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George Strother Gaines

George Strother Gaines (1784-1873) Photo Courtesy, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

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Peachwood, the Gaines home at State Line, Mississippi. Built in the late 1850s, this hewn-log cabin was very large for its time. This photograph dates around 1900, some time after George Gaines’s death. The man reading the newspaper is his son, Captain Abner Gaines. The cabin burned down in the 1920s. Photo courtesy Chebie Gaines Bateman, Columbus, Mississippi.

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Early territorial roads of Mississippi

Early territorial roads of Mississippi. Map source: Atlas of Mississippi, edited by Ralph D. Cross and Robert W. Wales.

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Feature Story

George Strother Gaines (1784-1873): A Leader of Two States, A Servant of Two Peoples

Sometimes people achieve great influence during their lifetimes, but history reduces them at best to a minimal footnote. George Strother Gaines is one of these people although the Mobile Register once termed him “The Patriarch of Alabama and Mississippi.” He was an early leader in both states, and he gave up a great portion of his personal wealth to help his Choctaw Indian friends during their relocation to the West. These achievements are little known today.

Early life

Captain James Gaines, George’s father, was a Revolutionary War leader, and his wife, Elizabeth Strother, came from an influential Virginia family. Their house, where George was born, straddled the Virginia and North Carolina state lines, so many of their thirteen children were born in different rooms and, therefore, different states. Soon after George’s birth in 1784, the family relocated to Gallatin, Tennessee, near Nashville. George, the eleventh child, was close to his older brother, Edmund P. Gaines, who rose to the rank of major general in the U. S. Army and was an important military leader in the War of 1812. Edmund led in the 1807 capture of Aaron Burr. Burr, vice president of the United States from 1801 to 1805, had killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and fled to escape trial. George’s cousins included U. S. President Zachary Taylor and Sarah Knox Davis, the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

In 1805 at the age of 21, George made the long journey to Fort St. Stephens, Alabama, to work for the federal government as an assistant Indian factor. Indian factors introduced tribes to U.S. business practices, coordinated trading practices, and served as a personal contact between the government and the tribes. Factors also maintained general mercantile stores which supplied the settlers with manufactured goods and, often, postal services. St. Stephens, Alabama’s first capital, was a small settlement on the banks of the Tombigbee River, just above where it joins with the Alabama River to form the Mobile River.

Soon after being promoted to head factor, George met and married Ann Gaines in 1812. Ann Gaines was a very distant cousin from South Carolina whose father, Young Gaines, had settled in the area near Richton, Mississippi. The couple had nine children.

During his work as a factor, Gaines found the two great priorities of his life: dedication to the region’s Indian tribes and service to the business communities of Alabama and Mississippi.

Choctaw removal

As the factor, Gaines was a primary source of information for both the government and the Indian tribes. He helped to create economic opportunities for the Indian tribes by supporting their education, by giving them reliable advice on dealing with territorial issues like the war with the British, and by working diligently to be fair in his business dealings with them. Very quickly, the tribal leaders grew to support him.

From Gaines’s reminiscences:

“The business of the Trading House increased its popularity—brought hunters from all parts of the nation. Hunters of the Creek settlement at the falls of the Black Warrior came frequently to trade; and I had occasional visits from the Creeks residing beyond the Alabama river. All appeared to be well pleased with our trade. My instructions from the Superintendent of Indian Trade made it my duty to be careful not to sell the Indians a damaged article of goods without pointing out the damage and reducing the price to what I considered its actual value; when blankets, shawls, or cotton and linen goods appeared to me to be lighter or more flimsy and less durable than they purported to be, to point out the defect and reduce the price also.”

In fact, Gaines helped Choctaw Chief Pushmataha forge an alliance with the U. S. Army after the Creek Massacre at Fort Mims in 1813. Over 500 settlers were killed, and the massacre cemented the relationship between the Choctaws and the federal government. Pushmataha volunteered his tribe’s services in the search for the attackers. The friendship between Gaines and Pushmataha grew and was instrumental in later events.

The federal government decided that Mississippi’s inland territories could never be settled fully until the Choctaws were removed to the western Indian territory (present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma). Disputes between the settlers and the Indian tribes were growing more heated, and armed conflicts were feared on both sides. Federal officials did not view the tribes very favorably and many federal Indian agents would not rest until the relocation of the tribes was completed.

Indeed, federal Indian agents had been pressing for this relocation for many years and included the terms for relocation in the Treaty of Doak’s Stand in 1820. Pushmataha’s death in 1824 led to a struggle for control of the tribe’s leadership — a struggle that weakened the tribe’s position in negotiating with the government and precipitated the need for a leader to oversee the details of the removal. After the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830) called for almost total removal of the Choctaws, both the federal authorities and the Indian leaders agreed that Gaines should oversee the transition. According to the treaty, approximately one-third of the Choctaw Indians would leave Mississippi in 1831, with the remainder to follow in two stages in the next two years.

