STORY OF THE ROCKY ADVENTURES OF THOMAS WADSWORTH FARRAR
By Jimmy Langley – President, Hoover Historical Society
Lover’s Leap is one of the most intriguing historical sites in Hoover Bluff Park. Its legend began with Creek Indian lore, of a brave stabbing a troublesome marriage suitor and then jumping with remorse from Lover’s Leap with her in his arms. It was where an early pioneer, Thomas Wadsworth Farrar, carved a Lord Byron poem in the Shades Mountain limestone overlooking the Valley of Fire as a tribute to his wife. Drama ensued when the carved stone was chiseled out of the mountain in the 1930s, to the chagrin of many residents, and moved to a Masonic Lodge. It continued when the original stone could not be retrieved, and a replica of the carved stone was placed back on the mountain. It has continued over the years as a place where locals came to enjoy the scenic view (among other things) and carve their initials into the soft rock.
I was curious about this early pioneer who had the patience to chisel a verse from his wife’s new poetry book. There was sketchy information about this man, he appeared to be an outstanding early pioneer of the area, but it was not the whole story by a long shot. This was a remarkably interesting man who had many facets, good and bad, to his life. So, who was this man?
Thomas Wadsworth Farrar was born at Red House Place plantation in Pendleton County, South Carolina in 1784 to Revolutionary War officer Lt. Col. Thomas and Margaret (Prince) Farrar. He was first cousin, two generations removed, of President Thomas Jefferson. His family was landed gentry and he was raised to be what then would be termed, “a fine Southern Gentleman”. He studied law and was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1808.
President James Monroe submitted his name to serve in the U. S. Army as a Captain in the 8th Infantry Regiment for the War of 1812 (Second War of Independence). Before he could see action, he was reassigned as aide de camp to General Flournoy, Commander, 3rd U.S. Army. In 1813, the General took over the 7th Military District in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
While in New Orleans, Captain Farrar fell in love and married a beautiful French-speaking Creole woman, Felicite Seraphine Bagneris on June 23, 1814. Among the guests at his wedding was the territorial governor of Louisiana and Mississippi, William Coles Claiborne, who attended because of Farrar’s kinship to President Jefferson.
General Flournoy gave up his command to General Andrew Jackson and Captain Farrar technically became Jackson’s aide, but he never functioned as such. Farrar left to rejoin the 8th Infantry Regiment in South Carolina before the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. He was reassigned to Ft. Hawkins (now Macon, Ga.) and honorably discharged at the end of the War in 1815. He moved back to South Carolina.
Alabama became a state in 1819 and Jefferson County was formed from part of Blount County. William Ely of the American Asylum of Hartford was given land in the County by Congress in the community of Frog Level, known for horse racing. He donated land for a courthouse and the new town became the county seat and Ely insisted the name be changed to Elyton in his honor.
About 1820, like many middle sons who could not inherit the family plantation, Farrar moved his family and domestic slaves to Alabama to seek his fortune. Reportedly, he moved them by oxen wagons through [Brock] Gap and about seven miles south of Elyton they stopped for the night on Shades Creek under the bluffs of Shades Mountain. Seeing the overhanging rocks on the bluff silhouetted against a spectacular sunset, he named the rocky ledge “Sunset Rock”. (Birmingham Genealogical Society publication, Pioneer Trails @1930s). If true, this was a sign of things to come.
Elyton at the time was a two block by four block area with dirt-floored cabins in what was still a rugged frontier. Farrar purchased 100 acres of land in Elyton. Being the first attorney in the newest state in the union, a new county and a new county seat; he may have assumed that there would be rapid growth and great opportunity. Who knows how his wife, accustomed to city life, reacted to this challenging environment. However, the area would remain a rural backwater town and county for the ten years (1820 -1830) he lived there. It was reported that he enjoyed a good living even though his law practice never flourished. His success is attributed to the many other ventures in which he was involved.
He was one of the first to belong to the Jefferson County Bar. He was described about 60 years later by Mayor A.O. Lane writing about historical members of the Bar as: “…corpulent (rotund), big-hearted, genial, and an epicure. No dinner party was complete without him. His appetite always relieved any deficiency of the caterer. He had little energy, but, withal, was a good lawyer.” This was probably not how Thomas Farrar would have liked to be remembered.
