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.


James E. Smith was a piece of shit.

On June 3, 1821, James E. Smith sealed his fate. Remember him as a monster. It is a small solace to his victim but almost two centuries later we can look back and remember that he existed, that certain events transpired, and that his name should only cross our lips with poison and anger.

An eight year old girl named Luckey, described in the court documents as “a female slave of colour,” spent much of the day like all her other days. She lived in the household of her master, William Dell, and probably performed various chores, maybe even played a little bit. It seems likely that Smith lived near to Dell’s farm. Either that or he passed along the road and felt a sudden surge of avarice. We’re not entirely certain of the spacial relations between the two white men, but we know what happened next.

Somehow Luckey ended up alone with James E. Smith.

He approached the young girl and assaulted her violently. Luckey fought back because she knew what white men did when they thought they could do anything. James E. Smith bruised her badly and cut the girl with an unidentified object. He tore at her clothes and kicked her viciously. Then he removed his pants and looked at Luckey “with an intent, her the said Luckey, and against her will, then and there feloniously to ravish and casually know [her].”

Fortunately she fought harder and escaped. She presented her wounds to William Dell and he raised an alarm.

The people of Madison county found the crimes of James E. Smith so horrendous that his case quickly became one prosecuted by the state. Even though a jury originally assessed his fines to be a paltry twenty dollars he fought the suit and got a second trial. The next pool of jurors saw him for what he was, a bastard who should pay for his crimes, and they demanded a thousand dollars as compensation for his crimes and sentenced him to await the rest of his sentence in a prison. James E. Smith quickly asked for, and received, a third trial. This time the judge proved either lenient or stupid. By this time the people of the county had calmed down and moved on to some other outrage, so the court simply dismissed the case and set him free.

What the hell Madison county?


The State of Alabama v. James E. Smith, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 103-104 (1821).

Zachariah Allen and the Almighty’s Dollar

They found him with stolen goods. On March 23, 1820, Zachariah Allen stole “one Moroco pocket book,” and eighty five dollars from a man named John Allison. The court also accused him of stealing a second “Moroco pocket book” from an unknown person with a further eighty five dollars in it.

Apparently, early north Alabamians carried their money around in style. Nineteenth century pocket books filled the role of wallet, small journal, and occasionally came equipped with a calendar. It’s interesting because although men usually carried them they eventually evolved into contemporary purses after 1) someone added straps and 2) the version designed for men shrank to fit inside newly tailored pants with adequate pocket storage. Around the 1850’s, people renamed the smaller pocket book and it became a wallet.

This distinction between female pocket books and male wallets is important because clothing often differentiated the genders during the nineteenth, and earlier, centuries. Prior to the advent of industrially available make-up and cheap Gillette razors for all America-kind; our ancestors spent a long time lingering on fabric to determine the differences between genders. Occasionally they were helped along by secondary sexual characteristics, like breasts, but these were easily faked with some rolled up socks or other cheap material. Facial hair was another indicator but a regularly shaven male face might easily pass for female, or vice versa, thus all those stories about women enlisting as men during the Civil War.

However, none of that happened yet. It’s still 1820 and men still carried pocket books and Zachariah Allen just stole $170.00. The court came down hard on Allen. Jurors decreed that on September 20, he should “receive on his bare back thirty stripes, well laid on.” They subjected Allen to two hours a day, from September 20-22, in the pillory. This meant that he suffered not only corporal punishment for his theft but also faced about six hours of public abuse, during which time the rule of law suspended itself as people might humiliate him in any way they saw fit.

Of course, one’s sympathy for the man decreases once you learn what he did to William Hampton. On August 2, 1820, just a few days before being tried for his original crime, Zachariah Allen “being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil,” got into an argument with his cellmate. The two men both awaited trial in “the comon jail” of Madison county. We don’t know the kind of man William Hampton was because no records have yet been found to indicate his original crime. However, we now know that Allen was a violent sociopath because “with both his hands did throw down, and that he the said Zachariah Allen… with his rights foot did stamp on the center of the breast… of which the said William Hampton, then and there instantly died.” He stomped on this man’s chest until his ribs cracked and his heart gave up.

