The Red Sticks, part 1: “…a war will take place.”

In 1811, Tecumseh traveled to Tuckabatchee. Tecumseh led a powerful confederation of Native nations with their informal capital at Prophetstown, north of modern-day Lafayette, Indiana. He and his brother, the Shawnee prophet Tenskatawa, recruited warriors and followers from across the Great Lakes region. They wanted to stop the steady westward encroachment of white settlers and preserve their religious traditions from the meddling of missionaries. In the early 19th century they found plenty of Shawnee, Delaware, Mohawk, and Potawatomi peoples who shared their complaints and the population of Prophetstown swelled.

Yet Tecumseh’s vision of a powerful Pan-Native state capable of resisting American imperialism did not start and stop in the shadow of the Great Lakes. It extended south and embraced all the remaining Native lands of the Mississippi River Basin. So, in 1811, he came to Alabama. Tuckabatchee was one of the mother towns of the Creek Nation and the site of the National Council; it hugged the Tallapoosa River and was the birthplace of many Principal Chiefs. It held special significance as a potential first site of the puskita, the Creek version of the Green Corn Ceremony, a sacred harvest ritual practiced by Native nations from the Northeastern woodlands to the eastern edges of the Great Plains and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Tecumseh did not choose the Creeks at random. Instead he returned to the homeland of his mother and spoke to them as his relatives. He appealed to their religious traditions, their shared experiences of subjugation at the hands of white settlers, and the whittling away of their territory by the persistent cessions to the United States.

Some young men liked what they heard and against the advice of their elders traveled back to the Great Lakes with Tecumseh. They returned to the Creek lands with new dances and magic that would supposedly make them impervious to American arms and renewed promises of British aid in the coming war. In return for all this magic and all these guns, the followers of Tecumseh and Tenskatawa had to destroy all things American. So began a violent campaign to rid the Creek nation of American influence.

The Red Sticks, as they came to be called, destroyed plows and looms; they slaughtered cattle, horses, and pigs. They burned cotton fields and tore down barns. They targeted pro-American leaders among the Creek. Red Stick warriors went to mixed Anglo-Creek people and told them to choose a side.

Red Sticks returning from their meetings with the Shawnee murdered a white family near the Duck River in Tennessee. They targeted white settlers living along the Federal Road that connected Washington D.C. to New Orleans and ran right through the Creek Nation. Benjamin Hawkins, the Creek Agent or representative of the United States government, implored the Creek National Council to hunt down the murderers. They complied but it further strained relations between the different Creek camps. By the spring of 1813, there were no neutral towns. A Creek civil war raged throughout their whole territory.

In July 1813, Red Sticks traveled south to the port-town of Pensacola in Spanish West Florida. They met a British captain there and procured a large shipment of guns. Upon their return northwards they were blocked by a combined militia force of pro-American Creeks and white settlers from the Tensaw area. On July 27, the militia scattered the Red Sticks near Burnt Corn Creek and retrieved some of their arms, but not enough to stop what happened next.

In retaliation for the meddling of Americans in their affairs, the Red Sticks turned their fury onto Fort Mims, an outpost near the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, just north of Spanish West Florida. On August 30, 1813, they overran the fort’s meager defenses, killing around 250 people and taking the rest as prisoners.

The calls for vengeance issued from every corner of the South. Militia from Tennessee, Georgia, and the Mississippi Territory marched out to meet the Red Stick threat. Huntsville, as the largest American settlement near the Creek Nation fell into a panic.

On August 22, 1813, Major John Read of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment, stationed in Huntsville, warned Governor David Holmes of growing tensions between the Cherokees and Creeks:


I think it is very probable that a war will take place between the Cherokes & Creeks, it appears that a white man living at Hightower in the Cherokee nation have been killd by the Creeks; that the Cherokees wrote to the Creeks & sent one of their own people requiring of them why they had come into their country to do mischief, the Creeks on receipt of the letter immediately burnt it & put the messenger to death.”

