Elections in early Alabama were a frequent and exciting occurrence

Elections in early Alabama were a frequent and exciting occurrence


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.)

Chapter IV

Election Districts and Muster Grounds.

While Alabama was a Territory the people first voted for members of the Territorial Legislature at the county site. Justices of the peace and constables were elected at the, company muster-grounds, and the captains of the companies with two freeholders selected by him held the election. This law prevailed for many years after the State government was organized, and these old mustering places were the original location of many of our present voting places in the different precincts. Thus it will be seen that the division of the county into election, districts originated in the old militia organization of the county, and the law of 1852 defining the boundaries of the election districts was really nothing more than locating by written law what had for a long time already been located by common consent as the limits of the different company beats.

The first voting place established after Huntsville, was at Horton’s Mill on Barren Fork of Flint river, nearly a mile above the bridge at the forks of the river, and for several years this place and Huntsville were the only general voting places in the county; and this did not interfere with the old district muster-grounds where justices and constables were elected.

The war of 1812 and the rumor of wars after that period kept up a thoroughly military organization among our people, and the captain of a company was quite a prominent personage in his little principality, and there were generally many aspirants for military preferment at the election of military officers. In the course of time voting places were established in the larger number of these old muster-beats for the convenience of the people in the general elections, and finally, in the year 1852, the whole county was divided into regular election districts whose boundaries were accurately defined and made a matter of record, and each designated by a permanent name instead of being known as the beat of whoever happened to be captain of the company of that district. The sixteenth sections were made the basis of these divisions, and many of the old precincts still have their old boundaries.

Six voting places in Madison County in 1819

The largely increasing population of North Alabama made it necessary for our State Legislature to establish new voting places in different parts of the county. Our first legislature, in 1819, established six voting places in Madison county, to-wit: At Henry Brazelton’s in the Big Cove, at Mayer Griffin’s above Maysville, one at Major Dottrel’s at Hazel Green, one at Hillsboro on Hester creek, and at Captain Leonard’s above Wood’s Mill on Flint river.

Map of 1875 Huntsville with names of property owners (Library of Congress)

Could vote at any voting place

In the year 1821 voting places were established at the house of Mr. Farley near Cluttsville, and at Capt. Jacob’s near Whitesburg, and one at the house of Drury Connally near Meridianville. This made eleven voting places in the county, including Huntsville and Horton’s Mill, and they were well distributed for the convenience of the people of the county. Although in general elections the people could vote at any voting place in the county, yet in elections the vote was pretty well distributed among these voting places, and the large vote hitherto polled in Huntsville steadily decreased until its vote was but slightly different in proportion to the vote now cast under the law restricting the voter to his own election district.

The old muster-grounds where the justices, constables and militia officers were elected, possessed great attraction to our fathers, and the battalion and regimental muster-grounds of sixty years ago, the one muster being in the spring and the other in the full, were anxiously looked forward to as the time of reunion among old neighbors who had separated by moving to different parts of the county. They were accustomed to meet on these occasions, exchange greetings and discuss the news of the day. In fact, it was a very common practice in trade to make notes due and payable on muster day and there was a great deal of business transacted on such occasions, even when there was no election on hand.

Other things happened on election day

The business, too, was of a varied character; for instance it was customary on this day to settle feuds of the past year in a fair, stand-up fight, and a muster rarely passed without several breaches of the peace, which generally ended with but little damage to any one. The inevitable peddler of ginger-bread was on hand generally in the form of some son of Ham, who managed to coax or hire a holiday from his master and who had generally set up the entire night before in the business of baking up a cart load of ginger-bread for the crowd on the next day.

Elections in those days were of frequent occurence, and as a consequence these old muster-grounds were much infested by candidates and whiskey flowed freely. To the little boys the muster-ground had all the attraction that the circus offers to the boys of to-day. The moving, animated crowd, formed of the flower of the chivalry of half a county like Madison, was of itself a sight worth seeing. The brigadier or major-general in his stylish new uniform, with three-cornered hat and dangling plume reviewed the troops on his prancing steed, escorted by his brilliant, well-mounted staff in holiday attire, and the farce of a drill soon over, as there seemed to be a tacit agreement to hurry through that part of the business as rapidly as possible and devote the greater part of the day to other business.

