Archive | July, 2020

Review of Alabama Rivers: A Celebration and Challenge, by William G. Deutsch

28 Jul

I was given a copy of William G. Deutsch’s recent book, Alabama Rivers: A Celebration and Challenge, by a friend late last year, and only got around to scanning through it a few weeks ago. A coffee table-style publication showcasing the role of rivers in Alabama’s past, present, and future, I thought it would be interesting to look through but probably not contain much in the way of the type of historical information that captivates me. To my surprise, I found that the author did indeed try to create a rather unique publication that will appeal to scientists, historians, and anyone with an interest in Alabama’s famous riverine heritage.


Deutsch is an aquatic ecologist by trade, and knows whereof he speaks when it comes to rivers. As might be expected, his text has lots of information on watershed formation, species diversification, habitat alteration, and pollution. But it also features some genuine attempts to mesh cultural heritage and the natural environment, making efforts to find the distinguishing features of the human history of each of the major river systems of Alabama from prehistoric times to the present. Each major watershed receives treatment, the result being a rather entertaining look at the importance of rivers in Alabama’s story from multiple perspectives. The first chapter of the publication is actually an insightful chronicle of the Alabama state seal, which prominently displays the state’s river systems.

The book is a quick read—especially as I will admit to skimming through some of the sections on river channel formation and fish varieties. It could have definitely benefitted from better maps of the watersheds he features. Sadly, I long ago determined good cartography to be an inherent rarity in books for reasons I cannot explain. This is not an in-depth or authoritative history of Alabama, but I applaud the effort to take a survey of our natural environment and incorporate its human past.


Review of Alabama: Mounds to Missiles, by Helen Morgan Akens and Virginia Pounds Brown

21 Jul

Alabama: Mounds to Missiles is a classic in state literature if for nothing else than its ubiquity. Published in 1962, the book is still readily available in libraries and used book stores across the state. Being familiar with the title but having never read it cover to cover, when I spotted a copy in a local used book store being sold for a mere dollar, I thought I would give it a try.

Akens and Brown

The book is a series of short stories on noteworthy people, places, and events in Alabama’s past. Topics covered range from the Battle of Mauvilla and the Battle of Fort Mims to the meteor shower that inspired the song “Stars Fell on Alabama” and the development of the Saturn rocket in Huntsville. The series of snapshots penned by authors Helen Morgan Akens and Virginia Pounds Brown, none more than three or four pages long, is accompanied by original artwork by Don Davis.

It is written in textbook style, and appears geared to younger readers. Any serious scholar of state history cannot help but note a few minor historical errors, and it is impossible for modern readers not to notice some of its dated prose and phrasing. As with most books its age, it is obsolete and better, more thorough and documented works have been published about almost every subject it mentions over the past sixty years. But as a piece of accessible storytelling built around legends that help give a sense of place, I rather enjoyed it. I now understand its endurance is due to its uniqueness. I would not put it on my list of essential reading on Alabama history by any means, but if you have an interest in the state’s past, you will likely enjoy it too.


Review of Bottle Creek Reflections: The Personal Side of Archaeology in the Mobile Tensaw Delta, by Ian W. Brown

14 Jul

The incredible Bottle Creek Mound complex, featuring some eighteen earthen mounds, is the largest Mississippian mound site on the Gulf Coast. The site was occupied circa 1250-1550 and during the era stood as the largest community in the region. It is located in the middle of the vast Mobile-Tensaw Delta on Mound Island, inaccessible except by boat. As part of the cruise offerings by Historic Blakeley State Park, I get to take visitors to this unique site each winter and help lead walking tours in which we share some of the history of what is in truth an amazing ghost town. Most of the information I share is derived from the dedicated work of archaeologists who have investigated the site, especially Dr. Ian W. Brown, recently retired from a long and distinguished career at the University of Alabama.

Bottle Creek Reflections

Owing to the site’s remote location and the difficulty of staging large excavations there, Bottle Creek is in truth one of the least-studied mound complexes in the southeast. In the 1990s Dr. Brown conducted three summer excavations of the site with teams of colleagues and students, however, and his work forms the core of what is known about life at the site. I have reviewed his edited volume on the findings derived from the excavations of the site, contained in Bottle Creek: A Pensacola Culture Site in South Alabama, previously in this space. Today I offer some thoughts on his book chronicling the process of the excavations, Bottle Creek Reflections: The Personal Side of Archaeology in the Mobile Tensaw Delta.

