From deep in Tennessee the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers travel northward to empty into the Ohio River. Flowing eastwards, the Ohio River then merges with the Mississippi River to complete the gigantic arc that shapes what is now western Kentucky and western Tennessee.
By the time the Europeans came, the ancient Mound Builder Native Americans were long gone. The mounds and relics they left can be seen at the Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site north of us. These lands were later used for hunting by the Chickasaws. At that time relatively few Native Americans live full time or farmed in this area.
The future site of the Mississippi River port of Columbus City was on a flat flood plain on the eastern bank of the river. The plain was surrounded by a semi circular chain of 180 foot tall bluffs.
The first Europeans to see Columbus were probably the French missionary Jacques Marquette and his fur trading companion Louis Joliet. They passed by Columbus during their 1673 journey down the Mississippi River. Usually the French were only interested in Native American souls or furs. Mostly the furs.
Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet
The rusty red color of the bluff of the future site of Columbus caused the French to name it the IRON BANKS. They were wrong. There is no iron ore here. Down river from Columbus is the CHALK BLUFFS. Yes, you guessed it. No chalk is there. But the white colored bluff does have an excellent white clay that was once used for pottery making in the future town of Columbus, Ky.
The Frenchmen were not land hungry farmers. But the Americans and Europeans who followed them more than a century later did want this land. All of it. Kentucky was part of Virginia until 1793. And despite the legally recognized claims of the Chickasaws, Virginia insisted that Kentucky extended all the way to the bank of the Mississippi River.
In 1780 Virginia's governor, Thomas Jefferson, ordered George Rogers Clark to build a fort in the general area where the Ohio River joined the Mississippi River. It was hoped that this fort would open up western Kentucky for trade and settlement. Apparently they thought that the Chickasaws would just go away.
Clark built Fort Jefferson on the Mississippi River about half way between present day Cairo, Illinois, and Columbus, Kentucky. The Chickasaws immediately began a series of fierce attacks on the fort. Fort Jefferson was soon abandoned as a complete failure.
Never the less, the Americans were still interested in this land. In 1783 Virginia attempted to have this area surveyed into land warrants for Virginian Revolutionary War veterans. The governor of Virginia suggested that a city named Columbus be founded at this spot. But the Chickasaws drove away the surveyors. Until the Chickasaws were gone, nothing could be done.
The United States came to believe that Aaron Burr was conspiring to form an independent country in western Kentucky and western Tennessee. This resulted in the first American settlement at the future site of Columbus. In 1804 a blockhouse was built here for a detachment of US soldiers. Although the soldiers soon left, by now the Chickasaws were no longer a serious military threat.
Therefore small groups of American settlers began to trickle into what was now part of the state of Kentucky. But because the official owners of the land were still the Chickasaws, the Americans could not legally claim the land they cleared to make farms.
In 1817 the Kentucky legislature asked President James Monroe to purchase western Kentucky and western Tennessee from the Chickasaws. Monroe appointed Isaac Shelby of Kentucky and Andrew Jackson of Tennessee to negotiate with the Chickasaws.
Now too weak to refuse, in 1818 the Chickasaws sold all of western Kentucky and western Tennessee for 6 cents an acre. That portion of the land which was in Kentucky was named the Jackson Purchase.
In 1821 the Kentucky legislature organized this land as Hickman County with Columbus as the county seat. The county was named in honor of a Captain Paschal Hickman who had been killed at the War of 1812 Battle of Raisin River. As the land filled, other counties would be carved out of the original Hickman County. The county seat would be moved to Clinton in 1829.
For at least a century the people of Columbus have believed that their city was founded in 1822 to become the capital of the United States. And why not? The British had proved how easily Washington D.C. could be captured and burned during the War of 1812. Because of the 1804 Louisiana Purchase, Columbus was safe in the center of our new nation.
On display in the Columbus Belmont KY State Park museum is the original 1822 survey map of Columbus City. She was divided into an elaborate grid of streets and building lots covering 4000 acres. A very ambitious plan for a city that had less than 1000 people in 1860!
To be continued…