Major Read wrote that the Cherokees in Hightower planned to meet in council on August 25th to decide their response. The violence, ongoing for the previous two years, only drew the attention of white Americans in Madison County a week before the Fort Mims massacre.

In many ways this inattention to the southern frontier became emblematic of the course of the conflict. The Red Stick War took place against the backdrop of the War of 1812, a new front in a war that stemmed from Britain’s desire to remain the dominant power in North America. Much of the United States’ attention in 1812 and 1813 was focused on the high drama around the Great Lakes, Tecumseh and the British’s capture of Detroit, and a failed American invasion of Canada that culminated in the destruction of what would become Toronto.

As such, the federal government offered little help in securing the lives and claims of white settlers in the Mississippi Territory and that instead fell to a hodge-podge of governors and militia leaders. Governors David Holmes of the Mississippi Territory, William Blount of Tennessee, and David Mitchell of Georgia – all attempted to raise and supply armies, secure communications and logistics lines, and prevent the spread of Red Stick ideology to other Creek groups. They accomplished this during a war with Great Britain, growing civilian panic about Native uprisings throughout the frontier, and an unclear chain of command.

Just as three governors tried to coordinate a response – their three armies moved against the Red Sticks: the Mississippi Territory militia and their Choctaw allies under General Ferdinand Claiborne, a combined force of Georgia militia under General John Floyd and the pro-American Creek leader William McIntosh, and Tennessee’s rival militias – the West Tennesseans and their Cherokee allies under General Andrew Jackson and the East Tennesseans under John Cocke.

Unsurprisingly, with so many egos meeting so many moving parts, they did a haphazard job.


“Series 488: Administration Papers, 1769, 1788-1817; N.d.” Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Accessed March 01, 2019.

Braund, Kathryn. “Creek War of 1813-14.” Last Updated: January 30, 2017.

Ethridge, Robbie. Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. (specifically pages 238-241)


“…a Damnd Thief”

In 1811, at the January Term of the Madison County Court, an impassioned plea came before the jury. Nathaniel Christian, and his attorney James Rodgers, wanted the twelve men presiding over small judgments to know that Nathaniel Christian, “now is and always was from the time of his nativity… a good, true, honest and faithful citizen of this Territory.”

Christian claimed that “all his good neighbors” respected him and he possessed an unblemished reputation. For his whole life nobody had ever accused him of “thefts, felonies, larcenies or other hurtful crime,” until the summer of 1810.

On an unspecified day in June 1810, in front of “divers good citizens of this Territory,” Michael Harrison “loudly [spoke]… the several false, fraudulent, malicious and opprobrious English words… You are a Damnd Thief.”

Nathaniel Christian was taken aback. According to his bill against Harrison, the only reason Harrison accused him was that he was aware of Christian’s good standing in the community and envied his “happy State and Condition.” Imagine his surprise when Harrison kept shouting at him, “You are a Damned Thief and I can prove it.”

Christian claimed that these abusive words caused communal faith to melt away from him like December’s ice on April’s trees. For such an egregious violation of his “good name, fame and reputation,” Nathaniel Christian thought it only fitting that he recover against Michael Harrison “damage [worth] one thousand dollars.”

Harrison of course plead not guilty, saying that he did not remember making these accusations, but “he saith if he did speak and publish said slanderous words he was justified in so doing because he saith said plaintiff is a Thief and this he is ready to verify.”

The cause continued, punted from each term of the court to the next, until January 1812, when a jury convened to reexamine the case. They found Michael Harrison guilty of decrying the good name of Nathaniel Christian, and “they do assess the damage of the plaintiff to Five dollars.”

Nathaniel Christian v. Michael Harrison, Madison County Alabama County Court Record Book 1, 1811 – 1813. p. 46 – 48 (1811).

