As you drive into the Columbus-Belmont State Park, outside of Columbus, KY, a pair of historic markers greet you. The first says that Columbus was the first town in Kentucky to be picked up and moved. The re-location happened in 1927, when the town was moved further uphill with the floodwaters of the Mississippi nipping at its heels. The second sign, somewhat older looking that the first, proclaims that following the War of 1812 Columbus was one of the locations proposed as the nation’s capitol. It was this claim that piqued my interest.
When Washington, DC was built as the nation’s capital city it followed the typical idea that capitals follow, meaning it was approximately in the middle of the country. But as the country began its westward expansion Washington became less and less central. With this in mind, the proposition to relocate the capital was occasionally brought up, with various other locations put forth.
The proposed movement mentioned by the marker supposedly took place in 1814. It was then, during the War of 1812, that the British captured and burned Washington. On September 26, 1814 a resolution was presented in the House of Representatives by Rep. Jonathan Fisk of New York to move the capital to “a place of greater security and less inconvenience than the City of Washington”. While there was enough support to send the resolution to committee it was ultimately defeated, with many feeling “a removal…will be ascribed to a want of firmness; and at this particular time that Congress do manifest firmness and determination is safe and honorable.”
But the marker only says that Columbus was considered as a possible site, not that it was ever approved. Is there any evidence to suggest that Columbus’ name was ever in the running?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it. Kentucky officially became a state in 1792 but the area containing Columbus didn’t come under definitive US control until 1818, when President Andrew Jackson purchased it from the Chickasaw. The town of Columbus was surveyed in 1820 with lots being sold to the public in 1822. Which means that Columbus didn’t even exist in 1814 when the government was considering relocating the capital west.
Further damning for the story is the wording of the legislation Rep. Fisk proposed. Initially his language was ambiguous as to whether he was calling for a temporary or permanent relocation. He would officially introduce a bill for the House to vote on on October 5, 1814 and in it he would state the relocation to be only temporary, while Washington was being rebuilt. As for a new capital location he left blanks for city and state, but never filled them in. After the bill was voted down it hardly mattered where he would have moved the capital to.
The large size of lots drawn up in the town’s 1820 survey suggest that early residents hoped Columbus would be a significant city but it never really came to fruition. It’s possible that some hoped Columbus would become the new capital, but there’s nothing to suggest the lazy river town was ever seriously considered.
- Annals of Congress, 13th Cong., 3rd sess, pg. 311
- Annals of Congress, 13th Cong., 3rd sess, pg. 387
- Annals of Congress, 13th Cong., 3rd sess, pg. 395
- “Hickman County History.” KY.gov. Web. 10 Dec 2015. http://hickmancounty.ky.gov/About/Pages/History.aspx
- Lewis, Bob. “Little Thought Given to the Capital That Might Have Been.” Park City Daily News 3 Nov 1991: Page 4a.