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Anne Newport Royall – letter from 1821 describes dialect and churches in early Alabama

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 April 20th, 1821, Anne was in Moulton Alabama (now in Lawrence County, Alabama). In this story she describes her experience with and observations of the dialect and religions of the day in early Alabama.

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

Moulton, April 20th  1821.

Dear Matt,

You say you are pleased with the countryman in my last. Here is a score of them. Perhaps this may bring another reply. I am much pleased, in the meantime, to hear your health is restored, and hope to wish you much joy, on a certain occasion, ere long.

I strolled out with a friend to see a neighbor yesterday, who lives on the skirts of the town, merely for the sake of amusement. If you wish to ascertain the dialect of a country, you must seek for it amongst the common, or in other words, the lower order of the people, as all well bred people speak alike. But the children of both classes are good specimens of dialect, as the better sort, in this country, particularly, consign their children to the rare of negroes.

Children speak dialect of black nurses

You see I am for another dish of philosophy. But to go on. Those who have black nurses, and those who have illiterate white nurses to attend children, are at much pains and cost for teachers to unlearn them what they need never have learned, had they kept illiterate people from them at first. This is not the case with the poorer class of people, as their children are nursed by themselves, and speak their language.

Stump speech and barbecue

W hile we were chatting with our neighbor, a number of people rode up to the door, and we went out to see what was the matter. It appeared they were on their return from a barbacue, and had heard a stump speech. Some of these were mere children, and some were grown persons. Our neighbor, who was aware of their business, asked, “What news from the barbacue?”

Stump Speaking, George Caleb Bingham 1843-54, St. Louis Art MuseumStump Speaking, George Caleb Bingham 1843-54, St. Louis Art Museum

“Oh there was a proper sight of people—Oh, my! but there was—You never seed the like’ And a heap of ’em had on ruffled shirts, and shoeboots, and was so proud, stepin about; and there was some monstrous purty gals there, and some dinged ugly ones, too; and such a powerful chance of apples and cyder, and ginger cakes. I tell ye what, they were prime; and they made such a fuss, and covaulted, and was going to fight; you never saw the like in all the days of your life. Then these fellows that lives on Flint, had liked to abin whipped, steppin about. I tell you what, them fellows is monstrous proud, and of F, was there, too, and got the maddest, he fairly snorted. Oh, he was rearin. And them fellows from Elum’s Mill, turned in with old F , and snorted and covaulted, and dared them ruffle-shirt fellows to turn out. Oh, they got the maddest! And Mr. E made a stump speech. He said if we voted for that there ‘tother man, I forgot his name, that government would come and take away our land, and we would have to pay taxes and all that.” These were mostly Tennesseeans and North Carolinians.

Comparing dialects

I saw a piece in the papers not long since, which went to satirize the Tennessee dialect. I would advise such people to look at home. Those who live in glass houses, ought not to throw stones. Let us compare this with the dialect of Virginia. You remember the hear hunting party from Bedford. I will stake them against the whole United States.

One of them called at our house on his return, and entertained us with the following account of his adventures: ” You know da is heap of baw (bear) on da Kenhawa; so I and Bill Prout, Jess Passin, and Zack Miller, are all goin to Kenhawa to hunt baw— Kenhawa mighty far—so we walk—we walk—last we come to da Kenhawa—Kenhawa b—i—g river, for true—Tell you what, it skears me—well, I goes out into de woods—I hear noise—I look up tree, and see a baw!—1 went to da root o’ da tree—I bark like any dog—presently da baw come husslin down—Ah, boy!—I took to my keels, and did hook it.”—Now for the Pennsylvania dialect: “Jim, where are you and Sam; why but ye’s pit (put) you cow in the pester, (pasture;) ‘am sure a towled ye’s the mornin.—Ye’s cruel bad children—and there a fine job ye’s done to leave you gears out by.” The Yankee: “Flora you want (ought) to wash them clothes right away. You hadn’t ought to left ’em so.” “What say?”

Covault is of Tennessee birth, and not unaptly applied in the sense they use it. It signifies an unruly or ungovernable man; also an untame horse, or any thing that cannot be controuled. It is quite a classical word, and I hope to see it admitted into the English language. It appears to be a compound of co and vault, which are both very significant.

