Demopolis

History of Demopolis

Three homes built while "cotton was king" are listed on the National Register as is the Glover Mausoleum and most of downtown Demopolis.

On March 3, 1817, Congress passed an Act which paved the way for the settling of Demopolis by a group of political exiles who had been banished from France by King Louis XVIII following the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. The act granted four adjoining townships of public lands on the Tombigbee and Warrior Rivers.

The French exiles assumed that olives and grapes would flourish and brought with them carefully protected shoots and stock of their native olive trees and grape vines. A band of about 150, including women and children, reached the White Bluffs (the present site of Demopolis) on July 14, 1817.

However, being uncertain as to where they should settle, they proceeded up the Tombigbee to Fort Tombigbee where they found the U.S. Indian Agent, George Gaines. Colonel Gaines returned with them to the White Bluffs, and it was at his suggestion that the group selected this area for their colony. The original grant had not stipulated which four townships they should colonize, so representatives of the group returned to Washington to settle the claim while the remainder set about establishing the colony.

After clearing land and building homes in the Demopolis area, it was discovered that a mistake had been made in the land grant as recorded in Washington. Unable to clear their claim, the colonists were forced to move some miles up the Warrior River. There, they formed a settlement which they called "Aigleville". "Aigleville" was symbolic of Napoleon's standard which bore the figure of an eagle.

Meanwhile, the vine and olive crops were failing. Many of the settlers died of fevers and other diseases. Most of them were aristocratic military families who had become accustomed to the luxury of the courts of Paris. It is said that women went about the frontier chores in their brocaded gowns and satin slippers. The men, dressed in tri-colored cocked hats, crimson capes and insignia of rank, worked with steers and wooden plows. The life was so severe that many of those who could afford the trip returned to France when amnesty was granted by Louis Phillipe.

The Vine and Olive Colony, as such, had failed. However, General Lefebvre Desnouettes, Napolean's former Aide-de-Camp and leader of this disappointing venture, organized the White Bluff Association which later purchased the Demopolis site. The Colonists who remained in the area gradually intermarried with the Americans.

The area retains the French influence in the names of streets such as Desnouettes and Herbert, the County name of Marengo, and the County seat name of Linden. The scattered olive trees in Demopolis bear fruit each year to the delight of boys and birds.

Marengo County, named to commemorate the battle fought by Napolean against the Austrians at the village of Marengo on June 14, 1800, was formed by the Alabama Territorial Legislature at St. Stephens in February, 1818. Alabama did not become a state until 1819. From 1820 to 1870, King Cotton was coming into its own as the southern money crop, and the Demopolis area prospered. Between 1850 and 1860, plantation society developed to a high degree. The people were related by blood and culture. They entertained often in gracious mansions overlooking the huge plantations. No battles were fought in Demopolis during the War Between the States, although Federal troops passed through in search of provisions. When Federal troops were in Selma, 50 miles away, breastplates were constructed in strategic positions under a plan drawn up by General Nathan Bryan Whitfield. A marker stands on West Pettus Street as a reminder. During the reconstruction era, Federal troops occupied Demopolis, using the City Hall (originally built as the Presbyterian church) as their headquarters. In the period leading up to World War 1, the people of this entire section struggled to rebuild their economy. Despite the loss of slave labor, cotton continued to be the principal crop. The Depression of the 1930's and the ravages of the boll weevils brought home the futility of the one-crop farming system. Beef cattle and dairying replaced the dependence on cotton. Industry began to recognize the importance of the two rivers, and the lumber industry continued its march toward a prominent role.

Demopolis also has a rich arts and literary heritage with such notables as playwright and author Lilian Hellman native to the city.