Why was he slighted in such a manner of description with all that he accomplished in the ten years he was in Alabama? It was obvious that the reputation of Thomas Farrar had somehow been tarnished over the years. To an outside observer, it appears that he was much more than the life of the party. His list of accomplishments does not seem to reflect a man of low energy.
Thomas threw himself into public life in the new state. In March of 1821 he organized and named after himself the first Jefferson County Masonic Lodge. On June 12th, 1821 he was elected as the first Most Worshipful Grand Master of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Alabama. He served 1821, 1822 and was reelected again in 1824.
In April of 1821, he became the first commander of the Alabama Militia’s 2nd Division with the rank of Major General. Proud of his military title, he used it in his law practice and official capacities (which became a problem when he used it with his Masonic duties) and retained the title for the rest of his life.
He was selected by the legislature as Jefferson County’s first County Judge. He resigned his judgeship when he was elected and served in the state capital of Cahawba as a member of the Legislature, representing Jefferson County in 1822 and again in 1824. The trip to Cahawba was 100 miles and took up to 3 days, so he was away from home when the legislature was in session.
Toward the end of the 1824 session, Governor Israel Pickens pulled Farrar aside to discuss the upcoming tour of French General Lafayette in Alabama in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Revolution.
He was asked to be the Governor’s emissary on the tour because Pickens had a relationship with Farrar through the Masonic Lodge. And, Farrar was uniquely qualified because he spoke some French, was a Major General and a Mason, which he had in common with Lafayette. In 1825, Pickens asked Farrar to travel east to Augusta and connect with Lafayette as he traveled south from Washington. When the expense of Lafayette’s 11-day tour drove the State to the point of insolvency, Farrar felt compelled to volunteer to pay his own considerable travel costs. He said, “I would prefer personal debt rather than loss of reputation”. This would prove to have a major impact on Farrar’s life. This set up a spiral of debt and struggle that haunted him to the end of his life.
In 1825, he left the Legislature and never ran for public office again except for a failed bid for U. S. Senate against Gov. Pickens. He might have done so because he blamed Pickens for the Lafayette affair that sent him into financial ruin. After he left the Legislator, his only known government pay was when he was tasked by state officials to consolidate Alabama’s Military Code into a single document. He would be paid $200.00.
With no government position to pay the bills and with a dwindling law practice, Farrar sought other means to pay off is massive debt. He had to raise money fast, so he became a gambler, or more likely he ran a gambling operation.
Part of his perceived financial solution, i.e., gambling, might account for why he purchased 80 acres on Shades Mountain (current day Hoover Bluff Park) in 1826 with Dr. Samuel Earle of Elyton. Of course, the reason could also have been for the fresh air, fantastic views from 400 feet above the valley floor, and isolation from valley disease epidemics. The land included the Sunset Rock he first discovered on his first trip to Elyton. On this land, he built six primitive cabins. His family and slaves could be housed there and some of the cabins might have been used for his gambling operation. Today we might call the acreage on Shades Mountain a gamblers hideaway. At the time there were no permanent residents on the mountains and only unimproved paths and Indian trails, so it afforded him a great deal of privacy. (His wife held the property until 1854.)
The years from 1827 – 1830 are the “hidden” years for Farrar. Not even the Masonic Lodge knew where he was; they thought he had left Alabama. In fact, he was at his property on Shades Mountain.
Six decades later the following account appeared in the 1885 issue of the Birmingham Weekly Iron Age newspaper (a tabloid of the day):
The gentleman said, “I am going to carry you to a place that was once the abode of a famous gambler by the name of Farrar, who was the terror of this section… He used to be a man of peculiar habits and temperament. I do not know to what extent he was wicked, but I remember well that he was a reckless kind of a citizen. He used to visit all the various fairs and public gatherings and I think was finally given to understand that he must change his life or leave. Farrar left suddenly and was not heard of for some time until one day a gentleman who had known him was visiting Shades Mountain, and while rambling about over the rocks and caves, suddenly heard the sound of human voices. He crept up closer, and there discovered Farrar and a party of men gambling and carousing, and what was stranger, Farrar had his wife with him. What ever became of Farrar I have never learned, but I think he left Alabama”
In the summer of 1827, Thomas and Seraphine visited New Orleans, probably using the remainder of the $200 he had received consolidate Alabama’s military laws. While in New Orleans, he borrowed $100 from his nephew showing the depth he was still in debt since the Lafayette affair.
