As the crocus broke through the melting snow that March in 1832, a great change was stirring beneath the cold, dull gray sky. In silhouette against the dim horizon, Chief Ladiga thought of his land nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains — a fertile land rich in beauty, of streams, forests, wetlands, watched over by the surrounding mountains adorned with clouds. Chief Ladiga ruled over the pine- and dogwood-filled acres and its Muskogee inhabitants.
Ladiga was pained to have to sign away his land, the land of his fathers and their fathers and their fathers before that. The land of his people. Land that had provided corn, wheat, squash, and beans. Land where deer supplied meat and clothes. Their home full of births and deaths, marriages and the occasional divorce. This land, stretching from present day Birmingham to the western border of Georgia, was their life.
The federal agents and white squatters had changed everything. The chief realized that he could either sign away his land and receive limited, if hazy, rights or his precious land would all be forcefully taken from him and his people.
Thus, Chief Ladiga signed the Cusseta Treaty, ceding the remaining northeast Alabama Muskogee land to the U.S. Government, forming eight counties, and officially opening the area to white settlers. Chief Ladiga, however, was allowed to keep some of his land for his wife and himself. A year later, the leader sold 320 acres for $2,000 in silver to Charles White Peters, a developer. Later, that tract became Jacksonville, Alabama, home of Jacksonville State University, the Gem of the Hills.
The county’s name went through a transition: Originally named for Col. Thomas Hart Benton, who had been an officer in the Creek Indian War, Benton County changed its name after Col. Benton became a U.S. senator and openly declared himself “against the institution of slavery.” The citizens loved the military official but not the politician. So, in 1858, they changed the county’s name to Calhoun after John C. Calhoun, who had been winning fame as a U.S. Senator with much more approving views on slavery as a “positive good.”
The name of the city changed too. Before Jacksonville was Jacksonville, it was called Ladiga, Madison, and then Drayton. In 1836, the town was named Jacksonville in honor of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, the champion of the Battle of New Orleans, and the man who defeated the Muskogee Indians.
Built around a central public square on the very spot where Chief Ladiga once stood, Jacksonville is a historically rich town with a claim to high educational standards. Incorporated in 1834, the town reserved one acre for a schoolhouse. Jacksonville Academy was formed in 1836, and Jacksonville Female Academy was created a year later. The Male Academy educated men who later fought as colonels and generals in the Civil War: Colonel Peter Forney, General William H. Forney, Colonel James B. Martin, John T. Morgan, Major John “the Gallant” Pelham, and Colonel H.L. Stevenson. Over time, however, the two academies struggled financially, often losing students to individual teachers who formed their own private schools.
During the 1830s and 40s, the city underwent great growth as it harvested natural resources of iron ore, coal, and pine lumber from its Allegheny Mountains. The temperate yet seasonal climate, coupled with the cheap but fertile soil, brought settlers from Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. The earth was perfect for growing cotton, maize, oats, wheat and tobacco. The 1850s saw a greater boom as King Cotton demanded 12 cents a pound. Need was hardly known. With such prosperity also came lawyers, doctors, and teachers to the growing town.
The War Between the States dethroned cotton, as grains were essential for the Confederate soldiers, especially Jacksonville grain since the city sat on the railroad line between Selma, Alabama, and Rome, Georgia. Farmers who failed to comply often found their cotton fields burned by Jacksonville women. Beyond those fires and the shortages the rest of the South felt, Jacksonville witnessed little destruction from the war. Generals P.G.T. Beauregard, B.M. Hill, Leonidas Polk, and Joe Wheeler made their headquarters in Calhoun County shortly before the war ended. The Gallant John Pelham, from nearby Alexandria, was buried in Jacksonville after the Confederate military leader was killed in battle at Kelly’s Ford.
Just four years later, in 1870, General William H. Forney founded Calhoun College, which advertised as a “Polytechnic School of high grade for young men.” As yet another sign that Jacksonville valued education, Calhoun College donated its buildings for use as the Normal School in 1883 when the Alabama Legislature founded the new school. Eighty-three years later, the same plot of land (and much more) became Jacksonville State University.
This is where the history of Jacksonville State University begins; it was the desires of the pioneer mothers as well as the townspeople to educate the youth that laid the foundation for the academies and ultimately the university.
Beginning in the 1890s, businesses rolled into Jacksonville, supplying the area with additional funds, including the Union Yarn Mills, Jacksonville Mining and Manufacturing Company, Dixie Clay Company, and Tredegar National Bank (National Bank of Jacksonville). Old money mixed with new settlers and new industries. The nearby Anniston Army Depot and Fort McClellan brought federal dollars, diversity, opportunity, visitors, and citizens.
An hour from Birmingham and ninety minutes from Atlanta, Jacksonville has become a natural stopping ground for professional musicians. Brothers Bar often hosts the likes of the Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels, Swinging Medallions, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Jett, Delbert McCinton, Dixie Dregs, and Butch Trucks. Others have performed at JSU over the years, including the Temptations, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Four Seasons, Otis Redding, Dolly Parton, Jimmy Buffet, Emmy Lou Harris, and the Platters.
Jacksonville State University stands as a shining gem in the small Southern city. The beauty of its Gothic buildings and lush gardening flows into the landscape. Students, faculty, and staff do the same for the area. “Anything good for the university is good for Jacksonville,” said Mayor Johnny Smith, 1962 JSU graduate. “There’s a real hometown focus, a cooperative effort.” To that, Dr. William Meehan added, “Jacksonville State University is fortunate to have an excellent ‘Town and Gown’ relationship with the City of Jacksonville. The city has always welcomed the university as a valued partner and our students, faculty, and staff are proud to call Jacksonville their home.”
Ready for tomorrow, grounded in yesterday, Jacksonville has a solid past and brilliant future, largely focused on education. The city built around a square retains its heritage and charm. In the welcoming downtown historic district lies the heart of the city, and its spirit is inscribed on the Confederate monument erected in 1910:
Times change, men often with them, principles never.
Let none of the Survivors of These men offer in their behalf the penitential plea, “They believed they were right.”
Be it ours to transmit to posterity our unequivocal confidence in the righteousness of the cause for which these men died.
Welcome to Jacksonville. Welcome home.
Jacksonville State University has been home to a number of Miss Alabama winners since 1971.
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