Sunday, March 24, 2013

McKernan Plantation, Tuscumbia Railway, Benjamin Sherrod

Huston early days

After school each day, Huston Cobb, Jr. would put on his work clothes and do his chores until dark.  The family had a dug well where they got their drinking water and wash water for the big cast iron pot; Houston had to draw water from the well to use for the household.  He also had to hoe weeds out of the family’s cotton fields.  His folks planted two to three acres peas which had to be picked and shelled; also, they planted peanuts some of which were carried to the market to sell.  Each year Huston’s Family made 150 gallon of molasses from two to three acres sugarcane that they planted.  Each spring, the family planted a big garden and raised most of the food they ate.

Huston had to help cut hay to feed the mules and cows; he also took care of the other farm animals.  The family had two pair of mules and they had to be fed each night; the mules were named Blue, Annie, and Nell; the mules were an important part of the farm work.  He milked two cows and gathered eggs from all kinds of chickens that the family owned.   His folks also had a couple of sows to raise a bunch of pigs; each year four to five head of hogs were fattened to be killed which provided meat throughout the winter; Huston turned the sausage grinder to process some of the pork for breakfast meat.   

Huston’s family had a big orchard with peaches, apples, cherries, pears and big grape harbor; all kinds of fruit were dried on top of the house porch roof during the summer and fall.  The family had some pecan trees that provided nuts to eat each fall; they also had a hand cranked ice cream freezer which made some of the best eating during the hot summer and fall months.

In late 1930, Huston’s family had a two row drill planter, a mowing machine for hay cutting, and a new mule drawn Webber wagon. Houston, Sr.’s step-granddad, William Henry Fuqua was a blacksmith and repaired the farming equipment.  Houston Cobb, Sr. plowed with a pair of mules most of his life.

Closest grocery store was about two miles east of the Cobb Home in northwest corner of Mt. Stanley Road and Second Street.  Not far west of their home was Austin’s Mill which was run by kerosene; Huston’s dad would take corn to grind into meal which was paid for by giving a portion of the meal for the grinding.  Austin’s Mill was west of Brick Hatton School about one quarter of a mile.

The Cobb Family consisted of the two parents and four children; the first house they lived in was only two rooms and was on a log foundation.  To get from one room to the other room, they had to go out on porch; the rooms were not connected by a door.  In order to keep his family warm in the winter time, Huston cut wood for the fireplace with an ax and crosscut saw.  From the little two room home, his family moved into Salley Cobb Griffin’s house after she died; they used kerosene lamps for light at night and early morning.

When Huston was a young boy, Foster’s Bridge and Buck Bridge were the only two crossings of Town Creek in the area.  Buck Bridge was named because of a buck deer being killed at the bridge while the bridge was being built; the buck was swimming down the creek.  The original Buck Bridge fell in with a load of cotton and was rebuilt.

Houston’s maternal grandparents used Buck Bridge going to the Town of Town Creek to trade; a man by the name of Streeter was furnishing Tracy Carter.  Carter lost his property to Streeter including 1928 Ford, mules, and wagon; the family lost everything they had during the Great Depression of the early 1930’s.

McKernan Plantation

Not far west of Huston’s boyhood home was the drainage area of McKernan Creek; Hutson Cobb’s mother-in-law, Mary Long, learned to swim in McKernan Creek.  The creek was named for the large plantation of  the slave owning McKernan Family which owned land all the way to the Tennessee River including McKernan’s Island.  McKernan Creek is about one mile west of the present-day crossroads of the River Road and County Line Road at Ford City, Colbert County, Alabama.

As we were touring the area of Huston’s ancestral stomping grounds, he pointed out where the McKernan Plantation House was located; the site is some fifty yards from the north side of the River Road and just west of present-day McKernan Creek Bridge.  The old hilltop home place still has a stand of the old red cedar trees that mark the location of original plantation house.  The old McKernan home site was just west of the creek and north of the River Road and few hundred yards from the bridge.  Today, I have a home on McKernan Creek of Wilson Lake about one mile northwest of the River Road.

