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Early History and Settlement of DeKalb County Alabama


DeKalb County is located in the northeast corner of Alabama. It is bounded on the northwest by Jackson County, on the southeast by Cherokee County; on the south by Cherokee and Etowah Counties; and on the west by Marshall County. On the east-northeast, it is bounded by Dade, Walker and Chattooga Counties in GA. The longer axis of the county is more or less parallel to the general course of Big Wills Valley. DeKalb County has an area of approximately 778 square miles or 497,920 acres. The county lies in both the Appalachian Plateau province and Ridge Valley province of the Appalachian Highlands. The Plateau area was once a part of the nearly level continuous plain that extended from New York State into Central Alabama. Lookout and Sand Mountains are remnants of this plain. The ridge and valley area has resulted from deterioration of comparatively soft rocks. The county has a general slope toward the southwest. Its highest point above sea level (1,980 feet) is on Fox Mountain, which comprises a small spur in the northern section. The highest point on Sand Mountain is 1,960 feet and on Lookout Mountain, 1,930 feet.

Settlement and Early History

DeKalb County was once a part of the territory occupied by the Cherokee Indian Nation. The coming of white men to the county occurred during the American Revolution when a British agent, Alexander Campbell, was sent here for the purpose of arousing the Cherokees against the southern colonies. In 1777, Campbell made his headquarters at Wills Town, a Cherokee Indian village located on Big Wills Creek near the present community of Lebanon. Campbell was successful in arousing a number of the Cherokees by promising them clothing and conquered territory in exchange for the scalps of white settlers.

After the revolution, Cherokees continued to occupy the territory as did increasing numbers of white settlers who came from the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee. Missionaries came to convert the Indians.

In 1816, when the Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church sent missionaries to teach Christianity to the Indians, the Wills Town Mission was established at a location now in the northeastern section of Fort Payne. The mission was named after an Indian/Caucasian, Red Head Will, who is said to be buried nearby. The site of the mission is still marked by the gravestone of the missionary, Reverend Ard Hoyt. The famous old council oak near Wills Town has been destroyed by lightning.

Living in the vicinity of Fort Payne during this period was a Cherokee known by white settlers as George Guess. His Indian name was Sequoyah. In 1821, while living at Wills Town, Sequoyah announced that he had developed an alphabet for the Cherokee language, a project that he had commenced twelve years earlier. The alphabet contained eighty-six symbols. Each symbol represented a syllable, thereby enabling one to read and write the Cherokee language by merely learning the alphabet. Sequoyah’s contribution to Cherokee culture gave rise in the Cherokee Nation to the publication of newspapers, Bibles and other works and won Sequoyah a respected place in Cherokee history.

As the immigration of settlers into the Cherokee country increased, friction between the two races grew. By 1830, there was a growing demand on the part of the settlers for the federal government to buy the land from the Indians and to move them off it, thereby making way for homesteads. A small group of Indians led by John Ridge and Elias Boudinol, who were opposed by a majority of the Cherokees, agreed to give up Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River. The Treaty of New Echota, signed December 29, 1835, ceded the Cherokee lands in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia to the federal government for a consideration of five million dollars and a joint interest in certain western Indian Territory. A federal agent sent into Cherokee County to investigate the situation reported that a vast majority of the Cherokees were opposed to the signing of the treaty including the Nation’s chief, John Ross and considered it not to be binding upon them.

The treaty was enforced and federal troops were sent by President Andrew Jackson to transport the Indians westward. General Winfield Scott was placed in charge of these federal forces in 1838 and on May 10th of that same year, issued a proclamation to the Cherokees warning them that their emigration was to commence in haste and that "before moon had passed" every Cherokee man, woman, and child must be in motion to join his brethren in the far west.

Under Scott’s orders, troops were dispatched to various points throughout the Cherokee country and stockade forts were erected for gathering in and holding the Indians preparatory to removal. Captain John Payne was sent to the present site of Fort Payne where a stockade was erected near a large spring on a lot later occupied by the city water plant in the southern part of Fort Payne. The fort was named in honor of its commander.

When the Indians departed from the stockade at Fort Payne, there were only two wagons available to transport their personal property. The failure of the government to furnish transportation facilities required the Indians to leave behind many of their prized possessions and increased the sadness of their departure. The journey westward was filled with hardship and suffering. One out of every seven Indians died before they reached their new home in the west.

The Creation of DeKalb County

Removal of the Indians opened up new land for settlement. The census of 1840 revealed that the population of DeKalb County was 5,929. Most of the settlers selected land in the valleys because more valley land had been cleared, communication was easier and soil appeared more suitable for farming. However, a few hardy pioneers settled in the mountains. By 1860 they were scattered over both Lookout and Sand Mountains.

By 1850, the population of the county had grown to 8,245 including 506 slaves and 9 free African Americans. Since most settlers were financially unable to own slaves, large families were an economic necessity. The settlers’ chief crops were grain and vegetables. Cotton was grown primarily for domestic purposes. Farm families produced their own clothing from cotton and wool. Hogs provided the settlers with meat and lard.



This stone marks the entrance to the Willstown Mission Cemetery in Fort Payne

Wills Town Mission Cemetery Marker.


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