Martin Dunnegan Got Done In

In early September 1821, twelve men met at the old courthouse and decided Martin Dunnegan’s fate. They looked at the facts of the case and decided that “… the said Martin Dunnegan, be taken from whence he came, and there remain in close confinement – until the first Friday in December next and that on that day between the hours of one and three O Clock P.M. he be taken to the place of execution in the vicinity of this Town, and that he be there hanged by the neck until he is dead.”

Martin Dunnegan’s crime spree began on March 30, 1821, at a general store owned by Luther Morgan. On that fateful morning he walked in and handed Luther Morgan four separate notes. They all said the same thing:

“Mr Morgan Sir let Martin Dunnegan have to the amount of twelve dollars in the store and I will be security for the same, this 30th March, 1821 Levi Underwood”

After he, very quickly, got found out, “a Jury of good and Lawful men” decreed that Martin Dunnegan deserved to die over his clumsy attempt to “feloniously and falsely make forge and counterfeit,” these orders in the name of Levi Underwood.

And for all those scraps of paper he hanged.

The State of Alabama v. Martin Dunnegan, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 72 – 75 (1821).

Mean Burket Green

Burket Green got into an altercation with Warren Hart in 1821.

On April 29, they scuffled and during this fight Burket Green got the upper hand. He “did beat and throw down the floor,” Warren Hart, who suffered serious wounds to the “head neck breast Belly sides and back.” Green kicked Hart viciously and, according to court documents, ended his homicidal frenzy with “one Mortal Bruise” behind Hart’s right ear. The killing punch landed with such force that it left an indentation in Warren Hart’s skull, it ran two inches long and was sunk an inch deep.

Hart suffered for several days. He languished from April 29th to May 4th, when the damage done during Burket Green’s awful spasm finally killed him.

A jury convicted him of manslaughter and sentenced him to a year in prison, on November 29, 1822.

That is not the end of the Burket Green story.

Just five months into his sentence, Burket Green got the upper hand on Daniel Rather, “the keeper of the Gaol” for the city of Huntsville. On April 10, 1823, he attacked Rather, and with “force and arms” secured his early release.

His newfound freedom was short-lived and the law caught up with him some days later. Burket Green got an additional fifty dollar fine for his escape. The county indicted Daniel Rather for his negligence in failing to secure Burket Green, but the jury remembered Green’s violence and dropped those charges.

The State of Alabama v. Burket Green, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 127 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Daniel Rather, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 150 -151 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Burket Green, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 170 – 173 (1821).


Squire, Birney, and the Judge

On May 5, “the first Monday after the fourth Monday in April,” 1823, an unlikely thing happened at the Madison county court house.

It all started on the night of February 15, 1822, when around 11pm someone at “the dwelling house of Obadiah Jones there situate feloniously and Burglariously did break and enter.” Obadiah Jones was well known in Madison county, having served as its only judge during the territorial period. So when a thief “did steal take and carry away one bank note for the payment of ten dollars,” they stole not just from a rich man but from one of the most important men in Alabama.

The only suspect was Squire.

Squire’s brief description in the court records reads thus “a negro slave (belonging to one Alfred Shelly).” There is no indication as to why Squire became the chief suspect. The county had not yet banned the enslaved from working in their free time, so Squire might have earned enough money to become suspicious. Or it simply could have been that Obadiah Jones claimed he saw a black man and Squire lived nearby.

Either way, this is the first recorded case of a slave appearing in court in Madison county. It is difficult to imagine the terror that Squire must have felt or the striking imbalance of power that everyone must have recognized. Here was a member of the lowest caste facing off against a member of the highest.

Of course, that was before it was ordered by the court “that James G Birney Esq be assigned council for the said negro slave.”

