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Anne Newport Royall – reports in a letter from 1821 of snakes that fly apart and plants that close their leaves

In 1818, before Alabama became a state, Anne Newport Royall (June 11, 1769 – October 1, 1854) was a traveler in Alabama. After her husband died, she was left penniless and she toured Alabama for four years as one of the first newspaperwomen in America. She wrote letters to her friends about Alabama and the letters were published as a book entitled Letters from Alabama in 1830.

On June 2, 1821, Anne was in Courtland, Alabama (now in Lawrence County, Alabama)where she wrote her friend Matt about the town.

The letter has been transcribed exactly as published. (Including the misspellings)

Courtland, June 2d, 1821.

Dear Matt,

My old acquaintance, the Colonel, has moved from the Bluff (or Marathon) to this place, which, though now a considerable town, consisting of fine brick houses, was a cornfield 18 months ago, and the corn furrows are still visible in many parts of the town. The Colonel, and all the Citizens, however, are much disappointed that they did not obtain the seat of justice here; and the Colonel particularly takes it much to heart, as he purchased lots under that view. But he is forced to submit. Courtland, (you see they counted their chickens before they were hatched) being eight miles from the river, the boundary of the county, Courtland was too far from the centre.

Courtland, Lawrence County, AlaCourtland, Lawrence County, Alabama

Daniel Wright, Esq. is wed

And the great beauty is married! At a few months over 14 years of age! She married a South Carolinian, by the name of Daniel Wright, Esq. a very genteel, amiable man, and clerk of the court. He was a member of the convention that framed the Constitution for the state, and is a man of princely manners. The lady had a considerable fortune, and they will doubtless do well. So you have missed it again.


This is the region of the Carolina pink and Colomba root. Wagon loads of the latter may be gathered any where in the woods; it, and the pink, cover the ground. The pink grows much like the garden pink, and the flower is similar in size and figure, but is of a scarlet. I am sure I have seen it in some part of the Union before, but cannot tell where. The woods are alive with it here, and a profusion of other beautiful flowers. It is quite a treat to ride through the woods.

The Colomba root has several broad leaves near the ground, in the shape like the hound’s tongue, of a yellowish green—the leaf thick and fuzzy—and a stem runs up from these from one to two feet in height, without leaves, and has a flower near the top—but it is not now in bloom.

Sensitive brier draws up when you touch it

The greatest curiosity here, is the sensitive brier. It it in its nature, (but not in shape,) like the sensitive plant, though with this difference, only that part of the plant shrinks which you touch. For instance, if you touch one leaf, it draws up instantly, but this does not affect the other leaves—not so the brier: It grows like the raspberry brier, long, and still more slender, with narrow leaves; if you touch the stem at one end, the leaves instantly pucker themselves up from one end of the brier to the other, the most astonishing phenomenon I have witnessed in the vegetable kingdom.

Sensitive Brier

The brier grows spontaneously. Those I saw were from one to five feet high, and about the thickness of a wheat straw. The leaves are very small, narrow, and notched, not larger than the smallest pink leaf. I amused myself sometime in tormenting these little whimsical rogues.

Snake flies apart

Since I have began with the curious, we have another great curiosity here, viz: the jointed snake, which, if struck with a stick flies to pieces with a jingling noise. No blood is emitted from the broken parts, and it is said the pieces unite again. This I was told was a fact, though I did not see the snake.

The Camelion is also a native of this place. They are found every where; but the prairies abound with them.— They are called the ” Green Lizard,” by the inhabitants.— Mrs. Burlison informed me, that its general color was green, but if provoked, it changed to a grayish color, and the throat, which swells to a great size, when it is made angry, changes to a pale crimson. I did not happen to see one, as you may ride for days through the prairies without being able to distinguish them from the grass, of which color they are.

Speaking of prairies—these prairies are too damp for cotton, but corn grows well on them, and in the season for stawberries, you may gather wagon loads of them; and these are of a superior flavor to any in our part of the country. You cannot walk through a prairie in stawberry time, they take you up to the ankle.