For the rest I find the Tennesseeans are a very plain people, and have a very high sense of honor. Their houses and equipage are void of ostentation: The North Carolinians next; the South Camlians and Georgians, next: and the Virginians the most ostentatious of any.

The preaching is mostly out of doors

But the preaching; you must hear that. This country is run mad after preaching.—Here is a new sect called Cumberland presbyterians; and between these, the baptists, and methodists, the woods resound. As they have no churches they preach out of doors mostly. I have just returned from preaching, where I remained about two hours, and (he parson, when I left him appeared to be only about midway through his sermon. He ought to have a patentright, for he certainly has the strongest voice in the state.

Brush arbor meeting

I have met with several excellent orators since I have been in the country; the best I ever heard. Parson Burress, formerly of Virginia, is, doubtless, the finest public speaker in the Union. I have seen no parallel for him. The Reverend Mr. Butler and McMahon, the latter of Nashville, Tennessee, are, also, men of handsome delivery. These are methodists. I was truly astonished at this, as I never saw one of the sect, before, hardly worth hearing. The baptists, and the Cumberland presbyterians, are continually preaching and covaulting.

Mr. Porter, a most amiable man; also a Mr. Madden, preached in Mr. B’s house since I was here, and that busybody, Mr. They say, reported Mr. B. was to preach here to day, that is, out at the stand in the woods. I observed, “I will go and hear Mr. Porter.”

“Oh,” said a bystander, “it is another preacher than Mr. Porter that preaches today—there is not such another preacher it the known world— he’s a monstrous fine preacher.” As I had heard some fine preaching, for the oratory I went to hear this none such. But never was I so disappointed. I placed myself in front of the preacher, (a great rough looking man.) and the congregation sat some on fallen timber, some on benches carried there for the purpose—some sat flat,on the ground, and many stood up—about 500 in all, His text was, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The people must have been deaf indeed that could not have heard him. He neither made division nor subdivision. He is one of the Cumberland presbyterians. They are Calvinists, it is said, but do not deem education a necessary qualification to preach the Gospel. But to the sermon: He began low but soon bawled to deafening. He spit in his hands, rubbed them against each other, and then would smite them together, till he made the woods ring. The people now began to covault, and dance, and shout, till they fairly drowned the speaker.

Many people burst out laughing

Many of the people, however, burst out into a laugh. Seeing this, the preacher cried out, pointing to them with his finger, “Now look at them sinners there—You’ll see how they will come tumbling down presently—I’ll bring them down.”

He now redoubled his strength; spit in his hands and smote them together, till he made the forest resound, and took a fresh start; and sure enough the sinners came tumbling down. The scene that succeeded baffles description. Principally confined to women and children, the young women had carefully taken out their combs, from their hair, and laid them and their bonnets in a place of safety, as though they were going to set in for a fight; and it was much like a battle.

Young men helped them up

After tumbling on the ground, and kicking sometime, the old women were employed in keeping their clothes civil, and the young men (never saw an old man go near them) would help them up, and taking them by each hand, by their assistance, and their own agility, they would spring nearly a yard from the ground at every jump, one jump after another, crying out, glory, glory, as loud as their strength would admit; others would be singing a lively tune to which they kept time—hundreds might be seen and heard going on in this manner at once.

Others, again, exhausted by this jumping, would fall down, and here they lay cross and pile, heads and points, yelling and screaming like wild beasts of the forest, rolling on the ground, like hogs in a mire,—very much like they do at camp meetings in our country, but more shameless; their clothes were the color of the dirt; and like those who attend the camp meetings, they were all of the lower class of the people. 1 saw no genteel person among them.

Are not people of education answerable for this degradation of society? It appears to me, since 1 have had opportunities of mixing with the world, that there are a certain class of citizens, whose interest it is to keep their fellow men in ignorance. I am very sure, half a dozen words of common sense, well applied, would convince those infatuated young women that they were acting like fools. In fact a fool is more rational. Not one of those but would think it a crying sin to dance.