Two prisoners, James Vinyard and Thomas Goodwin, appeared before the court to give testimony about the murder. Vinyard gave evidence against Allen and Goodwin for him. Goodwin must have regaled the “good and Lawful men,” with a tale of bruised honor or justified homicide; because although the jury found Zachariah Allen guilty of murder they only issued him a one dollar fine.

Then they took him outside to be whipped for his original theft.


The State of Alabama v. Zachariah Allen, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 50-51 (1820).

The State of Alabama v. Zachariah Allen, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 51-52 (1820).

The Spinsters of Madison County

They’re back.

Not content to follow the path of their former friends and slowly fade away from historical record, the unruly “spinsters” known as Mary Baker and Ann Martin continued to cause trouble after the county raided their brothel. The documents made no mention of Rodah Barnard, Elizabeth Burton, or the Wilson sisters. This omission implies that the women either moved, were less of a raging hot mess, or possessed the ability to be covert.* Either way, Baker and Martin managed to entice another unmarried woman, named Mary King, to “riotously, routously, and tumultuously, asemble and gather together.”

Their purpose was to roam the county on May 7, 1820. Apparently the three women engaged in various acts of “pasing and repasing along the public streets and common highways,” in search of business. As they chose to ply their trade along the byways of the county on a Sunday they did two things. First, they attracted a lot of customers, Sunday proved to be a day off for most laboring men and they approached the women in large packs. The second accomplishment proved less fruitful. Baker, Martin, and King inadvertently attracted the attention of the sheriff and his men.

When the law arrived they found a small gathering. The three women stood on the road and negotiated prices and turns with “evil dispared persons to the number of ten and more.” The documents specify that the court did not know the names of the men, so they probably scattered as soon as someone shouted ‘oh shit, it’s the sheriff.’

According to neighbors who failed to appreciate the women’s hardworking ethic they’d “remained and continued together,” along the roads of Madison county “making such noise… for a long span of time, to wit, for the space of six hours.” Now, the documents remain vague about the nature of “such noise.” However, context clues indicate that it was something along the lines of ‘hey! y’all wanna fornicate?’ followed by the jingle of coins as they passed between hands and the sad grunts of a woman who’d rather be somewhere else.

The jury found all three women guilty and fined them a dollar each.**

Unfortunately, life as a prostitute proved harsh in Madison county. Although the two cases already examined paint things in a more comical light, because that’s what we do here, “spinsters” often faced unrepentant violence with little repercussion for their attackers.*** Fortunately, there exists some small sampling of justice and as happenstance would have it, it involves one of the women arrested here. Mary King entered into a dispute with a man named Jenning Seay on June 1, 1820. It most likely arose over payment for services. He beat her viciously and then committed “other great wrongs to the said Mary King,” which sounds like a euphemism for rape. This assertion is amplified by the fact that he either gave her a “riot wound” or “lust wound,” we are unable to make out the specific word because the handwriting is ambiguous. Unfortunately Jenning Seay did not receive jail time, fortunately the county acted quickly and arrested the man and issued a $500.00 fine against him. Hopefully he died bankrupt.


The State of Alabama v. Mary Baker, Mary King, & Ann Martin, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 49-50 (1820).

The State of Alabama v. Jenning Seay, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 50 (1820).

*It’s a pun!

**Fun fact, John W. Looney served on this jury.

***Another series of cases documents how a spinster named Mary Wilson was attacked at various times by several men, one with a cow shin, and other spinsters. I am uncertain whether or not it’s Barbara or Lucinda Wilson from the previous update going by a different name.

Spinsters for Filthy Lucer

Rodah Barnard, Mary Baker, Elizabeth Burton, Ann Martin, Barbara Wilson, and Lucinda Wilson never joined the traditional caste known as wife. Some process either prevented them from marrying or they just felt no compulsion to go hang out at some dude’s house for the rest of their lives. Keep in mind that single women, or feme sole, during this period owned property, negotiated contracts, and represented themselves in court. Upon marriage they underwent a legal expunging of their former autonomy and assumed the mantle of feme covert – covered women.

