Thank God for Mississippians: Houndstooth Necropolis

If you don’t know about Moundville, then that link is a great place to start. If you know about Moundville but haven’t visited it yet then get in the car and drive to Tuscaloosa. Moundville contains some 20 to 30 mounds built by a localized form of the Mississippian culture along the Black Warrior River between 1000 and 1500 CE. The oldest mounds on the site are about a thousand years old and a series of man-made lakes dot the landscape. Moundville violently reminds us that the southeast hosted a variety of massive urban centers prior to De Soto’s expedition spreading disease across the land.

Its position along the Black Warrior River meant that the Mississippians at Moundville not only possessed access to extensive trading networks but also took advantage of the river’s astounding bounty. With 127 species of freshwater fish the Black Warrior River boasts almost twice as many indigenous fish species as the entire state of California. One of the only rivers that beats it for overall biodiversity is its neighbor, the Cahaba, which runs parallel to it. As such, fish made up a massive part of the Moundville diet and the inhabitants suffered lower rates of malnutrition than similar Mississippian cultures of the period.

Of course, simply being wealthy does not prevent the collapse of a community, and by the time of De Soto’s expedition the majority of Moundville inhabitants already relocated. They either went further north to Apafalaya or south to Zabusta. Both cities under the control of the Tuskaloosa Kingdom which was itself a likely descendant of the Moundville polity. The ruler of the kingdom, also known as Tuskaloosa, lent his name not only to the modern town but calqued his way onto the river so readily used by his ancestors and contemporaries. For Tuskaloosa translates into English as Black Warrior, so a half-hearted relic of Mississippian heritage survives to the present day.

Moundville’s dominance extended beyond its wooden palisades and a surrounding series of villages owed some form of fealty to the ancient site. Mississippian artifacts abound around modern day Tuscaloosa. As Moundville grew in power its function seemed to take on an increasingly ceremonial role and the site itself slowly transformed into a necropolis and aging palace complex.

It is this period in Moundville’s history that most accurately reflects the modern state of its former fiefdom. There’s something about the geography of the Black Warrior watershed that attracts people and entices them to perform elaborate ritual. As the Mississippians migrated from surrounding polities to practice their faith and bury their dead, so too do modern Alabamians flock to Tuscaloosa during the fall and winter months. When one stands at Moundville and imagines the city slowly emptying over the centuries, one cannot help but think of traffic streaming away from the town following a game. Modern Tuscaloosa doubles in population every few weeks during the period of ceremonial warfare known as football season. In fact, the large religious complex known as Bryant-Denny stadium occasionally serves as an impromptu or planned burial site.

There’s power in the land down there. The blue sky, rushing waters, and strong black soil have told people for almost a thousand years that central Alabama is a great place to die.


Schoeninger, Margaret J. and Mark R. Schurr. “Human Subsistence at Moundville, The Stable-Isotope Data.” In Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, edited by Vernon James Knight Jr. and Vincas P. Steponaitis, 120-133. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2007.

Situation Normal, Hall Fouled Up

In the spring of 1837, James Ragdale and Nathaniel Hall spoke briefly in front of Nathaniel’s house. Ragdale visited the Hall estate and witnessed Mary Hall and Nathaniel engaged in one of their epic quarrels. He’d only known the couple for a few months at this point but all who knew the Halls knew that the family relied on violence to communicate. They cussed each other out as Ragdale announced that he thought he should leave. Nathaniel escorted his guest outside and stood with his visitor. He looked the man in the eyes.

Without a word Nathaniel Hall began “unbuttoning his pantaloons.” Surely at this point James Ragdale felt unsure of himself. ‘How do I explain to the man that I’m not down with that?’ he probably thought. Yet Nathaniel Hall unbuttoned his pants not for gratification but to highlight his circumstance. James Ragdale saw a pistol tucked into his host’s undergarments, Hall moved those aside and gestured at an old wound.

