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The Mysterious Broad River Group

Among the many influences that shaped Alabama, Huntsville, Montgomery and Birmingham was a group of families which emigrated from Virginia to Georgia then to Alabama. J. Mills Thornton, III coined the term Broad River Group in his 1978 book Politics and Power in a Slave Society. These families maintained ties back to Virginia and with each other. The original families were well established before the American Revolutionary War in Virginia.

Members of the group helped establish Huntsville, Montgomery and Birmingham as financial and business centers in the state. The reaction against their use of factional power politics set the tone for Alabama's future direction in state governance. Many of the men who had a hand in founding Birmingham and opening up north central Alabama's mineral riches were Montgomerians with familial and business ties to the Broad River Group.

When the British aristocracy and royalty founded their colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America, they planned to make money, huge fortunes, from them. Ideally, the colonies would ship huge amounts of raw goods and cash crops such as tobacco to England, which would be purchased by English factors at a price they determined, since they had by royal decree a captive market.

Then, due to the same captive market, English manufacturers, through the same factors would sell the colonists all the finished goods that the colonies would want, again at a price determined by the English factors. For England and its aristocracy, fortunes could be made overnight.

British aristocracy encouraged the growth of the colonies and their lucrative trade for Britain by their control of England's legal system. All excess population, like those in regular prison, debtor prisons or poor landless peasants, especially those damned Irish and dour Presbyterian Scot trouble-makers, were deported or harshly encouraged to immigrate to the colonies. Georgia was designated as a prison colony as would Australia be later.

British law and the aristocracy's colonial rules made it illegal for the colonists to make for themselves any manufactured goods which England could supply at a profit. Things like machines or factories for making nails (naileries) were expressly prohibited.

The British lords had dreams of huge stands of timber marked with the British Broad Arrow to be sold by them to the Royal Navy for centuries to come. They dreamed of huge money making plantations, growing a world's supply of valuable bright leaf tobacco that they would reap the profits from while never bothering to make that nasty dangerous ocean voyage across the Atlantic themselves.

Things didn't work out quite that way. Into this mix of colonists also came educated, but landless sons of good families that wanted to make their own fortunes. My ancestor William Badham arrived in Edenton, North Carolina in the 1710's with training in the law, but also indentured to the colonial governor to pay for his passage to North Carolina.

Those troublesome peasants had a tendency to look around, taste the dirt and then head west into the wilderness as soon as they could secure an ax, musket, a few pigs, a bag of seed corn and a wife. English lord rules be damned. Those families that survived accidents, starvation, fevers, sickness, childbirth and the furious indigenous Native Americans became rugged, resourceful, self-reliant and very independent.

In contrast the middle class and new colonial aristocracy, especially in Virginia and the Carolinas, with names such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lee, Monroe, Custis, Marion, Jackson, Hatsey and Patton were very conscious of their English heritage. They proudly considered themselves free born English gentlemen with all the rights of native born English gentlemen. They were determined not to let themselves be thought of as second class colonials by either King or country in either law or custom.

The British colonial governor-generals soon felt that they, too, were getting the dirty end of the stick. They were risking their lives in the howling fever ridden wilderness surrounded by a surly populace. Their cut of the profits were usually plantations that turned out to be untouched large pieces of forest that might well still have those dangerous blood thirsty Indians living on them. The governors then had to use their own monies to improve and work their rewards. Very quickly most governors would happily look the other way when a little smuggling or other illicit activity happened, if they got their cut.

An Edenton, Carolina, entrepreneur by the name of Edward Teach soon became a fast friend of several North Carolina governors. That free trade entrepreneur, whose career was cut short by an unfortunate turn of events involving the British Royal Navy, is known today as Blackbeard the pirate.

Also it's hard to keep an unruly population in check who voted with their feet; especially when the back door was open for thousands of miles. When that population overlapped the first Appalachian Mountains and began filtering into Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, continent changing discoveries were made.

