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Jesse Wilson and the founding of the town we call Montevallo


Lucretia Wilson Cunningham,  niece of Jesse Wilson, and wife of planter Joseph H. Cunningham. Her parents were Benjamin and Hannah ( Harless) Wilson of Montevallo. Benjamin was Jesse's brother and my great great great great grandfather. He remained in Montevallo as did several of his descendants down to myself.  Note: My cousin, a direct descendant of Jesse Wilson, is sending me a photography of his son William Wilson ( mentioned in the article below..he moved to Coosa County, and William's wife Ann Harkins, daughter of Andrew Harkins.  I will put them here as soon as I get them! ) 

Traditionally, in the South, when we speak of the founder of a town, we cite the name of the first male settler, as if he is the only one who made the effort and thus gets all the credit. We know that the place now called Montevallo was the home for hundreds of years of Native American people, as the fresh water springs, the rocky creek, and the fertile fields were ideal for settlement. But for the purpose of describing the founding of an American town, we ignore anything that happened before 1607 and skip forward to the coming of the Europeans and the building of the American nation. 

As a descendant of the Wilson family, the namesake of "Wilson's Hill" ( Montevallo's name before being changed to Montevallo in the 1820's), I feel I have the right and duty to speak up about the practice of designating a "founder" , and to give my opinion on the matter. 

Jesse Wilson and his brother Benjamin were soldiers of General Andrew Jackson and joined his troops for the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1813. They liked the area and began a series of scouting trips even before the land opened for frontier settlement. Jesse was probably here staking out a claim as early as 1815.  His lands had to be sold in Madison County, and he had to construct a cabin for his family in a place with no roads for travel except Indian paths, and with hostile Creeks still in the vicinity.  He might have made the final move to what would become Montevallo a bit sooner, but  the winter of 1817 is a safe estimate to place him here with his family in time to plant a crop the following spring. 

That first night in 1817,  when Jesse Wilson laid his head upon his corn shuck pillow, he was not alone. In fact,  he was very much not alone. With him was his wife Elizabeth,  two sons ( William and Jesse ),  and seven daughters ( Jane, Nancy, Lucretia, Elizabeth, Hannah, Lydia, and Martha).  Later another daughter, Mariah, would be added to complete his family.

But we here note that, among those present that first night, we should not forget  Charles, Nelly, Andrew, Westley, Isaiah, Elmira, Emily, Calvin, Rachel, Fanny, Mary,  Moses, Spencer, and London,  African Americans brought with the family in bondage as property.  Each of them laid their heads upon their corn shuck pillows also when the sun set, and therefore must be given credit as founders and "first settlers" of the town of Montevallo.

I find that by counting the members of the family in 1817, Jesse and his family numbered eleven.  By counting the members of the African Americans whom he brought with him, the number is fourteen. Thus we can say that our town had, on the first day of its pioneer settlement, a population of twenty-five.  Jesse Wilson’s name may be on the historic marker in front of the CVS store, and the tradition of naming a single "founder" is well established, but today we should remember  that fourteen African Americans as well as Jesse and his wife and children were all present since "day one, " and all must be given credit as the first settlers of our beautiful mountain-valley village. 

I pause here to pay homage to Montevallo teachers such as Blanche Coger and Barbara Belisle who inspired me as a junior high student to develop a life-long love of history. Emily V. Pendleton taught us in advanced summer school classes how to do research correctly, and my grandfather’s first cousin Glennie Dee Clark instilled in me her love of the Old South. College professors such as David Morgan and Reuben Triplett and Justin Fuller helped me to become a careful student of social studies, and to rethink how history needs to be rewritten sometimes to reflect changing methods and additional truths.

Montevallo's pioneer Jesse Wilson was not a calm person by nature. He was known to drink, play cards, gamble, and get into fist fights.  The Wilson brothers and sisters seemed always to be on the edge of civilization. Jesse and his older brother Benjamin, his sisters Lucretia Hancock, Elizabeth Lawler, Nancy Baker, and Hannah Frost and their husbands, would move to a frontier location, clear the land, build log houses and barns, and wait for those less concerned with the dangers of the wilderness to appear. The families would then "sell out" and resettle in a location further west. They began in Burke County, North Carolina, pausing in the hills of Tennessee somewhere near Knox County, then moved west to Anderson County by 1800, to Rutherford County by 1806,  to Madison County, Alabama by 1808, and finally dropped down to Shelby County by 1817 after the Creek Wars.