The McKernan Family owned the land to the middle of the Tennessee River; McKernan’s Island was an important skirmish site between the Confederate and Union forces which was described by Norman Farrell of General Phillip Dale Roddy’s Cavalry; Farrell was a rebel soldier who wrote about the Civil War fight that occurred in May 1864 near McKernan’s Island.  The rebel forces became pinned down behind the cut out bank of a smaller island by the Union forces until dark. 

After sunset, some sixty Confederates made their escape by swimming their horses to McKernan’s Island in the middle of the Tennessee River; during their escape, Farrell’s group crossed the dry bed of the western end of the abandoned Big Muscle Shoals Canal which was completed in the 1830’s, but was not used because the lower Little Muscle Shoals and the upper Elk River Shoals were still impassable.  Beyond the dry canal bed, there were a series of smaller islands which were located just east of the mouth of Shoals Creek that were used to ford the river during low water levels; Shoals Creek enters the Tennessee River from the north and is directly across the river from the mouth of McKernan Creek on the south side of the river in present-day Colbert County.

The following account of the Civil War skirmish involving McKernan’s Island was recorded by a Confederate Soldier, Norman Farrell; the story is as he wrote about the fight after the Civil War, “When the noble Tennessee River reaches Lookout Mountain, it bends almost at a right angle toward the West, just south of the boundary of the State of Tennessee, and after a westwardly course of a hundred miles or more, its width becomes much greater and its surface is broken by many islands, some of them cleared and cultivated, as the soil is very rich; the width of the river is caused by the water flowing over a great ledge of limestone for many miles, and the depth of the current is so much less that steamboats cannot pass this obstruction, known as Muscle Shoals.

Many years before the Civil War, the National Government had dug a canal, for the use of keelboats, along the Northern shore; steamboats at that time had not come into use, but at the time of the war, the canal was not used, and its bed was dry.

One Saturday early in the month of May 1864, a company of Confederate cavalry, about 60 strong, crossed the river at the mouth of Shoal Creek, for the purpose of finding out what the Federal Cavalry at Athens, Alabama, was doing. After crossing, they took the main road East, and having ridden 15 or 20 miles, camped for the night, half a mile north of the river, and south of the road; and having put out a strong picket, and eaten a frugal meal, went to rest. As soon as day broke the camp was astir, and the men at once fed their horses, and made their ablutions, and having had breakfast of cold cornbread and broiled bacon, washed down with a drink of water, each man at once saddled his horse.

It was plain to see that these men were not holiday soldiers, loaded down with tents, camp stoves, and baggage; each man carried his rations in a small leather saddle-bag and had usually a change of underclothes. They were nearly all about 18 or 20 years of age, and almost all had served 3 years.

By this time, the sun was just above the horizon, and the men were standing around the fire, smoking their pipes, when a single report of a gun was heard in the still air of the morning, quickly followed by a dozen more. "Yankees" was the cry, and each soldier at once mounted his horse; there was no panic, for these men were veterans of many a fight. The Captain instantly formed the command in column of twos; told off a dozen men to assist the pickets, when they were driven in; and led the column at a sharp trot in the direction of the river. At this time, it occurred to the writer, then a lad of 19, that Company "K" was in a very bad position, with the river on the south, impassable, and a regiment of Yankees on the north.

After a rapid ride of a mile in a direction diagonal to the course of the river, we rode across the dry bed of the old canal, and came down to the water edge; just opposite to us, and about one hundred yards distant, was a small island probably eight hundred feet long, and rising from six to ten feet above the surface of the river. We at once rode across to it, through a narrow ford, the depth not being over four feet; we were then ordered to take our horses to the further side of the island, and to hitch them under the bank, so that they would be protected from the fire of the enemy; having done this, we took shelter behind trees or earthen banks, and waited for our rear-guard to be driven in, as we could hear the firing and yelling coming rapidly nearer. Nor did we have long to wait, for the Yankees were in force, and soon both parties came in sight through the trees; our rear-guard at a gallop, but stopping now and then to empty their carbines at the enemy. When they reached the ford, all crossed as quickly as they could, and fortunately without loss. The Yankees came down to the river's edge in hot pursuit; then we gave them volley after volley from the island until they fell back, leaving several dead horses and men lying at the ford.

