Chopped Green

On May 8, 1819, Aaron Green, Menan Priest, John Priest, Isaac Priest, Joel Sturman, Jandy Bell, David Draper, and Thomas Rowe patrolled the streets and highways of Madison county.

Prior to the institution of more modern police forces most southern states relied on relatively informal methods to safeguard the slave south’s version of law and order. In 1757, Georgia pioneered the use of one such method: the slave patrol. Based off of earlier laws in South Carolina, “An Act for Establishing and Regulating of Patrols,” not only formalized the slave patrol but elevated it into a masterclass on oppression. Operating around a grid system the patrols entered areas unannounced to inspect and intimidate the enslaved population.

Of course, Madison county eventually institutionalized its own version of the slave patrol with the 1831 establishment of the Night Watch. However, Alabama failed to adopt any statewide ‘patrol laws’ until the passage of the 1833 Slave Codes. Even then the codes only made passing references to slave patrols under the assumption that most municipalities operated their own.*

Subsection 35
“A Digest of the Laws of the State of Alabama”

Although Huntsville and Madison county eventually instituted a slave patrol it appears that this early instance of mildly organized vigilantism existed outside the regional context. Instead these eight men roamed the county in pursuit of those most egregious sinners – gamblers. It should be noted that, somehow, a distaste for gaming pervaded Alabama more heavily than other southern states. So although Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida instituted their own lottery systems Alabama operated a special Bingo Task Force as recently as 2010.

This focus on gaming means that Aaron Green, the Priest brothers, Joel Sturman, Jandy Bell, David Draper, and Thomas Rowe might not have felt completely out of place during the 2009 raid on the VictoryLand Hotel in rural Macon county.

Yet they are not notable for their breaking up of games nor their burning of cards and dice. For on May 8, 1819, they patrolled and during that duty one might come across a desperate man.

They ran into two.

Nicholas Higgins and James Morris sat gambling in the forest. Other men gamed with them but those folks ran as soon as the patrol showed up, so their names are lost to history.

All that is known is that Higgins and Morris saw eight men charged with keeping the peace in Madison county and immediately attacked them with swords. Now it might seem improbable that two gamblers in the woods might have swords in the early nineteenth century, especially as swords began their decline as a common item close to a century earlier. Yet that happened.

Moreover James Morris, not content to chase men with sharpened blades, produced a pistol “loaded towit with gunpowder and a leaden bullet,” and indiscriminately fired at the patrollers. The men proved so fearsome that the patrol fled from their terrible visage. After the patrol departed witnesses claimed that men returned to the scene and the gamblers partied “and did and there remain and continue so assembled and armed for the space of an hour and more the next following” day. Finally departing, undisturbed, in the early hours of the morning.

The jury either found the evidence against them lacking or the lack of fortitude by the patrollers disgusting, because they dismissed the case.

One of the patrolmen, Aaron Green, returned to his normal life in Madison county. For two beautiful months nobody tried to stab or otherwise assault him. Yet on July 3, 1819, he and a man named John Jones got into a scuffle.

Jones drew out his chisel and delivered unto Green “one grievous and dangerous wound of the length of two inches and of the depth of four inches.” Once Jones finished carving into Aaron Green he left the man laying all bloody on the ground. The October term of the court of the Alabama Territory found Jones guilty and fined him $150.00.

Aaron Green spent the rest of his days avoiding men with sharp things.


A Digest of the Laws of the State of Alabama: Containing All the Statutes of a Public and General Nature in Force at the Close of the Session of the General Assembly in January 1833. Philadelphia: Alexander Towar, 1833.
Hadden, Sally E. “Slave Patrols.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 10 January 2014. Web. 20 May 2016.
The Territory v. James Morris & Nicholas Higgins, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 267/219-270/221 (1819).

The Territory v. John Jones, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 273/223-275/225 (1819).

*Although it is worth noting that Alabama finally mandated patrol duty for all slaveowners unto the age of 60 and all other “free white persons” 18-45, in the second set of slave codes passed in 1852. So maybe not all municipalities used them.



Three Days in March

For three days in March their little war raged across the county.

The McMahans and Gibsons arrived in north Alabama and started feuding with each other almost immediately. Neither family appeared on the 1812 Tax List; although John McMahan, as the head of his clan, showed up as a taxpayer in 1815.*

Additionally, the 1816 Mississippi Territory Census appears to have eschewed Madison county entirely. It focused instead on the wild  and silent places of what would become the state of Mississippi and upon Monroe county in Alabama. Which, to clarify, in 1816 is all of Alabama aside from the earlier counties of Madison, Washington, and Clarke and the recently conquered Mobile and Baldwin.**

via “Madison Memories Collection: Potpourri”

In addition, the transitory nature of the time period, combined with the fact that several of their members died in Madison county, means that either family is unlikely to appear on the 1820 census. So, unfortunately, the motives of either group remain unclear. We are forced to extrapolate.

All that is known is that it started with a simple assault.

On March 7, 1816, William Gibson and Philip Fields found William McMahan. McMahan was alone, possibly in his family’s fields, and they saw their chance. With quick wit and cruelty they both fell upon him.

Three days later the McMahans took revenge. They gathered their allies Henry Seeman and Barnet Hicklin, and together with them the brothers McMahan: John, the injured William, and Martin, all descended upon Robert Gibson while he was unawares. They did “riotously, beat, bruise and illtreat,” the Gibson man before moving on.

Both of these assaults took place in Madison county proper, although the court documents fail to mention where, but the action probably took place along the eastern edge of the county. We can infer this because the action soon moved across the border into the Cherokee Nation, on the northeastern edges of the Mississippi Territory.

