“We of the present are sentinels as it were on the watchtower of time. Let us not be recreant to the trust.”
Thomas B. Bailey, Columbus, 1852
I recently spoke to the Rotary Club in Columbus about steamboats on the Tombigbee River. That presentation resulted in my being questioned about the origin of the name Tombigbee. “Where did that name come from and what does it mean?”
I remember studying Mississippi history in school. We were told that Tombigbee was a Choctaw word meaning “coffin maker.” That”s close but not quite right.
What is now known as the Tombigbee River was first encountered by Europeans in December of 1540. That was when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto arrived on its banks. Rodrigo Rangel private secretary to de Soto recorded an account of the expedition”s arrival at the Tombigbee, probably in the Columbus area. He called it the “River of the “Chicaca” (Chickasaw).
Though Tombigbee actually was taken from a Choctaw phrase, it was the Chickasaws who first gave the river a recorded name. The Chickasaw called it the “Ming-oo aye-u-py Ok”Hin-nah” or King”s Bath River. Edward Fontaine a draughtsman in the Pontotoc Land Office in 1848 explained that the Chickasaw”s believed that the flooding of the Tombigbee was caused by the Great Spirit taking a bath. Fontaine also said that the Choctaw called the river “Itte-ombee-eye ika-abee” or wooden box making river. That was to commemorate learning how to construct boxes in which pelts could be shipped during the French fur trade of the 1700s.
In 1805, Mississippi Territorial Judge Harry Toulmin wrote that the Choctaw called the river “Elome-gabee” or “Box Maker”s River” after a box maker who formerly lived on some of its headwaters. Other accounts related that the river was named after a creek near Epes, Alabama, on which a Choctaw box maker or coffin maker lived. It was there that in 1736 the French built a fort they called Fort Tombecbe.
Whatever the real story, the French apparently named the river after a Choctaw word for box maker that they interpreted as Tombecbe. That evolved under the English into Tombeckby and then Tombigby and finally the present day Tombigbee.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native and a local historian. E-mail your local history questions to Rufus at [email protected]