The status of covered woman meant that society at large accepted you as a decent human but also prevented you from accessing and controlling your dowry, the property a woman in the United States and England brought into the marriage, or otherwise existing legally as a separate person.* Married women required the use of “next friends” in any court proceeding and often relied on their fathers or lawyers to represent them in any suit they brought against their husbands.** Although widowed women often received an automatic portion of a former husband’s estate known as “the widow’s third,” even in the case of outstanding debts or other costs incurred during his lifetime. So, at best, a lot of women gambled on the fact that their husbands wouldn’t be idiots and might make enough money to sustain them after his death. Unfortunately, a lot of women were wrong.

So for the few with enough gumption to stay by their lonesome – liberty made the best husband.

Although these women possessed enough intestinal fortitude to retain the status of feme sole and keep on truckin’, they still required things like food and housing. Which meant feme sole often dominated the few industries available to women at that time – like spinning fabrics and weaving. Thus the term “spinster.” However, the industrial revolution removed this traditional occupation because machine spun fabric outstripped spinster fabric in both price and quantity. So much so that by the early nineteenth century spinster became a pejorative term for an older feme sole.***

The fact that industries traditionally dominated by single women no longer existed, or were in serious decline, meant that the heroes of our story turned to an industry even more traditionally dominated by single women.

That’s right.

I’m talking about hookers.

On January 1, 1820, “and on divers other days and times,” the aforementioned women held a massive party at their brothel. It should be mentioned that although other cases might have insinuated about prostitution, this is the first confirmed indictment for it in Madison county’s history. Oh man, what an indictment it is. The documents never expressly name the ringleader but from the amount of times her name appears it indicates that Rodah Barnard, spelled Barnett in the original bill, may have run the brothel and served as its madame.

Either way, the women operated “a certain Bawdy house” within the limits of Huntsville that apparently did pretty good business. They served a wide variety of customers ranging from “evil dispared persons, as well men as women,” and operated “in the night as in the day…[to] commit whoredom and fornication.” From the descriptions provided by the court documents it appears that much of Huntsville came to the establishment to satisfy their various lusts.

Not only would have the presence of a brothel enraged some of the more reform minded people of Huntsville but the presence of a brothel that served women? Well it’s no wonder that the sheriff raided the place fully armed and that the state itself sued the lady proprietors.

Joseph Eastland, the state’s prosecuting attorney, went all out in his portrayal of the brothel as a factory of sin. Not only did the women engage in sex “for filthy Lucer,” but they also initiated “riots, Routs, affairs, disturbances, and violations of the peace of the said State of Alabama.”**** Worst of all they committed the grave sin of distracting and subverting the youth. Eastland contended that they served all sorts of liquor and compelled their clients to engage in swearing contests. When the people of Huntsville arrived at the brothel their thin veneer of civilization faded away and they spent their free time “drinking, tippling, cursing, swearing, quarreling, and otherwise misbehaving themselves.”

The women were of course acquitted on all charges. I imagine they celebrated in true style.


The State of Alabama v. Rodah Barnett, Mary King, Mary Baker, Barbary Wilson, Ann Martin, Elizabeth Burton & Lucinda Wilson, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 34-35 (1820).

*Fun fact, Mississippi passed the first married woman’s property law in 1839. Originally stemming from the court case of Fisher v. Allen it eventually resulted in white, and occasionally wealthy indigenous women, being allowed to manage the dowry slaves they brought into a marriage.

**Second fun fact, Alabama was one of the only states that allowed single women to represent married women as a next friend. So if you had an unmarried daughter over the age of 21 and wanted to sue your husband you’d have to be like “hey, remember how I carried you in my damn womb?”

***Obsolete occupational names for demographic groups are just the greatest – bachelor originally meant ‘the lowest form of squire,’ husband is just an Old Norse word for farmer, and villains were a type of serf. So every time you watch a movie and say “I bet that guy’s the villain,” what you’re really saying is ‘oh man, that human is definitely the medieval sharecropper in this story.’

****For those keeping track, a Rout is just a synonym for riot. These women went so hard in the fornication that they caused two distinct kinds of riots.

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).