did not conflict with the regular preaching of the Christian Church.
Educational facilities were provided when the Colbert Male and Female Academy was founded in 1837, and two teachers, one of each sex, were sought. It was advertised that the Academy would open the 22nd of January 1838 with James Wallace “and Lady” as teachers. Besides Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, other teachers were: Rev. Jacob Lindley, Mrs. Mona M. Gay, and Miss Lindley. In July 1841 Miss Charlotte Paine from the Oxford Female Academy taught, and she was followed by Rev. W. W. Burch and wife.
By the 1840s considerable traffic was crossing the river by ferry at Colbert. To take advantage of the lucrative business of ferrying people across the river rival ferries began to develop which not only took business away from the Colbert ferry but also diverted traffic around the town. The main competition developed in 1843 when a road was approved to cross the Tombigbee at what would later be known as Vinton and thereby bypass Colbert altogether.
With the floods tending to rise higher and higher each year devastation finally struck in 1847. The Colbert site, once considered to be above the flood level, was inundated with the tremendous flood of December 1847 that also swept over the Tombigbee towns of Nashville, West Port, and the lower levels of Aberdeen. Descriptions of the flood are very few. However, a deposition provides an eyewitness testimony:
“…towards the latter part of December A.D. 1847 the then town of Colbert…was inundated by a freshet in the Tombigby River, and that besides several other houses being carried away by said freshet the office of J.M. Capshaw was also destroyed and when the bank of said river had caved so as to let said office down at one corner nearly to the ceiling so that it was considered dangerous to go into it, he further states that he in company with another went into said office, to rescue said Capshaw’s desk containing his papers, that he found his desk floating in the water and endeavored to get it out but could not, we then procured an axe and broke open said desk, when it turned over and spilled all the papers in the water when with the exception of a few loose ones was immediately swept off by the current, very few of which I think was ever recovered.”
The devastation was such that it was decided to establish a new town called “Barton” on the higher lands to the north. A plat was surveyed and many residents of Colbert acquired lots there. In fact it is probable that many dismantled their buildings in Colbert and reassembled them high and dry in the new town.
Despite the dissolution of Colbert, its ferry remained in operation. The month after the flood, January 1848, the Colbert ferry was relocated to “the Rock Bluff at or near the termination of Washington Street.” Then in March 1848 the ferry was authorized to move to the end of Tombigbee Street at the northeastern corner of Colbert. John Allen, the ferry owner, was also given permission to move back down to the old landing in the event of high water.
However there would be even more competition for the Colbert ferry. In March 1848 Agur T. Morse was allowed to keep a ferry in the town of Barton. This ferry was probably located in the northeastern corner of the town upriver from the current Barton Ferry landing. However the original Barton ferry and the Colbert ferry were both abolished in 1851 upon petition of James R. Hilliard, J. H. Griswold, and others. Hilliard and Griswold apparently had personal profit in mind because they subsequently gained the right to keep a ferry at “a place known as Jackson Springs between the two ferries.” An attempt was made by Reuben Littleton in 1853 to re-establish a ferry at Colbert; however, J. H. Griswold appeared in court resisting the proposal, and it was turned down. The Jackson Springs ferry was located in the southeastern corner of Barton, and its name eventually was changed to “Barton Ferry.” This is the origin of the present landing of that name.
The town of Colbert, while witnessing traffic by-passing it to the north and after suffering the flood of 1847 vanished almost overnight. On April 6, 1848, the Colbert post office was moved to Barton and the name changed to Barton. On March 13, 1849 the Colbert voting precinct was moved to Barton. John and Margaret Allen abandoned their dying town and were living in Perry County, Mississippi by April 1851. John was still living there in 1860 according to the census, but Margaret was not. She had presumably died.
In 1858 the Colbert townsite was totally abandoned. Not one house stood. A visitor noted: “It was once a beautiful place, but nothing is left save a few rows of cedars and shrubs struggling amid the thicket of pines, as monuments of its former greatness....” There was a note of sarcasm in the use of “greatness.”
Part 2. Barton
In December 1847 the town of Colbert was inundated by the great flood that impacted so many Tombigbee River towns. The impact was such that rather than risk another such flood, the inhabitants of Colbert almost immediately founded another town adjacent to the north side of Colbert but on uplands above the flood level. This town was called “Barton,” named after whom I do not know. In February 1848 a ferry was chartered at the new town by Hendley S. Bennett and Agur T. Morse, who were also trustees for the stockholders of the town of Barton. Morse had earlier played a prominent role in the town of Colbert, having been a Trustee of Colbert Academy, a Commissioner of the Colbert Bridge Company and a one-time owner of the Colbert warehouse. This first Barton Ferry was not located at the present Barton Ferry site but was located about a quarter mile upriver.
