Alabama’s First Road Sign

Ellicott Stone replica

It’s funny how elements of old controversies can become topical again, even 200 years later.

Tim James, who was defeated in his bid to be the Republican candidate for governor, brought attention to Alabama with his commercials about having driver’s license tests printed in English only.  (You may recall that his campaign ads were controversial nationally and satirized on YouTube.)  His reasoning was that “Here in Alabama, we speak English.” Thus, the state has no obligation to offer the driver’s license tests in other languages.

While visiting the Museum of Mobile this summer, I was struck by an exhibit that would seem to set a different tradition for our state.

As you’ll recall from your early Alabama history lesons, some of the first Europeans to arrive in Alabama were French and Spanish (obviously the Native Americans had been here and doing just fine until then, but that’s another story). Apparently settlers were squablling over exactly where the U.S. Territory ended and the Spanish Territory began, so both sides decided to settle matters with the Treaty of San Lorenzo el Real and commission a joint Spanish/American survey effort.

No less than George Washington himself selected the American surveyor, Andrew Ellicott, while Spain chose its own surveyor. The surveyors came to an agreement about where the territories diverged and on April 10, 1799 placed the Ellicott Stone to mark a line along the 31st parallel. The stone still stands today about 20 miles outside Mobile, and apparently any good surveyor or civil engineering major knows Ellicott’s Stone as an international marker and basis for surveys of the Mississipi/Alabama southern region.

And how did those surveyors mark the stone? By engraving it in English on one side (U.S. Lat. 31 1799) and Spanish on the other (Dominio S.M. Carlos IV, Lat. 31, 1799). Pictured here is the replica of the stone on permanent display at the Museum of Mobile.

So, interestingly, Alabama’s very first roadside marker, still standing today, was ”written” in both Spanish and English over 200 years before Tim James made English-only driver’s license tests a campaign issue.

As Tim himself famously said, it just makes sense…