Susannah Don’t Give a Ship

In 1802, the first Anglo-American settlers arrived in Madison county. The Ditto family came around the Great Bend of the Tennessee River and settled on what was either federal or Chickasaw land, depending on who you asked.

Not that the distinction mattered too much, as the Chickasaw Nation suffered from a long history of Anglophilia. After the Choctaw, a neighbor and regional foe, made alliances with the French, it quickly became advantageous to side with the British in all things. Following the American Revolution this quickly translated into a friendly relationship with the nascent United States. It unfortunately ended with the cession of Chickasaw lands in western Tennessee, northern Alabama, and eastern Mississippi and exile to Oklahoma – where the Chickasaw Nation found itself sharing land and resources with the Choctaw Nation, for administrative convenience.*

So when James and Jane Ditto settled on an island in the middle of the Tennessee River they found themselves surrounded by rough terrain and kind people. Originally from Baltimore county, Maryland; James Ditto eventually married a woman named Jane in North Carolina around 1775.

By the time they made it to Alabama, James Ditto found himself pushing sixty and too old for most professions. So he established a trading post and a ferry service that rapidly became a hub for north Alabama’s transportation and burgeoning commerce.

American colonists relied on the Ditto family’s boats and close ties with the Chickasaw Nation to ensure safe passage in the newly opened lands to the south. Ditto even ferried portions of Andrew Jackson’s army across the Tennessee river during the War of 1812. Eventually the outpost grew and in 1824, a salt trader and plantation owner from Virginia named James White expanded Ditto Landing into a port city named Whitesburg. The city eventually faded away before being absorbed by Huntsville in 1905.**

However, this is not really the story of Ditto Landing, nor is it the tale of James Ditto. Instead we shall focus on his second daughter, Susannah Ditto, and her brief marriage to Joseph Anderson.

August 27, 1806, saw what was probably the first American marriage in Madison county. A seventeen year old Susannah Ditto became the first bride. She lived for four years among the Chickasaw Nation. She, and her seven other siblings, helped her parents run the trading post. They were wild people, squatting on land and worried about money, and now she was married. The prospect failed to excite her for long.

On February 23, 1810, Susannah decided that she preferred Ditto to Anderson and went back to her father’s home on the river. Joseph Anderson waited the prerequisite number of years to file for a divorce and in 1813 presented his claims to the court.

She no longer loved him and refused to live with him while she drew breath. Since her departure several men “seduced” her and she “committed adultery with divers persons.”

Susannah replied to the allegations almost immediately. Surprisingly, she agreed with everything. The court could not fathom this. Why would a young woman, only 22 years old, admit to running around with all sorts of men and leaving her husband?

As the daughter of an infrequent pioneer, Susannah grew up on one frontier after another, she had little use for the civilization that so slowly crept into the Tennessee Valley, and as such felt no great compulsion to lie or cast herself as a faithful, if spurned, maiden. She was a Ditto, the first Anglo-Americans on the land. Everyone else was trespassing in her county. However, the judge, Obadiah Jones, saw in her reply not honesty but a woman manipulated by her husband.

He accused the couple of collusion and barred their chance at divorce. They remained married the rest of their days.


Joseph Anderson v. Susannah Anderson, Book A, 12-13 (1813)

*Which would be similar to forcing British and French people to live together because a bureaucrat from Bangladesh couldn’t tell the difference between them. Also, fun fact, during the American civil war the Chickasaw finally fought against the United States – marking the first time the nation ever raised a rifle at an English speaking state.

**One of my favorite tropes from north Alabama history is:

1) poor white settler from Tennessee or North Carolina squats on land

2) other English speaking people start to refer to that geographic feature as “someone-ville” or “specific human-point”

3) rich person from Virginia buys it and names it after themselves or a place where their family is from

4) other poor white settlers from Tennessee or North Carolina wait for rich Virginian to die before renaming it

5) poor white person enters communal history and memory

6) rich Virginian occasionally included as an afterthought, in this exact case as a street name.


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