Although part of the new town was on the low lying terrace, its real focus was on the upland area. Main Street was laid out running approximately east-west and about a block south of the high bluff. The eastern end of the street dropped down onto the terrace to terminate at the original ferry landing. Most of Barton’s business establishments were located along Main Street.
On April 6, 1848 the post office at Colbert was officially moved to Barton, while the Colbert postmaster, O.H. Boykin, continued to serve at Barton. In March 1849 the Colbert voting precinct was removed to Barton. By 1850 there seems to have been about 110 whites living there.
In 1851 upon petition of James R. Hilliard, J. H. Griswold, and others the Colbert and Barton ferries were abolished and one established between the two at “a Place known as Jackson Springs.” This was probably the location of the present day Barton Ferry landing in the southeast corner of Barton. Hilliard and Griswold became the proprietors.
Barton was incorporated in 1854 and included all of Fractional S31-T16-R8E. Like Colbert before it, Barton was a river trade town and was in a sense the reincarnation of Colbert in that it served the same basic hinterland with essentially the same functions. By 1848 there was already a cotton shed at the northwestern corner of Barton on the edge of the bluff. Cotton was probably loaded from there onto steamers by use of a slide or chute leading down to the river. The Barton Warehouse was located on Main Street next to the river. Originally owned by Hendley S. Bennett it was eventually sold to James M. Collins of the firm of Collins & (Benjamin M.) Howorth which conducted a large mercantile business in Barton. By 1853 there were six stores in operation in the town.
Barton was on the stage coach route between Columbus and Aberdeen. In 1857 Jemison, Ficklan, and Powell, Stage Contractors, purchased land fronting on Main Street probably for use as an office and stable. Travelers could find lodging in the Barton Hotel located on the western end of Main Street. The hotel’s first owner was A. G. Hanks who was also licensed to sell liquor. Hanks sold the hotel in October 1857 to Edward A. Atkinson who in turn sold it to Benjamin H. Ford by 1859.
There was a Christian Church at Barton, the obvious successor of the Colbert Christian Church, and there was also a school. Additionally Barton also offered in 1850: four carpenters, one mechanic, three physicians, one millwright, a tailor, one gunwright, and a blacksmith. Two steamboatmen, several planters, and others also lived there as did also a number of black slaves.
In December 1857 the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, building north from Mobile, reached West Point in Lowndes County to the west of Barton. The new town quickly developed into a cotton center and took a considerable amount of business away from Barton causing the town to decline rapidly. Collins and Howorth moved immediately to the new railroad town as did others. Rapid decline is indicated by the removal of the Barton post office to the nearby hamlet of Vinton on April 17, 1858 with the name changed to Vinton. In 1860 there was apparently one store in Barton run by R. O. Johnson, but that would not last long. Barton died almost as quickly as its predecessor Colbert. In 1862 the Barton precinct was moved to Vinton for “the convenience of the voting community” bringing to an end any institutional manifestation of the town. Although Barton died rapidly as a town, there continued to be a few residents, mostly farmers and a ferryman, who lived there for the next few decades.
The ferry continued in operation well into the twentieth century. Dr. Jan Uithoven moved to Barton about 1914 and operated the ferry until about 1918. The Z. T. Ellises operated the ferry sometime after the Uithovens did. The Ellises did not live at Barton but lived about a mile to the west. The county paid them to operate the ferry, and they hired a black man who lived at the ferry to actually run it.
The ferry was discontinued during the mid-1900's but was revived after Cal Phillips, who owned a combination beer bar and store near Barton and wanted business from Columbus Air Force Base, petitioned to reopen it. In January 1961 Mr. & Mrs. Phillips were murdered and their store burned down on top of them.
Today all that is left of Barton is an old house, a few sunken street beds, scattered artifacts, and the “Barton Ferry” public access landing.
Part 3. Vinton
Vinton, unlike Colbert and Barton, was never an organized town; it never had a surveyed city plat with streets nor was it ever incorporated. At the height of its development it consisted of a ferry and cotton warehouse on the river and about a half mile to the west at a crossroads there was a store, grist mill, cotton gin, church and lodge (The village/crossroads was located in the NW ¼ S36-T16-R7E). Although many have claimed that Vinton was founded after Colbert and Barton declined, it actually developed about the same time as Barton, then as Barton died Vinton continued to serve as a community center for decades after.
The beginning of Vinton dates to about 1843 when a road was opened to cross the Tombigbee River just upriver from Colbert and Barton at the location that what would later be called Vinton. The original owner of the ferry is unknown but it was quite likely Sharod Keaton who was the owner in 1846. The Keaton Ferry, as it was then known, was on an alternative branch of the road between Columbus and Aberdeen that bypassed Colbert and Barton. In 1853 the ferry was declared free to the public which would have naturally attracted quite a bit of traffic. Cotton shipping also began to develop from the Vinton area by 1843, at which time there was a warehouse located near the ferry that was known as Keaton’s Warehouse by 1848.
