The Rocky Plains

From Walking Sipsey: The People, Places, and Wildlife

By: Jim Manasco

Walking Bankhead's Rocky Plains Part 1:

Primitive Road Follows Natural Rock Glades

The most remembered thing about the Rock-Plains is the old wagon road that followed the rock shelves across the Plains. The road, however, is not the oddest thing in the area. On a scale of ten it would not ever make the ratings, for the Rocky Plains are different, and in many ways strange.

The history of the Plains has changed repeatedly over the years and is still changing, but there is that some intangible thing about them that always seems to remain the same. Maybe it would be best if the story started at the beginning.

Today we walked the old rocky road across the Plains in the southwest corner of the Bankhead National Forest. The locust buzzed in the trees and the Rain Crow croaked in the woods. Little frogs screamed and jumped into the occasional mud puddle, just as they always have, on our approach and a large lizard ran across the hot rocks dragging a long blue tail.

Now I was walking the rocky road dragging a long tale also. My Dad had walked this road many times just as his father had before him, and his before him, and his before him. Now 170 years later I was prodding along in their same tracks. I was in the lead and they were behind me for history starts now and runs in opposite directions.

It all began about ten thousand years ago in the Ice Age. The ice plugged the Tennessee River and it overflowed down through Alabama. It left in its old path miles of sand and polished gravel down the west side of Winston County (so the County Commission would not have to pave any roads). This big washout also left miles of exposed bed rock between Lynn and Poplar Springs. This area is called the Rocky Plains.

This Rocky Plain has the boundary corner of the Indian Nations. The Cherokee were to the northeast, Chickasaw to the northwest, the Choctaw to the southwest, and Creeks to the southeast.

The Indians seem to have used this land jointly as a hunting ground. The first white men to the area were squatters in the late 1700s mostly married to Indians. Later some came through going to the Battle of New Orleans in 1812 but most of those who remained came into the area with Andrew Jackson in the Creek Indian Uprising in 1814.

There are many graveyards on the Plains, and many of them are of unknown origins. The oldest site on the Plains that is still intact is the old Rocky Plains Church. It is secluded deep in the woods on an unmarked road (County Road 330 now). Local people keep it in excellent repair. In the cemetery, there are veterans of the war of 1812 and the Civil War buried next to each other. Some of the older graves in the more remote regions of the Plains now have huge trees growing in them.

The west side of the Plains follows Browns Creek. In 1851, a man called Doctor Andrew Kaeiser settled here. No single man in history has brought as much chaos to the town of Jasper as this one did.

Walking Bankhead's Rocky Plains Part 2: Civil War Left Trail of Blood Across Plains

It is hard to understand how so many hard times could befall those peace-loving people who lived on the Rocky Plains. It did though, and before it ended it had reached all the way to Oklahoma. For most, the hard times were brought on the people of the Plains by one man, who came late and left early.

This section of Alabama had been a refuge for people who wanted most in life to just be left alone. That is what brought them here and that is about all the plain was good for. It was too rough to cross and too rocky to plow, but peaceful solitude was plentiful here in a place that no one wanted.

With the Indian Removal Act many Indians came into the area looking for a hiding place. They mixed well with the white settlers for they were the same kind of people. The times were changing and dark clouds were coming to the Plains in the form of mineral waters. The peaceful days were ending.

The new craze was mineral springs resorts that could cure anything. They were cropping up all down the Tennessee River bringing the rich Northern trade with them. People were getting wealthy selling water. None of the local people ever had a dream of getting rich in such a manner but others did.

A little known sheriff's deputy in the Tennessee Valley by the name of Andrew Kaeiser came up the mountain. In 1851 he bought the unwanted government lands along Browns Creek for $1.25 an acre. This tract of land has more springs per square foot than most places have by the square mile. Soon Doctor Andrew Kaeiser was bottling and selling his healing waters. He was one of the few men in Winston County who had slaves - 20 of them. Anyone who had that number of slaves was exempted from fighting in the Civil War. Those who had less or none had to fight. It was a rich man's war and a poor man's battle, so Kaeiser did his civic duty and stayed home serving as an informant for the Home Guard. The guard went into the hills to bring out those who would not fight. Those who did not come out to fight in the rich man's war were killed in many different ways to provide sadistic amusement for the Confederate Home Guard.