James Gillespie Birney had a long and interesting career. He was born in Kentucky and during his childhood was tutored by antislavery advocates. Although he was gifted his first slave at the age of six and briefly had a plantation in Triana – the brutal realities of slavery never sat well with him. In the early 1830’s he quit practicing law and traveled throughout the Deep South trying to convince free blacks to leave America for their supposed new homeland in Liberia. Birney eventually abandoned the idea of colonization altogether, left the South, freed all his slaves, and became a staunch abolitionist – even running for president on the Liberty Party ticket in 1840 – the first time a national party called for the complete and total end of slavery in the United States.*

But all of that was later. For now Birney was known in Huntsville as a man who represented counterfeiters, the victims of mob violence, and spoke out against Andrew Jackson’s 1819 invasion of Florida – a liberal lawyer with a soft spot for the dispossessed.

A liberal lawyer but a good one.

Unfortunately the courts of this era did not keep strict transcripts, so the oratory is lost. They simply recorded judgments. So all that is left to us is this: “we the Jury find the said negro man Squire not Guilty in manners and form as he is charged in said bill of Indictment.”

As rare as it is to find enslaved people as defendants or plaintiffs in court documents, it is rarer still when they win. So although Squire’s victory was certainly bittered by his continued bondage, he probably understood how unlikely his acquittal seemed from the outset and how strange it was that, for once in his life, he was treated equally under the law.

* Michael, the gifted slave, was four year old at the time. They were playmates, and later, after Birney’s revelation about the horrors of slavery and his subsequent manumissions, good friends.

The State of Alabama v. Squire, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 147-148 (1823).

All the Petty Horses

Nathaniel Lenox did little in 1816 to earn the goodwill of his neighbors. For throughout that year he engaged in equine related larceny.

On January 15, Nathaniel Lenox found the home of Jacob Fuqua and with “force and arms” stole from him a “silver plated curbed bridle bit” worth eight dollars.

Not content with his new bridle bit, Nathaniel Lenox appeared in the Cherokee Nation on the first day of May. There he came upon Frederick Ice and stole a “certain bay horse of the value of one hundred dollars.” Now this case is interesting because the prosecutor, the person that the Mississippi Territory is suing on behalf of, is Thomas Ice – so it appears that a male relative of Frederick’s is taking up his cause.

The jury very quickly found Lenox not guilty of stealing a horse from Frederick Ice. However it took the court longer to deliberate on the theft of a bridle bit from Jacob Fuqua as Louis Winston, the attorney general, delayed his sentencing to the November term.

However, once the second Monday in November arrived Judge Obadiah Jones deemed it prudent to dismiss the charges against him because it appeared “to the satisfaction of the court that the said Nathaniel Lenox is dead.”

No word on if Jacob Fuqua ever got his bridle bit back.

The Territory vs. Nathaniel Lenox, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 179/144-180/145 (1816).

The Territory vs. Nathaniel Lenox, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819.p. 209/169-211/170 (1816).

The Kidnappings of Claiborne Griffin

The kidnappings began in the spring of 1811.
Jesse Daniel and Claiborne Griffin both appeared before the court during the July 1812 term. They each accused the other of vicious assault and abductions. The first case, Claiborne Griffin vs Jesse Daniel, alleges that March 1811, Jesse Daniel came upon Claiborne Griffin with “clubs, swords, and staves,” and did “beat wound, imprison and evil beat him.”
Daniel then dragged Griffin back to his home where he imprisoned him “without an reasonable cause and contrary to law,” for about a day.
This assault takes on significant context when considering the very next suit. For, Jesse Daniel responded to Claiborne Griffin with a case of his own. In early 1811, Griffin apparently came up from a place called “Bever about four miles below Twickenham” with “swords, staves & al.” Now, other cases from this time period describe a simple geography around modern day Huntsville, with areas known primarily by simple descriptors like Hickory Flat or “the beaver dam fork.” So it might be that Griffin lived by a creek just south of Huntsville/Twickenham.
Either way he arrived in town with his swords and set to kidnapping the “goods and chattels” of Jesse Daniel – four slaves named Nancy, Rachel, Abaline, and a fourth whose name was probably Arlotin. They all went to “Bever” for about a day before Daniel came to collect.
In light of the original raid, and the violence typical of the time and place, it was almost expected that Jesse Daniel would fall upon Claiborne Griffin until “his life was greatly despaired of.”
The first jury found Daniel not guilty and the second ruled that Griffin owed him $87 for his troubles.
Claiborne Griffin vs. Jesse Daniel, Madison County Court Record Book 1811-1813. p. 72-73 (1812).
Jesse Daniel vs. Claiborne Griffin, Madison County Court Record Book 1811-1813. p. 73 (1812).
William Kavanaugh vs. Thomas Patterson, Madison County Court Record Book 1811-1813. p. 92-94 (1812).

