Using Primary Sources in the Classroom

Settlement Unit

Lesson 3: Alabama Fever

1. Background information for teachers:

After the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Government established laws to survey and sell land gained from Britain. The area that became Alabama was originally part of the Mississippi Territory from 1798 to 1817. Many settlers arrived in the area before government lands had been surveyed. Unable to buy, they simply picked a location, built a cabin, cleared fields, and put in crops. Such families were called squatters. Land laws were passed to provide legal title to land for settlers who already lived on the land. Some settlers claimed land by British or Spanish land grants, and others were squatters who claimed land by right of pre-emption.


Starting in 1804, U. S. Land Offices were established to sell land in the area which would become Alabama. By law federal land was sold to the highest bidders at public auctions. Alabama sales attracted men from all over the nation, many of them speculators. Groups of speculators bought large tracts, sometimes for as little as $10 an acre, then resold at $20 to $100 an acre. When an auction ended, poorer migrants could buy less desirable land for as little as $2 an acre. The smallest amount one person could buy was 160 acres. Under the Land Law of 1800 a purchaser could put one-fourth down and pay the rest off over three years. But when the price of cotton fell to eighteen cents a pound, few could meet payments on land bought at inflated prices. By 1820, Alabama owed the federal government $11 million--more than half of the national land debt. In 1820 and 1821 Congress passed new laws to deal with this problem. The Land Law of 1820 required future buyers to pay the entire amount in cash but lowered the minimums to $1.25 an acre and 80 acres. Those already in debt were aided by the Relief Act of 1821 which permitted them to keep part of their land and return the rest to the government or buy it all on the installment plan at reduced rates.


2. Learning Objectives:
Upon completion of this lesson, student should be able to:


1. Describe life on the frontier in early Alabama.


2. Identify topics important to early settlers (land, cotton, politics, news of home).


3. Explain the impact of geography on development of population centers.


4. Describe peaceful interaction with Native Americans.


5. Explain the government's role in sale of public land.


6. Define pre-emption, "squatter," land grant, auction.


3. Suggested activity:

Document 1 will be useful for discussing what life was like on the frontier in early Alabama.

1. Make copies of Document 1 and distribute to students.


2. Give them a few minutes to read the letter or you may read the letter to the class while students follow silently.


3. Give each student a copy of Worksheet 1 to complete by using the information in the letter. You may wish to have your class work in pairs or small groups.


4. Ask students to identify the person who wrote the letter and the person to whom it was addressed.


5. Ask students to make a list of all the topics discussed in the letter.


6. Ask students to describe the writer, i.e. educated, poor, adventurous, resourceful, etc.


7. Discuss why the writer complained about the lack of news. What other clue did you find that indicated that the writer was relatively isolated and that news of any kind was highly desirable?


8. Using a current highway map of Alabama, ask students to locate the home of the writer.


9. Using an atlas, ask students to compare the geographic features of the Alabama towns with those in Virginia. What makes both locations important?


10. What references indicate that settlers and Indians were not always at war?


11. How did the writer describe the land where he lived?


12. What does "staple of our country " mean? Why is this important?


13. Where, how and why did the writer ship his produce to market? Why is this significant in view of "sectionalism" that developed in Alabama?


14. Compare the writer's view of the land relief act with the purpose of the laws described above.


15. Explain, or ask students to look up, "squatter," pre-emption, land grant, auction.


16. Who is the writer encouraging to move to Alabama? How will he help to make their move easier?


17. Ask students to assume the role of one of the people mentioned in the letter and to write a letter describing his/her preparations for moving to Alabama.




Document 1: W.A. Powell Letter, SPR163, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.




