I’ve recently had the privilege of fact-checking a fascinating article about the history of Florence, Alabama. The article makes one thing very clear: While the Tennessee River was an invaluable resource for industry, most people would have preferred that the Muscle Shoals just did not exist. The Shoals made transportation next to impossible, and people were clamoring for Congress to do something about it more than a decade before Florence was founded. I discovered, however, that the earlier inhabitants of North Alabama—the Native Americans—had a much different perspective of the Shoals.
According to a theory on the City of Muscle Shoals website, the Indians who inhabited the area before white settlers arrived found it extremely difficult to paddle their canoes upstream due to the Shoals’ strong current. But to the Indians, the Shoals weren’t simply an inconvenience. They held a great amount of respect and even reverence for the Shoals, as is evident from the myths they created about them.
Some of the Indians believed that the spirit of a goddess lived in the loud, rushing waters of Muscle Shoals, as William Lindsey McDonald writes in his book A Walk Through the Past: People and Places of Florence and Lauderdale County, Alabama. This legend could have originated in the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, or Koasatis Indian tribes. In another version of this myth, according to Hudson’s article for Buckmasters.com, the Yuchi tribe said that the sound of the Shoals was the voice of a woman. The mysterious woman sang sweetly when the water was low and trickled calmly over the rocks and waterfalls, she but roared in fury when the river rushed violently over the Shoals. In his book Lore of the River...the Shoals of Long Ago, McDonald mentions another version of the myth claiming that the woman was a princess calling for her lover.
Unfortunately, we may never know if the princess and her lover were reunited in the end. When the TVA tamed Muscle Shoals with the Wilson and Wheeler Dams, the princess’s voice was silenced as the Shoals became reservoirs. The sound of the Shoals and the myth of the Native Americans who came before us now exist only in legend passed on by the inhabitants of the area. There is, however, one physical link to the past: a bridge near Wilson Dam is now named the Singing River Bridge in honor of the Muscle Shoals’s history.
The difference between the white settlers’ reactions to the Muscle Shoals and the Indians’ reaction to it could not be more different. From the beginning, the white settlers saw the Shoals as a wild and dangerous beast that needed to be tamed. The Indians, while likely struggling with the dangers the Shoals posed as much as the white settlers did, saw them as a mysterious force of nature to be revered and respected. It’s just another perspective to keep in mind as you discover the story of Florence in a future issue of Alabama Heritage.
Rebecca Mast is a senior at the University of Alabama. She is an English major, minoring in creative writing and French. When she’s not searching through fascinating historical records, she enjoys reading, drawing, and playing clarinet with the Million Dollar Band.
City of Muscle Shoals
Hudson, M. Keith, "The Singing River Legend," Buckmasters
McDonald, William Lindsey McDonald, A Walk Through the Past: People and Places of Florence and Lauderdale County, Alabama
McDonald, William Lindsey McDonald, Lore of the River: The Shoals of Long Ago