It was Dr. Kaeiser who was telling the Home Guard who they were and where they were hiding. The number of people who Kaeiser fingered for death is unbelievable but the historic records are correct. Yet, the people did not retaliate in any manner to speak of.

The freedom with which the Home Guard was allowed to go through the countryside doing as they pleased also allowed them to take from the Southern sympathizers likewise. Soon even these were complaining about their own Home Guard. The weapons that they used were provided by the state. The Rev. James H. Hill of Jasper, Kaeiser's alter-ego, was the man who supplied and stored them.

Hill's Jasper-based operations in 1864 were holding several Winston County Unionist prisoners for execution. But the Tories had enough. Hill realized this, disbanded his guard, and fled for his life, never to return. On the morning of the execution, 26 men met on the Rocky Plain and rode against Jasper.

Charging Jasper they went straight way to the jail and freed the prisoners. They then made the jailer burn it. They also burned the courthouse, academy, and several other buildings. The group swelled in numbers by the prisoners headed back to the Rocky Plains.

Kaeiser was killed and his house burned. His wife fled to Lawrence County and later returned to the Plains. With the help of H.H. Bibb she built another house about a mile from the original site. But too much blood had been spilled on the Plains and she was forced into exile. The Kaeiser Bottom then fell to ruin and Nature started its long slow process of reclaiming the swamp that Kaeiser and his slaves had taken from her. The old wall at the original home site that the slaves built, still stands and the Kaeiser Spring still flows. The story lives on for such things never die.

Walking Bankhead's Rocky Plains Part 3: Rocky Plains Feature Extremes From People to Plants

It seems that everything on the Rocky Plains is an extreme of one sort or another, from the people to the plants. Down through history the people have had a hard go trying to put down roots in solid rock. Their success had not been very profitable and each year fewer are able to live there. In the last 50 years the decrease in population has been drastic.

The few that live there now have the right idea. Where in the past men tried to live by the rocks today's generation simply live on it; earning their living elsewhere. I suppose that Henry Ford is responsible for that because in the past the old timers had not choice.

This flat rocky plain has been even harder on the plants. Many of them have gone to extremes to survive. The ones that adapted to the situation have done well and the ones that did not wound up in sad shape. The pines that have come up on the plains look different from others on better ground. Finding only enough soil in the cracks to survive they have become stunted with gnarled limbs and twisted trunks. Their silhouette against the sky tells of their hard times on hard rock.

Not all of the plants on the glade rocks have had the troubles the pines did, for they adapted to the rocks. The problem they have now is that they can now live nowhere else. Two of these plants are Rock Portulaca and Cactus. The cactus found its place on the dry rocks and did well. To survive in such a place it converted its leaves to stalks. Leaves use up too much precious water. These it increased in size to serve as water storage compartments for leaner times. The native cactus on the plains lived with the rock rather than by it or on it as man has. It has been here a long time and was food to the Indians before it was a thorn in the white man's foot.

Everyone thinks of the plants of the arid places as being harsh things covered with thorns and stickers. That thought may be almost true, but some of the plants are tender, beautiful things. The Rock Potulaca is one of them. This plant only blooms in the heat of the day in the autumn sun. The people that lived around the glades knew this little flower as Sun-Bright a name that fits it well.

Like the cactus the Sun-Bright converted its leaves to water storage. They are round and spike-like, giving the plant the look of a moss. Its Latin name Teretifolium means leaves round in cross sections. The family name Talinum was taken from the word thalia which means green branch. This well describes the plants tender round branch-like leaves. From these leaves the plant sends up wire-like stems and caps each with a lavender flower that is bright as the sun.

Once you have seen the Sun-Bright you get the feeling that this place may not be as harsh as it seems. Knowing this you can get beyond the harshness and learn to love the place as Chief Richard Brown did before Kaeiser pushed him and his Cherokees off their land.

Walking Bankhead's Rocky Plains Part 4: Fine Line Divides Species on the Rocky Plains

Those who have never been to the Rocky Plains may wonder how cottonmouth moccasins and cactus plants can be written about in the same sentence. No two things could be further apart in the natural order of life. What makes it possible for them to be side by side is the lay of the land. They are as separate here as anywhere but the lines that divide them are so narrow that you can step from one to the other.

The area referred to as the Rocky Plains is roughly 30 square miles. One-third of this is low rolling hills of the central plateau with upland hardwood forest. The rest is equally divided between upper coastal plain swamps and rocky pine barrens. The greatest change in the life zones occurs when the rocky pine glades drop directly into the coastal swamps. As far as the snakes are concerned, you can step over they Pygmy Rattlers and cactus to come down on a cottonmouth.

