Three Notch Road is historically popular in South Alabama

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 6, 2010

Today’s column will focus on the Old Three Notch Road, which ran from Pensacola to Fort Mitchell in Russell County, Alabama. The road was introduced in last week’s column, but it will be reviewed in more depth in this writing. Recorded facts about the road and some of the popular legends about it will be included.

First, as one looks at the actual letters written about the very possibility of building the Three-Notch Road, he will find two dated June 5 and June 13, 1823, to Gen. Thomas S. Jesup, the Quarter Master General. These were written by Captain Daniel E. Burch, who was the Assistant Quarter Master at Pensacola. He was recommending that a wagon road be constructed between Pensacola and Fort Mitchell, which later fell in Russell County.

On Sept. 11 of that year, General Jesup wrote Captain Burch giving him the authority to “commence the survey” of the proposed route to Ft. Mitchell. This was to be done after Burch completed the survey he was doing for the federal road between Pensacola and St. Augustine.

On June 6, 1824, Captain Burch left Pensacola with a detachment of troops to open the proposed road. By July 21, he had worked ahead of his construction crew and had marked the entire route the road was to follow. He left his detachment under the command of Lt. Elias Phillips of the 4th Infantry, and he returned to Pensacola. At that point the road had been completed to within 32 miles of the point where it was to intersect the Old Federal Road. Burch’s men completed the road and returned to Pensacola by Aug. 29, 1824.

Captain Burch described the road in a letter to General Jesup dated July 26, 1824:  “The road was located along a high, dry, ridge way and will not only be a practicable road, but a good one for loaded wagons and pleasure carriages to travel along with room to turnout when meeting another, and in a thinly settled, open-woods country is better than if opened wider, because the bushes will not grow up in it.”

The distance of the road proved to be 218 miles and the costs to be $1,130, somewhat less than originally projected. The work went well, and the men did not experience any serious illnesses, with the exception of one man dying due to a snakebite.

A well-known Andalusia Historian, George Sidney Waits Jr., has a personal fascination with the Legend of the Three Notch Trail in this area. It is well known that a number of citizens like to believe that General Andrew Jackson came through Andalusia marking his path with the three notches. While this is a likely scenario, Mr. Waits points out that there is no documentation of this having happened. However, the legend lives on and to quote Mr. Waits, “Long established traditions often have a basis of fact.”  And we do have East Three Notch Street and South Three Notch Street in Andalusia.

Mr. Waits has done so much to preserve the history of Andalusia and the surrounding county. An example is when he coordinated a project for the Covington Historical Society to place historic markers along the Three Notch Streets identifying the route as the Three Notch Trail. There are current plans to replace these with larger, more recognizable signs in the near future.

The Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel also consulted Mr. Waits when it placed a state historic marker on East Three Notch Street one block east of the Town Square in Dec. 2008. One side reads: “ The Three Notch Road was a 90-mile section of a 230-mile military road to connect Pensacola with Ft. Mitchell in Russell County on the Chattahoochee River. Capt. Daniel E. Burch marked the route using three notches on trees for a crew under Lt. Elias Phillips to follow. Soldiers from the U.S. 4th Infantry Division cleared the route in June, July and Aug. 1824 at a cost of $1,130. The road runs through the present cities of Andalusia and Troy. It follows the ridge dividing the watersheds of the Conecuh River on the northwest and the Yellow and Pea Rivers on the southwest from the Town of Carolina where it intersected the 1817 Gaines Road to Union Springs where it intersected the 1850 Federal Road. Local legends that credited Andrew Jackson are not documented.”  The marker is doubly interesting because the reverse side gives an account of the location of Hank and Audrey Williams’ marriage on Dec. 15, 1944.

Other recorded facts reveal that General Jackson defeated the Creek Indians on March 27, 1814. Afterwards, he went to Nashville to his home, The Hermitage. Shortly, he went to Fort Jackson for negotiating the Creek Treaty, then down the Alabama River to Pensacola and on to New Orleans.