Apparently Mary stabbed him in the crotch a few years ago. She narrowly missed the vital arteries of the leg but left a gaping reminder of her wrath. Hall desperately tried to explain. He carried a loaded pistol because he feared his sons might try to kill him. He and Mary lived in constant fear of each other. Their children felt only misery at their parent’s incessant feuding.

He planned to leave. Nathaniel Hall knew the law. Although he suspected that Mary Hall planned to sue him for a divorce, he also knew that they needed to live in separate houses for several years in order to go through with it. He planned to evacuate his youngest children to a new home he hoped to purchase with that year’s proceeds from his farm. He didn’t trust Mary Hall as she’d already left him once for a man named Martin Guest and probably performed further “illicit interviews” in the woods after she returned from her dalliance. Nathaniel’s brother lived about a mile away and he could stay there once the time to leave her came.

How did it come this far? The Halls married in either 1812 or 1816. Each spouse filed different divorce suits against the other and listed various dates. Both failed to list the place of their marriage. Context clues point to either an Alabama wedding or a migration here shortly after their marriage; Nathaniel Hall accrued several hundred acres in Madison county, lived near relatives, and the Halls had about ten children. So it seems likely that by the time they filed against each other in both 1838 and 1842 that they’d been living in or near Huntsville for about two decades.

Like many families their quips became quarrels and their quarrels became quotidian. People bound by blood and semen are bound to fight. Except this is Alabama and it is the 1830’s, so those fights quickly became violent.

On April 1, 1837, Nathaniel Hall pulled his pantaloons pistol on his wife. Their nineteen year old son Andrew Hall wrestled the gun from his father but Nathaniel screamed a dire warning before he retreated to his brother’s home.

He said “at some future day [he] would carry out his purpose when there was none to prevent.” Nathaniel Hall returned to their estate several times. He came once while his sons worked in the fields and confiscated all the guns he could find in their house. He reminded Mary that he “was well aimed with pistols & that he intended her time in this world should be very short.” It seems strange that he failed to murder her then but perhaps he feared the retribution of his nearby sons.

Mostly, it seems that Nathaniel Hall feared Andrew. Described several times as having “a week intellect,” Andrew Hall performed much of the most strenuous labor around the farm, especially since Nathaniel Hall sold three slaves upon leaving his household, and the boy possessed a massive strength and unwavering devotion to his mother. In fact, when Nathaniel returned a second time “to superintend some of his plantation affairs,” he learned of his failure to confiscate all of his family’s pistols.

Nathaniel Hall brought back up on his superintending visit. He wished to inspect ledgers and farmland after hearing rumors that Mary Hall “sold a large quantity of bacon which he had provided for his family and that she is permitting his stock of hogs and cattle to be wasted.” Instead he found Mary Hall and Andrew standing in the road. Mary Hall stood behind her son. Andrew Hall stood behind a pistol.

After a long silent moment Mary Hall spoke up. She threatened that Andrew Hall, “armed with a loaded pistol which presented in a shooting position,” would shoot his father and his friends if they attempted to enter the yard. Nathaniel Hall left without inspecting his herds.

He received the subpoena to appear in court. Soon after that any and all payments made to him by indebted men ceased because the court ordered a temporary halt to his business ventures. Mary Hall accused him of abandonment. He could easily cash in on his debts and leave for a different state. The court quickly dismissed the case with no word on alimony or the splitting of property. Although Nathaniel Hall resumed his business, Mary Hall and their terrifying sons remained at the main home and he worked from his brother’s house.

In 1842, Nathaniel Hall counter-sued for a divorce. He’d waited the correct number of years, hired a lawyer, and presented adequate evidence. Yet Mary Hall died soon after the beginning of the case. They were finally rid of each other.


Mary Hall v. Nathaniel Hall, Book K, 211-248 (1838).

