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Hartselle Enquirer
Special to the Enquirer An 1884 letter postmarked in “Hartsells,” Alabama, with the return address listed as “Hartsell,” Alabama. The Rev. Thomas Morrow was the founder and first president of the Union Male and Female College at Hartsell.

Identity Crisis: How Hartselle’s name came to be

Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series to commemorate Hartselle’s Sesquicentennial in 2020.

By Jennifer L. Williams

For the Enquirer

Though “Hartselle” is the official and “correct” spelling of this city, records show it took almost 50 years for residents and the U.S. government to agree on the spelling.

It is widely known that Hartselle is named after George Hartsell, and many of his descendants still live in the area – most without the “e” on the end of their names.

Hartsell moved to Alabama from North Carolina in the 1830s, settling on a 40-acre tract in the area around what became the Hartselle Pond, which records show was located to the west of the northern end of Railroad Street. Property holdings had ballooned to 800 acres by 1861.

The U.S. government established a “Hartsels” post office in about 1869, but no one named Hartsel or Hartsell was shown to live in the area, according to the 1870 census. The area served by the post office – about 33 households, according to the same census – was located west of the present city, bounded by Flint Creek to the west and south.

“My guess is, and it is strictly a guess, this ‘Hartsels’ post office got its name from George Hartsell’s son, Jonathan Hartsell, who had purchased land along what later became Halbrooks Road and State Highway 36 east of Woodall’s Bridge,” said David Burleson, treasurer of the Hartselle Historical Society and member of one of the oldest families in the community. “(Jonathan) had purchased about 240 acres in the mid-1850s and was living there when the War Between the States started.

“He was a member of the 5th Alabama Cavalry under Col. Josiah Patterson when he became ill in camp,” Burleson added. “(Jonathan) was sent home, where he died in 1863. When the post office was established in about 1869, using the name of their fallen comrade seems a likely reason for the name ‘Hartsels’ being chosen.”

Burleson shares information like this and more in his publication “Hartsell … Before the ‘E,’” which he put together as part of the city’s 150th anniversary.

When the railroad came through in 1870, said Burleson, it is likely the government moved the existing post office a few miles to the northeast, where it has been ever since. “The existing railroad work camp at that time was already called Hartsell’s Station,” Burleson said.

Burleson said the addition of the “s” was a common occurrence in those days when referencing a place named for a person. Early records show a voting site in the 1850s had been called Hartsell’s. Sometime in the late 1800s, the federal government dropped the use of apostrophes in all the place names in the United States.

As for the addition of the “e,” as early as 1875 some townspeople were using the “e,” and an early newspaper, The Hawk-Eye, included the “e” in November 1875.

The 1880 census shows the spelling without an “s” or an “e,” and the first two subdivision plans have no “e” either.

When the state legislature of Alabama voted to incorporate the town in 1875, it was named “Hartsell.” Morgan County maps for the years 1876, 1878, 1881, 1885 and the early 1900s show the town with an “s” on the end, but Alabama Enquirer newspaper ads for 1887-1890 show local businesses were using an “e” and no “s.”

Professor James H. Riddle was the official census taker for the town in 1900. He used the spelling “Hartselle” in all his reports. The battle of the name continued until the U.S. government recognized the “e” in about 1920, and the rest is history.

There is one other town in the country bearing the Hartsell name – but that one has just one “;.”

Hartsel, Colorado, is located roughly 1,100 miles northwest of Hartselle, Alabama, and it was named after Samuel Hartsel, a cattle rancher and farmer who moved to that area in about 1880. He discovered some hot springs and established the town as a tourist destination – which at the time was second only to Colorado Springs.

Hartsel, Colorado, is located to the west of Colorado Springs on a highway that connects the springs with the back country ski areas, including Breckinridge. In 2010 the town had about 900 residents, and it still boasts a healthy population of bison on what was once Sam Hartsel’s ranch.

Bettye English, a descendant of George Hartsell, said Sam Hartsel is “some relation” to her family, although she’s not clear on the exact lineage connection.