Continue reading “The Kidnappings of Claiborne Griffin”

“Cruel, Barbarous & Inhumane”: Emily Cornelius and Planter Divorce

On August 19, 1852, Emily Cornelius fled. She hid, not for the first time, among her neighbors and begged their protection from the man who beat her, William Cornelius, her husband.

Emily and William married September 23, 1847 in Madison County. William was a rich man. He owned about 810 acres and counted among his property at least twenty slaves: Jim, Thirston, Chainey, Jules, Horace, Andy, Bake, Buck, Little, Jae, Bill, Dennis, Palena, Katy, Evilina, Solomon, Sarah, Jane, Charlotte, George, Larkin, Francis, and an infant named Lena.

With his wealth and land, all derived from his surplus of slaves, William Cornelius achieved the status of planter – the rough and tumble elite of antebellum slave society. A planter, even a minor one like William Cornelius, wielded great and ugly power over their estate. White men who were free to terrorize, rape, and sometimes murder, planters rarely resembled the coiffed and dainty aristocrats of film and popular legend.

Due to this power, influence, and their relative scarcity when weighed against the general population, we do not have many records of planter divorces in the antebellum South. Indeed, the normal circumstances for divorce rarely applied to them. Less wealthy white men who allowed a female slave to take their wife’s place in bed might face a case, while planters’ concubines would often be overlooked by wives who wanted to keep their comfortable home. Planters also found fortune in their own counties and had no reason, like so many poor men, to shrug off the burdens of family and flee to Arkansas or the Republic of Texas. In addition, a legal quirk has prevented further insight into plantation marital strife. South Carolina possessed some of the largest and wealthiest plantations in the antebellum South. However, due to their conservative nature and quixotic constitutions, divorce was not legalized there until 1950, almost a century after the end of the slaveholding planter class.

Instead, the few planter divorces on record are often the result of dramatic and brutal domestic violence.

For the first years of their marriage William drank often. Emily described him as “addicted to the immoderate use of intoxicating drink,” but all else was otherwise peaceful. Around 1850, his behavior changed and William Cornelius became “cruel, barbarous, & inhumane.”

When he drank he fell into the “frequent habit of heaping curses & imprecations of the most direful character,” upon her. It quickly progressed from curses to shouted threats of violence and death. Then he started hitting her, delivering “violent blows with his fists & feet upon your oratrix.” During the worst assaults neighbors intervened to save her life.

Emily Cornelius began running from her husband. She counted at least four times prior to August 19, 1852. Each time she hid from him, William appeared later, sober and making “the most earnest asseverations…& uttering promises of the most solemn & sacred character,” that he would quit drinking. Each time she returned, convinced by his pleas, that she might “hope for peace & happiness & safety in the discharge of her duties as a wife.”

Each time he lied. The tension built in their marriage and he progressively used greater means of violence. In early June 1852, Emily Cornelius gave birth to a son – William Roland Cornelius – like his father. During her recovery period, when the infant was but three weeks old and she still feeble, William Cornelius attacked her. She cradled the infant in her arms while her husband “threatened to take the life of your oratrix if she opened her mouth.” During the assault William grabbed a chain and raised it to threaten her. He said he would kill her with it.

His mother, Ellen Cornelius, intervened. Ellen Cornelius moved between them and bodily shielded both Emily and the infant from her son’s rage. For this she “received a severe blow.” Afterwards, when William Cornelius began to drink they both hid.

