Names preserve a place’s story and history. Many local roads and streams actually have real stories to tell. Unfortunately, some of the names have been altered by people who did not understand or fully appreciate the heritage and story behind the original name. When stories are forgotten or names are changed, a little piece of our past disappears, and our sense of place is diminished. Here are some local names that tell our story.
Mississippi — Mississippi is commonly said to be based on an Indian word for “Father of Waters.” However, there are two possible Choctaw names from which Mississippi is based. One is “Place of Foreign Languages.” The other is found in a Letter from Peter Pitchlynn published in the Columbus Whig in January 1861. Pitchlynn, who grew up on Plymouth Bluff and became Principal chief of the Choctaw Nation in 1864, wrote that the word Mississippi is from a Choctaw word which ”is thus defined” as river — beyond — old or any age.
Columbus — According to Keeler’s 1848 history of Columbus, Spirus Roach (who had settled in Columbus about 1819) “occupied and kept entertainment” in the 1817 house built by Thomas Thomas. Because of the “peculiarities” of Roach’s long pointed nose, local Indians who traded at Roach’s establishment called Roach “Opossum” and referred to Columbus as Opossum Town. In the summer of 1819, the residents at the rapidly growing settlement decided a name was needed and Silas McBee suggested Columbus. On December 6, 1819, the Alabama Legislature officially recognized the Town of Columbus. On January 3, 1821 the Governor of Mississippi announced that lands including Columbus were in Mississippi not Alabama.
Tombigbee — The earliest recorded name of the Tombigbee River was “The River of the Chicasa (Chickasaw).” That name dates to 1540 and the narratives of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. In 1805, Mississippi Territorial Judge Harry Toulmin wrote that the name “Tombigby” came from the Choctaw word “Elome-gabee” which meant “box maker.” Toulmin said that the river was named for “a box maker who formerly lived on some of its headwaters.” Pontotoc Land Office draughtsman Edward Fontaine wrote in 1848 that the Choctaws began calling the river “Itta-ombee-aye ika-abee” or wooden box making river about 1730. He explained the Choctaws named the river to commemorate the French teaching them to make wooden boxes in which to ship furs.
Military Road — Work on Andrew Jackson’s Military Road started in 1817, and it was completed in 1820. The road was constructed after the War of 1812 had ended and there is no evidence Jackson ever set foot on the part of the road where Columbus was established. Jackson ordered the road to be built to provide a direct route between Nashville and New Orleans to address the difficulties he experienced in getting troops to New Orleans during the War of 1812. Since Jackson was instrumental in getting congressional approval for the road and seeing to its construction it was named after him and was referred to as the Jackson Highway into the 1930s.
Coal Fire Creek — On the highway from Columbus to Aliceville, Alabama, the road crosses a creek named Coal Fire Creek. The original name was Cold Fire Creek. Early settlers crossing the creek during the winter of 1818 or 1819 described the water as being so cold that it burned them like fire when they crossed it. So, they named the creek Cold Fire Creek. Years later people thought that name made no sense, and, as the story goes, they changed the name to Coal Fire thinking it must have been associated with a fire in the north Alabama coal region where the creek’s headwaters were located.
Wolfe Road — In northeastern Lowndes County there is an old road now called Wolfe Road. That name is another example of people not appreciating history. Wolf Road as it was originally named is one of the oldest roads in the area. In 1872 W.E. Gibbs told the story behind its name: “That part of our county … was then (around 1817 — 1820) a ‘veritably a howling wilderness,’ being made so by innumerable bands of predatory wolves, so numerous that the rearing of stock was an impossibility. The Wolf Road took its name from this fact.”
Magby Creek — In 1817, Silas McBee settled on a creek in what is now East Columbus. The creek soon took the name of McBee Creek. As more settlers arrived in 1818 and 1819, a community formed at the nearby Tombigbee Ferry on the Military Road. At a meeting of the settlers, McBee suggested the new town be named Columbus, and by December of 1819 the new community was officially recognized as the Town of Columbus. However, the name of McBee’s Creek did not survive in that spelling. McBee apparently pronounced his name as Magby and the creek’s name became corrupted to its present spelling of Magby Creek.
Magowah Creek — Magowah Creek flows eastward across southwestern Lowndes County to the Tombigbee River. Local tradition says that Magowah is taken from a Choctaw word for “impassable swamp or waters.” An 1817 survey shows the spelling as Macawa. That definition makes perfect sense as Magowah Bottom after a heavy rain is an almost impassable five-or-six mile wide swampy flood plain. Several large plantations were established on the fertile prairies around Magowah. By 1884 there was a Magowah School, and the families in the area referred to their residence as Magowah. To complicate the story one of the 1820s settlers in Lowndes County was John McGowan who lived on the east side of the Tombigbee but not too far from the mouth of Magowah Creek and an 1839 map refers to the creek as McCower’s Creek.
Luxapallia Creek — it is commonly translated as floating turtle but may be “turtle crawls there.” In 1818 Gideon Lincecum camped on the creek which he called “Lookse-ok-pullia,” and said it meant “a terrapin floating on the water”.
Buttahatchee — Probably means “sumac river” but some sources say, “river which comes from the hills”.
Tibbee Creek — It’s name is shortened from Oktibbeha and based on French version of its name “Oktibia” or “Octibea.” In 1772 English explorer Bernard Romansicalled the creek “Oka Teebehaw.” It is commonly translated as Fighting Waters but probably means icy waters.
So much history is reflected in the names we find around us and those names tell the story of who and where our community had its beginnings.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]