The glades and swamps offer the most interesting things to see. The rolling hills are the most common landscape in the state and offer little out of the ordinary. The road that crosses this area hollows the dividing line of the watershed. The streams on the east side of the road- Squaw Creek, Doe Branch, Wildcat Branch, and Black Creek- flow into Clear Creek. The streams on the west side- Browns Creek, Water Creek, Bluff Creek, and Indian Creek - all flow into Blackwater. The area that these creeks drain in is nearly flat with little fall.

The beavers have found a paradise on the streams in this area. Along the serpentine creeks a foot high dam can flood 40 acres. Taking advantage of the situation, the beavers have made swamps of every creek and branch on the plains. These swamps have become a haven for wildlife unlike the manmade kind. Here under beaver management all creatures great and small have equal consideration, game species included. With the studies made to preserve the Sipsey Wilderness Area in the Bankhead National Forest came an abundance of knowledge of both plants and animals in this forest that were before unknown to exist in Alabama. The oddness of this brought many outstanding naturalists to this forest. But what they don't know is that this tiny little corner of the forest, known as the Rocky Plains, has a greater density of wildlife and variety of plants than all the rest of this National Forest combined.

I feel safe saying that from the beginning of the settlement years, that no more than 70 percent of this area has been walked on by a white man and half of that only once. It is a rough country with few places that are easy to reach and the largest part of the swamps cannot safely be reached at all. It is this absence of man that contributes the most to the variety of animals in this section of the forest.

The fish and game people have come to the swamp and put up many wood duck houses. These houses were placed where the access to the swamps was the easiest. This of course is the place most visited by man and I have not yet seen one in use. The only wood duck nest I know of in the swamp is in a hollow tree deep in the Kaeiser Bottoms. I am not sure what I was doing there, when I found it and cannot think of a reason to go back.

The wood ducks should do well here for the swamps are full of all things they like best and one of those things is a plant called the duck potato. These water-loving plants are also called arrowheads. Botanists are fond of these plants also because of their leaves. The leaves that grow underwater are strap-shaped and the ones that grow out of the water are arrowhead shaped. To show their students that the growth control center determines the shape of the leaf is found in the very tip of the leaf. They make the leaves change places. Fixing the underwater leaves so that the tip is out of the water the plant will grow the arrowhead leaf underwater. By putting the tip of the leaves that grow out of the water into the water makes it grow strap-shaped leaves out of the water.

The wood ducks do not eat the potato of this plant, but do eat the seeds. The root of this plant was a basic food for the Indians where it was available. These duck potatoes also helped the early settlers through some lean times.

Walking Bankhead's Rocky Plains Part 5: Indians Took Refuge on Rocky Plains

In the early part of the 1800's white men learned of the Cherokee gold in north Georgia and Andrew Jackson was yearning to be president. This combination spelled doom for the Indians. They were destined to lose their land and one-fourth of them their lives. They could either sell their land to the government or be killed on it.

In that treaty with the U.S. government only some of those who were forced on the Trail of Tears were paid. The ones who remained behind hiding in the hills received nothing. The land purchased from the Cherokee had no western boundary described, but was defined as having 5 million acres. The same was true to the Chickasaws to the west, but their land had no eastern boundary described.

So who owns Bankhead National Forest? Does the government have title to it?

Many of the Cherokees refused to leave their ancestral home and fled to the hills. Everyone knows the story of the Cherokees in the Smokey Mountains, but few realize that many hid in Alabama. In the mountains of Jackson County there is today a tribe of Cherokee Indians that have always been there. Last year for the first time in 154 years the government gave them their school money for that year, 932 of them.

There was another band of Cherokees from the south side of the Tennessee River in the Decatur area that fled into Walker County. Where they went has remained a mystery. The old family records show many of the settlers in the forest were marrying Indians. Where were they coming from? They were supposed to be in Oklahoma. They had to be hiding in the forest.

The Indian Removal Act was passed in 1836. From the year 1824 to 1850 Winston County was a part of Walker. So Indians fleeing to Walker County at the time of the removal could have come to what is now Winston. They would have gone to the least desirable and least inhabited part of that area for they were fugitives in hiding.