In 1818, General Jackson went to South Georgia for the Seminole Campaign and then back to seize Pensacola again. It was during this trip from Fort Gadsden, Fla., to Pensacola that he camped with his army of 1200 troops on the banks of Lake Jackson in Florala. (The Old Spanish Road came up to the Alabama line at Florala to avoid the swamps between there and the Gulf.)

An historic marker has been placed beside Lake Jackson which reads: “Andrew Jackson in Seminole War with army of 1,200 camped here in May 1818 enroute westward from Fort Gadsden to subdue marauding Indians abetted by Spanish at Pensacola. Jackson determined to seize Pensacola and thus altered the course of history on this continent.”

Sidney Waits has published a small book entitled The Three Notch Road Across Covington County, 1824. In it, he confirms that there is factual evidence that the road was cut by the U.S. Army in 1824. It was called U.S. Road No. 6, and it was opened by the U.S. War Department as a military emergency measure. Work on the 233 miles long road was ordered by the Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. Since there were no steamboats on the Chattahoochee River at the time, the army had to transport troops and supplies from Pensacola to Ft. Mitchell by land through Indian Territory. It was necessary that the Army maintain a substantial garrison of troops at the fort to protect the early settlers.

Although the exact location of some portions of the road are still unknown, most historians agree it ran north from Pensacola and crossed the Conecuh River at Shurlock’s Ferry, which is about where the present McGowin’s Bridge is located on U.S. Hwy. 29. It continued north and east of the Conecuh River toward the Montezuma settlement, since it was the only settlement at the time along the prospective route in South-Central Alabama. It then ran east up Fire Tower Hill to the Heath community where some of the earliest land entries in Covington County were located. From Heath, the road pretty much followed present-day Straughn School Road through Rose Hill, Burnout, and by Weed’s Store, on to Bullock, Henderson and Troy, into Bullock County where there is a community named Three Notch, then into Russell County where it intersected the Old Federal Road, which led to Fort Mitchell.

Peter A. Brannon, long time Director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, researched and studied the Three Notch Road very thoroughly. He formed a number of conclusions, but he was never convinced that the route came through Andalusia. However, he found some facts worthy of consideration: In a letter to him, Mrs. John M. (Ruth) Brown in 1947 sated that her father, R.S. McPherson, who was born in 1862, lived from 1872 to 1947 on or near the Three Notch Road about seven miles south of Troy. He remembered seeing the three notches on some of the older timbers. All of the old settlers along the road claim it was indeed the Three Notch Road. Some of these were: T.K. Mullens, Dr. J.P Allred, Elijah Whaley, Frank Devane, John Walters and Billy Carter.

There are a number of maps of Alabama for this time period, but none of them show the complete and exact route of the Three Notch Road. Some of these such as the Lucas Map of 1822, the Tanner Map of 1823, Finley’s Map of 1824 and Fenner Sears Map of 1831 show the route and related ones, so they are quite helpful. Most historians agree that it led from Pensacola in a northern and northeastern direction traversing Covington County from the southwestern corner, staying east of the Conecuh River and likely passing near the falls of the Conecuh River where there was a trading post, continuing northeastward along the high ridge through Rose Hill and on through Pike County at or near Troy and through the area that would become Bullock County, entering Russell County at the southwest corner and leading to the Old Federal Road at Fort Bainbridge.

Of particular interest to genealogists is the fact that so many of early settlers in South Alabama who became ancestors to most in the area would have used this route. This brought many from Georgia and the Carolinas into Covington County and some on into Northwest Florida. Therefore, local native citizens may be grateful for The Three Notch Road and the part it played in their personal history.

The primary sources for today’s writing were George Sidney Waits Jr.’s The Three Notch Road Across Covington County, Wyley D. Ward’s Early History of Covington County, Alabama 1821-1871, The Heritage History of Russell County, Alabama, and an article entitled “Three Notch Road” written by Peter A. Brannon, former Curator of the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.

It is certainly possible that this writer has misrepresented some of the history or related facts on this subject.

Anyone who notes any are requested to contact Curtis Thomasson at 20357 Blake Pruitt Road, Andalusia, AL 34620; 334-222-6467; or e-mail: