As early as 4,000 years ago, Prehistoric Indians occupied Cahawba.
Archaeologists recently discovered Cahawba was built upon the remains of an earlier ghost town. Some experts believe the earlier village was "Maubila," the famous Native American village destroyed by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1540. More surprising is the discovery that Governor William Wyatt Bibb (1819-1820) and his surveyors not only found the remains of this ancient village, but they incorporated the old earthworks into the centerpiece of Cahawba’s town plan. Apparently, Gov. Bibb hoped to build Alabama’s statehouse atop the ancient Indian mound. He planned to use a semicircular moat dug around the ancient village three centuries earlier to restrict the grounds of the statehouse.
Cahawba is located where the scenic Cahaba River flows into the mighty Alabama River. Cahawba detractors cited flooding and health concerns as reasons to move the capital to Tuscaloosa during the Alabama General Assembly in 1825. Their claim was greatly exaggerated. However, the relocation was due to the legislature passing a bill to move the capital effective February 1, 1826. Within weeks Cahawba was nearly abandoned.
Cahawba’s opponents had greatly exaggerated the flooding. The town recovered and once more became a social and commercial center. Cahawba served as a major distribution point for cotton shipped from the fertile “black belt” down the Alabama River to the port of Mobile. The addition of a railroad line in 1859 triggered a building boom. On the eve of the Civil War, over 3,000 people called Cahawba home.
Cahawba’s glory days were again short-lived. During the Civil War, the Confederate government seized Cahawba’s railroad and removed the iron rails to extend a railroad nearby. A lice-infested prison housed 3,000 captured Union soldiers in the center of town.
In 1865 a flood inundated Cahawba, and in 1866 the county seat permanently moved to nearby Selma. Business and families followed. Within 10 years, houses were dismantled and moved. During Reconstruction, the abandoned courthouse became a meeting place for freedmen seeking new political power. Cahawba became known as “Mecca of the Radical Republican Party.” A new rural community of 70 former slave families replaced the old urban center. These families turned the vacant town blocks into two-acre fields. Even this community soon disappeared. By 1900 most of Cahawba’s buildings had burned, fallen in, or were dismantled. Few structures survived past 1930, but the town was not unincorporated until 1989. By that time, only fishermen and hunters walked the town’s abandoned streets.