The Vagabond – John Coffee’s adventures in Attalla


By Danny Crownover

Last week the Vagabond wrote about Davey Crockett passing through the Attalla area. This week, another famous man, John Coffee also came through the same area.

On Oct. 4, 1815, Coffee (pictured at right) was appointed by U.S. President James Madison to survey the boundaries created by the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which had ended the Creek War. Coffee then settled in north Alabama, and in March of 1817 was appointed by U.S. President James Monroe as surveyor general of the public lands. He first supervised the survey of public lands in the northern Mississippi Territory, which included what is now Alabama, and all of the lands within Alabama when it became its own territory. Coffee was in and out of the Attalla area with his survey crew.

The following comes from Coffee’s diary:

Jan. 1, 1816. Left home this day. Lay at Murfreesborough [sic] the night of the 1st of January, 1815.

6 January. Got to Huntsville after night.

10 January. This day travelled to Thompson’s Ferry and lay all night at Capt. Thompsons. Bill $7.50.

11 January. Travelled to Young John Browns [Guntersville] at the foot of the mountain. Lay all night. Paid the bill to amount of $1.50.

12 January. Travelled to Ratliffe‘s [located at northwest corner of present day Ala. Hwy 77 and U.S. Hwy. 431]. Lay all night.

13 January. Snowing. We lay all day and night at Ratliffe’s. Paid the bill to amount of $6.50.

14 January. Set out from Ratliffe’s early in the mor-ning and arrived at Fort Strother [located across the Coosa River from present-day Ohatchee] the same evening. Took a house in the old fort and got our supplies from Capt. George Blaik, who resided at the fort with his family.

15 January. Reed, who I had engaged as a pack horseman at Ratliffe’s, arrived this day, brought with him a Negro fellow named Jo. The property of Tom Bruner who had been in the Cherokee Nation and was then on his way home. Sent for Fife.

23 January. Intended to start to Canoe Creek this morning, but it rained all day and we decline starting.

27 January. This morning it has quit raining, and we started from Fort Strother. Settled and paid my bill with Blaik, amount of $29.56. Paid for powder and lead, $1. The creeks are all up, so we swam Shoal Creek and Beaver Dam Creek. Lay all night at Brown’s on Canoe Creek (James CatawIey’s old place).

28 January. This morning paid the bill at Browns $1.75. This day l employed two chain men, Joseph Coker and James Brown, my other chainmen having yesterday disappeared. Crossed Canoe Creek in a canoe and swam the horses. Traveled the road towards Ratliff’s [for] ten miles, and after crossing Caney Creek took a small path, after traveling in it about five miles stretch the road a little south of the lick [Author’s note – this was a salt lick located on present Wesson Lake Road in the Camp Sibert area in Attalla. It has been converted into a pond]. Went to the lick and commenced the running of an experimental line. This day traveled to Wills Creek and lay all night.

29 January. A fine morning, the first we have had in ten days. Started early. got to Ratliff’s and bought supplies to carry on. Bought a tomahawk at the Old Duck’s- price of $1. After we struck camp this evening, my first chain man who had deserted came up. [I] discharged one of them. Young, the other Samuel Gordon, we employed to go along with us as an assistant in the horse department. Agreed to pay him fifty cents per day while in said service.

30 January. When Young was about to start away, I agreed to pay Capt. Blaik for a tent he had procured, and I would keep it. I also paid him for 2 lbs. coffee and some other articles he had [for] $2 cash. This day we run and measured 12 [and] 3/4 miles and encamped.

31 January. At 1/2 miles we came to Young John Brown’s [at] the foot of the mountain. Bought one dozen bundles fodder, 75 cents; one-pint whiskey, 15¢; paid in full, $1. Lay all night at Old John Brown’s.

1 February. The chief men of the Cherokees met me today and held a talk about fixing on a line to divide their country from ours. We appoint to meet tomorrow at Deposit [located on Thompson’s Creek near old John Brown’s].

2 February. Met the Indians agreeable to promise at Deposit. They agree to meet me on the 8th…at George Field’s [located near Ditto’s Landing]. Remained in camp at Old Brown’s.

Friday, 10 January, 1817. This morning bought one bushel potatoes, $1; 2 lbs. sugar and 1 and 1/2 lbs. coffee from Looney’s wife [Betsey Webber], $2

Monday, 13 January, 1817. This morning early, John Brown came to us with corn engaged to be delivered. Ran the line about seven miles and encamped on the road at the rocky branch.

Tuesday, 14 January, 1817. Started early this day. Reached Ratliffe’s and encamped all night. Bought sundry supplies to be paid for before we start. The line run down Ratliff’s Creek.

Wednesday, 15 January, 1817. This morning we proceeded with the line to the mouth of the small creek. Marked a Beech U.S. and sundry other trees. Crossed over the main Wills Creek and marked a Sycamore U.S. and blazed the trees down the creek 20 poles and returned to Ratliffe’s. Procured dinner to be got for the Cherokee Commissioners, the surveyors and myself. We dined and settled all our business. I gave the Cherokee Commissioners certificates of their services. Paid them for venison and turkeys, $4. Encamped all night. Bought parch corn flour from Indians, price of 50¢.

Thursday, l6 January, 1817. Paid bill to Ratliff. See the bill, $11.25. Started home. At Young John Brown’s, bought two quarts whiskey [for] $1, 2 lbs. sugar [for] 50¢. 2 loaves bread [for] 50¢. Lay all night at Old John Brown’s.

Author’s note: January 16, 1817, is the last available entry in this particular journal of John Coffee. The entire survey was not completed until 1824.

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