Tobacco grows spontaneously

Another curiosity—Tobacco grows spontaneously in this state! It grows in Madison county in the forest, and attains the same height as when cultivated—but the leaves are thin, and unfit for use. It is also found in West Tennessee. It was found in Madison, by the first white people who visited the country, nor can the oldest Indian account for its origin.— Some think it is a native, and others, again, suppose it possible the seed might have been scattered by some adventurous traveller.

This, and the adjoining states, on the Mississippi, is beyond doubt to become the wealthiest part of the United States. In fact, it is so now. The inhabitants of this state, however, not contented with the overflowing productions of their thrice happy soil, have vainly attempted to introduce the sugar cane—but, doubtless, it will fail. By covering the roots it lives through the winter, and grows to a considerable height. Though it is now in perfection of two year’s growth, the winters are evidently too cold for the plant.

Upland rice grows here with success. It looks like oats, is sown in drills, and plowed and hoed like corn. It is of a reddish color when cooked. Every planter rears enough for his own use.

Most desirable country on earth

I fell in with a traveller of intelligence, from whom I gathered a few particulars of those new Southern States, and taking the whole together, it is beyond doubt the most desirable country on earth. The gentleman is from the Red River last: His information amounts to the following:

He has been several years in that country, and assisted in surveying and running the boundary lines, both of Mississippi and Louisiana. ” The lands (he says) on the Mississippi, on both sides, far exceeds this in fertility, and producing two thousand weight of cotton to the acre: whereas fifteen hundred is the most that is calculated on here. Indigo, tobacco, and rice grow there in great abundance. Indian corn grows with such rapidity, that two crops can be raised in one year, below thirty two or thirty one degrees of North latitude.

Indian cornIndian corn

From one to two hundred bushels of Indian corn are produced to the acre. Sugar and oranges grow in the same latitude, but neither will grow to any degree of perfection above thirty-two. Cotton and sugar are the staples of Louisiana and Mississippi; and people amass great wealth there in a short time, from the culture of those articles. Even poor men, that go there, and attend to large stocks of cattle that run on the great natural meadows, which abound in Louisiana, for which they get a certain part, soon become rich. Sugar is cultivated by laying the stalks in furrows once in three years, and from the joints new stems arise.

Red River grows the best cotton

“The best cotton grows on Red River. All, who have visited that country, agree on this point. The stalks grow to such thickness and strength there, that they are strong enough to bear a man’s weight. [I have heard this asserted by many.] Red River falls into the Mississippi from the West side below

Natchez, in about the thirty-first degree of latitude. Beyond Louisiana, that is, west of it, there is another vast region equally as productive, and almost without inhabitants: I mean Texas—though it belongs to the Spanish government.—The Spaniard offer a considerable bounty in land to all persons, who will go and settle it.

The Southern part of Louisiana extends from the East side of the Mississippi river, which bounds it East, to the Saline river, which bounds it on the “West, and divides it from Texas. There is no difference in the soil or productions of the states of Louisiana and Mississippi; but the former is more liable to be everflowed by the rivers that flow through the former, and much more of it is covered with swamps—but there is enough to reward industry and enterprise, exclusive of the swamps.

“The Mississippi state extends from the river of the same name, which bounds it on the West, but I give the boundary. The boundary commences on the Mississippi river, at the point where the Southern boundary line of the state of Tennessee strikes the said river; thence East along the said boundary line to the Tennessee river; thence up the same to the mouth of Bear creek; thence, by a direct line to the Northwest corner of the county of Washington, in Alabama; thence due South to the Gulf of Mexico; thence Westwardly, including all the Islands within six leagues of the shore, to the most Eastern junction of Pearl river with Lake Borgne; thence up said river to the thirty-first degree of North latitude; thence west along the said degree of latitude to the Mississippi river; and thence up the same to the beginning. Mississippi is watered by the Pascagula, Mississippi, Tennessee, Pearl, Yazoo, and Big Black rivers. Although the bottoms are not so wide and extensive on the east side of Mississippi river, yet they are equally as fertile, producing cotton, &c. in abundance.

washington county, on alabama map

Washington County, Alabama

Not exceeded in fertility by any in the world

There are three distinct species of land, both in this state and Alabama: The bottom, the bluff, (or high, dry, rich cotton land,) and pine land. Take it all in all, it is not exceeded in fertility by any in the world: Neither is it so sickly as is represented.— Consumptions, which sweep so many of our Northern people to the grave, are unknown here. I have seen a gentleman, that was far gone with that complaint, who tells me that he has entirely recovered. The moschitoes, however, are troublesome; but the small expense they are at, to secure themselves from them, is amply remunerated by the soil’s overflowing productiveness.”

