So often when we think of the grand beauty of nature, we think of impressive sights such as Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon. While those are truly world class wonders, the countryside around us is filled with wondrous beauty and fascinating sights only on a lesser scale.
Every spring as the woods and prairies come alive with wildflowers and the banks of creeks and the river expose ancient ages, I am reminded that the wonders and beauty of nature don’t have to be overwhelming to be awe inspiring.
We often overlook just how beautiful and fascinating this place where we live is. For more than 10,000 years the Indian peoples and their ancient civilizations realized what a special place the Tombigbee-Alabama-Mobile River valley was. The early Euro-American explorers and settlers often commented on the beauty and wonders of our area.
In the spring of 1708, Capt. Thomas Nairne of Charles Town, Carolina, traveled to the Chickasaw villages in the Black Prairie at present day Tupelo. Nairne wrote that (when he) “…arrived within 20 miles of the Chickasaw, and we had done with sand, stones and pines, the country being pleasant open forest of oak, chestnuts and hickerey so intermixt with savannas (prairies) as if it was a made landscape.”
One thing that caught Nairne’s eye and fascinated him were the fossils that he found in the exposed outcroppings of chalk. “The Curiosity which I observed most was to see Oyster shells every where spread over the Old Fields and savannas, as plentifully as if on Island by the sea … and thus it is not only here, but all over the Choctaw Country (south of Tibbee Creek).”
French explorer Henri de Tonti in a March 14, 1702, letter to Iberville also mentioned the fossil shells in the prairie. He wrote, “We left (behind) a thing rather ancient; from the village of the Chicacha as far as here there … is a quantity of shells larger & thicker than oysters scattered in the prairies and hills.” “The Flood” was the explanation for the shells.
Nairne also commented on spring time in the Prairies. “It’s now the season of the year, when nature adorns the Earth with a livery of verdant green, and there is some pleasure in an Evening to ride up and down the savannas. When among a Tuft of Oaks on a rising knowll, in the midst of a Large grassy plain, I resolve a thousand things about the primitive life of men.”
Thickets of plums and peaches were found by Nairne in the Chickasaw villages and on the old fields he found “strawberrys innumerable.” Traveling in 1771 through the prairie in what is now the West Point area, Bernard Romans also found “…the fragaria or strawberry is very common in them (the prairies).” Wild strawberries are still a common plant in local yards and fields. Interestingly, most people do not realize that the strawberry is in the rose family.
Traveling across the South on a four-year trek beginning in 1773, naturalist William Bartram described 358 plants. In what is now south central Alabama he came across “…a very singular and beautiful shrub, which I suppose is a species of Hydrangia. It grows in coppices or clumps near or on the banks of rivers and creeks … (the leaves) very much resembling the leaves of some of our oaks.”
He seemed especially interested in the Oak Leaf Hydrangea which he both illustrated and described in detail. I remember that as a child I would go into the woods near Columbus with my grandmother who would dig up and transplant wild oak leaf Hydrangeas. Bartram’s descriptions were included in poems by both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.
A letter dated “Tuscaloosa, 25th May, 1835,” which was published in the June 12, 1835, Alexandria Virginia Gazette, was written by a person who had just traveled through the prairies west of Columbus. “Leaving Columbus, Mississippi, after breakfast, on the 16th of May, we crossed the Tombeckbee, and immediately entered upon the Choctaw Territory. … About three miles after crossing the river, a handsome Prairie of considerable extent, called the Pichlyn Prairie, deriving its name from Major Pichlyn, who has been about 77 years a resident among the Indians, and who died at 80, and was interred yesterday in the Chickasaw country about six miles from this, attracts your attention. This Prairie is now in a cultivated state, and presents to the eye luxuriant fields of cotton and corn. From this we passed several Prairies of lesser note, and generally in an uncultivated state, till we came to Mayhew. This is one of the most splendid and fertile Prairies in this part of the world….
“Approaching Mayhew from the East, you all at once emerge from the forest, and a scene of the most splendid beauty presents itself. Before you is a bed of flowers, seeming to grow upon the bosom of a gently undulating sea. To the right is presented the interesting view of the Mission House and its appendages. To the left is a tall forest, bounding the view on that side, and to the west is open ground of about five miles in extent, skirting which are ranges of trees, and beyond which, at a great distance, the view is limited by a range of hills, running northwardly into the Chickasaw country. This Prairie contains from 8,000 to 10,000 acres of land, of the first quality. The land being gently rolling, increases its beauty and worth; and it is every where spread over with the most luxuriant grass. The Prairie would almost be monotonous from its unvarying scenery, decked as it nevertheless is, with a profusion of flowers interspersed among the grass; but as if nothing should be wanting to complete the scene, occasional clumps of two or three trees are found, presenting an oasis-like view to the eye.”
Of the old descriptions of northeast Mississippi and northwest Alabama, that I have read, my favorite remains William Goodell’s April 20, 1822, description of traveling from Columbus to the Choctaw Indian Mission at Mayhew. His route followed what is now known as Old West Point Road. Mayhew was founded as an Indian mission on a ridge overlooking Tibbee Creek between present day West Point and Starkville.
Goodall wrote, “The grass, which will soon be eight feet high, is now about eight inches, and has all the freshness of spring … As you proceed, Mayhew … rises to view in still greater loveliness, half encircled with oak, which, with the sycamore and mulberry, borders the prairie on all sides. Flowers of red, purple, yellow and indeed of every hue, are scattered, by a bountiful God, in rich profusion, and in all the beauty and innocence of Eden, on each side of the path; and their fragrance is, as if the very incense of heaven were there offered. You can stand in almost any place, and count flowers of ten or twelve different hues.”
The prairies and woods of our region are filled with beauty and the wonders of nature. Hundreds of years ago, people were writing of the beauty of our area. We need only to get out of built up commercialized areas and open our eyes to see that the beauty is still there.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.