It was one of those cold, raw winter days. The sun had fled behind a thick cover of blustery gray clouds. There were no leaves left to be stirred by the stiff north wind that blew in gusts amongst the tree tops. All in all it was the perfect day to go on a cemetery hunt in rural Bibb County, Alabama.
We crossed the rolling, muddy Cahaba River, seemingly much more robust here than near home further north. This area was once known as Pratt’s Ferry because a man named Pratt operated a ferry on the west side of the river. It was also called River Side long ago during a time when the Native Americans were leaving and new people were arriving. Bibb County in the early 1800’s was frontier land, just being opened up to white settlement after the end of the Indian Wars.
The year was 1817. Brothers William, Charles, John, and Elisha Cottingham left Tennessee with their father in search of a place to make a new life. Originally from South Carolina, the family had spent some time in Tennessee. William, a Methodist preacher, and his brother John fought in the War of 1812. Along on this journey south were other families, such as the Parker family whose daughter Nancy was Elisha’s wife. They would be some of the first settlers into what is now Bibb County.
Settling atop the limestone bluffs that still plunge into the Cahaba River, homes were built and a deer path through the forest became Cottingham Loop, today possibly still in existance as Wesley Chapel Loop Road. The Cottinghams would start the Cottingham Church in 1819. Renamed to Wesley Chapel in 1840, it was in active service until 1990. Whether the building that stands today is the original structure, I can’t say, but the extremely long rough cut planks that make up the siding indicate saw mill cut lumber which could date it back at least a hundred years.
Elisha and his wife Nancy would build a home, raise twelve children, survive typhoid epidemics and endure the nightmare of the Civil War, all on this plot of land near a creek they named Cottingham Creek. Apparently they prospered in the years leading up to the Civil War – in 1860 Elisha was listed as having 13 slaves, but roving soldiers during the war stripped them of much of their possessions. Elisha’s granddaughter would remark in later years that Confederate soldiers camped on Cottingham land and took “lots of stuff…exchanging bad horse for good ones.” In fact Pratt’s wife cut the ropes used for the ferry to prevent Union troops from crossing the Cahaba. Elisha would survive the war, but not by long. He died in November of 1870, having lost one of his five sons to the cause.
His was possibly the first burial in what is now labelled the Cottingham Cemetery. Located down a lonely dirt road, the cemetery is surrounded by nothing but forest today, much like it probably was the day Elisha was laid to rest. To reach the line of white tombstones neatly laid out in a row you have to scale a deep ditch bank, climb over fallen trees and dodge briers tangled in the undergrowth. You can tell that no one has been buried here in a long time. Still, the absolute quiet and stirring of the trees overhead spark the imagination on what Elisha and his brothers found the first time they arrived here – nothing but dense forest, rolling hills and the promise of a new life.
Them and others like them that made a life here are gone with little left to mark their existence. Everything old is new again as the encroaching vegetation obscures the paths they once walked and slowly rubs out the bookends of their life as recorded on the stones marking their graves.
Even if one day no one comes to this remote spot of land and their tombstones tumble into dust and are scattered by the wind, they cannot be forgotten because of the path they blazed that brought countless others.
As Christopher Wren’s tomb so eloquently put it “lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.” Loosely translated, “reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”