Gaines’s participation in the removal came in two parts: the exploration of the western territory and the removal of almost 4,000 Choctaw men, women, and children in the first stage of removal. Gaines lead an exploration party in 1830 that spent October, November, and December surveying the territory. He then began to secure supplies such as meats, vegetables, and camping gear for the arduous journey. He convinced many Arkansas farmers that year to plant corn instead of cotton. He purchased cattle and pigs, which were left alive with the farmers along the route for butchering after the massive party arrived.

At first, the preparations for the movement went smoothly, but complications soon arose. First, terrible rains swelled the streams and swamps and made the trails barely passable. Since the entire region was soaked, Gaines determined that most of the party should go aboard steamboats up the Mississippi, Arkansas, and Ouachita rivers to save the effort of walking. But Gaines forgot to hire boats and later said that he was so engrossed in details that he simply thought he had already done it. It took almost two weeks to hire five small boats for the trip. Many of the Choctaw ended up marching the entire way. As the removal became more difficult, many Choctaws suffered great illness. The removal became known as “The Trail of Tears.”

Gaines paid for most of the arrangements out of his own pocket, keeping an expense ledger for later reimbursement by the government. The expenses grew to be large — Gaines claimed in his reminiscences that expenses reached $100,000. Gaines was even robbed of almost $2,000 in cash. To make matters worse, after the first removal was complete the government refused to reimburse Gaines for most of his expenses. Gaines claimed the government reimbursed him only a few thousand dollars. His personal fortune was diminished, and his health suffered from the stress of the endeavor.

From his reminiscences:

“I petitioned Congress at once for a further allowance for leading the exploring party, in conformance to my verbal agreements at the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, at great personal sacrifice to myself to quiet the discontented Indians and prevent bloodshed. Congress did not seem to understand the personal and pecuniary sacrifice I encountered by suddenly leaving my mercantile business for so long an absence required for exploring the new and wild country of the Choctaws acquired at the Treaty of Doaks Stand, their removal, and aiding in bringing about a sale of a portion of their territory to the Chickasaw tribe thereby ”paving the way” for the sale of the lands belonging to both tribes on this side of the Mississippi river.”

In his reminiscences, though, Gaines never complained about his service to the Choctaws. As poorly as the removal went, he was proud that he was able to help keep it from being even worse. When he was finished with his duties associated with the removal, he turned his attention to his other great endeavor: the economic development of the Tombigbee Valley.

Leadership in economic development

Gaines knew that the Indian tribes and the early American settlers in the Mississippi Territory needed two elements to realize their full economic potential: access to business capital and easy transportation to markets outside the immediate area of southeastern Mississippi.

For access to business capital, Gaines helped establish several early banks in Alabama. He sold bonds in the Northeast to raise money for Alabama and served as the president of the Bank of Alabama’s Mobile branch. He also knew that businesses needed to create a good environment for other businesses to grow, so he led by example, building several mercantile establishments in western Alabama, including ones in Gainesville, Demopolis, and Mobile. He owned large cattle interests in Perry County, Mississippi, and in the final two decades of his life, he ran Gaines & Coles Nursery, which was one of the largest commercial nurseries in the Gulf South. The nursery catalog showed that Gaines sold just about every sort of plant imaginable: decorative and fruit trees, shrubs, vegetables, and flowers.

Gaines had learned an early lesson about the economic importance of easy transportation. While he was at St. Stephens, the Mississippi Gulf Coast was still in the hands of the Spanish. Anyone traveling or trading in the interior portions of what would become Alabama and Mississippi had to pay heavy tariffs to go up the Pearl River or Mobile River.

In 1810, with the War of 1812 looming, the War Department wanted to connect isolated American settlements on the Gulf of Mexico coastal plain with more continuous areas of settlement. Thus, in 1811-1812, the U.S. Army constructed two roads that converged on Fort Stoddert, located down river from St. Stephens. One, that became known as the “Federal Road,” linked the fort with Georgia. The other road ran from Milton’s Bluff on the Tennessee River in a circuitous route that crossed the Tombigbee River at Cotton Gin Port and then ran south to St. Stephens and Fort Stoddert. This road became known as the Gaines Trace in recognition of the role played by George S. Gaines’s brother, Edmund Pendleton Gaines, who had surveyed its route in 1807-1808 and 1811.

Related concerns motivated George Gaines to use another route that, like the Gaines Trace, connected the Tennessee River with the Tombigbee. In 1809, the Spanish-controlled port of Mobile was closed to the shipment of munitions into the Mississippi Territory. This prevented Gaines from stocking gunpowder and lead at the Choctaw Trading House at St. Stephens, key trade items needed by the Choctaws for hunting. The loss of munitions would have caused the Choctaws to obtain their hunting supplies from traders operating under Spanish supervision. This situation would have tended to place the Choctaws under the influence of the Spanish.

To address the situation, Gaines and the Indian Trade Office of the U.S. War Department decided to transport shipments of powder and lead overland. Their first attempt involved shipments from Natchez on the Mississippi River to St. Stephens. When this proved unsatisfactory, a new route was pioneered. The new route transported powder and lead from Colbert’s Ferry, where the Natchez Trace crosses the Tennessee River, to the home of John Pitchlynn on the Tombigbee River. The hunting supplies were then shipped down the Tombigbee River to the Choctaw Trading House.