The center of Vinton developed at the intersection of the road running from Colbert (later Barton) to Aberdeen and the road running from Keaton Ferry. By 1849 a store, operated by John T. Young and Ragland, had been established there. The earliest known reference to the emerging village as “Vinton” was in 1851. It is no known from whence the name was derived.
In 1853 a one acre lot located across the road from the store was deeded by Cader Keaton to the Vinton Masonic Lodge No. 163 and Friendship Lodge No. 32 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and the lodges in turn deeded one half interest in the lot to the trustees of the Methodist Church. The lot was deeded for the express purpose of erecting a church with a second story for a Masonic Lodge/Oddfellow Hall. The lot was located next to the cemetery which dates to at least 1844. The Vinton Masonic Lodge was issued a dispensation in 1851 and was chartered on January 22, 1852.
Young and Ragland sold the “Vinton property” to William Dowd and William A. Smith in the early 1850s, and they in turn sold it in 1855 to William E. Trotter and William H. Moore. The Vinton property referred to included the ferry and warehouse, a blacksmith shop, a dwelling, store, and lumber houses.
By the mid-fifties Vinton had developed into a village with a store, blacksmith shop, lumber houses, church and lodge in the vicinity of the road intersection and a warehouse and ferry about a half mile to the east on the river. The greatest number of commercial enterprises were usually concentrated into the hands of one or two large property owners.
Soon after purchasing the property at Vinton, Trotter & Moore probably settled into operating the enterprises associated with it. However, in 1857 they sold the ferry property and privileges to operate the ferry to James R. Hilliard, and in December 1859 Moore deeded his share of the property to Trotter. William E. Trotter was left as sole proprietor. For the next few decades he would be the dominant landowner and businessman at Vinton. Beside the services already listed he would soon add a grist mill and cotton gin.
With the arrival of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad in West Point in late 1857 the town of Barton began a rapid decline. On April 17, 1858 the Barton post office was moved to Vinton and the name changed to Vinton. Trotter was appointed as postmaster. In 1862 the Barton precinct was moved to Vinton “for the convenience of the voting community”.
During the Civil War Trotter supplied the Confederate government with fodder and with goods for troops in the area. Decades later his daughter Martha recalled an interesting experience that occurred at Vinton:
“Gen. Forrest’s command passed by our door. At the village school house Gen. Forrest himself stopped to rest under the shade of a spreading oak. Being very curious, we were soon on good terms with the General. He had a lame hand, having been stung by a spider. He wanted something done for his hand which had become extremely painful. I said to him “My mother will be glad to dress your hand.” The house was in sight, he was riding but led his horse and walked with me. My mother soon dressed the aching hand, gave him a good dinner and after resting, with many expressions of appreciation, he rode away. For several days the army camped nearby. Our people never failed to be nice to the soldiers and soon our home was the rendezvous of the officers.”
Following the war many families left the Vinton area. However the Trotters remained as the center of the community. Many of the residents who remained were tenant farmers and sharecroppers, and they traded at the Trotter store and brought their cotton to the gin. By 1877 Trotter was so successful that he was the third largest merchant in Clay County (which had been established in 1872 under the original name Colfax County) and owned over 4000 acres in Clay, Monroe, and Lowndes counties.
Although shipping on the Tombigbee River had been badly hurt by the building of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad during the 1850s, cotton was still being shipped from Vinton during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Van Howard, Sr. as a boy used to sit on the banks of the river at Vinton and watch cotton being loaded onto steamboats such as the “Lilly Lou” and the “Lilly Johnson”. The “Lilly Lou” had been built in 1879 and either sank or was burned about 1890. This would indicate that cotton shipping took place at Vinton during the period 1879-1890.
During the late 1880s and early 1890s William E. Trotter’s enterprise fell apart as the result of a number of law suits arising from the credit problems of his son William T. Trotter’s store in West Point. William E. Trotter lost his Vinton property including the store which operated for a few years under other ownership before it closed. In 1892 he was succeeded as Vinton postmaster by Leuty J. Neville. Trotter died in March 1899 at the Vinton home of his daughter Fannie Kirk and was buried in the Vinton cemetery. In 1890 the Vinton Masonic Lodge lost its charter, and the Vinton post office was discontinued in 1904 with the West Point post office beginning to serve the area with rural delivery. Soon there was little left at Vinton. Today the only visible reminder that there was ever a Vinton is the small cemetery located on its wooded knoll.
Source citations for much of this text can be found in Jack D. Elliott, Jr., volume II of James R. Atkinson and Jack D. Elliott, Jr., A Cultural Resources Survey of Selected Construction Areas in the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway: Alabama and Mississippi (two volumes), a report prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District by the Department of Anthropology, Mississippi State University, MS, 1978.