There is a country for you, Matt: and am I not a good old lady to send you so much amusement. I have some notion of turning author some of these days, for though I know you are only indulging your irony, (you saucy rogue, is that the way to treat your betters,) let me tell you I would not make the worst in the world. You, and Joe Fry, may laugh again; I was never blind to your winks and nods; and if ever I do take up my pen, I mean to write a book, and I will flay you two saucy rogues.

I have this moment received your letter of March! If you are as slow a traveller as your letters, you may find it necessary to bring a summer-house with you.

Can America stand?

The people have elected C. C. Was there ever such fools? They must have been intoxicated. Can America stand? Can she preserve her liberty thus? She cannot; she ought not! They are prodigal of their sovereignty, indeed. It appears to be painful to them. To elect the greatest fool, by odds the greatest fool in the country. You know he always has Lord Hale in his mouth.

In my husband’s lifetime, this Lord Hale came to our house and spent a day. You knew my husband’s hospitality. He entertained all alike. Court was sitting at this time, at the Sweet Springs, and this booby, (how he came to be licensed a lawyer, is strange,) while at the dinner table, began to repeat part of a defence, it appeared he made for a criminal; in doing which, he referred to ” Lord Hale’s Pleas of the Crown.

“Finding we were all silent, he took it for granted, we were delighted, and launched out in the praise of Demosthenes and Cicero. My husband, who had remained silent, and weary of the fool, at length, asked who this Demosthenes was, “as I am very ignorant in these things.”

“You don’t know who Demosthenes was? Why he was a great Roman Emperor; and Cicero was another great Emperor; and Cato was another. There are very few things come amiss to me.” Thus he went on till he swept away all the great men of antiquity; whilst I suffered the ordeal, as being at my own table, I dare not laugh.

Lord Hale’s visit

My husband never laughed at any thing; but he did something much better this day. He always sat sometime after the cloth was removed, and had a fashion of leaning forward, when displeased, upon his arms, which were usually crossed, and at the same time biting his thumb. I always trembled when I saw this; nor dare I rise from the table till he made a signal; and though our house was usually full, we happened to have no one this day, but Lord Hale.

At length, my husband, addressing his Lordship, said, “Now, what a d d fool you are; this is the way you expose yourself; do you know you are a laughing stock for the whole country? My dog,Citizen, (a favorite pointer,) has more sense. Just go home, and go to plow, for if my dog could speak, be would make a better lawyer.” He took it in good part, and said it was the best lesson he ever had heard. It was lost upon such a fool.

Strange, that whatever side he took at the bar, was sure to be victorious; as, true to their nature, the people, or rabble, rather always think the greatest fool the wisest man. They have proved it in this instance, by their selecting him to make laws for them. Alas, for my country! all your citizens want is rope. Good bye; I am going to Florence, foot of the Muscle Shoals; I give Kenhawa joy of her representative.

Yours, &c.

N. B. What a pity this fellow had not chosen the profession of a preacher. He would have made a Lady Hale of all the women in the country round. He would have left the Cumberland preacher, (I mentioned some time back,) far behind, in causing them ” to come tumbling down!” Handsome language, I confess, for a preacher of the gospel to use. They ought, at least, to go halves.

Read more of Anne Newport Royall’s letters on Alabama Pioneers

RIBBON OF LOVE: 2nd edition – A Novel of Colonial America  – the true story of religion in America –Inspired by true historical events, Mary and Henry Pattenden flee to America to escape persecution –  It is almost impossible to put the book down until completion. – Dr. Don P. Brandon, Retired Professor, Anderson University 


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