While clearing the trees off their corn fields to be, the new settlers, most of whom hadn't bothered with the formalities of legally purchasing the land, noticed a bunch of brown rocks outcropping from the mountainsides. Those rocks were quickly recognized as limonite - brown iron ore! The hundreds of miles long valley was littered with it.

As quickly as ail those pine and oak trees could be converted into charcoal and lumber, wooden water wheels were built on mountain streams to power bellows and hammers, Forges were built. Unlimited amounts of limestone were also found on the valley floor. The limestone was also used as a flux to carry away the impurities in the ore during forging. Soon a booming illicit colonial wrought iron trade was born. Now the colonies were no longer dependent on England for expensive iron or iron implements, A thriving trade in the manufacture of deadly accurate long barreled rifles began. By 1776 that industry would come in pretty handy.

A surviving record shows that in May of 1742, Thomas Mayberry entered into an agreement to "erect a bloomery (iron smelter) for making bar iron on the plantation of William Vestal tying on the Shunnandore [Shenandoah] River". If a blacksmith with a hammer has iron ore, limestone and fuel, he can make his own iron tools and machinery as needed.

So much iron ore protruded from hillsides that farmers supplemented their meager incomes by digging out chunks of the high grade ore and selling it to their local smelter. While Williamsburg was still the capitol of Virginia, now a new town, Richmond, located near large lead ore deposits which had a smattering of gold in them, was to become the industrial and commercial capitol of the South.

Later on more iron ore deposits would be found to the northwest in the Ohio River Valley near what is now Wheeling, West Virginia. A family by the name of Woodward would prosper by mining and smelting iron ore and making nails in their nailery.

During the same colonial period, plantation owners began an economic cycle of their own. Due to not having any real fertilizers, they understood that growing their cash crop of tobacco would exhaust their plantation's soil in several years. Every seven to ten years, new ground to plant had to be found. The plantation owners would send their sons and agents out to the frontier where land was cheap and plentiful to look for suitable new plantation sites. Rivers going to the sea were the main transportation arteries of trade.

Neighboring and family related plantation owners would pool their credit and money to buy and develop huge new properties of cheap land. The new plantation would begin production as the old played out. This agricultural cycle would continue to the Civil War.

After the Revolutionary War, the new United States government was broke. But, it had lots of new land. In the Treaty of Paris of 1783, Britain ceded alt her land claims north of the 31st Parallel Florida border and south of the Tennessee border to the Mississippi River. The American government promptly portioned out acreage of this land as well as unclaimed government land in the other ex-colonies as pensions and rewards to Revolutionary War veterans.

The new federal government also sold as much land as anyone wanted as soon as it could rough survey the land and set up land sale commission and sales offices. Of course much of the land was not really explored. Also, no one had told the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks living on it that their real estate had just been sold out from under them.

In 1784 General George Mathews led to eastern Georgia a large group composed primarily of young Revolutionary War veterans who happened to be sons, relatives and friends of the tobacco plantation owners around Charlottesville, Virginia. They were given, in lieu of pensions, homesteads and bought thousands of acres more of land to turn into tobacco plantations at the confluence of the Broad and Savannah Rivers near the South Carolina-Georgia border in what is now Elbert County near Augusta, Georgia, With their many planting and carpentry trained slaves, they began clearing ground and erecting plantation homes. The Savannah River provided the route for their tobacco to the Atlantic Ocean.

This wasn't just a group of simple farmers. They were politically involved as well as being neighbors with and probably related to many of the Virginia contingent of the Founding Fathers. They certainly knew Thomas Jefferson and other political leaders in the Charlottesville area, General Mathews was twice elected governor of Georgia (1787–88 and 1793–96). Other Broad River leaders included U.S. Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, U.S. Senators William Wyatt Bibb and Charles Tait and Georgia governor George R. Gilmer. Intermarrying into the prominent families of Georgia, they became a potent political and economic force.

