Based Keelboat

Littleberry Adams arrived in the Tennessee Valley a comparatively wealthy man. With seventeen enslaved people in 1809, he and his family easily ranked as the wealthiest members of local white society. Had the Broad River planters not arrived in larger numbers later that year then the Adams family might have kept their position at the top of the local hierarchy.

Due to this affluence, and associated early influence, Littleberry Adams, sometimes known as Little B. in court documents, deserves mention in any early history of Madison county. As such, Daniel S. Dupre makes quick reference to Adams as an example of a successful early squatter in his fantastic book Transforming the Cotton Frontier: Madison County, Alabama, 1800-1840. 

Dupre briefly alights upon both Adams’ role as an enslaver of people and early entrepreneur before moving forward with his discussion of north Alabama history. In his citations for the book he references an early court case in Madison county, where in 1810 a man named Robert Beaty sued Adams over delinquent payments for a keelboat with which to haul cotton. Although glossed over in Dupre’s account this case is as informative as it is hilarious; as it highlights not only the cash poor frontier economy of the territorial period but the role of equity and common law in early Alabama legal history.

On January 10, 1810, Little B. and Robert Beaty* met at “Dittoes Landing” to sign a contract for “one Keelboat, six polls, four oars, one hammer, [and] one corking chisel all in good order,” for either $120 or $220, depending on who you asked, in increments of fifty cents a day between January 10 and April 1, followed by the rest of the payment upon Adams’ return from the Texan cotton markets.

However, this is where the dispute arose. For although the contract itself mentions the $120, Beaty contended that they made it “in great hast at the boat landing” and that $220 remained the original price agreed upon by all parties. Beaty produced a man named David Thompson, mentioned as the original witness to the contract, who confirmed this differing price.

Adams not only neglected to pay the difference but had gone a solid year since that contract without paying Beaty any of the aforementioned money for the keelboat. As such, Beaty turned not to the common law, which would discount the oral testimony of David Thompson, but towards the newly established courts of equity where his case might be tried “in tender consideration… [for] mattes of fraud, deception, and such mistakes are properly cognizable and relieveable.”**

Both men mustered their attorneys and exchanged barbs over their contract. Littleberry Adams contended that their original contract was “informal” at best and not a binding covenant. While Beaty railed against his non-payment. Finally, in March of 1812, Adams admitted that the original verbal contract stipulated that he pay Beaty $220 for the keelboat.

Yet he still claimed that he ought not pay the total amount. Adams knew that the oral testimony of witnesses doomed him to a lighter wallet, so he decided that everyone should go down with him. He claimed that the boat was faulty and “in consequence of its leakiness the defendant was detained considerable time on the river.” By the time that Adams reached his destination, which appeared to be the Sabine River – a neutral territory between the United States and Spanish America that now forms the border between Texas and Louisiana, the boat began sinking again and he paid two dollars and “a considerable quantity of whiskey,” to have it both caulked and “laid high and dry,” during the repair process.

Littleberry Adams considered the associated expenses sufficient as the Neutral Ground, the territory around the Sabine River, existed as a haven for outlaws and bandits, and any time not spent on the relative safety of the boat probably exposed his small cotton shipping expedition to these dangers. Due to Beaty’s negligence, Adams found no reason to pay him the full price, or really any money at all.

Obviously this argument failed to hold up and Obadiah Jones, that lonely frontier judge, declared that Little B. owed The Beat $220 for the boat and an extra $22 for the court costs.


Robert Beaty v. Littleberry Adams, Book A, 1-3 (1811)

*Who I desperately want to refer to as The Beat.

**This is legitimately like the first court case ever prosecuted in Madison county, so Beaty is going out on a limb here.

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.


One Dollar Worth of Razor

Eli Newman waited for most of November fifth. He began that Saturday in jail and ended it in dirt. He probably stared at the gallows that awaited him and silently cursed the fact that he’d never see 1813, or Sunday, or one in the afternoon. Though he certainly saw nine o’clock. One can only wonder if his last definite hour of life moved like a slug or a hummingbird. The previous Monday Judge Obadiah Jones left him a broad window of execution, but sometime between “ten in the forenoon and two in the afternoon,” he hanged.

152 days earlier Eli Newman killed Joseph Tetrick. He never denied his crime, only the ability of Madison county to prosecute it. For Eli Newman assaulted the man on the eastern lands of the Chickasaw Nation, a place that someday became Lawrence County. He sliced a two-inch ditch in Tetrick’s neck for an unstated reason, but did so with “a certain instrument called a razor, of the value of one dollar.” He referred to himself in court documents as a “traverser,” indicating that he passed through the Chickasaw Nation, and indeed Alabama, on his way to somewhere else. Documents are unclear on whether or not the Sheriff recovered the certain instrument.

Lewis Edwards appeared in court the same day as Eli Newman. Edwards actually spoke to Obadiah Jones immediately prior to Newman receiving his death sentence. He stood accused, on that first Monday in November, of robbing Archilaus Craft barely a month earlier. On October first of 1812 he carried away “a certain spotted handle razor, of the value of one dollar,” from the home of Craft* and back into Madison county.

It was a razor kind of day.

*more research is required but a quick perusal of some genealogical sites indicate that an Archilaus Craft may have lived in or near the contemporary boundaries of the Chickasaw Nation. while I am not impugning upon the reputation of Archilaus Craft by suggesting that he murdered Tetrick, I do think it’d be cool if it was the same razor and he found it in the woods after Newman tossed it aside. Eli Newman was an outsider and his plea makes quite clear that Madison county already tried him for this crime two previous times – it seems that the Sheriff finally stacked a jury that would deliver a death sentence.


The Territory vs. Lewis Edwards, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 51/45-52/45 (1812).

The Territory vs. Eli Newman, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 53/46-58/49 (1812).