Alabama's Moving Capital: Huntsville

Jun 27, 2018

As part of our way of looking at Alabama’s bicentennial we’re taking a looking at each of Alabama’s past capitals. The second capital we’re looking at holds that title with a little controversy.              

In 1809 the town of Twickenham was founded by Leroy Pope near a spring in northeast Alabama. It was named after the town in England, however, that name would not stick…

1811 Twickenham changed the name to Huntsville.

Julian Butler is the Chairman of Huntsville and Madison County’s Bicentennial Celebrations. He says patriotism played a key part in the name change…

 “Lot of the motivation, you have to picture, we’re talking 1811 and look at 1776, we’re not that far from the American revolution and anything British wasn’t too popular. John Hunt was the guy who came and built a cabin by the big spring, still in downtown Huntsville. So the name was changed to Huntsville.”

This was also about the time Huntsville officially became a city and an important one at that…

“1811 an act was passed by the Mississippi legislature incorporating the city of Huntsville. So the city of Huntsville is the first incorporated municipality in the state of Alabama. Madison County then had the largest population of any county in the state so it was a logical place.”

Butler says the historical part of town has not changed that much since then either…

“The downtown Huntsville area is still essentially as is was in 1810. We have a Lincoln street, but it isn’t Abraham, its Benjamin Lincoln the revolutionary War general. But you have a little portion of two streets have been change, other than that, when you walk down the street, you walk down the street as it was in 1810.”

And you can see where early lawmakers lived and met near an area now known as Constitution Village. That is where we find Bart Williams, he is the executive director of the Early Works family of museums.  

Constitution Hall 1819, Huntsville
Credit Alabama Department of Archives and History

“Being a bustling downtown for the time, there were a few inns and hotels, taverns close by, within a minute walk of this area. So they were always having little committee meetings and little side bars everywhere they went.”

We walk up to a large building that used to be cabinet shop…

“Constitution hall, as we call it today, the large white two story white frame wood building is where they met.”

Inside we find a large open room with period cabinetry tools and the smell of woodshop, but, Williams says, two hundred years ago it wasn’t too different…

The Cabinet Shop Inside Constitution Hall
Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio

“There were chairs scattered about, the Windsor type chairs, small tables. It wasn’t in my mind, when I first thought about it, I thought “oh its gotta look like the continental congress and where they met and everything and all very, the formation of the chairs was perfect” and it wasn’t that. They were meeting a warehouse, so to speak.”

But why move the government from St. Stephens in south Alabama to Huntsville in the first place? The answer it seems was politics. Alabama’s territorial governor and first state governor William Wyatt Bibb had plans to make a capital in the wilderness at Cahawba, but it wasn’t even built yet.

“There was a committee in the territorial legislature who was supposed to make a recommendation, and they said Tuscaloosa.”

Jim Lewis is the author of the book “Lost Capitals of Alabama.” Lewis says there was some wheeling and dealing involved in the course of picking the first state capital…

But, Governor Wyatt Bibb beat them to the punch, he got this legislation passed and to appease some in the north, in the Huntsville area, they would make Huntsville the temporary capital until Cahawba was built.”

There are some who say that Huntsville’s title of “capital” doesn’t count, but Lewis says this is where the first state meetings happened.

“They’re trying to say it’s not a capital, it is. Alright, in the territorial capital, they had a session, Alabama was still a territory. And they passed a legislation setting up a form of government. They met again in November 1817 and by this time they had been assured of statehood, but it hadn’t been granted yet. But they went ahead with their first session, this wasn’t the territorial legislature the next time around, it was really for the state, even though the state didn’t exist.”

He admits that it is kind of a murky situation.

“So it really isn’t the first capital of the state, it was kind of in a limbo situation.”

Julian Butler backs up the idea that Huntsville is one of Alabama’s capitals by reading from the book ‘Three Capitals” by William H. Brantley.

“in 1818 the territorial legislature provided that the temporary seed of government shall be and remain in Huntsville until suitable buildings and accommodations can be created at the town of Cawhaba.”

Butler says once Alabama applied for statehood, and had written a constitution, everything happened very quickly.  

Copy of First Alabama State Constitution
Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio

“All 44 delegates signed the document on august 12th. It was transmitted to Congress, Congress approved it, it goes to James Monroe and he signs it on December 14th.”

The speed of which still surprises Butler.  

“If you picture both the communications and transportation that would have existed in 1819 that fact that we go from zero to statehood in ten months is almost impossible to believe.”

Huntsville is the first of Alabama’s capitals to thrive after the government was moved. It continues to be one of the fastest growing cities in the state. Next time, we’ll look at the first official state capital and see how it faired.