By Katy O’Neill
The Rivers family of Alabama seamlessly typifies the wealthy and successful American colonists that founded American states and territories through displacing natives and using slaves to pave the way to today’s nation. In 1842, Richard Reno Rivers was a freshman at Miami University and was documented as living in Claiborne, Alabama at the time of his enrollment (The Seventeenth Annual Catalogue of Miami University). In this essay, he will be referred to as Richard Reno due to the many duplicate names in the Rivers family. Richard Reno’s father, Richard Harwell, and his mother, Lucy Gibbs, met and married in North Carolina, where several of their nine children were born. Richard Reno was born in Alabama in 1822 after the family and relatives relocated in 1816 (West 574). While he died in 1856 at the age of 34, Richard Reno had received a higher education, married, birthed children and continued his family’s tale. Richard Reno was descended from a large and wealthy established family that immigrated to colonial America from England in the mid-1700s. His grandfather, Reverend Joel Thomas, was the leader of the Rivers family—a family that accrued wealth and success, played a major role in the establishment of a slave-owning family and religion in the south.
The Rivers family was at the forefront of establishing the United States as a free and sovereign nation during the American Revolution. Both Virginia and England are documented as the birthplace of Richard Harwell’s father, Reverend Joel Thomas (Weaversons1). In 1773, Reverend Joel Thomas and Rhoda Harwell married in Virginia and later had ten children (Morgan). Reverend Joel Thomas dedicated himself to fighting for the freemen of North Carolina and establishing America’s independence from England (Barnes). According to Greensville County Court records, on August 13, 1783, the Greensville County Court paid Joel Rivers £3 for a gun he furnished for the Southern Expedition Militia (Barnes). For this service, his family members were later able to gain membership in Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. His signature and support are shown on many documents in an effort to free America from Britain’s rule (Morgan).
“One of the most paradoxical and disheartening developments in U.S. history is the emergence of virulent racism alongside the full flowering of democratic ideals after the American Revolution” (Ford 90). After gaining independence, colonists sought to expand beyond the original colonies, and in the process displaced Native tribes, relied on slave labor and “the national government… reserved land to support institutions of higher education that will prepare leaders of the expanding nation” (Ellison 10). Documents and relative testimonials provide evidence that Reverend Joel Thomas owned a large plantation with 310 acres of land and slaves in Dinwiddie, Virginia (Morgan). The six documented slaves and land were sold to James Greenway in 1784 when Reverend Joel Thomas and his family relocated to North Carolina (Morgan). Thirty years later, in 1816, the Rivers family relocated. again “The Rev. Joel Rivers, a local preacher… moved from the town of Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Fort Claiborne, Alabama, accompanied by his children, all then grown, and purchased land, the lot being at Claiborne” (West 573). In Ebony & Ivy, Wilder explains the process white settlers, like the Rivers family, took to remove the Choctaws— and other native tribes— to western lands to establish the new, “uncharted” territory of Alabama. “[Colonists] surrounded and segregated the last of the Indian nations as they laid claim to their entitlements” (Wilder 178). Reverend Joel Thomas spearheaded the relocation to Alabama in 1816, around the time the Choctaws were “forcibly relocated” to Oklahoma (“Choctaw Indian Language”). This was also prior to the official founding of Alabama in 1819, providing contextual evidence that Reverend Joel Thomas uprooted his adult family from an established state to the unestablished land of Alabama, and in the meantime removed Native tribes and disrupted the land (“Choctaw Indian Language”). By doing so, Reverend Joel Thomas positioned his already wealthy family as Southern wealthy leaders in the small plot of land soon to be known as Claiborne, Alabama. The Rivers family depicts the “Christian rule over Native peoples” as the family moved from an established state to land newly opened to white settlers; their presence forced out the Native Americans in order to establish themselves, their wealth, success and power in untouched territories (Wilder 17).
Censuses show that brothers Richard Harwell and Joel Thomas and their wives and children later joined their parents in Claiborne, Alabama with Richard Harwell being the head of the household (Morgan). By the time the family was settled in the not-yet-established state of Alabama around 1816, Reverend Joel Thomas used his own funds to build and establish a “house of worship for the Methodist Episcopal Church. The first Society of Claiborne, organized just prior to the erection of the house of worship there, consisted of the Reverend Joe Rivers, Rhoda Rivers, his wife, and a number of their children” (West 574). The establishment stood as a physical representation that “Christian rule over Native peoples” as the Natives were removed to make space for the Rivers family’s house of worship (Wilder 17).
