Letters From Alabama

Reader Contribution by The Historic Foodie
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When asked to choose a name for this GRIT blog, I chose “Letters from Alabama” because after all, I am from Alabama, and one could say I am following in the footsteps of two esteemed writers who each penned books filled with accounts of daily life here, ranging from mundane to surprisingly unexpected. Both were published during the antebellum period. The title of the two books is the same (Letters From Alabama), but the authors were quite different. The first, written by Anne Royall, chronicles her experiences having moved to North Alabama about 1820. The second, written by Philip Henry Gosse, an Englishman, tells of his journey to Alabama from Philadelphia, about his work, the family he worked for as a tutor in Pleasant Hill, Alabama, and situations he encountered in 1838.

Gosse’s information appeared in the form of letters from the area, an early writing style. He spent almost a year on the plantation of Judge Reuben Saffold working as a teacher before returning to England. He was a naturalist and went into great depth describing the flora and fauna of south-central Alabama and also kept copious notes concerning social and political issues he encountered. Some of the information was first published in a magazine in England (The Home Friend) after which the articles, or letters, were compiled into book form, thus was born the second Letters from Alabama

Gosse was a prolific writer, penning in total some 40 books and 270 articles of a scientific or religious nature, and is noted as the inventor of the salt water aquarium. 

We traveled to what is left of Pleasant Hill in search of some remaining visage of Gosse and did find the home Judge Saffold built later to replace the log house described by Gosse while he lived and worked on the plantation. We found two nearby churches with cemeteries, and there were some other houses from the period we chose not to pursue for fear of trespassing. Pleasant Hill is in the country, far off the beaten path, but then Gosse did say that Southerners, though sometimes wealthy, still lived in log houses so that when the urge to move on became overpowering the family could do so leaving the log structures behind without a great deal of financial loss. 

Anne Royall was one of the first, if not the first, women journalists in the U.S. She was born in 1769, died in 1854. After her father died, she and her mother worked for a Revolutionary War captain, William Royall, and Anne eventually married him though he was 20 years her senior. Captain Royall died in 1813 after which she traveled extensively, and between 1826 and 1831 she published several accounts of her travels. She found herself involved in a bitter seven-year dispute over Capt. Royall’s estate when his family challenged the will, won, and claimed everything. Years later she filed for a widow’s pension on his service, most of which was also claimed by his family. She published a newspaper, started up in 1831, renamed in 1836, and she continued to publish it until just weeks before her death at age 85.

Anne Royall’s life was rather exceptional for the time and not always seen in a positive light. Her biographer said of her, “In overflowing measure ridicule, injustice, and vilifying persecution were poured upon Anne Royall while she yet walked on earth – the most widely known woman of her day and country.”

Because of her editorials on religion, politics and politicians, she was convicted of being a common scold and narrowly missed being ducked in the Potomac River as punishment. It is said the crime remained punishable but the punishment was deemed too old fashioned and was not carried out. Anne was, however, fined $10.

She met every notable person of the day, and many of them are recorded in her books. Her biographer stated she met every president from Washington to Lincoln. While in North Alabama, she met Andrew Jackson several times and described him in depth along with the property he owned and his military exploits.

She heard such notable men as Virginia’s John Randolph and Daniel Webster speak and called upon then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to discuss her widow’s pension application. 

Each section of Letters From Alabama begins with the words, “Dear Matt,” and after some research I learned that Matt was her friend and attorney, Matthew Dunbar. Always desperate for money, she gathered up her letters to Dunbar and had them published under the title, Letters from Alabama

Anne’s life and the current events of the time in which she lived are laid out for all to see in her books and in her biography, The Life and Times of Anne Royall, by Sarah Harvey Porter, published in 1909. Both are entertaining, informative, and well worth reading. 

Both authors lived extraordinary lives and left invaluable accounts of early Alabama for anyone interested in Alabama or Southern history. Both books can be found online or purchased as reprints. 

Additional Reading:

An Uncommon Scold” –  Anne’s books are listed on this site and can be found online or purchased.

Encyclopedia of Alabama

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