It was at these musters that the alert, supple-jointed candidate was in his native element, and when he belonged to another regiment did not hesitate to take advantage of an unfortunate rival who, being subject to military duty, meekly marched in the ranks, by fascinating the fathers of the regiment by anecdote and humorous talk and frequent proffer of an exhaustless whiskey flask to those of a thirsty temperament. The eighth of January, long commemorated by our fathers, the fourth of July and regimental muster day were long and great holidays of our fathers.

Two Regiments in Madison County

There were two regiments in Madison county, the Second Regiment being formed long before the State was admitted into the Union, and, as well as I can ascertain, its muster-ground was near old Blue Spring camp-ground. The other regiment (number not remembered) had its muster-ground at Henry Brazelton’s in the Big Cove, and was the rallying point for the brave boys of New Madison. There were so many of these old companies that it is hard to locate the company muster-grounds, but I would fain preserve from oblivion the name of as many of these old captains of companies and their location as I have been able to gather from the meagre records on the subject. In the northern portion of the county were Captains Wm. G. Barton, Pitman Pitts, Allen Walls, Joseph Taylor, Wm. Kirkland and Jesse Bendall. From Meridianville westward to Madison and east to Flint river, were Captains W. Graves Bouldin, Wm. M. Roper, Dudley Sale, Friley Jones, Alfred Haggard, R. B. Armistead and James Johnston. Captains John Williams, John McDougall and George Kelly, commanded companies from Hickory Flat to Bragg’s; Nicholas Ware, J. J. Simmons and R. G. Hewlett commanded companies including Cedar Gap, Maysville and Brownsboro; David Lacey at Mc Nulbytown, John B. Turner at Whitesburg, Jason L. Jordan near Lanier’s, Jonathan Collier and William Button near Collier’s and Vienna, John Hill in the Big Cove, another Benjamin Clark on the Dug Hill road, and Frederick Elgin, John Harrison and Joseph Dunn around and in Huntsville.

One of the most noted military characters of that day was John K. Dunn, for a long time commander of the Madison Light Infantry Company, a roystering blade who gave himself the sobriequet of “H-l and K Dunn.” Thus it will be seen that at this time there was nearly thirty military companies, each forming a musterbeat entitled to two justices of the peace and a constable; but this number was gradually pruned down to about fourteen.

Prominent positions

I have given the names of these old officers as a reminiscence of the olden time, and also to show that in those days the office of captain of a military company was considered an honorable and prominent position, as the older citizen will readily recognize in this list the names of many of our once prominent and respected citizens. For instance the names of the ancestors of the Wares, Hills, Taylors, Colliers, Kellys, Williamses and others, forming a large and most respectable number of the present citizens of Madison county.

Of this number, Dr. William Kirkland, who was a soldier of the war of 1812, was one of the latest survivors. Capt. Fred Elgin, an old and respectable citizen of Huntsville, died some three years ago, but the latest survivor was Capt. Wm. M. Roper, who died at his residence on the Winchester road at an advanced age during the past year. He lived so long in our community and was so well known by our people and so highly respected for his many excellent Christian traits of character, that I can say nothing in regard to him that is not already known to the people of the county. Capt. Joseph Taylor and Capt. Allen Walls were prominent and influential citizens; both were for many years commissioners of roads and revenue for the county and both emigrated to Arkansas, where they died after the close of the civil war. John T. Harrison was an uncle, of our townsman Perry. L. Harrison and the father of Dr. Wm. Harrison, once a prominent physician of Guntersville, Alabama.

I find but little allusion to the regimental officers. Among our old militia generals were D. M. Bradford, a veteran of 1812, John Grahan and B. T. Patterson, long U. S. Marshal of this district. Of the old militia officers there are but few survivors, and if the question of seniority were to arise Gen. John M. Humphrey would claim the higher rank, but Col. Wm. C. McBroom, of Gurleysville, would probably be ranking officer by date of his commission as colonel of the gallant old militia regiment of East Madison, if not by superiority in rank.


The Alabama Historical Quarterly, Vol. 02, No. 03, Fall Issue 1940

ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Statehood: Lost & Forgotten Stories (Volume 6) 

Once Alabama was admitted as a state of the United States of America on December 4, 1819, a great wave of immigrants from other states and countries came by flat-boats, pack-horses, covered wagons and ships to become the first citizens of the state.

ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Statehood presents the times and conditions they faced in lost & forgotten stories which include:

  • Who Controlled And Organized The New State of Alabama?
  • Tuscaloosa Had Three Other Names
  • Chandelier Falls & Capitol Burns
  • Alabama Throws Parties For General LaFayette
  • Francis Scott Key Was Sent to Alabama To Solve Problems

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