Florence is growing fast and with no unlooked for hindrance will be a city in a short while. ... I think Florence is the coming city of the South."
These words in a letter dated Nov. 12, 1888, depict the excitement and growth Florence still was experiencing 70 years after the first lots to the city were sold.
That first sale took place 183 years ago, on March 12, 1818. The date is considered the official birthday of Florence.
"Andrew Jackson first saw the potential for (the) city," said Florence historian William McDonald. "Jackson said two sites would be a great sites for a town - York Bluff to the south of the Tennessee River and across the river on the north bank, Florence. Florence became an early town, and York, too, but York never developed like Florence."
McDonald said Jackson, who was an army general at the time, was laying plans for a military road through the territory. Jackson was a close friend of Gen. John Coffee, who was a federal surveyor for the area.
Coffee, too, saw the potential for a thriving town. He was one of seven trustees of the Cypress Land Co. that was established in Huntsville to form a town at the foot of the shoals.
The area had all the features that made it an excellent choice. It was located below the last of a long series of rapids, making it a good navigational area for steamboats, keel boats and barges that could bring groceries and foreign goods into the country.
Because of its high plateau, the city would be protected from floods. The high elevation also helped ensure protection against some of the diseases that were associated with the lower lands in the Tennessee Valley.
In addition, Jackson’s Military Road ran right through the area and the surrounding country was full of iron ore, stone, coal and timber.
The Cypress Land Company bought 5,515.77 acres of land for $85,235.24, or $15.45 per acre. The company pledged that a courthouse and jail would be among the buildings pledged for construction and ensured the town’s position as a county seat.
Wealthy speculators and hopeful settlers purchased land as fast as the lots became available. Florence quickly evolved into a commercial center for groceries and foreign goods received from New Orleans and other places. Supply wagons would pick up the goods and transport them to towns north and east of the Tennessee River and to middle Tennessee.
"Florence is one of the new towns of the beautiful and rapid rising state," wrote Anne Royall in a letter dated the year 1821. Royall was a wealthy widow at the time who traveled extensively throughout the frontier. Her husband was Maj. William Royall, a Revolutionary War veteran and personal friend of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Her letter offers a glimpse of the city during its earliest years.
"(Florence) is happily situated for commerce at the head of steamboat navigation on the north side of the Tennessee River, in the county of Lauderdale. ... Florence is to be the great emporium of the northern part of the state. ... it has a great capital and is patronized by the wealthiest gentlemen in the state.
"Many large and elegant brick buildings are already built here ... and frame houses are putting up daily. It is not uncommon to see a framed building begun in the morning and finished by night.
"Florence is inhabited by people from almost all parts of Europe and the United States; here are English, Irish, Welch, French, Dutch, German and Grecians."
Today, Coffee and the six trustees of the Cypress Land Company are considered founding fathers of the city. During the land sale, Coffee bought acres just north of near the present intersection of Cox Creek Parkway and Cloverdale Road. He named his place Hickory Hill and moved his family to the site in early 1819. He moved the Cypress Land Company to Florence in 1823 and continued as a land surveyor and wealthy planter. He died July 7, 1833, and is buried in the Coffee Cemetery on the plantation grounds.
The other six trustees of the Cypress Land Company were James Jackson, Thomas Bibb, Leroy Pope, John Childress, Dabney Morris and John McKinley. All remained prominent names in Florence or the surrounding area:
- Jackson established the plantation, The Forks of Cypress, five miles north of Florence and became internationally famous as the home of a number of the world’s great racehorses. He served in both Alabama houses and in 1830 was elected president of the state senate. He died Aug. 17, 1840, and is buried in the Jackson Cemetery near the ruins of the Forks of Cypress mansion.- McKinley served as an Alabama legislator and as a U.S. senator. He was Alabama’s first Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He moved his family to Florence in 1821. His home was a mansion located at the present corner of Veterans Drive and South Court Street. He died July 19, 1852 and is buried in Louisville, Ky.- Pope also is known as a founding father of Huntsville and was an early settler of Madison County. He was the one who actually gave Huntsville its early name, Twickingham. It was changed to Huntsville in 1811. Pope was a wealthy planter in Madison County. Records show he purchased one lot in Florence and a tract of land east of Florence at Shoal Creek, but is not believed to have been involved in the business life of Florence or Lauderdale County. He died June 17, 1844, in Huntsville.- Childress died Sept. 10, 1819, about 18 months after the Florence land purchase.- Very little is known about Morris, though records have been found to show that Morris and his wife Sally were once residents of Nottoway County, Va. He also was an associate of Col. James Madison, a tobacco merchant of Prince Edward County, Va., who invested in more than 20 lots at Florence.- Bibb was a wealthy planter in Limestone County. His mother, Sally Wyatt Bibb was a relation of Martha Washington. In 1826, he built Belle Mina, one of the familiar mansions of Limestone County and was the second governor of Alabama after the death of his brother, William Wyatt Bibb, who was Alabama’s first governor and the only governor of the Alabama Territory. Thomas Bibb died in 1839 and is buried in Limestone County.
Sherhonda Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 740-5732.