We were all safe and protected from fire, but had not a single day's rations for either ourselves or horses. The Yankees could not come across to our island, but on the other hand we dare not cross to the north shore to escape; and it seemed to me that all they had to do was wait for us to starve out, which would not take long, as the Confederates never had a real square meal, and there was not a command of ours in fifty miles to come to our relief. I looked towards the South shore of the river and it was more than a mile and a half from us, but within half a mile was a large island called MacKernan's, and if we got there we would be safe. Between us and the island the water was shallow in some places, but in many it was deep; some few rocks and tow heads or sand bars, usually with cottonwood trees projected above the water, still it seemed unfordable, even to desperate men.

In the meantime all was still; our enemies had disappeared into the woods behind them; noon had come, and we were getting very hungry. Presently someone said, it was a great pity we could not get the saddles, guns, and over-coats of the dead Yankees, just 300 feet from us, across the ford. We needed them badly, as we were all ragged and badly clothed. Two men proposed to go over if I would, and I was rash enough to try it. If the enemy should see us, we would surely be captured or killed. Our chance was that they had gone back out of gunshot from the river. Leaving our carbines behind us as useless, and retaining only our pistols, we three rode into the ford and soon reached the other shore. Right at the water's edge was a dead horse, and lying with his head on the saddle was a fine looking boy of twenty years. A bullet had entered his head just above his left ear, and his brains had oozed out on his saddle and overcoat. But it was no time for sentiment. I quickly dismounted from my horse, and cut the saddle with the overcoat strapped behind, loose from the dead animal, threw them in front of my own saddle and jumped back on my horse. Every instant I was expecting to hear the cry of "Halt" and "Surrender" from some of the enemy, and I hurried my horse across the ford and made the trip back in safety as did the other men. After having that coat washed and dyed a fine butternut color, I wore it many a night the next winter, and was never kept awake by any dreams of its former owner who had baptized it with his blood. Looking back at this affair it seems to show what folly youth can be guilty of, to risk my life for a lot of things, whose entire value was not $15.00.

In a short time our friends, the enemy, appeared again and began a desultory fire at us, but doing no harm as we were well protected. Thus the day went by, and escape seemed hopeless. About sundown, our Captain ordered us to mount our horses very quietly, and detailing a rear guard of ten men to hold the ford led the rest of the company in column of twos into the water toward MacKernan's Island. We were going to try to ford or swim to it, provided we were not shot in the attempt. The stream in some places was only a foot or two deep, then without warning we would plunge into a hole, which would swim our horses, and the next moment have to climb up steep rocks, into another shallow place. It was very slow work crossing with such a rough bottom, but still we made some progress forward, and gradually after going 300 yards, we got from behind the trees which had sheltered us this far from the view of the Yankees, and then the trouble commenced. ''Bang" went a carbine and a bullet struck the water near us. Soon came another and then half a dozen. We could not fire in return, and we were going forward more slowly than a funeral procession; I crouched down on my horse's back and made myself as small as possible, but thought every moment that I would get a ball through my back. It is one thing to charge shooting and yelling, and full of enthusiasm; but another kind of courage is needed, when you feel you are being potted like a turkey, by a lot of men who are not in any fear of being fired at in return. Another volley came, one bullet struck the man beside me in the calf of his leg, and spattered the water in my face, he yelled loudly but clung to his horse; had he fallen off, he would surely have drowned. I thought my turn would come next, but by this time we had increased our distance, and the darkness became greater, so we suffered no further loss, and soon afterwards reached MacKernan's Island, wet, tired, and hungry, but safe. Our rear-guard followed without loss, as by this time, it became too dark for them to be seen by the enemy.

We found a pen of corn on the island and on the parched corn and a shoat which we killed, we made a hearty meal; and drying ourselves by the fire, we soon fell into a sound slumber, without even putting out a sentinel, conscious that the Yankees would not follow us across that dangerous passage. Next day at daybreak, we put our saddles and guns on an old flat boat we had found, and making our horses swim crossed the deep water to the southern side of the river

In one week more, our gallant Captain was killed in a skirmish, and the writer severely wounded, and the memory of our deep fording of the Tennessee River passed out of mind among the stirring scenes of the battles of Tishomingo Creek and Harrisburg.” 