Nathaniel Hall v. Polly Hall, Book L, 171-172 (1842).*

*a pseudonym, he explicitly mentions the previous case and that her given name is Mary

From Ticks to Terrorism, Cullman county

The certainty of dynamite briefly challenged the concepts of agricultural science and state law during the summer of 1919, as southern farmers reacted to new regulations designed to wipe out a variety of ticks, and the blood parasites they carried, with swift and disproportionate violence.*

Southern cattle suffered from these ticks and their blood parasites, but consistent low-grade infections meant that most developed a level of immunity as calves. Although the southern ‘cracker cattle’ grew up stunted and weaker, they still persevered. Whereas the ravages of tick-borne disease absolutely decimated northern and Midwestern herds.

Meat markets remained regional throughout much of American history. So although the earliest instance of these ticks nearly wiped out cattle in Georgia during the 1740’s, the surviving herds formed the nucleus of an isolated southern cattle industry. As Georgians brought their cattle westward into the Mississippi Territory the infected herds spread the ticks to other cattle encountered. Whole generations of cattle lived, died, and bred with these parasites plaguing their every moment. Indeed, by the eve of the American civil war, northerners traveling through the deep south often noted the stunted nature of indigenous cattle in comparison to what they assumed were heartier northern breeds.

Cattle drives from Texas to Kansas resumed after the war. However, for the first time, trains began to link these cattle drives to the massive stockyards of Illinois and other northern states. Wherever the southern cattle went death followed. Suddenly ninety to one-hundred percent of Midwestern herds perished within days or a few weeks of mixing with cattle from Texas and other parts of the south.

Obviously everyone panicked. By 1885, officials in Kansas banned Texas cattle** from even entering their state and the national cattle industry developed almost entirely without southern contribution. Indeed, by the early 1900’s almost every southern state felt the impact of federal quarantine on their cattle.

Which brings us to 1919. In February, Alabama lawmakers mandated the building of tick-vats and the dipping of every cow in the state in an effort to rid Alabama of the tick and finally participate fully in the national cattle industry. They followed the lead of Georgia and Mississippi, both of which instituted similar programs in 1906. Counties responded with a furious effort to build the required tick vats, gather herd information, and then process the hundreds of thousands of cattle around Alabama. They soon met stiff resistance.

via The 1919 Annual Report of the State Veterinarian, page 6.
via The 1919 Annual Report of the State Veterinarian, page 6.

The Cullman Democrat is the only surviving newspaper from 1919 in the Cullman county archives. Unfortunately it does not exist on microfilm nor did the original archivists preserve anything but the Thursday editions. Perhaps they were born on a Thursday, perhaps the kind of person that hoarded copies of the Cullman Democrat only made money on Thursdays, or the archivist took Fridays off. It’s a strange conundrum. Surely the Sunday edition would have been fuller and more expressive of the previous week? Oh well, what I’m saying here is that we can only glimpse the Cullman county of 1919 and are unable to fully explore its beautiful and dynamite ridden depths.

However, some interesting things emerged. April 1919, saw the greatest rebellion in Cullman county against the tick vats. Farmers dynamited vats at Sulphur Springs, Holly Pond, and Brooklyn. A man named Charlie Bishop blew up the Sulphur Springs dipping vat on Friday, April 11, 1919. He failed to finish his work and probably proved the most inept overall. Bishop proved unable to destroy the vat even though he used at least two sticks of dynamite. His trial began on April 19, 1919 and continued through July. Although the Cullman county archives maintained a healthy selection of old court cases I failed to find his conviction.***

After this spate of explosions the sheriff used bloodhounds to try and track down the perpetrators. The county employed armed men to protect the vats at night. Yet this did not halt the range war. On April 18, J.A. Harbison and Monroe Phillips guarded the repaired Sulphur Springs vat. As the daylight died they readied themselves for the near certain attempt to finish it off. They reported seeing “two men stealing up towards the vat.” One carried several sticks of dynamite while the other held “a coal of fire.” The targeting of Sulphur Springs, of the 151 vats in Cullman county alone, suggests that the men were either associates of Charlie Bishop or heard of the previous attempt and viewed this particular vat as a high profile target.

