HISTORY OF GEE’S BEND
Long before Gee’s Bend was ever known, it was Indian land. It is thought that, in the sixteenth century, Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto visited an Indian village on a creek in this area before he pushed on toward his death in Mississippi. Four hundred years later, “black” people live there who claim Indian blood. Some have Indian surnames. Others have Indian characteristics.
Note 1: De Soto’s Trail through the Southeast
The first recorded white resident to live in the area was Joseph Gee, a planter from Halifax, North Carolina, who came in 1816, established a plantation, and named the place for himself. Upon his death in 1824, he left 47 black slaves. Two of his North Carolina nephews, Sterling and Charles Gee, came to Alabama in the hopes of inheriting his estate. During the legal manoeuvrings, Sterling inherited a family estate back home and returned to live there. Charles became manager of the Gee’s Bend plantation. Some people say the Bend accommodated a slave-trading operation for the Gees between Alabama and North Carolina.
Note 2: Joseph Gee and 18 slaves are enumerated in the 1820 Alabama Census.
Note 3: Charles, Joseph, Sterling H. and William F. Gee original land patents on the Bureau of Land Management site. Plugin Gee as Patentee’s Last Name and select Wilcox County from the pull-down menu.
In 1845 the two Gee brothers owed $29,000 to their relative Mark H. Pettway. As a settlement, they have him Gee’s Bend. A year later, Pettway and his family moved there in a caravan with a hundred or more slaves. Except for one cook, the slaves literally walked from North Carolina toGee’s Bend.
The 10,000-acre plantation retained “Gee” for its name but the name of each of the slaves became “Pettway”, a name that has prevailed in Wilcox County until the present day. Today, if someone from Gee’s Bend is named Pettway, he or she is a descendant or married to a descendant of those Mark Pettway wagon-train slaves who walked from North Carolina.
After emancipation, the black Pettway’s remained on the land as tenants or sharecroppers.
Members of the Pettway family held the land until 1895 when they sold their 4000 acres and left.
In 1900, Attorney Adrian Sebastian VandeGraaff of Tuscaloosa acquired the land that the Pettway’s had sold to others and added another 3000 acres. For the first 16 years of ownership, a family uncle lived at Sandy Hill, the “big house” and former residence of the Pettway’s, as supervisor. After his death, other white, family-appointed overseers were in charge. The Vandegraaffs held the land as absentee landlords until 1937 when they sold all the land to the United States government.
Because of its location, 18 miles from Alberta and surrounded on three sides by the bridgeless Alabama River, Gee’s Bend was isolated. It was only 7 miles or so from the county seat of Camden but the only mode of transportation across the river was a makeshift ferry that operated when weather permitted. The road to Alberta was clouded with dust in dry weather and covered in mud in the rainy season. The land route to Alberta and then by state road to Camden was more than 40 miles one way.
Reverend Renwick Kennedy wrote stories about Gees Bend for the Christian Century in the 1930s. In 1937 he wrote: “Gee’s Bend represents not merely a geographic configuration drawn by the yellow pencil of the river. Gee’s Bend represents another civilization. Gee’s Bend is an Alabama Africa. There is no more concentrated and racially exclusive Negro population in any rural community in the South than in Gee’s Bend.”
When the Depression hit, the price of cotton fell to 5 cents a pound so, although Benders took their crops to Camden to cover debts to the merchant who advanced them credit, the price was too low to cover the debts. The merchant continued to advance them credit for the next three years and stored the cotton in a warehouse hoping for better times and higher prices. To secure the debts, he obtained chattel liens on the possessions of 60 families. He was the only one to maintain records of …