The new route followed established Indian trails, a few miles of which overlapped the Gaines Trace. Although use of this route ended after Mobile was annexed by the United States in April 1813, Gaines’s use of it had allowed the Choctaw Trading House to continue stocking the powder and lead so important for maintaining good relations with the Choctaws and ensured the security of the surrounding American settlements. Furthermore, because of the experience that Gaines had acquired in his factorship and in his service in establishing his overland supply route, he knew that ease of transportation would be a vital issue in the development of the border areas between Mississippi and Alabama.

After the Civil War, Gaines was able to realize this vision. When he established his nursery in 1853, he faced a limited market because he needed relatively fast, easy transportation for his perishable agricultural goods. Soon after the Civil War, railroad companies began to lay tracks all over the United States, and Gaines recognized immediately the huge economic advantage railroads would provide, especially if a rail line could link the deep South with the Tennessee and Ohio valleys.

Gaines became one of the leading proponents of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. He traveled tirelessly in support of the venture, securing investors and making certain that government officials were aware of the project and its potential benefits. The M & O Railroad became highly successful, and one of Gaines’s sons, Captain Abner Strother Gaines, became one of its early leaders. Several Mississippi cities, including Columbus, flourished with the new economic prosperity brought in part by the railroad.

Other public service

Not only did Gaines serve his Choctaw friends and lead in economic development, he also lived a life of well-rounded public service. Judge Harry Toulmin, in 1816/1817, asked him to participate in the discussions regarding the placement of the state line between Alabama and Mississippi.

From Gaines reminiscences: “I received a letter from Judge Toulmin asking my opinion whether a line drawn from Pascagoula Bay to the mouth of Bear Creek, Tennessee River, would include on the East the rich valley of the Tombigbee, as the Territory of Mississippi was about to be divided—the eastern portion would be named Alabama Territory. . . . I replied that I thought such a line would not run far from the path to Colbert’s Ferry. This line was agreed upon in the division of Mississippi Territory; and when surveyed left a choice part of the Tombigbee valley to the Territory of Mississippi.”

From 1825 to 1827, he represented Clarke and Marengo counties in the Alabama Senate, and from 1861 to1863 after he moved to Mississippi, he was sent by Wayne County to the Mississippi House of Representatives, making him one of only a handful of persons to serve in two state legislatures.

When he built his over-sized log cabin, Peachwood, at State Line, Mississippi, he filled it with fine furnishings and brought a sense of high culture to that part of the Piney Woods. Family heirlooms reveal that Peachwood was filled with artwork, fine china, and probably a piano. His business partner, A. C. Coles, once reported that no one set as fine a table as did the Gaines family, and legends about the social graces evident in Peachwood persisted in State Line even after the house had burned down.

Gaines continued to share his interests with others by dictating his reminiscences of his roles in the early settlement of the two states. George’s wife Ann died in 1868, and he died in 1873. They are buried at Peachwood, just off U. S. Highway 45 near State Line. There are no historical markers on the highway, and few history books mention him in any detail. Yet, his legacy lives on in the agricultural and forestry successes of the Black Prairie and Piney Woods regions of Alabama and Mississippi.

Gene C. Fant Jr., Ph.D., is associate professor and chair of the English department at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He is the former chair of the English department at Mississippi College in Clinton.

The Treaty of Doak’s Stand: Signed on October 20, 1820, in Madison County, Mississippi, between Canton and Farmhaven, the treaty gave the Mississippi Choctaw a large western territory in exchange for land sales to settlers. The terms of the treaty became a sore point in latter relations between the tribes and the government. General Andrew Jackson supervised the treaty’s signing.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek: Signed on September 27, 1830, in Noxubee County, Mississippi, near Macon, the treaty gave the Choctaws the option of moving to the western territories in Oklahoma and Arkansas. The government made it clear, however, that the tribe really needed to move and not remain in Mississippi. A few Choctaws stayed in Mississippi (in fact, some stayed on with the Gaines family at Peachwood), but the majority went west over a period of several years.

Fant extends special thanks to Dr. Aubrey Lucas, president emeritus at the University of Southern Mississippi, and to Dr. James Pate, vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, for their participation and support of the early stages of this research. He extends special thanks to Chebie Gaines Bateman of Columbus, Mississippi, George Strother Gaines’s great-granddaughter, for allowing the use of family materials, including photographs, in this research.

Posted August 2002

Selected Bibliography

The most complete book on Gaines is the collection of his own dictations, edited by James P. Pate: The Reminiscences of George Strother Gaines: Pioneer and Statesman of Early Alabama and Mississippi, 1805-1843. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1998.

For other information on Gaines, see George J. Leftwich’s article, “Colonel George Strother Gaines and other Pioneers in Mississippi Territory.” Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society 1904:442-56.

For a detailed examination of the Choctaw removal, see The Removal of the Choctaw Indians by Arthur H. DeRosier. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970.

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