Huston Cobb told a story that had been passed down through several generations of black folks in the area; he said, “Charlie McKernan punished one of his black slaves by putting a saddle on the man and riding him until he died.  Charlie McKernan also made some of his slaves eat watermelons rind and all because he thought they had stolen some of his melons.”

According to the 1870 census of South Florence Post Office, Alabama, Charles McKernan is listed as the head of the household which contains four blacks and one mulatto boy as follows:  54/54, McKernan, Charles, age 54, male, white, farmer, born in TN; Rebecca, age 40, female, white, keeping house, born in TN; Charles, age 21, male, white, clerk ??ton, born in AL; Mary, age14, female, white, at home, born in AL; Jacobsen, Mary, age 53, female, white, from Sweeden; Bailey, Parmelia, age 40, female, white, born in AL; Levi A., age 20, male, white, farm laborer, born in AL; John, age 17, male, white, AL; Patrek, Josephine, age 22, female, black, cook, born in AL; Stephen, age 2, male, black, born in AL; McKendan, Harriet, age 18, female, black, milk maid, born in AL; Laura, age 2, female, black, born in AL; Sambo, age 5/12, male, mulatto, born in AL; McKernan is Charles B. McKiernan.  In 1880 census, Levi A. Bailey is listed as head of household, with mother and sister.  Also according to the 1870 census of Colbert County, some 30 black and mulatto folks with the last name McKernan are listed as living in the area of South Florence Post Office.

Another McKernan Family member was Bernard McKernan who would rent his slaves out to other farmers for a small fee.  One of Bernard McKernan’s slaves escaped to the north by way of the Underground Railroad; in the north, he made enough money to pay a white man to get boat and come back to Colbert County to steal his family and bring them north.  The white man who was paid by the former McKernan slave got caught while traveling the Ohio River near Paducah, Kentucky.  He tried to escape by jumping to another boat and drowned.  Later, one of the white McKernan girls married a Dunnagan man from Huntsville; therefore, the area of McKernan Creek became known as Dunnagan Slough.

Tuscumbia to Decatur Railroad

As many other wealth slave holding plantation owners, Bernard McKernan owned stock in the Tuscumbia, Courtland, and Decatur Railroad which was originally called the Tuscumbia Railway that was chartered on January 16, 1830.  The first section of railway was about two miles in length and went from downtown Tuscumbia to Tuscumbia Landing at the mouth of Spring or Cold Water Creek on the Tennessee River; it was used to transport cotton from the town to the Tennessee River where it could be loaded on keel boats headed to New Orleans and other profitable markets. 

Tuscumbia Landing was near the site of the Chickamauga Indian village known as Oka Kapassa or Cold Water that was destroyed by General James Robertson about June 15, 1787.  An Indian trail known as the Coosa or Muscle Shoals Path circumvented the Muscle Shoals and ran south of the Tennessee River through the Moulton Valley connecting Ditto’s Landing south of Huntsville to Tuscumbia Landing near the Town of Tuscumbia.

Eventually, the railroad was extended some 42 miles east of Tuscumbia, and beyond the upstream end of Elk River Shoals to Decatur, Alabama.  Colonel Benjamin Sherrod, who was born in Halifax County, North Carolina, on January 16, 1777, and a nephew of Isaac Ricks, became the first president of the Tuscumbia Railway and later the Tuscumbia, Courtland, to Decatur Railroad.  Colonel Sherrod owned a total of four plantations, three of which were in Lawrence County, Alabama, which he left to his children and grandchildren when he died in 1847. 

