One of the most important historical and archaeological sites in Alabama.
St. Stephens was situated on a high bluff the Indians called Hobucakintopa at a point along the Tombigbee River where rocky shoals forced boats traveling north from Mobile to end their journey. As early as 1772, English traveler Bernard Romans noted that "sloops and schooners may come up to this rapid; therefore, I judge some considerable settlement will take place." By 1789 the Spanish governor of Mobile, Juan Vincente Folch, had recognized the strategic importance of the area and established a fort and outpost there. Americans poured into the frontier settlement and by 1796 over 190 white inhabitants and some 97 slaves were living around the fort. By the Treaty of San Lorenzo, Spain turned the fort over to the U.S. government on February 5, 1799.
In 1803 the Choctaw Trading House was established at St. Stephens and George Strother Gaines took charge of the Choctaw Agency in 1805. He continued to use the old Spanish blockhouse as the agency's store and established a land office in the former warehouse. The home of the former Spanish commandant served as Gaines' residence. In 1811 Gaines constructed what may have been the first brick building erected by Americans in Alabama; it served as a warehouse.
In 1804 Ephraim Kirby was appointed superior court judge of the Mississippi Territory by President Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to the president, Kirby described the inhabitants of St. Stephens as "illiterate, wild and savage, of depraved morals, unworthy of public confidence or private esteems, litigious, disunited, and knowing each other, universally distrustful of each other." In spite of these possible shortcomings, the trading post was active in the deerskin trade with the Choctaw Indians. Pioneer minister Lorenzo Dow saw these shortcomings as a challenge; he reported that by 1805 many improvements had taken place and predicted that the area would be "a place of fame in time."
On December 18, 1811 the General Assembly of Mississippi Territory passed an official act establishing the town of St. Stephens. However, the town had been settled prior to that date, as indicated by the fact that Merritt E. Sexton was operating a tavern by 1809 and Madison Street, one of the major streets in the town, was mentioned in a deed of that same year.
The real growth of St. Stephens began in 1815 when the Mississippi Territorial legislature surveyed the townsite and lots were sold. By 1816 some 40 houses were reported when only a year before there had been just nine. Following Mississippi statehood in 1817, Alabama Territory was established and St. Stephens served as its territorial capital from 1817 to 1819, a period that saw the town grow at an astounding rate. By 1818 St. Stephens boasted over 500 homes, as well as nearly 20 stores and commercial establishments.
Among the prominent citizens of St. Stephens was Henry Hitchcock, first attorney general of Alabama and later chief justice of the state Supreme Court. A post office was established in 1818 and George Fisher carried mail between St. Stephens and Mobile. Thomas Eastin published the Halcyon and Tombeckbe Advertiser, the fourth newspaper established in Alabama Territory. Eastin described St. Stephens as a town of elegant tree-shaded homes, spacious streets, and genteel citizens, many of whom had emigrated from North Carolina. Washington Academy, founded in 1811 and recognized as Alabama's first chartered school, was located on a prominent hill in town. A theater company performed there and sold tickets for one dollar. Legal and medical professionals practiced there, travelers were welcomed at the St. Stephens Hotel, and numerous dry goods stores offered an array of goods to the citizens. The Tombecbe Bank, the first to be chartered in the state, was established by Israel Pickens, who would later become the third governor of Alabama.
When the first state assembly adjourned at St. Stephens on February 14, 1818, inhabitants of the town were unaware of political maneuverings that would spell doom for the first territorial capital of Alabama. Many Alabama residents thought the capital should be moved to a more central location. Tuscaloosa was under consideration when Governor Bibb made the announcement in 1819 that the capital would be moved to Cahawba. Loss of the capital was not the only problem experienced by St. Stephens. The development of shallow draft boats permitted travelers to traverse the shoals and venture further upriver. And in the doomed town, yellow fever outbreaks began to afflict the citizens.
At its zenith between 1819 and 1820, St. Stephens had a population of several thousand; within two decades most residents had moved two miles west to settle New St. Stephens, a prominent crossroads served by a railway station. By 1833 the old town had become a small village and by the Civil War Old St. Stephens had all but disappeared, its buildings in ruin and its citizens moved elsewhere.