It would give a better insight into the plight of these people to understand they were under martial law of the War Department. They were not even granted citizenship until 1924 and not allowed to vote until 1940. Their children were beaten in school if heard speaking their native language, as directed by the U.S. government which at the same time was trying to free the slaves. If Kaeiser's slaves thought they were having it rough they should have been born Red. They could have suffered right up until today the way the Indians have been forced to do. The Indians had every reason to hide and this week the first indication as to where that place could have been came to the surface.

The Rocky Plains is a desolate place and was not settled until the 1850's, years after all the surrounding area was entered. It was all that was left to the latecomers and they could buy it for 12 1/2 cents an acre.

In 1853, A.J. Thomas came to the Plains from South Carolina. It has been told in the family that when he came to the Plains that there was an Indian village near where he settled. His great-grandson Charlie still lives on the old Thomas home site and remembers the story well and the general area of where that site was.

These Indians were living here in their village 27 years after they were marked for removal. The only way they could have survived that long without detection was by the white settlers protecting their secret hiding. Though I had not heard this story until a week ago, I had no reason to doubt it and every reason to suspect it. If I could only get to the general area of the old village the beech trees would tell me what I wanted to know.

All that stood in the way were the cottonmouth moccasins. They are big ones and the meanest snakes in the world. They are territorial and if you set foot in their place they will come after you. You never know where that place is until you are already in it. We decided to go very carefully to the edge of the area anyway. Had I any notion of what I was about to find I would have gone to it walking on cottonmouths stacked like cord wood.

One of the trees alone is hard evidence that changes the old story of A.J. Thomas from a legend to recorded history.

I have been in some deep woods and wild places, but as for a hiding place none will match the trackless swamps of the Rocky Plains. Though I have only realized this recently, the Indians must have always known it and found a few days of peace here before they became the Vanishing Americans.

There right where it should have been was a beech tree the size of a refrigerator. On two sides of that tree were Cherokee cryptic signs of the style you find at old village sites. On the other side of the tree was the carving of a white man. The carvings of the two are very near the same age and the white man dated the tree - 1855.

Walking Bankhead's Rocky Plains Part 6: Indian Heritage Deep in Walker, Winston Counties

This is a true story by researchers with the Eastern Band Cherokees supplemented with current knowledge. It, in many cases, is your family history. The use of names is limited due to time and space but is sufficient to trace thousands of others if they desire to do so.

The story begins with the discovery of America. At first there were not too many of them. They came from across the ocean and settled along the coast. They were a pitiful lot. Alone in a new world, the Indians helped them survive.

Then more came and with a foothold increased in numbers and began to move deeper into the forest. Some of the stronger moved deep into Indian country taking Indian wives and living as Indians. One offspring of those mixed marriages was John Brown.

John Brown, while only a half breed, was truly Indian. His white father made it possible for him, as an Indian, to see clearly both worlds that one day would come to conflict. He was literate and wise, a combination that elevated him to the rank of Chief of the Cherokees. His band of Cherokees lived on their ancestral lands in Marshall County, Alabama. The principal village called Browns Village and its exact location is unknown.

Chief John Brown, as other Indians of stature, had three wives, Wati, Sara, and Selu (say-lou). He had many children and loved his people dearly. With the Revolutionary War he was forced to make a decision that would be in the best interest of all his people. He had already seen his father's people infringing on his mother's land. The British promised him that if he would ally with them they would not allow the colonists to cross the mountains. He had no choice but to ally with England for that was what was best for his people.

The British lost and Chief John Brown, as other chiefs in the nation, watched closely the formation of the new America. They greatly admired the Constitution created by the new nation and drafted one of their own patterned after it. Little did they realize how worthless the treaties with this new nation would be.

So the white man crossed the mountains. With this the Indians had to move farther from their ancestral grounds. It is not known how many children Chief John had; it is known that the names of some of those children were Richard, David, Katherine, John, and William. These are the native sons and daughters of Alabama. The most historically recorded of these is Richard.

As the Cherokees began to spread out across Alabama, Richard had moved deep into the Creek Nation. Richard, like his father, had risen to the rank of chief and had founded a Cherokee village by the name of Turkey Town across the Coosa River from what is now Centre. Chief Richard Brown had received word that Creeks were going to attack his village. He requested help from Andrew Jackson who sent troops to Turkey Town. The Creeks did not show and while they were there Andrew Jackson enlisted Richard and his warriors into his army. It was from here his next encounter with the Creeks would be Horseshoe Bend.