Perhaps they heard of planned retribution by the Gibson family. Perhaps they simply had business among the Ani Yun Wiya.*** Lack of the appropriate census data combined with the early Scots-Irish predilection for marrying into prominent southeastern indigenous families means that the McMahans themselves could have been Cherokee people.^

Either way it appears that William McMahan took part in the assault on Robert Gibson and then immediately set out for the Cherokee lands to the east. We know this because later that day he was murdered.

Byrd Ashburne and John Pate waited for him inside the Nation. Their involvement complicates the tale. They either heard of the assault on Robert Gibson and made a unilateral decision to strike at William McMahan or they previously knew that William would go into the bounds of the Cherokee Nation at a specific time and had no qualms about laying in wait for him.

Which means that the original assault by William Gibson and Philip Fields was probably a bungled assassination. If this theory is correct then some spark united the Gibsons, Ashburne, and Pate in their hatred for William McMahan. It is a great shame that so few documents survive from this conflagration.

Either way they shot him from behind. John Pate recognized William McMahan and called out to Byrd Ashburne, who grabbed a musket which he “did shoot and discharge.” The bullet penetrated William McMahan “about an inch on the left side of the backbone.” The two men apparently fled after shooting him because William languished for three days, sliding slowly into death. He managed to communicate the details of his assault before demise.

Obadiah Jones barely knew what to do. They all crowded into his court room on the same Monday in May. Jurors for each case waited with all the patience of lawful busy men ready to make “true deliverance… between the Territory and the prizoners at the bar.” Justice had to be swift.

William Gibson received a twenty dollar fine for his assault on William McMahan and Philip Fields a five dollar fine for participating. A jury fined John McMahan nine dollars for beating Robert Gibson. Whereas they found Barnet Hicklin guilty of $50 worth of assault. Martin McMahan and Henry Seeman were acquitted on all charges. Byrd Ashburne earned a $25o fine, a manslaughter charge, and four months “in the prison of said county.” While John Pate walked away from the whole fiasco a free man.

Of course the Territory dropped the case against William McMahan.


The Territory v. William Gibson, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 189/153-191/154 (1816).

The Territory v. Philip Fields, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 192/155-193/156 (1816).

The Territory v. John McMahan, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 195/158-197/159 (1816).

The Territory v. Barnet Hicklin, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 198/160-198/161 (1816).

The Territory v. William McMahan, Martin McMahan & Henry Seeman, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 200/162 (1816).

The Territory v. Byrd Ashburne, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 201/163-204/166 (1816).

The Territory v. John Pate, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 204/166-209/169 (1816).

*It is not at all unlikely that the McMahans or Gibsons were simply too poor to appear on a tax list, or simply got looked over during the process, for we know that John McMahan previously appeared as a pig thief.

**James Wilkinson literally just took it from Spain in 1813. Marched an American army into the city and said “this is Yazoo Land ceded to us by the Treaty of San Lorenzo.”

***One of several endonyms used by the Cherokee Nation. I threw it in here as a gentle reminder that we usually learned the names for an indigenous group from their enemies.

^The obviously Irish surname does not disqualify them. The famous Muskogee leader Hoboi Hili Miko was better known to white society as Alexander McGillivray; while his nephews William Weatherford and William McIntosh both led opposing forces during the Red Stick War, but their Muskogee troops knew them as Lamochattee and Taskanugi Hatke respectively. The early southeast witnessed far more race mixing than it was comfortable admitting.

The Indubitable Branch

The Bank of the State of Tennessee blazed into glorious existence after the Panic of 1819; the price of cotton plummeted, the Creek removal coupled with the entrance of Alabama as a state meant that land became cheap instead of scarce, and the entire southeast seemed on the verge of economic collapse. The people of Tennessee felt the stinging need to manage their money. The bank did brisk business across the south for eleven years before promptly falling apart in 1831, because it was suddenly the Jacksonian era and nobody, least of all Tennessee, was going to have any more of this centralized banking nonsense.

However, there was an older bank. One founded all the way back in 1807. A Tennessee State bank that few appreciated or loved. A state bank so far removed from the daily struggles of Tennessee that Tennessee itself only owned five percent of the bank’s total worth. On July 3, 1818, that detested bank issued about two hundred dollars worth of bonds from its headquarters in Knoxville to a man named D. Deadrick. Deadrick lived in Jonesborough, the oldest city in Tennessee, and apparently his bonds made their way into the hands of Thomas Watson and Thomas Garner in Huntsville, Alabama.

Except those bonds never saw the bitter air of Tennessee.

For they were forged.

Thomas Watson forgery
Poorly forged.

Thomas Watson and Thomas Garner lived as yeomen in Madison county. They tilled the land, probably dreamed of one day becoming important planters, and knew very little of counterfeiting when they attempted it; all four of the bills they passed off had the same serial number. Yet there were those who knew these things, so on July 16, 1821, when they attempted to use the bills, the merchants of Huntsville let forth a great cry and alerted the constabulary that Watson and Garner wished to “defraud the President Directors & Company of the state Bank of Tennessee.”

Of course, both men were immediately arrested.

Now, long time readers will notice something significant about this case. We already have a record of Thomas Watson. Although he and Thomas Garner faced trial, Watson apparently possessed more entrepreneurial spirit, as only he managed to escape from the Madison county jail and the clutches of constable Cottrell.

Cottrell formed an impromptu posse, hunted him up and down the county for three days, and proceeded to torture him within an inch of his life.

Perhaps these actions informed the jurors’ decision. For at the Madison county courthouse, on the first Monday in September, twelve men proclaimed “on their oath” that they found Thomas Watson not guilty.

I’m sure it was a great consolation.


The State of Alabama v. Thomas Garner & Thomas Watson, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 176-178 (1821).

You can learn more about the various State Banks of Tennessee here.