Just a few weeks later, on August 19, he confronted her in a drunken rage. This time he brandished “an open Kine in his hand,” and told her it was time for their “final separation.” William told her to run and never come back, stating that if she returned he would finally kill her. She fled. Emily Cornelius took refuge with the neighbors and this time refused to return to her husband despite all his pleadings. [1]

In her suit Emily Cornelius lists her total property as a slave named Harriet “about 14 years of age,” who acted as a nurse for her infant son. She requested that the court grant her a divorce, custody of William Roland Cornelius, and a portion of her husband’s ample estate as maintenance.

William Cornelius responded the same day. He affirmed that, yes, they had married in 1847, and readily recognized that he was “addicted to the occasional immoderate use of intoxicating drinks,” but protested at being called “an habitual drunkard.” He said that he wanted to quit drinking and wished longingly that “his morbid apetite for stimulants had permitted him to keep his oft renewed resolution of Amendment.” He alleged that Emily Cornelius knew about his problems with alcohol long before they got married and “they have become no worse since.”

The response also implied that the marriage was a sham to get at William’s money. He claimed that prior to the wedding he had been “in one of the worst paroxysms of intoxication of about a week’s standing,” and that during the actual ceremony he “was so much under the influence of liquor that he could scarcely stand.”

William Cornelius framed the divorce proceedings as an elaborate ruse by Emily’s father to get some money to pay off his debts in Texas. His evidence for this was that her parents had been visiting during his most recent, and last, alleged assault and that she had spent much time with them. Despite all these claimed machinations by herself and her family, William Cornelius contended that he held her in “tender regard,” and simply wished for her to quit the divorce bill.

Abram Walker, the chancery court judge, saw all of this and issued his ruling on June 29, 1855. There would be no divorce, but William Cornelius would pay at least a thousand dollars in alimony and the infant should remain in Emily Cornelius’s care. Although it did not grant her absolute autonomy, one can imagine Emily Cornelius finding temporary relief in this outcome.

It would be far too temporary. William had successfully appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court. In 1858, almost six years after Emily Cornelius petitioned for divorce, some men in Montgomery made a final declaration.

The remarks of Alabama Supreme Court Justice George Stone summed up the difficulties that the wives of planters sometimes faced when seeking equality before the law. Although Justice Stone readily admitted that when William Cornelius drank he became “a boisterous madman; [and] that these fits last for days,” and that his violence required the intervention of neighbors to protect his wife and mother, the Justice still thought William Cornelius capable of reform. Poorer men who drank too much and assaulted their wives often had their marriages dissolved, but due to his wealth and stature, William retained some possible future rights to his son when he no longer required, “those tender offices that only a mother can bestow.”

Although everyone knew of William Cornelius’s temper and fondness for liquor and witnesses readily told of his cruelty towards Emily Cornelius, he managed to parlay his wealth and power into good lawyers and Supreme Court appeals. Emily Cornelius appealed to the better nature of antebellum slave society and found none.


Censer, Jane Turner. “”Smiling Through Her Tears”: Ante-Bellum Southern Women and Divorce.” The American Journal of Legal History 25, no. 1 (1981): 24-47.

Emily Cornelius by her next friend Robert True vs. William Cornelius, Book V, 605-618 (1852).

[1] Kine is both an archaic term for cattle and general farm implements. The documents do not specify but it is most likely a tool that could have done serious damage.


The Petition of 1828

On August 13, 1828, something extraordinary happened in Huntsville, Alabama. Eleven enslaved people petitioned the circuit court for their freedom.

We only know the names of the first ten: seven adults named Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, and Noah; and three children named Minerva, Sally, and Cornelius. A final unnamed child is mentioned several times throughout the petition and is represented with a large blank space.

