Just over twenty years ago on May 6, 1979, the memorial marker at Russellville was dedicated by the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, marking the first official seat of government in Claiborne Parish and the site of the first courthouse and jail.
The marker was unveiled at the ceremony by owners of the land, Emmett Atkins, W.P. Atkins, and Margin Atkins Westbrook. According to Emmett Atkins, the marker still sits at the same site today, although it is no longer accessible. A year or so ago, Atkins, realizing the liability, closed the site.
Hidden by the dense brush, the words of the marker read, "Russellville, La., 1828-1879, First Parish Seat of Claiborne Parish, Site Preserved By The George E. Atkins Family, Research By Mrs. Fannie W. Greene, Historian, Erected By Claiborne Parish Chapter, NSDAR, May 6, 1979.
According to an actual letter written Feb. 14, 1830 by Russell published in Historic Claiborne 1962 with permission from Nettie Mae Brewer of Independence, Virginia (a great niece of Russell), Russell arrived in the area in 1822. Only eighteen families lived in what was then Natchitoches Parish. Russell explained how he used his influence to help carve out a new parish, and have the seat of justice moved from the John Murrell home to his Russellville settlement.
In the same publication, Annie Volentine wrote the first court of justice was housed at Russell's log house, just 100 yards north of the Salem cemetery near Athens. The old oak tree that was used as gallows for hanging criminals still stands. R.L. Kilgore, the first judge, put up court visitors in his home and was later elected to the State Legislature.
In the "Ghost Towns Of Old Claiborne" by John Ardis Cawthon, it says very little information has been preserved concerning Russellville, of the rise and fall of this early settlement, and how it became the area's first ghost town.
It was during the period when Andrew Jackson was President that the Parish of Claiborne purchased 144.45 acres for $180.56 ($1.25 per acre), Certificate No. 496, dated June 15, 1830.
Ten years earlier, Murrell had arrived in the then unsettled land. His only neighbors were a half-Indian, Richard Fields and Isaac Alden. Murrell's home had served as courtroom, church, and post office. Chichester Chaplin was Probate Judge, Isaac McMahan was Sheriff, and Dave McMahan was Clerk of Court. Major James Dyer was elected the first State Representative.
Robert Lee Kilgore and James Lee, cousins to the Murrell's had opened up the first store near Murrell, but moved their business to Russellville in 1828, when it was selected the parish seat, becoming the new town's first merchants.
Claiborne, which had been carved from Natchitoches Parish, included the present parishes of Claiborne, Bossier, Bienville, Webster, and portions of Red River, Jackson and Lincoln. There were only around seventy voters, but the Choctaw Indians were plenty and friendly. It was at this time cotton was introduced and soon became the major crop.
Churches were held at the homes of Newt Drew at Overton, William Gryder at Dyke's mills, Mr. Nelson at Athens, and Peter Franks near Brushy Valley. The first church was built by the Baptists near Flat Lick. James Brinson was the first pastor, and Arthur McFarland of Athens was his successor.
Before this, there were no public roads and people married simply through the services of a minister, since it was so inconvenient to obtain a license before Isaac Alden was appointed Justice of the Peace by the Governor. There were few settlers at the time, living 15 to 20 miles apart, mingled among the Choctaw Indians, and crime was almost nonexistent.
By 1836, however, the parish site was moved to Overton or Minden Lower Landing and back to Old Athens in 1846, when Overton proved to be an unhealthy site. It remained in Athens until 1849, when the old courthouse and all the court records burned. It was at that time the Police Jury moved the parish seat to Homer.
On June 25, 1848, through Act No. 123 of the Legislature of the State of Louisiana, the Claiborne Parish Police Jury was authorized to renounce claim of the property at Russellville, since it had been abandoned for years.
Samuel Russell considered himself a true believer in God, putting his faith in God, not man, and although brief, he made a mark in the history of Claiborne Parish. G.W. Dance wrote in 1888, "We have referred to Russellville in all her pride and prosperity, When the courthouse moved, her glory departed. The village is now an old worn-out field." His words written one hundred eleven years ago still ring true today.