The book is derived in large part from the journals he kept during work over the course of three summers. There are numerous details about what the team was finding in the notes, and numerous photographs and sketches of the progress of the digs illustrating the incredible story of habitation the team was revealing. But this book is less about technical processes and scientific findings than the actual logistics of arranging for complex archaeological study in one of the more difficult environments America has to offer.

The crew, temporarily living in housing nearby, was forced to travel by boat to the site daily in the middle of the Gulf Coast’s hot and humid summers. The region is one of the rainiest in the country, and frequent and sudden thunderstorms hampered the work at times. But so did the innumerable biting insects and poisonous plants the workers had to deal with, not to mention the frequent mechanical issues with their sometimes-unreliable boats and ground transportation. The book reads as high adventure in a virtually unknown region, featuring numerous trials and tribulations involved in merely getting to the site, and no few mishaps—the sinking of a boat, nearly losing a van into the dark waters of the Delta, almost colliding with a large barge in thick fog, and several other hardships and handicaps. But it also shows the comraderie of the teams Brown assembled, the wide-ranging interest his work generated throughout the state and region, and how discovery of a previously little-known and barely-studied community was taking place before their eyes. As Brown’s professional work comprises the essential record of what is known about one of Gulf South’s most remarkable prehistoric sites, this book will serve as an entertaining compliment to the published reports it generated. It is indeed the personal side of archaeology, and one anyone who has attempted to work in any capacity in the dense and remote forests and waters of the Delta will especially appreciate the tale.


Review of Cotton Gin Port: A Frontier Settlement on the Upper Tombigbee, by Jack D. Elliott, Jr. and Mary Ann Wells

7 Jul

I find the places where history happened extraordinarily interesting, even if there is little left of them today which might help one envision them as they once were. With a little information and my imagination, though, they come to life in my mind’s eye. Next to battlefields, ghost towns are among the most evocative and compelling of these sites in my opinion and one of my favorite historic sites to visit. The eerie stillness at the locations where once stood vibrant and bustling communities is a powerful contrast that virtually demands contemplation. One cannot help but wonder how these places came to be, what life was like within them, and what occurred to make them vanish completely.

Cotton Gin Port

I have long wanted to read more in depth about what is perhaps Mississippi’s most noteworthy and legendary ghost town, the lost community of Cotton Gin Port in the northeastern section of the state along the upper reaches of the Tombigbee River. I am consequently glad I recently got around to reading the only full-length history of the community, Cotton Gin Port: A Frontier Settlement on the Upper Tombigbee, by Jack D. Elliott, Jr. and Mary Ann Wells. The book is an outstanding chronicle of the life and times of a forgotten place and the authoritative word on Cotton Gin Port in its actuality.

That not a trace remains of what was once one of the most strategically important communities in the region would indeed be shocking to the early settlers of Cotton Gin Port if they could be told. Situated at a natural crossing of the Tombigbee, it sprang up along the river’s banks at a location where early America and the ancestral Chickasaw homeland met and where important roads joined with the head of river navigation. It seemed almost certain that it would become a prominent spot. Indeed it did, for a while, becoming a place of trade and interaction in Mississippi’s territorial and early statehood years. Cotton Gin Port witnessed Indian trading posts, settler caravans, Native American Removal, the upheaval of Civil War and Reconstruction, and the arrival of steamboats and railroads during its approximately eight decades of existence. The place received its unusual name from a literal cotton gin placed there by the federal government in the early 1800s to help encourage the nearby Chickasaws to take up American-style cotton agriculture. Much like the community in which it stood, however, it existed only briefly, being burned shortly after its construction by the Chickasaws’ longtime rivals, the Choctaws.

The book is a quick read, a straightforward and quick-moving narrative which tells the story of the town from its origins to its disappearance into the surrounding woodlands and its enduring mystic hold on local memory in northeast Mississippi. It explains life in the community and introduces those who figure prominently in its story, from its days as a promising trading port of a few hundred residents to its last days in the 1880s when, bypassed by the railroad, some of its last remaining business establishments were literally moved lock, stock, and barrel to the upstart town of Amory just three miles distant. Elliott, Jr. and Wells are to be commended for gathering all that is known about this lost community and assembling it into a cohesive story. It is an informative book which rescues Cotton Gin Port from the realm of myth and presents it as a real place.