LATER HISTORY OF MADISON COUNTY
By Thomas Jones Taylor
(Judge Taylor’s “Early History of Madison County” was concluded in the Spring, 1940, issue of the Alabama Historical Quarterly. This installment is the second of his “Later History of Madison County”, the first being in the Summer, 1941, issue of the Quarterly. This article first appeared in the Huntsville Independent, in 1883 and 1884.)
From the year 1823 to 1828, there was but little change in the condition of affairs within our borders. Our people were quietly engaged in developing the agricultural resources of the county and gradually extending the area of their farming lands, by clearing and fencing new fields. The tide of emigration that tended westward after the land sales of 1818 had reached its flood, and the decrease in the price of cotton, the great staple of the Tennessee Valley, together with depression resulting from wild speculation in public land, began to exert a depressing influence on our people.
A large element in our population, consisting of small farmers, seeking cheap homes, was rapidly filling up the eastern and southeastern portion of the county, and many of them were clamoring for the final extinguishment of the title of the Cherokees to the eastern part of Madison, and the placing of the same upon the market. The older Indian line stretching across the county to the Tennessee line, northeast of New Market to Flint River above Wood’s Mill, was a barrier that could not be passed until removed by act of Congress, and the hardy pioneers who were crowding along this line looked with lingering eyes on the beautiful and fertile valleys of Flint and Hurricane, but various obstacles intervened and delayed the opportunity of possession for several years.
Until the year 1822 or 23, the people east of the mountains had no public roads, and about this time a road was reviewed from Wofford’s section by way of Brownsboro to meet a road coming from Woodville, the then capital of Decatur County at the county line, which was then at the fork of the Bellefonte and Clear Creek roads west of Joe Criner’s, now the Isbell place.
Roads marked out
When Decatur county was abolished, this became the great thoroughfare of travel between the counties, and the prominent attorneys of Madison county traveled over the route at least twice a year, on horse-back, to attend the Jackson county courts, and then a stage route was established, and for many years transported the mails and passengers to and fro between the county sites.
About the same time, John Webster, John Fortner, Henry Brazleton and others were appointed to view and mark out a road from Huntsville across the mountain by what was then known as “Webster’s Gap” to Henry Brazleton’s where there was an election precinct and a regimental muster guard (sic).
Shortly afterwards, Joseph Pickens and others, as commissioners, extended this road to meet a road to be opened in Decatur County to the county line, which was near the old Cobb ford.
The Madison and Whitesburg road had already been opened from the Tennessee line to Tennessee river, which was crossed by the Limestone road forming part of the old military road from Winchester to Natchez by Hazel Green. This road was also tapped at Connally by the old Winchester road running from that point by the old town of Hillsboro the then voting place of the New Market people.
Below Huntsville a road had been opened through Belvin’s Gap to the Big Cove, and also one from the Whitesburg road to Leemon’s Ferry. The old bridges the county had built was one across Fagan’s, now Dry Creek, near the site of the present bridge in the city limits on the Whitesburg pike, and a long wooden bridge across Flint river at site of old bridge at the mouth of Briar Fork which was constructed by Bennett Wood, who then lived just beyond the river and was at that time County treasurer. The bridge was insured for many years by the builder, who not only contracted to construct it but also gave bond to keep it in good repair for that period of time at his own expense.
The records of the day show that during these years much was done in the way of facilitating communication throughout the county, and the opening of the great county thoroughfares greatly assisted in developing the business interests of our county site, and many of our merchants were building up a country trade that laid the foundation of their future prosperity. In the year 1825, William McBroom, sheriff, retired under constitutional enactment, and was succeeded by John P. Neal, who was sheriff until 1828.
Madison County furnish many senators
In State and national politics our county still retained its prominence and the county furnished a large quota of the State’s representatives in congress and in the senate. As regards United States Senators it is a remarkable fact that Madison county furnished a senator from the year 1819 to the civil war, with the exception of the term from 1842 to 1848, when Arthur P. Bagby and Dixon H. Lewis were in the senate from Middle and Southern Alabama, Dr. David Moore having been defeated by Gov. Bagby in consequence of an unfortunate division among the Democracy in the northern part of, the State on local issues.
As a matter of interest I give a list of our citizens either at the time or originally citizens of the county who have been United States Senators: John W. Walker, from 1819 to 1822; William Kelly, from 1822 to 1825; Henry Chambers, 1825 to 1826; John McKinley, 1826 to 1831; Gabriel Moore, 1831 to 1837; C. C. Clay, 1837 to 1843; Jere Clements, 1849 to 1853, and, C. C. Clay from 1853 to 1861.
Thus we see that but for the defeat of Dr. Moore in 1842 by the opposition of some Democrats from the northern portion of the State this county would have had an unbroken line of State Senators from the formation of the State Constitution in 1819 to the beginning of the civil war.
Court house and Jail complaints
During this period there was much complaint about the court house and jail. The old square-yellow brick court house that stood a little east of the present building and which had been finished about the year 1817, though a large and imposing edifice for a new county at that time, began to get out of repair, and was deemed by many unsafe on account of the size of the rooms and the want of sufficient thickness of the walls.
