I have been traveling through Wetumpka for more years than I would like to think about,
but I have never taken the time to go downtown till this trip. I thoroughly enjoyed my
brief visit. Plan to stop again the next time I am traveling in that area.
Wetumpka, the county seat of Elmore County, Alabama, according to the 2010 census, has a population of 6,528. In the early 21st century, Elmore County, long a rural area, became one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.
Wetumpka identifies as "The City of Natural Beauty". Among the notable landmarks are the Wetumpka crater and the Jasmine Hill Gardens, with a full-sized replica of the Temple of Hera of Olympia, Greece. Historic downtown Wetumpka was developed on both sides of the Coosa River, and Fort Toulouse was built near it.
The name Wetumpka is a historic Creek place word meaning "rumbling waters", supposedly a description of the sound of the nearby Coosa River as the water falls over the rapids of the Devil's Staircase. It could be heard for miles before the construction of dams. The Creek named Wetumka, Oklahoma after their historic village after being forced west to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), by United States soldiers under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
After moving the 1702 settlement of Mobile to Mobile Bay in 1711, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville sent an expedition up the Alabama River to establish a fort in the interior of New France, both to stop the encroachment of the British and to foster trade and goodwill with the Creek.
He had Fort Toulouse constructed on the Coosa River in 1714, 4 miles above the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers at the Creek village of Taskigi. Bienville selected this area as a strategic locale for a fortification.
The French traded at Wetumpka and garrisoned Fort Toulouse until 1763, when they ceded the territory to the British following defeat in the French and Indian War.
After the British were defeated in the American Revolutionary War, it ceded the territory east of the Mississippi River to the United States in 1783. In 1798 the U.S. made this area part of the Mississippi Territory, after cessions from the states of Georgia and South Carolina. Between 1800 and 1812, pioneers began to arrive and encroach on the lands of the Southeast Indian tribes. Several Scots and Irish traders, such as McGillivray and Weatherford, had earlier married into the Creek matrilineal aristocracy and claimed vast land grants.
By the early 19th century, there were tensions among the Creek, with young men of the Upper Creek promoting a revival of religion and culture, and the Lower Creek, more influenced by settlement and trade with European Americans in Georgia, becoming more assimilated. In addition, in 1811, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh of the upper Northwest appealed to the Creek to join his Western Confederacy to try to drive out and exterminate the European settlers.
When the U.S. declared war on Britain in June 1812, the Upper Creek lost the assistance of the British, but they persisted with war against American settlers in the area. Upon receiving the news of the massacre at Fort Mims, whose refugees included many Lower Creek, American settlers appealed for government help. General Andrew Jackson led a militia with members from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia and attacked the Creek in Alabama. (We have an article on this battle on our website) The path the militia traveled became known as "Jackson's Trace." (As a side note, there are numerous streets/roads in Alabama named "Jackson Trace Road" including one in my hometown.)
Jackson's forces won a decisive victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. (We have an article on this battle on our website.) He moved on to Fort Toulouse, where he directed its repair. During his absence, the site was renamed Fort Jackson in his honor.
Jackson made the fort his headquarters during the War of 1812, and the newly created Montgomery County held its courts there. The defeated Creek were forced to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson (1814), which ceded to the United States 23,000,000 acres (36,000 square miles) of Creek lands: much of the remainder of their territory in Georgia and most of central Alabama. After the war, many of Jackson's Tennessee militia returned home, collected their families and belongings, and brought them back to settle near the fort.
Settlers, mostly from Georgia and the Carolinas, flooded into the fertile land that the Creeks had been forced to abandon. With its strategic location at the river confluence, Wetumpka quickly became an important center of agricultural trade. The city was formally incorporated in 1834. Cotton was the commodity crop of the new state of Alabama, with cultivation of short-staple cotton in the upland areas made possible by Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin, which reduced the labor of processing. From the scattered fields and large plantations worked by slave labor in the interior, cotton was carted overland to Wetumpka. Located at the fall line of the Coosa River, the port shipped out cotton bales by steamboats which went downriver to the markets at Mobile for sale.
Wetumpka became a cotton boom town. The new city was divided in half. The part of the city on the eastern bank of the river was commercial, with banks, stores, and hotels, and was located in Coosa County. The western section in Autauga County was residential, with houses and churches laid out on a grid pattern of streets.
By 1836, the city's population was 1,200. New York's Harper's Weekly declared that "Wetumpka, Alabama and Chicago, Illinois are the most promising two cities of the West." The city commissioned a steamboat, The Coosa Belle, to ferry passengers and cotton between Wetumpka and Mobile.
The same forces contributing to Wetumpka's growth were shifting the balance of power within Alabama. A standoff between the farmers of the Tennessee Valley, centered in the former capital of Huntsville, and the old mercantile wealth of Mobile, had resulted in the capital being located for many years at Tuscaloosa. (We have an article on the old capital on our website) By 1845, the cotton planters in the interior Black Belt had become some of the wealthiest in the country, and power was shifting toward the southern and central part of the state. Both the Black Belt cotton barons and the Mobilians wanted the capital moved.
Compromise indicated a new, centrally located capital, accessible by river and by steamboat. The lead contenders were Wetumpka and the newer city of Montgomery, a few miles south. Neither city had a majority of support; representatives from north Alabama, enraged that the capital was being moved from Tuscaloosa, were indifferent to either site. Just before the vote, Montgomery lured an expensive French chef to the new hotel they had built to house the state's representatives if Montgomery were selected. The city distributed elegant menus to the statesmen. The promise of luxury swayed the vote, and Montgomery won. (We have an article on the state capital in Montgomery on our website.) That same year, a fire broke out in Wetumpka, burning warehouses and many commercial buildings. The charred bricks were carried downriver to Montgomery to supply the building boom in Alabama's new capital.
Today, Wetumpka is known as the home of "Alabama's greatest natural disaster." A meteorite, estimated to be 1,000 feet wide, hit the area about 80 million years ago. The hills just east of downtown showcase the eroded remains of a 5-mile wide impact crater that was blasted into the bedrock, with the area labeled the Wetumpka crater or astrobleme ("star-wound") for the concentric rings of fractures and zones of shattered rock can be found beneath the surface. In 2002, Auburn University researchers published evidence and established the site as an internationally recognized impact crater.