Haleyville: Where the Trails Cross and the Water Divides

Written by Gene Godsey

The Indian trail known as the High Town Indian Path ran from Old Charles Town on the Atlantic to the Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis, TN). It was a trade path used by the Indians and later by European explorers, trappers, and traders. As the path made its way across North Alabama it followed the ridge of the Continental Divide in an east-west direction. This ridge divided the waters of the Tennessee River from those that drain into the Gulf at Mobile. The City of Haleyville is located on the old trade path. Flat Creek is the north drainage into Haleyville. It flows to Bear Creek and the Tennessee River.

Another ridge here is the Byler Ridge. It runs in a north-south direction and divides the waters of the Warrior and Tombigbee system. On this ridge was the Old Buffalo Hunting Trail. It was used by the Indians in South Alabama to go north to hunt buffalo near the Cumberland River at French Lick (Nashville). The trails crossed here at what is called the Triangle Area on 20th Street and Alabama Avenue. There are other important trails here also, but these two are major trails that run north-south and east-west.

The Native American Indian understood the watershed system and sometimes used it as tribal boundary lines. Years ago I would be downtown when a summer rainstorm would come up, and I liked to watch the rainwater run in every direction. You can stand in front of the Piggly-Wiggly downtown and watch the rainwater across the street and in front of city hall run north to Bear Creek and the Tennessee River system. At the same time look to your left. The water behind the Pig is going south to the Warrior system. Both will go to the Gulf of Mexico, but the south drainage will go to Mobile, and the north drainage will go to New Orleans. All from the same rainstorm. The historic Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Creek all had land claims in our local area. The area was ideal for early people. Water was plentiful. There are many bluff shelters to give protection from bad weather. The trails were easy to travel on by foot, yet to get here any other way through the wilderness was almost impossible. The area could also provide isolation.

We find evidence of all the culture periods of man in America here in the local area. The Woodland Period (1,000 B.C. to 900 A.D.) had the largest population here in pre-historic times. This is the period when the Indians start to live in villages and settlements and using the trails they had began to trade with other groups in distant places. They used the bow for hunting, and they made beautiful and useful pottery. The area was full of activity. The woodland people seemed to be everywhere. Anywhere you go in the area and whatever you discover, you can be sure the woodland people were there first. At the end of the woodland period, the population would drop while they would seek better soil for agriculture during the Mississippian period. A smaller population would be here, and they would continue to use the area for hunting, camping, gathering wild plants, and using the trails in trade with distant groups.

The first white people in the area were probably about the time of the Revolutionary War. They were the Scottish and Irish traders and trappers using the High Town Indian Path in trade with the Indians, now known as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Creek Native Americans. By using pack horses, the traders kept a supply of trade goods to exchange for fur and deerskins. Most of the traders were friends with the Indians who were small farmers and lived among them and had taken Indian women to be their wives. This was common all across the Appalachian foothills, and by the year 1800, most all the Chief’s were mixed blood people with Scottish, Irish, and English names. A well-known example of this was James Logan Colbert, a Scotch trader in the Tennessee Valley of Northwest Alabama. He married a Chickasaw woman, and at least two of his sons, Levi and George Colbert, were Chickasaw chiefs. Chief George Colbert married a Cherokee woman.

Many proud people in the valley and around North Alabama can trace their Native American heritage to the Colberts. The government would encourage the construction of stands and inns along the trails and early roads to rest the settlers and care for their animals. These were usually owned by mixed blood families. In the local area there was the Forest Inn and Tavern at Rabbitown, Jacob Pruitt’s Stand, and Miller’s Stand.

Some of the first people to settle here and become squatters were the traders among the Indians. The next group of settlers would have access to the Byler Road about 1820, but many of them would become squatters also. Other early settlers were followers of Andrew Jackson, most being of mixed blood and had fought with him at the Horseshoe and at New Orleans. Jackson valued their friendship and gave them advice on many matters. I believe Mr. Richard McMahan was a friend to Andrew Jackson. He was here in 1815, and in 1820 he filed for title on his place after five years. It is true the first and second group of settlers here could not afford the high price of land in the Tennessee Valley and most would become squatters, but they came here by choice, by their own independent nature, and their desire to live as they pleased in the hills of Northwest Alabama and in some cases with enough isolation to help avoid the Trail of Tears. During Indian removal many were allowed to remain in the area because they were married to white persons or were able to identify themselves with white ancestry.

Through the years, time has brought many changes, but their hearts remain the same. They still hold to their independent nature. They are still here by choice, and they love the hills of Northwest Alabama. Many prominent families in the area can trace their heritage back to their Native American ancestors. Many know of their heritage because it has been handed down to them by past family members for generations. Most are Cherokee – all are very proud people.