Their combined petition existed in a strange legal limbo. They turned to the courts in a time before courts could certify manumission and in turn cast themselves upon the justice of a system that designed itself to offer none to them. During the Antebellum states framed their own laws regarding slavery. There existed little national standard beyond Tidewater colonial precedence and, because slavery in the United States rarely resembled the conditions of servitude found in Medieval and Early Modern England, occasionally an individual judge’s interpretation of Roman law. This lack of definition fostered a patchwork of vagaries and horror that stymied the efforts of many enslaved people who tried to navigate it.

The petitioners previously belonged to a man named Thomas Jones. He decreed in a will dated August 9, 1821, that all seven adults, “with their increase,” pass to his widow Rachel Jones. Thomas’s wishes were that after their “expected industry & obedience in the further service of his widow,” they would all become free upon her death. Thomas Jones fathered no children and left no debts, he could not conceive of anyone else laying claim to them.

For six more years they toiled. Finally, in 1827, Rachel Jones died. Tragically she also married a man named William M. Stamps sometime before her death. Prior to a wave of married women’s property laws that swept the United States during the 1840’s, all the property that a woman brought into a marriage passed to her husband. According to Alabama law William Stamps now owned them.

He wasted little time in trying to make money from their misfortune and hired out six of them to a man named David Monroe for a term of one year. On January 1, 1829, William Stamps would have been an abhorrent yet well-compensated man. However, he died in the early part of 1828. All eleven petitioners had managed to outlive three masters in the span of seven years with their community and families mostly intact.

William Stamps, like Thomas Jones, fathered no children and left behind no debts to satisfy with the sale of human skin. Yet he did have brothers. Elijah Stamps and Joshua Stamps became the administrators of his estate. The brothers claimed the profits from their labor for David Monroe and began to act as they owned them. The alarm fully sounded in the early summer of 1828, when Joshua Stamps unsuccessfully attempted to “run off & sell Daniel” but apparently found resistance or a lack of buyers.

Terrified that their collective hopes of a free future for themselves and their children might be “greatly embarrassed or wholly defeated” by the avarice of Joshua and Elijah, the petitioners reached out to a man named Robert Malone to serve as their next friend.

The next friend was a white man, or rarely an unmarried woman, who represented those who could not legally represent themselves; this included women seeking a divorce, children, and in the rare case of the petitioners, slaves. Fathers, friends, and unwed daughters all served as next friends in Antebellum Alabama divorce proceedings. Following this precedent, it makes sense to assume that Robert Malone was either an extremely close friend of Thomas Jones, in a relationship with one of the petitioners, or related to them.

Thus, they submitted their petition to the circuit court. They asked to be compensated for their additional time in bondage and to be taken into the protective custody of the sheriff or placed under the safekeeping of Robert Malone. Then they waited for the decision of an entity that could not legally free them.

The courts possessed little leeway in manumission cases until 1834. Although they petitioned a circuit court and not a county court, as specified in the 1834 legislation, the 1819 Constitution still required that the state legislature pass an individual act recognizing the manumission. Their attorneys made mention of this in the petition and it would have been fresh in the minds of any enslaved people near Huntsville, on January 9, 1828, the legislature had freed a man named John Robinson after people from across Madison county petitioned Senator Miller on his behalf. They would have known about Robinson’s manumission but the petitioners lacked the powerful voice that Robinson gained in a state senator. They ran the gambit that a court ruling might prompt legislative action.*

Judge Taylor issued an injunction on August 14, 1828, that prevented their removal from the county or their return from David Monroe to either Elijah or Joshua, until the Stamps brothers issued a $3,000 bond for their upkeep and good behavior. The sheriff delivered the injunctions and everyone waited for Taylor’s final decree in November.

On November 28, 1828, John M. Taylor, Fifth Circuit Court Judge, dismissed their case. They planned to appeal to Alabama Supreme Court but from the lack of a ruling it appears that court also sidestepped the issue.

They lost.

