We thought we were the only people there. We had driven down an exceedingly long rural road after turning off one of those William Least Heat Moon’s southern “blue highways” – small, forgotten, out-of- the way roads connecting rural America found on the old Rand McNally maps. Ancient oak trees dripped with Spanish moss and the few remaining decrepit structures had been long ago recaptured by humid Alabama’s version of Mother Nature. As we furtively trudged up the ghost town’s primitive road to the burial ground listening for the cry of the mythical Wampus Kat, the sound of crunching gravel announced the approach of a car behind us. “Are y’all lost?” inquired the elderly woman behind the wheel. We assured her we weren’t, showed her our pamphlet with map of the abandoned town and pointed out our destination – the segregated graveyard for slaves who once lived and worked there. “My parents are buried there,” she said and pointed to her equally elderly companion. “My sister and I were just visiting them. We used to live here.” Hmm. I was born on Halloween and have a healthy respect for ghosts. The scant information we had about this archaeological site in Alabama claimed it was a a ghost town built upon an earlier ghost town of a 16th century Mississippian Native American village. However, the possible apparition before us turned out to be a very friendly source of local stories that she shared from behind the steering wheel of her car for the next half hour before waving us goodbye to drive her sister home.
The abandoned community is called Cahawba. It was the first state capitol of Alabama, a distinction that lasted seven years, from 1819 when Alabama first became a state to 1826 when the capitol was moved to Tuscaloosa. Built out of the wilderness at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahawba Rivers, the town began as a thriving river community and port for the cotton industry. Artifacts of carefully plotted streets, grand homes, hotels, churches and schools were all that remained. In our 30 minute encounter with two of the town’s former residents, they pointed out the Chinaberry trees which they said a town statute required all residents to plant to provide shade. They also explained that Osage Orange trees were planted as hedges to keep animals out of the town’s three graveyards and to reduce the cockroach population. And they talked about Cahawba’s role in the Civil War when its cotton warehouse served as a prison for over 3000 Union soldiers who lived in horrendous conditions.
But Cahawba was also a slave community with homes having slave quarters and segregated cemeteries and schools. The “Old Capitol Era Cemetery” and the “New Cemetery” were designated for white citizens while the “Cahawba Burial Ground” was the town’s graveyard for slaves. After the Civil War the town’s white citizenry left and the emancipated slave population remained turning the town into fields and gardens though even many of them eventually abandoned Cahawba. It turned out that the two women we met were from one of the families who remained and lived out their lives there. Prior to the turn of the century, a former slave resident bought the old town site for $500 and repurposed the building materials from the abandoned structures .
Today Cahawba is the Old Cahawba Archaelogical Park, an active archeological site and property of the Alabama Historical Commission. You can visit using their self-guided tour map or on designated group tours. http://www.cahawba.org
We never did hear the cry of the Wampus Cat said to haunt the “New Cemetery” nor did we see Pergue’s Ghost, the specter of Colonel CC Pergue, another former resident. However, our encounter with two former citizens was living archaeology and that’s much more satisfying.