Have you ever given a thought to the people that came here, cleared large old-growth forests and started building what later became the beautiful town of Athens? The Native Americans (A.K.A. Indians) had lived here for hundreds of years before us, and were better organized than most of us realized. They may not have been “civilized” in our way of thinking, but they had developed much more sophistication than we gave them credit for until archeologists began to learn more of their culture.
Just what were the trail marker trees? You have all seen trees that grew vertical for three or four feet, but then grew horizontal for several feet but then grew vertical again. Some of these were large old trees. Now, we are finding out that they were trained that way by the Indians as trail markers to show where trails were, direction to water or a natural shelter from a trail, and other valuable information. Unfortunately, the code to these directions was never written down, but everyone depended upon the elders in the tribe of an area to remember these details. As the white man took over the land, either the elders were shipped elsewhere or died without transmitting this knowledge, along with much more valuable information.
Acknowledging that “all generalizations are false – including this one,” we can approximately divide the settlers of Limestone County and Athens into three groups. Probably the most obvious group was comprised of the developers Beaty and Mason, who came in shortly after the land became available for sale. They bought significantly large tracts of land, perhaps several, and started developing them for resale. In town, they laid out lots and streets for homes and businesses. They had enough foresight and capital, but were taking a rather big risk. Today, we look at Athens and assume it was so obvious that it was going to be the county seat and would have to have a courthouse on the square in the middle of things.
Did you know that Cambridge was a close contender for the County seat? What is there now?
Robert Beaty and John Carrol planned ahead and donated some the land they had just bought for things like a courthouse, a jail, a college, and several of the churches. If Athens were not selected as county seat, this land would only have value as farm land at much less than what they had paid for it. Robert Beaty was one of the town’s founders, but is not buried here. After his wife died, he took their son and moved to Kentucky. Come see where some of the rest of his family is buried, and listen to Billy Ward tell their stories.
Limestone County could not be bought until 1818, because prior to that it was still Indian Territory. Fort Hampton was established here and garrisoned with Federal Troops to keep the white settlers out of the Indians’ land. If a settler (aka “squatter”), often floating down the Elk River on a flat boat, found a rather remote spot, landed, cleared off it enough to build a house and plant a small crop, the Indians would “rat him out” and tell the soldiers. The soldiers would arrest the man, burn the house and his crops and probably take him to jail in Huntsville or Pulaski. He would usually “winter over” in jail and try again the next spring. When the Indians “sold” the land to the U.S. Government, (which is another story entirely) the settler would buy a little and start all over again. Glenn Hall will be portraying his ancestor that followed that pattern.
If a successful planter in Virginia or one of the Carolinas had been one of the early settlers in the 1600’s, they were now beginning to have several kinds of growing pains. The most common and profitable crop was tobacco, which is somewhat labor intensive. They were land locked and could not expand their acreage. If they had been treating their slaves well, they had a surplus of them also. Large successful plantations were rather self-sufficient. By the second or third generation, they had skilled slaves in most of the trades.
In 1793 the invention of the cotton gin dramatically changed the economics of cotton from a very expensive cloth to an economical one. Now the above planter could give his second son (assuming the older son would inherit the existing plantation) some of the excess slaves, and go “out west” across the mountains and buy land to start over again. Haven’t you wondered how the virgin, old growth forests that used to cover most of Limestone County were cut and cleared? How some of these magnificent homes were built in a relative short time? The land could not be purchased until 1818 and – by definition – the antebellum mansions were done by 1860. Try to imagine the amount of work it would take to clear cut some of the large fields, usually south of Highway 72. Then came the really had work: digging out and pulling the stumps with nothing but man power and mule power. Next, move onto the sawing all those trees into usable lumber. Steam power came a little later because the equipment was so expensive.
Visit with Katy and Johnny Garrett at the Cemetery Walk. The Garretts are one of Limestone County’s oldest families, and probably fit this pattern rather closely except we do not know whether they were still growing tobacco when the young generation departed for the west.
Some time ago, we were doing some plumbing in one of the Antebellum homes when one of my men said he could tell that a wing had been added instead of being built with the rest of the home. The plaster lathing on one section was over split red oak whereas the “add on” section had sawn white oak under the plaster.
One family that does not perfectly fit any of the above categories, but had many similarities was the Barksdale Family. I highly recommend Jerry Barksdale’s book, “Revolutionaries to Rebels.” It is a novel, and is one of the most enjoyable books I have read in many years. The section that amazed me is when his Revolutionary War ancestor decides to go “out west.” He loads up his entire family, including an infant, and has to put his oldest son on a horse, scouting ahead for the trail. There were no roads, so he had to also find them a place to camp each night that would have good grazing for the horses and mules, and good water for all.
This last summer I had an opportunity to ride through some of that area with someone else driving. It is remarkable to me that anyone had the courage to attempt that, and the determination to actually do it. Talk to Jerry Barksdale at the cemetery walk. While you are at it, buy a copy of his book, and get him to autograph it for you. You can’t beat that deal with a stick!
By: Buzz Estes