The petitioners navigated the complexities of Alabama’s manumission laws and attempted to use the circuit courts to amplify their own voices in a time where access to that kind of power was beyond rare for the enslaved. In the coming years, manumission requests continued to pour into Tuscaloosa, and later Montgomery, from across the state. Six years after the petitioners attempted to secure their promised freedom the power of manumission was delegated to the lowest level of the courts. In 1837, in true regressive style, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in Trotter v. Blocker that manumissions made in a will or on a death bed were no longer valid.

It provided no comfort to Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, Noah, Minerva, Sally, Cornelius, or ___, but by turning to the courts and relying on last wills, they forecasted the next decade of changes in Alabama manumission laws.

*In 1831, Robinson would be granted a special privilege by the Huntsville City Council as the only free black excluded from a new city law prohibiting the hiring out of slaves by freedmen.


Isabel, Daniel, Nancy, Peter, George, Lebadie, Noah, Minerva, Sally, & Cornelius (People of Colour) vs. Elijah Stamps & Joshua Stamps, Book D, 266-268 (1828).

“1827 Acts, 145-157.” Alabama State Legislature.

“1827 Senate Journal, Dec 21.” Alabama State Legislature.

Cox, Dwayne. “The Alabama Supreme Court on Slaves.” Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department.             

“Manumission By Last Will in Antebellum Alabama.” Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department.

“Trotter v. Blocker”. Auburn University Archives and Manuscripts Department.



This New City, Part 3: Since Houses So Built

Alabama’s first dalliance with federal housing programs came in the form of relief – from the dying light of Birmingham’s steel industry, from the cities and urban poverty. It was 1933 and the National Industrial Recovery Act found a test bed in Alabama.

Of the 25 million appropriated for solving “the overbalance of population in industrial centers,” a little over six million, or about a quarter of the total, wound up in central Alabama. Five communities in poverty stricken Jefferson and Walker counties – Palmerdale, Gardendale, Trussville, Bessemer, and Jasper – split the money between them. Each blossomed from Birmingham’s lagging steel production: Palmerdale was actually founded by the Resettlement Administration, Gardendale only incorporated as a real city in 1955, and neighborhoods in Jasper and Trussville both date from the period.*

North Alabama, deemed sufficiently rural by the federal government, avoided the constraints of various resettlement schemes until the outset of World War II. At that time the Lanham War Housing Act allowed Huntsville to begin receiving funds. Defense housing initiatives differed greatly from previous rural resettlement plans. Whereas the communities in Jefferson and Walker counties were allowed farming plots and often assigned a local industry; usually textile mills. The housing situation in Huntsville reacted to preexisting needs.

It soon mutated into something else entirely.

Defense housing came to Huntsville in September 1941. Five local businessmen, the first board of director for the Housing Authority of the City of Huntsville, met with Colonel R.C. Ditto of Redstone Arsenal. They asked Colonel Ditto to declare Huntsville and the surrounding communities a “defense area” so that they might start requesting federal funding for housing projects. It only made sense, Huntsville had the one big arsenal and the Army planned to construct a new chemical warfare plant next to it.**

Discussions lasted for several months. The Local Authority reached out to Representative John Sparkman. He offered to help in the fight. Finally on November 3, 1941, the United States Housing Authority stepped forward and politely declined Huntsville’s offer to become a defense area.

Then the Japanese attacked.

The United States no longer needed to prepare for war, it was there.

In February 1942, the USHA decided to approve a 300-unit housing complex for the Redstone Arsenal and the Huntsville Chemical Warfare Plant. They’d be made of brick, “since houses so built would bring a better price at the end of the emergency.” Even as the bloodiest war began to rage the men of the HHA thought of ways to turn this new defense housing to the city’s advantage.

*Cursory googling shows that the names for the planned communities; Cahaba Village (Trussville) and Farmstead (Jasper), survived and thrived to the present day. So although the original industrial settlements were eventually swallowed by their more organic counterparts, they managed to splatter their legacy all over everything.

**A surprisingly short lived endeavor, the plant merged with Redstone Arsenal on April 1, 1950.