The U.S. Congress, in April 1798, created the Mississippi Territory. The British claimed that their colony of Georgia stretched to the Mississippi River on their crude maps of the time. The new state of Georgia grudgingly gave up claims of the lands west of the Chattahoochie River which would then be part of its western boundary. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin three years before now set off a huge land rush. Soon short staple cotton was the cash crop of the South.

Then in 1802, President Thomas Jefferson made one of the greatest land deals on earth by making the Louisiana Purchase. By 1804, the Mississippi territory possessed two white settlements, St. Stephens on the lower Tombigbee River and Natchez on the lower Mississippi. However unauthorized settlers (squatters) had been slipping into the territory for many years previously.

The region in north Alabama that would become Madison County was located within the territories of both the Cherokee and Chickasaw Indians prior to white settlement. The lure of rich river bottom soil and abundant game in the territory brought illegal settlement on Native American lands, despite federal prohibitions.

In 1802, Isaac Criner and his family slipped south of Tennessee and settled near the confluence of the Flint River and Mountain Fork Creek near what is now the community of New Market, Alabama. Criner's descendents still live and flourish in the area. Dr. Walter Jones, the Alabama State Geologist who helped save Moundville and Tannehill, was a direct descendent. A few years later an unauthorized settler John Hunt from Tennessee passed through the Criner settlement with its excellent mill site to an area known as the Big Spring in 1805.

The Chickasaw ceded their rights to the area that July and the Cherokee ceded their lands in January 1806, and illegal settlement began in earnest. By the time Madison County was established by the Mississippi Territorial Legislature in December 1808, the village, which had become known as Hunt's Spring, boasted a population of 300.

In 1809, the U.S. government opened up land in Madison County for public sale, In addition to moneyless early settler-squatters, wealthy planters and speculators also came to the area. Following the pattern of buying large amounts of cheap fertile river bottom land, Leroy Pope, a tobacco grower and six more of the Broad River Group's families, moved to the Hunt's Spring area. Pope and other wealthy planters bought thousands of acres of the Big Spring area, including John Hunt's property, at an average price of two dollars an acre. Pope became an influential leader in the community. Thomas Bibb, William Wyatt Bibb's brother, bought large amounts of river bottom land near the Mooresville, Alabama area in what became Limestone County in 1811.

On December 22, 1809, the Mississippi Territorial legislature followed Pope's suggestion and organized the town as Twickenham which Pope had surveyed out on his land to honor the home of his English ancestor, poet Alexander Pope. Quite naturally many early settlers resented these moneyed planters and land speculators. The early settlers continued to refer to the town as Hunt's Spring. In November 1811, the early settlers politically forced the legislature to change the town's name to Huntsville in honor of John Hunt.

Huntsville became the center of the early cotton economy of Alabama. Leroy Pope, his son in law John W. Walker and his Broad River friends organized the private Planters and Merchants Bank of Huntsville to facilitate the business of land buying and cotton planting loans. The bank would become a serious financial and economic power in the new territory and state.

John W. Walker and Matilda Pope Walker would have six children. They included future Alabama politicians Percy Walker and Leroy Pope Walker who as also a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. John W. Walker's good friend Thomas Percy would name one of his children Walker Percy. Walker Percy Jr. would become an important Birmingham lawyer with his son becoming a famous author.

By 1815, there were five cotton gins operating in the town. Cotton ginning brought wealth to the town, which in turn led to the establishment of a broad variety of commercial establishments. The Madison County Gazette, the first newspaper in the Alabama territory, began publication in 1812 and in 1816 became the Huntsville Republican. By the time the courthouse was completed in 1816, it was flanked on all sides by brick storehouses, hotels, and homes. In 1818, Charles Cabaniss opened a cotton-spinning factory (later known as the Bell Factory north of Huntsville) where he made and sold cotton thread.

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