“With a desperate desire and a resolute endeavor”
Young Williamson Hawkins didn’t get along with his step-mother. He left his South Carolina home for the frontier, possibly following trails blazed by his cousin, Davy Crockett. He married Betsy Nations in 1810 in Tennessee and within three years had determined to settle in the newly-opened Indian lands in Alabama.
Williamson came ahead with one horse and a few head of cattle, fighting his way into Jones Valley on the Bear Meat Cabin trail recently hacked out of the wilderness by “Devil John” Jones. He spent a while in the vicinity of present-day Woodlawn, raising a first crop and selling milk and butter to his less farsighted neighbors. He rode back to Tennessee to retrieve his family after the harvest. They soon picked up stakes and moved further west, closer to Fort Jonesboro, and constructed a large home on what grew into the county’s most prosperous plantation.
Williamson and Betsy had nine children, of whom only the third, Nathaniel, “showed any taste or disposition for acquiring more than an ordinary education.” He trained in New York as a physician and returned to Jones Valley as a leading citizen. He and his wife, the Connecticut-born Maria Welton, helped organize St. John’s Episcopal Church in Elyton in 1850. Owing to a shortage of Episcopalians, the fledgling church only met sporadically at the Hawkins’ home or the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Meanwhile, Hawkins’ investments in cotton paid off. He reinvested his dividends, acquiring 3,000 acres of land and as many as 150 slaves to increase his output to 100 bales per year of cotton, in addition to corn and peach crops. He claimed $159,975 in assets in 1860, making him the county’s richest man. When Major Shipman of the 1st Wisconsin Regiment arrived in March 1865, he found the intact plantation “extensive and prosperous”, but described its owner as “cranky and insolent”. The Union soldiers availed themselves of the farm and its products (including a keg of peach brandy) during their encampment. Hawkins later reported direct property losses of over $16,600, not counting the lost capital in slaves and the devaluation of his land.
Fortunately men with money, such as the Thomas family of Pennsylvania, had become interested in the possibilities of developing industries based on the natural resources arrayed in proximity to Hawkins’ property in Jones Valley. Truman Aldrich and Henry F. DeBardeleben represented the Thomas Company in their negotiations with Hawkins, settling on a price of $4 an acre. The sum fell far short of the patriarch’s pre-war portfolio, but allowed him to maintain his standing in the community and set his children up in their own households.
In 1871, the same year that the city of Birmingham was incorporated, the senior Hawkins donated a parcel at the corner of Spring and Broad for the erection of a frame meeting house for St. John’s Church. He also commissioned the casting of a 484-pound bronze bell from the Troy Bell Foundry of New York, which was dedicated in March 1872. The rapid growth of Birmingham robbed St John’s of most of its membership, however, as many families transferred to the new Church of the Advent downtown. St. John’s was later rededicated as a mission to the hearing impaired, perhaps reflecting the roots of Elyton as a land grant to benefit the Connecticut Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb.
Though it may have become superfluous to the congregants, the bell remained with the church when it relocated to Cahaba Heights and was displayed on the church grounds. Ed Stevenson and Marvin Whiting of the Jefferson County Historical Association later secured its long-term loan to the Birmingham History Center for conservation and display.