For the Love of Hog

Pig theft, more than any other crime, defined frontier life in the Tennessee Valley. Although more cases dealt directly with retailing illegal whiskey without a license or brutal gang assaults, most cases did not specify the exact dollar amount of each bottle nor did the victims of violence always take vengeance upon their attackers. In fact, moonshining remained so prevalent that men accused of distributing alcohol without a license often served as jurors because they were recognized as “good and lawful men of the county,” like Littleberry Adams.* Yet pig theft remained a relatively static crime – someone swindled swine all the time – and it exhibited symbolic elements of the Anglo-American migration onto the cotton frontier.

Ambrose Foster and Thomas Moore received the first indictments for pig theft in Madison county history. Theirs is an interesting tale. Neither appeared in the 1809 census; so it’s likely that they arrived from Tennessee, Virginia, or North Carolina** and both are listed as laborers. The men took turns at porcine plunder. Early in the morning on the first day of 1810, Thomas Moore roused his brother Nathaniel and readied himself for the day. For you see, Thomas had a plan. Together the Moores came to the small homestead of Ambrose Foster and, with pistols drawn, raided him for pigs. They came away with “one sandy colored hog, with a crop and under bit in the right ear and an under bit in the left ear,” that Foster estimated to be worth twelve pence. The Sheriff lodged his complaint and explained that the Moore boys would appear before Obadiah Jones at the April 1811 session of the Superior Court.

Ambrose Foster didn’t play that.

He knew they’d have eaten his hog by then, so he set out to avenge his depleted stocks of walking pork chops. On January 30, 1810, Foster came onto their farm and “did take and carry away, one black and white hog with a swallow fork in the right ear and an under bit in the left ear.” I imagine Foster saw the under bit in the left ear and felt a great contentment. He may have reasoned with himself that the Moores simply painted his pig to better hide their audacious theft. ‘Besides,’ his internal monologue probably ran, ‘it’s not hard to make a swallow fork – all you need is a knife and a pig’s ear. Those idiots got both.’ When Thomas Moore lodged the suit against Ambrose Foster, he made sure to value the pig at only six pence.

Although the jury dismissed both suits the struggle between Ambrose Foster and Thomas Moore remained emblematic of the tit-for-tat repercussions that came with hog theft.

Julia Harrison. Find more cool stuff at
Julia Harrison. Find more cool stuff at

Cooperation between multiple criminals remained one of the most surprising aspects of hog theft. Although the solitary Ambrose Foster managed to avenge himself against the Moore brothers; it often took several men to steal some swine. In January 1812, it took both John McMahon and John Miller to steal “a certain spotted sow” from William Thompson.***

Of course, it’s worth noting that the hog hustle most often occurred during the depths of winter, when wage labor is least requested and stocks ran low. Hunger, occasionally tinged with vengeance, motivated these thefts. As more immigrants moved into Madison county, the frequency of hog thefts diminished. Although people still stole pigs, its role as a necessary function of survival decreased as the Tennessee Valley became more materially advanced. Instead of solely appropriating hogs; people now stole horses, bee hives, and cattle. Livestock theft reflected the overall wealth of the settlers.

So much so that it took a solid two years before another harsh winter inspired a renewed interest in old traditions. December 20, 1814, saw John Lively steal a six dollar sow from Barnett Tatum. The pattern emerged yet again during January 1816, when it took four men to steal a single hog from John Craig.

Just as the propensity for Anglos to steal hogs from each other depended upon economic conditions, so too did the willingness of whites to rob their indigenous neighbors depend upon the relations between the Mississippi Territory and the respective First Nations. It should surprise no one to learn that the greatest hog theft occurred when a band of white settlers raided “John Brown, Junior, a friendly Indian of said Cherokee Nation or Tribe,” in December 1817. Thomas Billingsly, Jesse Reynolds, George Hale, and Alexander Williams entered the borders of the Cherokee Nation in “Blunt County,” without their required passports, and stole thirty-two hogs valued at $88.20.

After stealing what amounted to a small walking fortune, the men turned their attention to John Brown and “with guns, clubs and fists did assault and menace him.” Their raid on John Brown featured not only the greatest amount of hogs stolen, but also included the only recorded assault on a person during a hog theft. They stole his hogs not to simply divide one among themselves to make it through the winter but did so to categorically deny an indigenous person access to wealth. Not content to deprive the man of his hogs, they then physically and mentally humiliated him. The jury acquitted them on all charges.

A study of hog theft might seem like a small thing, but it illuminates much about Madison county during the territorial period. We’ve seen the economic necessity of occasionally raiding one’s neighbors, the decrease in theft as related to material wealth, a dramatic hog based feud between two families, and ultimately the use of formerly frowned upon frontier practices to assist in the forced removal of indigenous Alabamians from their livelihoods and land.

All for the love of hogs.

*who served as a juror for the Foster/Moore pig controversy

**the three states with the highest amount of Anglo immigration into Madison county during the territorial period, in that order.

***apparently neither man could stay out of court, a later proclamation by Obadiah Jones commanded the Sheriff to find both men so that they might be prosecuted and to take an estimated five hundred dollars worth of their personal property to cover court costs, John McMahan briefly emerges again in 1816, during a feud with a man named William Gibson that resulted in the death of his brother William McMahan.

The Territory v. Ambrose Foster, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 6/5-7/5 (1810).

The Territory v. Thomas Moore, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 8/7-10/8 (1810).

The Territory v. John McMahon & John Miller, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 33/31 (1812).

The Territory v. John Lively, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 148/118-150/119 (1815).

The Territory v. Ringo et al, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 194/155 (1816).

The Territory v. Thomas Billingsly, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 275/225-277/227 (1818).

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