Laws Made of Whips: Slavery in Madison county, 1809-1832, Part I


The efforts of this blog and its staff* shall always be to highlight humorous stories from Alabama’s otherwise miserable history. However, it may now be to time to delve, wholeheartedly, into miserable history. That being said, I have made a terrible mistake. We have learned much in our short time together of the Mississippi Territory and the settling of the Tennessee Valley by unwashed hordes of Anglos from Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. Yet we have not learned enough.

It’s time to learn about slavery.

For this purpose I will utilize an ersatz mixture of court documents, censuses, and the Minutes of the city council from 1828 through 1832; not because those are the best documents but because those are available. Unfortunately there aren’t many copies of plantation books just roaming the county waiting to be snatched up and read by some nerd with insomnia. Fortunately every other early settler practiced law in some form – so there’s a lot of records.

However, the 23 year period that I plan to dissect is important because Huntsville grew from a territorial outpost to one of the largest settlements in the state. Through analysis of the documents we’ll track the impact that transformation had on the lives of enslaved peoples and free people of color. We’ve already examined some aspects of the life and death of Dennis but hopefully we’ll be able to learn more about macro-historical patterns and sprinkle those observations with individual experiences.

Let’s get started.

The 1809 Census lists 2,547 non-indigenous people living in Madison county. Of those people 322 are definitely enslaved. So enslaved peoples made up 12.64 percent of the population. Of the 2,225 white people living in the county, only 35 owned slaves, so about 1.57 percent. But that’s not how families or economies worked during the period. Let’s recalculate. 353 white families divided by 35 heads of household meant that a far more robust, and terrifying, 9.91 percent of white economic units depended upon the labor of an enslaved person to grow their wealth.**

That almost seems like a reasonable number for such a terrible and widespread practice. Surely as more settlers came to the county, less and less enslaved people might be present. Why by the time the Civil War rolled around Madison county was probably a bastion of Southern Unionist sentiment and abolition.***

We can discern from the previous paragraph that the problem only got worse.

In 1820, a scant eleven years after the first census, enslaved peoples made up 49.32 percent of the population. That’s the second highest in the state after Baldwin county’s 58.44. No other north Alabama county came close to those numbers. Madison county remained an aberration – a Black Belt plantation economy ringed by Appalachian poverty, or a South Carolina surrounded by Kentuckies.

Percentage of Slaves in each county, 1820
Percentage of Slaves in each county, 1820

As we can see, with each passing year, the Heart of the Tennessee Valley depended more and more on enslaved labor, which is where all those previously mentioned statutes and Minutes of the city council come in. The enslaved population eventually eclipsed the free in the mid-1830’s. To combat this demographic shift, Madison county and Huntsville began adding all sorts of restrictive and tyrannical laws designed to control slaves, free people of color, and any whites that might prove sympathetic to their plight. Once this series is finished we’ll have hopefully began a brief examination of a single Alabama county transforming from a rough and tumble frontier society-with-slaves to a full blown slave society.


**fun fact – Littleberry Adams and his family owned the most slaves, 17 in all, what a bastard.

***Although I’m obviously being facetious, I will point out that Madison county possessed a decent amount of Southern Unionists and the first presidential candidate for the Liberty Party briefly served on the Huntsville city council. You can read about that here, in an article I helped write for the Encyclopedia of Alabama.


“1809 Census of Madison County” Valley Leaves 1 (1966): 44.

University of Virginia, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center. (map courtesy of)

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