In the north western part of the present court house yard was the pillory, stocks and whipping post, nearly due west from the old jail that stood just out side of the railing round the court house square, in the northeast corner of the square. The steep declivity on which the court house stood descended abruptly in the direction of the jail, which stood on nearly level ground in a kind of basin that sometimes in winter turned to a pond.
The following letter from Joseph Caruthers, the jailor, and John McBroom, sheriff, will give some idea of our jail comforts at that time. This letter is dated February 7, 1825:
“To the Hon. Judge of the County Court of County Commissioners of Roads and Revenues: It becomes my duty, as the Jailor of Madison County, to inform you that the jail of said county is insufficient for the safe-keeping of the prisoners committed thereto and has been so for a number of years. Owing to the frequent attempts to break through the windows they have become insecure, and the floors of the several rooms have become quite decayed and are falling through. The roof is so bad that whenever there comes a heavy rain almost everything within the walls become entirely wet. I therefore pray you to review the same, as I believe you are by act of the legislature required to do, have the necessary repairs done, so there may not be so great a responsibility on my part for escapes.
(Signed) ROBERT CARUTHERS,
In the month of August, 1825, John P. Neal succeeded Mr. McBroom as sheriff and soon after he went into office he wrote to the commissioners, and in his letter he says:
“I call the earnest attention of the court to the insecure condition of the jail, and hereby enter my protest against it.” But it was many years before the old jail and market house were torn down and a new jail built on the site of the present jail. This was owing, doubtless, to pecuniary troubles, as a committee to audit the treasurer’s books from the year 1825 to 1828 reported the amount of outstanding claims against the county treasury over and above available assets (sic) at forty-four hundred and thirty-eight dollars, which claims were out in the form of county scrip and were at a heavy discount. About the year 1825, the old jail bounds that heretofore extended over an area of ten acres, were extended one mile in every direction from the jail, thus giving prisoners for debt who could give bond not to try to escape the liberty of the whole city.
Little changed in county officers
From the year 1823 to 1828 there was but little change in county officers. Samuel Chapman continued Judge of the County Court and Thos. Brandon Clerk, and Lemuel Mead Clerk of .the Circuit Court. The Court of County Commissioners, being elected every two years, underwent some changes. Gross Scruggs served as commissioner for the greater portion of this period, and the office was filled by Thomas McGee, Joseph Pickens, Stephen Biles, Samuel Walker, James McCartney and Geo. T. Jones—all of whom are well remembered by the old citizens of the county.
Thomas McGee was then getting to be an old man, and lived near what is now known as the old Driskell place, on the Tennessee line. Joseph Pickens lived in the Big Cove, and was long one of the most popular and influential men in New Madison, noted for his kindness of heart and unstinted hospitality. Geo. T. Jones, who lived on Mountain Fork, was a man of more than ordinary talent, who frequently represented our county in the legislature, where his good sense and sound judgment made him prominent. He was a progressive and successful planter, and aside from public duties, by thrift and industry, accumulated a handsome property.
But of the body of able men who served as commissioners during this period James McCartney was by far the most prominent. Coming here about the year 1810 without capital, he entered on a career of successful speculation in which he distanced all competitors, and had his years been prolonged he would doubtless have been one of the wealthiest men in the State. When about nineteen years old he married Eliza Allen, a most estimable lady, and a sister of the Rev. John Allen, who for a period of many years was the venerated pastor of the Presbyterian Church of this city. In the land sales of 1830 James McCartney invested heavily, and had he lived to reap the fruit of his investments would have realized an immense profit from his ventures. He was also an extensive and progressive farmer, and was far ahead of public sentiment on the erection of cotton factories, and at the time of his death, in 1833, before he had reached his- fiftieth year, he was devising plans for the erection of an extensive cotton factory on Flint River, which, under his management, would doubtless have greatly added to the material prosperity of our county.
North Alabama held supremacy
During this period North Alabama still held the supremacy in the councils of the State. Nich. Davis, of Limestone, who became the leader of the old Whig party in North Alabama, was President of the State Senate from 1823 to 1827, and during the same period Samuel Walker, William Kelly and C. C. Clay of Madison, were speaker of the Lower House, except for the years 1826 and 1827, when the speaker’s chair was filled by Samuel W. Oliver of Conecuh county. James J. Pleasants was Secretary of State from 1821 to 1824. Henry Minor was first Circuit Judge of this District, and then reporter for the Supreme Court. In 1825 Jno. M. Taylor succeeded him as Circuit Judge, Jno. M. Taylor was a man of versatile talents, being at one and the same time merchant, preacher and lawyer. As a. merchant he was a failure, but he was an eloquent preacher and a brilliant, lawyer. From the year 1823 to 1827, James G. Birney was Solicitor for our Judicial district, and was then a popular and talented lawyer, and when he sold out his property and went north, to become a leader in the old Abolition party and its first candidate for the Presidency, he voluntarily abandoned a career that promised him a brilliant political and professional future in our State.