“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem is familiar to most of us but few realize that some of the landscapes he describes in Kubla Khan are actually the Salt Springs and Lake George in Florida, and the rivers and forest of the Mobile/Alabama/Tombigbee River valley of Alabama.
William Bartram in March of 1773, began a four-year trek that would carry him across Georgia, through Florida and to the Mississippi River. Of great interest to Bartram were limestone caverns and associated springs in Florida in which water rose up like a fountain and flowed into the St. Johns River. In 1791, Bartram published a book of his journey, “Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, Etc.” It is still considered a classic account of the natural history of the early American South and is still in print, simply called “Bartram’s Travels.”
The book included vivid descriptions of the Southern landscape. Included in the descriptions were the wildflowers Bartram found. They included the Primrose, Oak Leaf Hydrangea, Celestial Lily, Climbing Aster, Flaming Azalea, St John’s Wort, Hooded Pitcher Plant, Lupine, several Rhododendrons, Mountain Camellia, Purple Milkweed, Spider Lilly, Savannah Pink, Sebastian Bush, Pawpaw, Spider Flower, Yucca and Yaupon Holly. He also described finding the Alabama/Mobile River valley landscape to be “a magnificent and pleasing sylvan landscape of primitive, uncultivated nature. Crossed several very considerable creeks, their serpentine courses being directed across the plain by gently swelling knolls perceptible at a distance but which seem to vanish and disappear as we come upon them.”
In the early 1790s the great British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge obtained a copy of Bartram’s Travels and became interested in the new country of America. Coleridge pulled many images from the book which he incorporated into his masterpiece “Kubla Khan”.
In 1771, Bernard Romans, an English civil engineer, traveled from the Carolinas to New Orleans and wrote an account of the natural history of the region. As part of his journey he traveled overland up the west side of the Tombigbee to the Chickasaw villages (now Tupelo) and then canoed back down to Mobile.
Included in his account was a daily journal describing his canoeing down the Tombigbee. On September 20, 1771, Romans left Mobile to visit first the Choctaw Nation and then the Chickasaw Nation. He left the Choctaws on November 10 and described the road between the Choctaws and Chickasaws (roughly present Highway 45 west of the Tombigbee). The road crossed Oka tebbee haw (Tibbee) River about two miles above its mouth (southwest of Waverly) and was “in general over stiff clay land; saw very little else but white oak, and that was no where tall… crossed many savannahs.”
Romans, a Mr. Dow and Roman’s “servant” left the Chickasaw Nation on his “fluvial expedition” back to Mobile on December 13, 1771. On December 26 they passed “a very remarkable bluff” (Plymouth Bluff). They went by another bluff (Columbus), an island and then made camp a half a mile up Eleven Mile Creek (Luxpalilia). The land was described as low pine land. The next day were heavy rain storms and they did not leave till the following day,
On the 29th just before reaching what is now Ellis Creek they passed a Creek Indian war party. Romans said they put on hats so that the Creeks would know they were “white people.” That day they “saw many places that appeared like old fields as having been formerly cultivated”. They had traveled about 23 miles during the day. On January 18, 1772, just before reaching Mobile they passed the Plantations of Campbell, Stuart, Ardry and McGillivray.
I am planning on playing Huck Finn later this month and heading down the Tombigbee River to Gulf Shores by ski boat with two life-long friends, Joe Boggess and John Stallworth. I will have copies of Bartram’s Travels and Roman’s A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida with me. It will be interesting to observe the changes that 240 years of what’s called civilization have wrought on the riverscape.
Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.
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