Tuscumbia July 19th Addressed to: 1. _____________________ esqr } Hendersonville, } 2._____________ } County } Virginia Mail (Page 1) 3.__________ County Alabama (4.____________) 12 July 1824 Dear 5.____________ I hasten to acknowledge the receipt of your letter dated 17th March 1824—it was very acceptable but would have been much more so if it had been dated 6.__________, and had come to hand twelve months sooner—you acknowledge yourself a bad 7.__________ which mitigates the crime in some degree and shows a noble spirit to confess our errors; but permit me to say that the 8.__________contained in your letter for being a "bad correspondent" is not entirely satisfactory: but I dismiss the subject hopeing an apology will not hereafter be neces- sary for a good one can hardly be offered for not writing oftener than once in twelve months. I presume from the 9.____________of your letter (it being directed to 10._____________) that you are not aprised of my having left that section of country—I have removed— 11.________ miles lower down the 12.______ River—I am now in the County of Franklin on the south bank of the river at the foot of the 13.____________ within four miles of the Town of 14._________ and within eight miles of the town of 15._______ the first of which is on the south side the river—the latter on the north something like 16.__________ and Richmond in Va.—they are even now places of great17.______ and considera- -ble importance but are waging an eternal 18._______ against each other—which will eventually predominate is at this time uncertain. It is only four miles west of me to the 19.__________ nation—here are Game and fish in abundance which may be procured with but little trouble to those who are fond of the chase or at a small expence to those not fond of hunting. A fine 20.________ or 21._________ ham (not Rams hams as imposed on you) may be (Page 2) be had of the 22.___________ (who pass my door daily going to town) at 23.__________ for either. This section of country is considered the most desirable part of Alabama—indeed it is almost a 24._________—it being entirely below the Muscle Shoals as before observed and consequently at the head of 25._________ ___________—the country is certainly much more healthy than where we were raised—the lands rich and 26._________ in the extreme, and well adapted to the culture of 27.___________ which you know is the Staple of our country. It is no hard matter to make more than we can pick out by the next planting time besides plenty of 28.________&etc.—We may be considered nearer market than you are as it costs us less to freight our produce to 29.________ than it does you to 30.__________ yours to Petersberg or Richmond: The lands in this neighbourhood sold at the land sales at from 31._________ per acre—the highest priced lands and of course the best have reverted to Government under the Act of Congress entitled an Act for the relief of Land Purchasers but in fact an Act for the relief of land 32.__________—the lands so forfeited will in all probability be again bro.t into market sometime next year when it is hoped they may be had at fair prices, however there are various opinions on this subject—great preparations are making and as we get tolerable prices for our cotton and that in 33.__________ choice tracts may again go high; however the land grabbers are pretty well done over and as the lands are now to be sold for cash instead of a34._________ as before, hopes are entertained that they may be had at moderate prices. If you have not abandoned the idea of Alabama and as your 35._________ matters are in all probability much changed since I advised you not to move to Ala. I will suggest for your con- (Page 3) consideration the propriety of your sending as many 36._______ as you can conveaniently purchase and settle them near me where I can 37.__________ them, and then for you to come at some future period. I am informed by letter from Amanda since her marriage that her husband, self (torn) Peter intend comeing to this country 38.___________. I earnestly rec- -commend them to do so as I think it would greatly promote their interest—She also informs me that our 39.________ is disposed to come here, if so, please assist her in making the necessary arrangements as I am certain it would promote her interest and happiness and ultimately be of considerable (illegible) to us all particularly the younger children—I will come to 40._______ myself and assist her in making the necessary arrangements and in moving; therefore encourage her to come. Please inform me what has been done with the land in 41._______ and ^all about that affair? Also inform me what has been done with Standfields suit for the 42.______ of boy Isham and wheather a final settlement of Grandfathers Es.t has been made, &etc. John H. Hundley a friend of mine will probably call on you sometime in next month on his way to Brunswick to get a bit of a wife—consider him a 43.__________. Inform me how many 44.________ your wife has their name sex &etc. Your acquaintance and your wife, [Ealiva](?) were well a short time since? Parson Leigh often preaches in Tuscumbia? It is reported that Eliza [Towne](?) is shortly to be married to a Mr. Bester a baptist minister. Please send your 45.________ after reading them and I.l send you mine in return—This leaves us in good health—may it find you all enjoying a like blessing—Be sure to write on or before the 17th March next. Yours as usual A. Powell