The political power that Reverend Joel Thomas enjoyed in Virginia in the 1770s persisted in the move to Alabama. In 1817, Joel and his son Mason signed the petition to Congress to prevent Mississippi from extending its boundary into the Alabama territory and remove the Native land in an effort to establish Alabama as a state (Barnes). “White southerners were now poised to claim tens of millions of acres from multiple Native nations,” and the Rivers family was at the forefront of Native displacement in an effort to establish themselves as a successful Southern family and prolong the attack on non-white, non-Christian entities (Wilder 250). This ideology extended beyond the Choctaws in Claiborne, Alabama and into Southern-wide slavery displacement and marginalization.
“As slave traders and planters came to power in colonial society, they took guardianship over education,” thus, the assumed next step in the Rivers family after settling and establishing themselves Alabama was to pursue higher education (Wilder 75). Richard Harwell and Lucy Gibb’s oldest son Thomas Buxton was twelve years older than his brother Richard Reno, and came to Alabama with his father, uncle Joel Thomas, and grandfather Reverend Joel Thomas in 1815. As the child of a slave owner, Thomas Buxton sought higher education. “Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts… and cultivated a social environment to the sons of wealthy families” (Wilder 77). In 1832, Thomas Buxton began studying medicine in Alabama (Ball 369). After earning his degree, Thomas Buxton settled in Suggsville, Alabama in 1836 to partake in “farming besides attending to the duties of his profession” (Ball 369). One observer noted that he was “not giving his chief attention to his profession” (Ball 370). Thus, it can be inferred that his college education and doctorate were not necessarily for the profession or community, but rather for the status of attaining knowledge. After moving to Texas to build mills, Thomas Buxton returned to Alabama and built a “large family mansion” (Ball 370). Documents show he owned multiple slaves at his mansion and fought in the Confederate Army (1850 United States Federal Census). Thomas B. Rivers was an Alabama state representative in 1847 (Ball 713).
While Richard Reno attended Miami University for only two years (1840-1843), he very much was a Southern student at “Old Miami” during the Civil War era (1909 General Catalog of the Graduates and Former Students of Miami University). There is no evidence of Richard Reno was a member of either a literary society or a Greek organization; however, he was most decidedly a student from the South attending school in a northern- albeit border- state. “As the United States began to unravel in sectional conflict, young men studying the classics in Oxford were confronted with the fate of their country, and many, including those from Southern states, were forced to examine the foundations of American democracy” (Ellison 63). “The late 1840s were rife with rebellion” when new rules were installed to govern and rivalry among the student body and faculty erupted (Ellison 14). Richard Reno attended Miami University at the peak of the removal of the Miami tribe to the west and at a time of one of the lowest student enrollments in history (Ellison 12).
Richard Reno Rivers and his family represent the elite American colonists that helped found the nation and its racist ideologies. The generations of Rivers family members aided in gaining America’s independence, in displacing the Choctaws natives, and in fueling the slave economy. Reverend Joel Thomas Rivers- Richard Reno’s grandfather- is the epitome of a wealthy, Christian colonist who established himself and his family for the future. His investments, loyalties, strategic move to Alabama and relationship with the church positioned the Rivers family as wealthy successful individuals. This, in turn, set his children and grandchildren for success in their own lives. College education was a plausible next step for Thomas Buxton and Richard Reno, Historical research provided insight into the lives of the symbolic college students that Wilder describes in Ebony & Ivy, as well as how America’s independence, the displacement of native tribes and the slave economy led to the higher education we know and attend today.
Katy O’Neill is a senior majoring in Strategic Communication and American Studies.
“1850 United States Federal Census.” From Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2009. Accessed on
- The Seventeenth Annual Catalogue of Miami University, July 1842. Rossville: J.M.
Christy, Printer. In Miami University Catalog [Bound]; 1832-65.
- General Catalog of the Graduates and Former Students of Miami University, including
members of the Boards of Trustees and Faculty During Its First Century, 1809-1909.
Compiled by Bert Surene Bartlow. Miami University Archives.
Ball, T. H. A Glance into the Great Southeast or, Clarke County, Alabama, and Its
Surroundings, from 1540 to 1877.Grove Hill, Alabama., 1882.
Barnes, David J. “Rev. Joel Rivers.” RootsWeb, 8 Sept. 2018,
“Choctaw Indian Language.” Native Languages, 2015, www.native-languages.org/choctaw.htm.
Ellison, Curtis W. Miami University, 1809-2009: Bicentennial Perspectives. Ohio University
Press in Ass. with Miami University, 2009.
Ford, Bridget. Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland. The
University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
Morgan, Shannon. “Re:
Ancestry.com, 8 Jan. 2007, www.genealogy.com/forum/surnames/topics/rivers/1289/.
Weaversons1 [ancestry.com username]. “Support of Revolutionary War: Rev. Joel Thomas
Rivers.” From Greensville County Court Commissioner’s Book 1, pg. 342. Accessed on
West, Rev Anson. A History of Methodism in Alabama. House Methodist Episcopal Church,
Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s
Universities. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013. Print.