The noise of the preacher was effectually drowned at length, and a universal uproar succeeded louder than ever.—

Mr. Gallagher gave an account

Whilst this was going on, I observed an old woman near me, snivelling and turning up the whites of her eyes, (she was a widow—all the widows, old and young, covaulted,) and often applying her handkerchief to her eyes, and throwing herself into contortions, but it would not do, she could not raise the steam.

I pointed to one young woman, with a red scarf, who had tired down several young men, and was still covaulting, and seeing she jumped higher than the rest, I asked “who she might be?” One of the gentlemen, a Mr. Gallagher, who was standing near, gave such an account of her (men know these things) as would shock a modest ear. “D—n her, she gets converted every meeting she goes to.” How much better had she been at a ball, (if they must dance,) where they would be obliged to behave decent, and where vile characters dare not appear.

Shortly after they began to rear and covault, a daughter of Mr. B’s began too. lie walked up to her, and led her off some distance, and sat her down at the root of a tree. When he returned, I inquired “if she was sick?” “No,” he answered, “but she was beginning to go on as the rest, and I told her if she wished to worship God, to do it there, and not to expose herself before faces.”

Numbers went forward

The preacher having spent all his ammunition, made a pause, and then called upon all the sinners to approach and be prayed for. Numbers went forward, all women and children, (children of ten years old get religion!) and the priest began to pray; when a decent looking man approached the stand, and took a female by the arm, and led her away. As he walked along, the preacher pointed to him, and said, ” God, strike that sinner down!” The man turned around, and in an angry tone said, “God has more sense than to mind such a d—d fool as you are!” and resumed his course. He was one of the brave Tennesseeans; and the lady was his wife.

Being tired of such an abominable scene, I proposed returning home, and, taking a near cut through a slip of woodland, we surprized the red scarf lady in a manner that gave us no favorable opinion of her piety.

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Meeting has broke np, and several are coming to our house to dine. I wish to have some conversation with them, and shall finish my letter afterwards.

There is but one religion

I took my seat at the table, by a stout, jolly looking lady, who, in replying to some of the party, observed ” a great many had got religion that day.” Now was my time—”And pray, Madam,” said I, ” what religion did they get?”

“Why, that is a queer question—there is but one religion, everybody knows.”

“There you are a little mistaken, Madam; there are various religions. There is the Christian religion; the Jewish religion; the Mahometan religion, &c. &c; which of those religions was it you spoke of?”

“I never heard of them before!” and stared at me in astonishment. “And what religion are you of?” said the lady.

I told her my religion was piety.

“Never heard of it before;” and doubtless she told the truth. “And what sort of a religion is piety?”

“Why, Madam, it is simply to love God and my neighbor.”

“It is a queer name, and it’s the first I ever heard of it. Is there many of the pieties where you come from?”

“Not many.” Mr. G. and several at the table could scarcely suppress a laugh. “And pray, Madam, since we have made up our acquaintance, may I take the liberty of asking which of these religions you profess?”

“Ne’re one,” said the lady; “I’m a Cumberland presbyterian.” The company could no longer retain themselves; they roared; whilst the subject of it had not the least idea of the cause.

Attended preaching twenty years

Now, this woman, take her on any other subject, was a reasonable and intelligent woman. Thoroughly acquainted with the ordinary business of life. She was from the interior of Kentucky; and had attended preaching for twenty years! and yet is ignorant, not only of the duties, but of the very name of a christian! Whose fault is this? The fault of the priest! So they can draw the women (they do not seem partial to men) after them, they care for nothing else. If there is a hell, there will be more priests in it than any other description of people.

Yours, &c.


Letters from Alabama, 1817-1822: Biographical introd. and notes by Lucille Griffith

ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Confrontation: Lost & Forgotten Stories (Volume 4) is a collection of lost and forgotten stories that reveals why and how the confrontation between the Native American population and settlers developed into the Creek-Indian War as well as stories of the bravery and heroism of participants from both sides.

Some stores include:

  • Tecumseh Causes Earthquake
  • Terrified Settlers Abandon Farms
  • Survivor Stories From Fort Mims Massacre
  • Hillabee Massacre
  • Threat of Starvation Men Turn To Mutiny
  • Red Eagle After The War

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