After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Col. Richard Brown moved his band deeper into the wilderness. They settled on Blackwater Creek near the present town of Nauvoo. For some reason, the remaining Creeks sought refuge with Chief Richard Brown in north Walker and southern Winston Counties. History states that the Creeks numbered 200 and were led by Chief John Shannon. It was for these Indians that most of the creeks in the Rocky Plains were named, Browns Creek the most obvious.

It was in the 1820s that trouble was starting for the Cherokee. Gold was discovered by the whites in north Georgia. The Cherokee had known this for years but had not revealed it. The last name they had for gold translates "yellow metal that makes white man crazy." It was gold, and Andrew Jackson's desire to be president, that made him turn against his friends, the Cherokees. The Indians would have to leave. They were forced west on what was known as the Trail of Tears. One-fourth of them would die before they reached Oklahoma. Some could refuse to go and hid in the hills of Jackson County, Alabama, and are still there today. A few of them who were of outstanding character, would be allowed to stay. Their friends and relatives would have to leave.

In the 1830s, the heartbreak of the removal would be too much to bear for another of Chief John Brown's sons. His name was also John and he and his wife Hannah Brown would leave Morgan County and come to Winston County to be near his brother. The same was true for William. John and Hannah Brown settled near what is now Arley. It was there that they raised their family: Russell, Hugh, Elic, and Nancy. It was here that John would die and be buried in a hedge row.

John and Hannah would not be forgotten. They left several children that would stay and shape the new state of Alabama. Strangely enough it would be the daughter and not the sons that would be the best known in local history. Nancy Brown is mentioned throughout records in Walker County. Why would she be so widely known and not her brothers?

It is said in the family that one of the grandmothers was a herbal doctor that traveled around the area on horseback tending to the ailing. It could only have been Nancy. How else could a woman in those days become so widely known and respected to such an extreme that in some records they cannot remember the first name of the man she married (Elijah Sides). Nancy Brown died in 1886 and she and Elijah are buried in Old Zion Cemetery on Alabama Highway 5, a few miles west of Jasper. From this marriage came seven children, who remain for the most part in Walker County. Elizabeth Sides who married R.J. Knight, David Sides who married Elizabeth Harris, Buck Sides who married Omia Bennett, Mary Sides who married C.Y. Roberts, Jeff Sides who married Sally Morgan, and Martha Sides who married Abe Myers.

Nancy Sides' children have produced three generations of families in Walker County. There is now a seemingly endless list of names like Myers, Sides, Knight, Tidwell, Boshell, Cagle, King, Richardson, Garrison, Clay, Ferguson, Hodges, Roberts, Calloway, Cook, Davis, Lenoard, Dill, Castleberry, Norris, Cooper, Manasco, Blanton, Odom, and Nichols. This is from the first descendants of Nancy alone and we have not even mentioned the Browns. Even with the Browns included, the list would only be the tip of the iceberg.

What of all those descendants of the other Cherokees that were with them? What of the 200 Creeks? It may never be known now. Yet almost everyday things come out into the open that reveal beyond words the Indian heritage of the people of Walker and Winston Counties. The old trunks and boxes in attics in the area contain a wealth of information that should be in the county library. Never destroy those old photographs, letters, or handwritten books. If you don't want to take them to the library, let someone else evaluate them.

We may never know much of the past history of Mary Tennessee Garrison Spillers. Her son, Amos Spillers, was the first conservation officer in the Bankhead National Forest.

Another piece of history - the instruction sheet to a form that Jeff Sides filed for government money- come to light. I find it sad and irritating.

The story behind this seemingly worthless piece of paper: When Jeff's ancestor's were moved west the government paid only a few pennies per acre for the land they took from the Cherokee. The Cherokees who refused to leave or didn't were forced to leave receiving nothing. It was 70 years later that the courts ordered the government to pay the Eastern Cherokees for their land. Jeff or none of his relatives, Cherokees in Walker or Winston Counties, ever received it.

Occasionally such things arise from the past here in this area of Alabama that astounds even the Indians. Like a flint carved wooden medicine pipe elaborately decorated with stone hammered yellow metal. A metal that only made some white men crazy.

Now it is Thanksgiving Day 1981 and throughout Walker and Winston Counties, hundreds, possibly thousands of Americans sit down to the traditional turkey dinner and never suspect that they are a part of both pilgrims and the history they are honoring.

Wildcat Swamp