Mustache Ramblings: Huntsville’s early history and little known facts about who actually found ‘Big Spring’

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Robert Reeves

Robert Reeves

Having lived here in the Tennessee Valley since 1950, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to visit a great deal of the area.  That includes pretty much all of the well-known places of interest and a whole lot of the lesser known as well.

I guess that’s why I love this part of our country so much. The Valley is so beautiful with its mountains, lakes, rivers, farmlands and forests. Don’t let me leave out the rolling hills of southern Tennessee, such a dramatic change from northern Alabama.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is folks are always asking me what are some of my favorite places to visit and where are the good places to eat.  So, I am going to use this space to introduce you to the Tennessee Valley as seen through my eyes and as tasted through my mustache.  I guess we can call this “Mustache Ramblings” and I will do my best to include some little known history facts about our Valley during our journeys.

Let’s start with Huntsville. Most people think John Hunt was the first white man to settle here and responsible for the name, “Huntsville.” Yes and no. Historians disagree as to who was first to come to the “Big Spring.” Some believe it was John Ditto, others say it was Samuel Davis.

We do know Isaac and Joseph Criner, who settled in the area now known as New Market, visited the “big spring” with their friend Stephen McBroom about a year before John Hunt and his friend Andrew Bean visited them. The Criners told of the beauty and abundance of wildlife around the spring.

Artist rendering of John Hunt visiting the "big spring" that later became Big Spring Park. (Courtesy: Huntsville Public Library)

Artist rendering of John Hunt visiting the “big spring” that later became Big Spring Park. (Courtesy: Huntsville Public Library)

Hunt and Bean traveled to the spring the next day and found it to be even more than they expected.  They found a partially built pole lean-to that had been crudely constructed.

This is where historians disagree, some saying John Ditto left the partial cabin while others say it was left by Samuel Davis. Either way, John Hunt decided to stay and used the poles to build his own cabin, thus becoming the first white man to settle at the spring.  Bean left, not liking the hundreds of rattlesnakes populating the area.  Hunt battled the snakes, ridding the area of most of them and settled by the spring.

When Samuel Davis returned, he was furious that Hunt had “snaked” him out of his cabin and homesite.  Davis moved on to settle in Plevna and according to one story, said he “would never be the neighbor to a man who would use another man’s logs.”

John Hunt, a veteran of the American Revolution, came from Virginia and recognized how special the new frontier was and named his stake”Hunt’s Spring,” so those who followed would recognize it would someday be his legal home. It wasn’t long before Hunt and his family had neighbors surrounding them, all clearing the land to plant their crops and begin their new lives.  The land didn’t actually belong to them because it was still part of the Mississippi Territory and their claims were pending the Nashville land sale.

This marker explains the history of how "The Big Spring" came to be. (Courtesy: Huntsville Public Library)

This marker explains the history of how “The Big Spring” came to be. (Courtesy: Huntsville Public Library)

Enter LeRoy Pope, a wealthy planter from Georgia, who had designs on the “big spring.”  He outbid everyone and despite John Hunt’s claim and his homesite at the spring, Pope took possession of the property. Hunt eventually left the community and traveled back to Tennessee, but Pope became the most influential man there.  He would go so far as to re-name Hunt’s Spring, Twickenham, in honor of the Earl of Twickenham in England.  Pope fancied himself as royalty.

It would be several years before the townspeople decided to change the name to Huntsville, in honor of John Hunt.  Huntsville would grow around the “big spring” and it would be the center of activity for the townsfolk.  It would also provide the water system for the town and even be the starting point for a canal constructed all the way to the Tennessee River to help farmers get their cotton to the river for pickup by the riverboats plying the waterway.