By Michael Thomason/Contributing Writer
Many of us remember history in school as a dull and irrelevant subject we couldn’t avoid. It was often accompanied by texts that were old and out of date.
“Pickett’s History of Alabama” only goes up to 1820 and is nearly 600 pages long. Furthermore, it was first published in 1851! Why would anyone read it today, and why did James P. Pate spend more than 20 years annotating it and adding new information?
The first history of the state has been out of print more than a century — and is still worth reading, especially with the annotations Pate gives us in the margins of Pickett’s original text.
You need to begin by reading Pate’s introduction to this new edition. Besides his mastery of the scholarship that has been done over the years since 1851, he is a very good writer. His introduction will help you understand who Pickett was and the world he knew, which was as far removed from ours as it could be, except geographically.
As you read the book you will probably be glad you didn’t face the challenges the Native Americans and Euro-Americans did during the years it covers. However, as you read it you will be glad you did.
Even though Pickett lived in one or the other of two plantation houses, he traveled extensively in the Old Southwest (the Mississippi Territory, which before 1819 included the modern state of Alabama, was the center) and to New York and other Atlantic coastal cities. Well-known and respected, he died at age 48 while preparing an even wider history of the U.S.
When he began his history of Alabama in 1847 there were virtually no archives or libraries for him to consult. He sought out and often bought the books, private papers and manuscripts he relied on from booksellers in New York and Europe as well as in the South.
But most importantly, he interviewed people who had “been there” — from Caesar, the slave who held the canoes together for Sam Dale in the canoe fight in the Creek Wars, to Andrew Jackson at his home in Tennessee, The Hermitage. All the oral history enables Pickett to tell stories that are exciting, filled with detail and usually quite accurate. When they are not, Pate explains why. Usually Pickett simply did not have all the information available today.
Born in 1810, Pickett and his family came to Alabama in 1818 from North Carolina. His father traded with the Indians and eventually owned a plantation in Autauga County. Young Pickett, always observant, saw how the slaves were worked on the plantation and spent time watching the Indians bring their pelts and deerskins to trade for manufactured goods in his dad’s store.
In “Pickett’s History of Alabama” he showed remarkable respect for both, and as an adult treated his slaves humanely. His father saw to it that he got some formal education, but he had to go north to find schools. Young Pickett studied law, passed the bar but hated the legal world. He was a scholar and a frontiersman and found the Native Americans and the mixed-breed frontiersmen fascinating.
As this book is large and detailed, I recommend reading a chapter or two at a time, always noting what Pate’s modern notes have to add. For Mobilians, Chapters IV and XI, which deal with the French period and contain an especially good biography of Bienville, are good places to start. Earlier chapters deal with the Native Americans and are a bit hard to follow unless you are more expert than this reviewer.
Chapters beginning with XIV describe the coming of Americans, including the naturalist William Bartram in the late 18th century, and highlight Indian leaders, including Alexander McGillivray and the McIntosh family. As their names suggest they were products of unions between Scots traders and Indian women, some of whom were very well placed in the Muskogee world. Sehoy, a princess of the Creek Wind Clan, from which leaders traditionally came, is just one example of this.
By the end of the 18th century settlers from Georgia and the Carolinas were entering the Mississippi territory from the east and others coming down the Mississippi River to the west. They wanted the Native Americans’ land and eventually this led to the bloody Creek Wars in 1813-14.
Chapter XXXII opens this with the visit of Tecumseh as he tried to forge an alliance between the tribes from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico to drive all the settlers off Indian lands. This begins the most exciting part of the book as we read vivid accounts of battles from Burnt Corn Creek to the slaughter at Fort Mims on Aug. 30, 1813, then Holy Ground and finally Horseshoe Bend the following spring. If you don’t find the firsthand immediacy of these battles riveting then I am not sure what would!
In the end, the Indians lost most of their land (they would be expelled altogether in 1835 by the man who made his name in the Indian Wars and at New Orleans in 1815). Pickett was an admirer of Jackson so his assessment of him is somewhat biased in the general’s favor. Despite this, his account of the period certainly deserves and rewards close and careful reading as he uses many interviews from all sides and written sources to tell his story.
After the Creek Wars ended with the Treaty of Fort Jackson, the general had not only secured most of Alabama from the native tribes (it had been the eastern half of the Mississippi Territory until 1819) but he also added Mobile and Baldwin counties. And he had become a national figure.
The remaining chapters describe the establishment of the state of Alabama and profile its leaders. Pickett was not a politician and it shows. His accounts are enlightening, but the years after the Indian Wars were less interesting to him, even as Alabama‘s population grew by leaps and bounds. He was interested in scientific farming on his plantation lands and planning for his next history when his life was cut short in 1858.
On pages 536-538 Pickett praises the bravery and determination of the Red Sticks in defending and protecting the lands they had occupied for time out of mind. He wonders if the victorious whites will show a similar determination should they be faced with such a challenge. A decade after he wrote this and three years after his death, the Civil War provided such a test. Alabamians kept their land but lost the culture that had largely depended on slavery.
Pickett’s history is rich and exciting, if a bit romantic for modern tastes, but with Professor Pate’s annotations and a complete index it certainly rewards the 20th century reader handsomely. Pate cites a tremendous bibliography of contemporary sources, none more important that the works of Gregory Waselkov, the University of South Alabama’s professor of archaeology. Waselkov’s research here in southwest Alabama is fascinating and adds a great deal to the value of this book, especially for those of us who live here.
This book is physically beautiful in its design and layout. To say that no home should be without a copy is probably optimistic, but I hope it is not.
Albert James Pickett, “The Annotated Pickett’s History of Alabama and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period.” Edited and annotated, with an introduction by James P. Pate (NewSouth Books: Montgomery, 2018); hardcover ISBN 978-1-58838-032-6; 600 pages, $60.