Jesse Wilson built his cabin “on a large bluff above the big spring near an old Indian clearing.”  More than one location has been named as the site of his home place.  The “big spring” could be the one flowing in Orr Park, the ‘big bluff” being the massive and steep hill behind the spring, and the “Indian clearing” the field behind the gazebo.  Another “big bluff” is the hill upon which the attractive new City Hall now sits, above a second but smaller fresh water spring.  Miss Meroney thought the cabin may have been near Shiloh Church. (Wasn’t a log cabin found to be inside of a house near there not too many years ago?) . All three sites can be debated. What we do know is that he stopped here, he liked what he saw, and he built a cabin somewhere near the creek.

Jesse was more than just a rough backwoodsman.  He represented Shelby County as member of the House in the 2nd Session of the Alabama Territorial Legislature in St. Stephens in 1818.  Jesse also represented Shelby County when Alabama became a state in 1819 at the First Annual Session in Huntsville in October-December.  His political career was just beginning. 

By 1819, Jesse was in the process of moving to Dallas County, Alabama, to be near the new State Capital city of  Cahawba, and to participate in the founding of Selma, but his health was failing.  He actually wrote his Last Will in Montevallo in June of 1820, relocated to a farm near Selma, and died there in September of the same year.  He was 44 years old. Mrs. Wilson died ten years later. She and her daughter Jane Wilson McQuirter, wife of Francis McQuirter, are buried in the Montevallo cemetery.  Jane McQuirter's tombstone is the oldest marked grave there.  Six of Jesse's eight daughters died as teenagers. Jesse's son William was so concerned about his sisters dying young that he made his children bathe every day in cold well water in the belief that doing so would make them stronger.


I stood at the grave of Jesse Wilson on a bleak windy day in 1996 on a bluff in the countryside outside of Selma, Alabama and pondered the journeys of this man who was partly responsible for my life taking place in Montevallo.  A single large obelisk marks his resting place along with three of his daughters. No other graves are there, as it was intended as the beginning of a private family cemetery on the lands he had purchased near the new city. A new housing development stood nearby. Although Jesse Wilson had been travelling for many years, the move to Dallas County would be the end of his quest for taming the wilderness and developing a political career.  His two sons inherited his farm lands and city lots, but they also inherited their father's desire to move on.  William sold his part and moved to Coosa County, and son Jesse went to Texas.  I guess in a way their father would be proud of that. 

Comments

  1. Hi Marshel

    This is all so interesting to read about your ancestors etc. I wish I knew this much about my Baker side of my family. standing at the site of the grave of Jesse Wilson was something to ponder about I'm sure.

    I guess you have been busy refinishing furniture since it's been so long since you posted ?
    I think of your wonderful antiques often

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  2. Great read! Thank you.
    You mention that William inherited his Fathers lands. Please check the Bureau of Land Management records. You will see that the sites mentioned do not fall on the Pioneer Land records of 1826. William in 1826 had sections 9 and 10. These 80 acre parcels each are South of Hwy. 25. The Alabama BLM was started in 1820 and Jesse was here in 1817. He may have chosen to build near Orr Park. However I am going by the land books. There is a plat map survey by John Coffee of the area in 1820 showing a Wilsons creek(Shoal Creek) in the Wilton area. I am still researching the BLM for the Pioneer records of that area around Orr Park. I have a site that may be related to possibly the real location of Wilson's Hill. It is also near a Spring.
    If you want to discuss more, just contact me at SHELBYCOUNTYRELICS@GMAIL.COM

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  3. Note: Re: Comment above. We are working together. The land I mentioned in the article was that which is listed in Jesse Wilson's Last Will. It was situated in Pleasant Valley in Dallas County, plus his lots in the new city of Selma. The above researcher has discovered that William A. Wilson, Jesse's son, purchased land in Montevallo on land that may have been the actual site of Jesse's original cabin. That land is now the Montevallo Cemetery and the farm south of that place where Dr. John B. Wilson's plantation home sits today. There is a very large , beautiful, and functional spring on a small creek near the house. This may have been the Big Spring mentioned by early historians as the site near which Jesse built his cabin. Also Jesse's daughter and wife are buried there in the cemetery . Jane Wilson McWhirter, his daughter, is the oldest marked grave, 1820, in the cemetery. This information from the above researchers may be a real breakthrough.

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