The would-be dynamiters failed to see the guards and kept advancing. J.A. Harbison proved close enough to get a good shot and opened fire on the man holding the “coal of fire.” Although he hit the man, both of the rebellious farmers managed to escape into the surrounding hollow and avoided arrest. The Cullman Democrat mocks the historian here by mentioning that “this is the only attemp to blow up vats this week.” Soon after these attempts the farmers of the county tried to hide their cattle rather than explode the tick vats and mentions of dynamite soon fade from the record. I plan to further explore this phenomenon in parts of Alabama where nobody has ever thrown away anything – like Madison county. Until then, remember this, faced with a reasonable request the people of Alabama chose stubbornness and violence. It’s almost endearing.


Haygood, Tamara Miner. “Cows, Ticks, and Disease: A Medical Interpretation of the Southern Cattle Industry.” The Journal of Southern History 52, no. 4 (1986): 551-564.

The Thirteenth Annual Report of the State Veterinarian of Alabama, 1919. Montgomery, Alabama: The Brown Printing Company, 1920.

“Dipping Vats Blown Up, Blood Hounds Ordered.” Cullman Democrat (Cullman, AL), April 17, 1919.

“Guards Shoot at Men Attempting to Blow Up Vat.” Cullman Democrat (Cullman, AL), April 24, 1919.

*a good/possibly only book on this subject is “Making Catfish Bait out of Government Boys: The Fight Against Cattle Ticks and the Transformation of the Yeoman South,” by Claire Strom. I came across while researching this blog post. I’d heard about the dynamiting of tick vats from an earlier work on the history of cattle farming in Alabama and was really bummed to discover that someone else wrote the first book on it. Oh well, I’ll write the second.

**and by extension cattle from the rest of the south, it made more sense to just sell your herd west than try to take them through Nashville and onward to the slaughterhouses in Chicago.

***although I found a bunch of homosexuality cases that mentioned the same guy over and over again. it’s almost like the sheriff camped out near Dick Wells’s house and arrested him every other time he engaged in man-on-man loving. fun fact, all the men he supposedly got it on with appeared as witnesses against him.

Love in the Time of Adequate Syphilis Testing

Alabama periodically reenters the news as a focal point for a new syphilis outbreak. Of course, the active cases are usually found in or around Birmingham, the state’s largest urban center and industrial hub. However, let us not forget a happier time, when an aggressive venereal disease control program worked wonders in rural Alabama, except for the areas around Tuskegee – for obvious reasons, and the initiative of the Alabama Department of Public Health helped preserve the quality and quantity of life for tens of thousands of people.

In August 1945, Bruce Henderson, the state Senator for Wilcox County, managed to get a bill passed which required testing and immediate treatment for everyone between the ages of 21 and 50. His sudden interest in controlling syphilis and gonorrhea stemmed not from a compassionate core but from his position as a plantation owner. Untreated venereal diseases absolutely wrecked anyone’s ability to do physical labor or otherwise participate in the state’s economy.

It took almost thirteen years of subsidized education, health, and prevention programs; but for a short time it appeared that major venereal disease might be wiped out throughout the state. Then funding stopped. Alabamians are a promiscuous people and soon reinfection rates outstripped previous control efforts. Which is how we’re at our current state of venereal epidemics every two or three years.

So remember sweetly the spring of 1958, when for a brief moment only 2.08 percent of the state’s entire population had gonorrhea.

via The Journal of California and Western Medicine, "Cal West Med. 1945 Aug; 63(2): 105
via The Journal of California and Western Medicine, “Cal West Med. 1945 Aug; 63(2): 105
via Huntsville Times
via Huntsville Times; February 2, 1958.