In August 1827, they came back to Alabama. On a rocky outcrop on the bluffs of Shades Mountain, overlooking the valley below, an area known today as Lover’s Leap (it has also been called Sunset Rock and Farrar’s Ledge), Thomas carved his and his wife’s names and the first four lines of Lord Byron’s poem, Solitude.
“To sit on the rocks, to muse o’er flood an fell, to slowly trace the forest’s shady scene where things that own not man’s dominion dwell, and mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been.” – Thomas W. Farrar 1827.
In 1829, his nephew in New Orleans wrote a letter saying, “What would you think of buckling with me to the law in New Orleans, at least for a while?” This letter put into motion a plan to permanently move Thomas and his family from Alabama to New Orleans. These letters also show the fragile nature of his mental health as he prepares to leave Elyton. He was a man harassed by his creditors and worn down by the hopelessness of his financial situation, yet desperately trying to protect his remaining reputation. Some might say a broken man.
In one letter he wrote, “The time is rapidly approaching when I must leave this miserable country where I have wasted so many years of my life…My soul is sick and longs to be away from here..”
His nephew offered to pay off his debts and move him to New Orleans so he could start over and his children would have access to good schools.
Thomas sold and liquidated all his Elyton property and most possessions, often at a considerable loss. He sold his home and had to move to the Shades Mountain cabins while preparing for the trip south. Finally, he packed up his family on the wagons and headed toward Selma where he could get a boat to Mobile.
Farrar, his family and 11 slaves arrived in New Orleans via coastal schooner in December 1830, greeted by Seraphine’s family. (His slaves were used as collateral for his nephew’s loans) He was quartered in a rental property in the French Quarter by his nephew. His nephew also bought suitable clothing for him to start his new law job and to fit into New Orleans society. He tried extremely hard to establish himself as a lawyer and gain a respected place in local society. He spent the summer of 1831 at the Biloxi coast with his family, as was the custom of wealthy residents of the City, even though he still had not overcome his debt.
Just as Thomas Farrar was getting back on his feet, Cholera arrived aboard the steamer Constitution in October 1832 and killed 4340 City residents. He was one of them.
Farrar is believed to have caught the disease at dinner party, which explained why his family was spared. Cholera was a terrible water borne disease and a horrible way to die. It started with extreme defecation, then vomiting, cramping, coldness, and intense thirst. This was followed by hallucinations, red skin and a cold brown tongue. Toward the end, his eye sockets deepened, his pulse became rapid and he had a high temperature. At the end, his skin was shrunken and dark, his voice was hoarse, his breathing slowed, and his features took on a demon like appearance.
Thomas W. Farrar died on All Hallows’ Eve, 31 Oct 1832, putting an evil cast on it for Seraphine, who always told people he died in November.
His obituary indicated that Farrar had succeeded in regaining some of the respect he had lost in the Alabama frontier. It read:
Died – General Thomas W. Farrar, a respected member of the bar, of this city. His Masonic brethren, friends and acquaintances are invited to attend the funeral…
He was buried with Seraphine’s family at the Saint Louis Cemetery Number 2, New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana. The funeral expenses were paid by his nephew.
This story is an illustration of how certain life events can change a person’s fate in the blink of an eye. When you make grandiose future plans, God laughs they say. Good people are sometimes pushed into bad decisions because they think they have no other choice. There is always another choice but pride and obligations win over the pain and sufferings of wading through the thick of the problem.
Based on and Credit to: The Alabama Years of Thomas W. Farrar (1820-1830) by Alberstadt, Milton L., Jr. who is his Great-Great-Great Grandson