According to the 1850 slave census of Lawrence County, the Sherrod Family owned some 320 black slaves on the three plantations.  These plantations included the following: the Cotton Garden Plantation was near Courtland, Alabama, and the home of Colonel Benjamin Sherrod; Pond Spring Plantation which became the Wheeler Plantation after Daniella Jones Sherrod married General Joseph Wheeler-Daniella Jones, who had inherited the place after her husband Benjamin Sherrod died, was the daughter of plantation owner Richard Jones, who owned 107 black slaves in 1860; and, Alamance Plantation which is named after Alamance Cotton Mill built in 1837 and produced the first dyed cloth south of the Potomac River in Alamance County, North Carolina.

The new railroad was incorporated on January 13, 1832, and was completed in June 1834.  Since the three upper shoals of the Muscle Shoals was impassable by boats transporting cotton, the railroad was a priority for the large slave holding plantation owners wanting to transport their cotton to the best markets; therefore, many of the wealthy white plantation aristocrats became stockholders in this first railroad west of the Appalachians.  The hard back breaking work of black slaves in the plantation cotton fields made many of these plantation owners’ railroad investments very productive and their extended families extremely wealthy.

In addition, the Tuscumbia to Decatur Railroad was used during Indian removal of the late 1830’s to transport Cherokee Indians around the Muscle Shoals to Tuscumbia Landing where they would board steamers bound to areas west of the Mississippi River.  Again, the greed of the wealthy plantation owners helped provide for the ethnic cleansing of the Tennessee Valley of Indian people; thus, making more lands available to men using black slave labor to become very wealthy.   

Huston’s Military Service

Huston Cobb was drafted in 1944; it was near the time he was to graduate from high school when he was drafted.  Huston was in the Navy when he graduated from high school; he was eventually stationed in Hawaii.  He was a naval stevedore; his main job was loading and unloading ships at Pearl Harbor from 1944 until April 1946. He spent two years in Hawaii and got back home exactly two years from the day he left.  Huston got three hundred dollars when he was discharged in April 1946 from the U. S. Navy.

When Huston Cobb got back from Pearl Harbor after two years of service in the United States Navy, he had to ride in the back of the bus, could not drink from the same water fountain, eat with white folks, or go in some white establishments.  By executive order in 1945, President Harry S. Truman desegregated blacks and whites in the military, but it was still segregation in civilian life. 

He rode back from Pearl Harbor with the white soldiers; however, all servicemen had to sleep on stretchers in the bottom of the ship.  It took five to six days on the ship to get from Pearl Harbor to the main land.

When Huston Cobb got back to California from Pearl Harbor and then went to Memphis, Tennessee,  he had to be aware of the color requirements for drinking and using the bathroom.  Blacks had to use certain facilities separate from the whites.  Even though President Truman tried to desegregate the blacks and whites serving in the United States military, it appeared to Huston that many of the white soldiers did all that they could to keep blacks and whites segregated.

After getting out of the Navy in 1946, Huston Cobb, Jr. gave George Eggleston $130.00 for a horse which George had mortgaged.  Huston stalled his vehicle and George charged him $5.00 to pull him out of the mud.  Later George’s brother told him that he could not sell a mortgaged horse; therefore, George told Huston that he wanted to buy the horse he had mortgaged.  Houston sold him the horse for $135.00; therefore, they broke even. 

Later after his service in the U. S. Navy, Huston bought a tractor which he and his brothers used for at least two years. Huston sold the first tractor and bought H-Farmall; he farmed with the Farmall for several years.

Huston’s Family

Hutson and Sadie Long Cobb had two sons and one daughter who are: Charles Darnell Cobb, Bruce Winford Cobb (deceased), and Cheryl Deresie Cobb.  The Huston Cobb family picture below was taken in front of their 1954 Plymouth at their home on Shaw Road near Huston’s present-day home.

This story will also be CONTINUED; stay in touch with my blog on the black, Indian, and plantation history in our area as it unfolds in my new book and on my blogs.  Mr. Houston Cobb, Jr.’s story will be included in my new book which will be called “Black Folk Tales of Appalachia: Slavery to Survival.”


  1. Butch,

    Thanks for the great stories above. You may be interested to know Norman Farrell is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Nashville;

  2. Huston Cobb jr is my Grandfather!....Charles Cobb, son of huston cobb jr, is my father.