“When these words were written everybody had read or heard of Simon Suggs, the shifty man whose antics had been recorded in many a gusty tale of Alabama frontier life which had drawn laughter and applause from newspaper readers throughout the United States. And everybody, at least in Alabama in the 1850s, knew something about his creator, Johnson Jones Hooper. . . . The immortal Suggs, his alter ego, has kept his name alive and renewed its luster, in a biography that deserves almost unqualified praise. Dr. Hoole’s Alias Simon Suggs is a noteworthy achievement. . . . A milestone in contemporary Alabama scholarship, it will become a standard reference work on the literary and political scene [and] as a distinguished piece of biographical writing, skillfully organized and deftly presented.”Alabama Review,
About the Author
"Author, educator, and librarian W. Stanley Hoole (1903-1990) dedicated his life to libraries and education. Trained as an educator, Hoole soon found himself in the role of librarian at the University of Alabama and oversaw widespread improvements in the its library system. In addition, he was a founding member of the Alabama Historical Association and editor of its journal, The Alabama Review, from 1948 to 1967." Clark E. Center Jr, The Encyclopedia of Alabama
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Alias Simon Suggs
The Life And Times Of Johnson Jones Hooper
By W. Stanley Hoole
UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESSCopyright © 1952 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
"... people is more like hogs and dogs ..."
WILLIS BREWER says that in going from his father's home in Wilmington, North Carolina, to his brother's home in frontier La Fayette, Alabama, Johnson Jones Hooper "journeyed through the Gulf States, and remained in Tuscaloosa several months." To have reached this West Alabama community, on the opposite side of the state from Chambers County, he would have had to come by ship from Wilmington, via Charleston and Savannah, to Mobile, and thence up the Mobile, Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers—a long, slow and circuitous voyage which would have ultimately deposited him yet many miles from his known destination. As Alabama's capital, Tuscaloosa doubtless held a charm and opportunities not to be expected in the county-seat of La Fayette, and Hooper might well indeed have wished to "look the field over" from that vantage point. But this is not likely, in view of subsequent facts. Another writer, obviously following Brewer's lead, romantically states that Hooper "set out on a journey of the Gulf States, living by his wits, a few months here and a few there, until 1840 when he settled in La Fayette ... and read law under his brother, already a resident of seven years' standing." Another possible though highly improbable route would have been the Fall-Line Road all the way across the Carolinas and Georgia, a tedious stage-coachjourney of approximately six hundred miles. And still another, even more improbable, would have been the northern road through western North Carolina, Knoxville, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa.
None of these routes seems plausible. As will be seen, Hooper was in East Alabama much earlier than 1840. Moreover, the logical and most attractive route for him to have followed from Wilmington to La Fayette was certainly not the longest way round.
By taking passage on one of the regularly scheduled schooners from Wilmington, Hooper could have reached Charleston in less than two days. There he could have boarded the newly-constructed, 136-mile South-Carolina Rail-Road, then the longest in the world, and have arrived in Hamburg, across the Savannah River from Augusta, in a matter of hours. In Augusta, Georgia's principal stagecoach terminal, he could have taken the Fort Mitchell route directly west, through Sparta, Milledgeville, Macon and Columbus, across the Chattahoochee River to Fort Mitchell, Alabama, and thence to Opelika and La Fayette, a distance of but two hundred and sixty miles. This route, from Middle Georgia westward a part of the old Washington-New Orleans Federal Road and because of surveyors' markings commonly called the "Three Chopped Way," was the most frequented southwestward highway of its time. Immigrants from the Carolinas and Georgia who settled in Alabama, as well as those who pushed farther on, to Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, had used it extensively and long. Moreover, Chambers County, one of Alabama's most easterly counties, strategically situated near famous Fort Mitchell on a chief pioneer thoroughfare, was widely known as one of the state's gateways. It is wholly logical to assume, therefore, that Hooper journeyed this way, rather than the longer and more circuitous route via Tuscaloosa.
At the time of Hooper's arrival, La Fayette was a merefrontier crossroads, a muddy-streeted, log-cabin village of scarcely two hundred inhabitants. Chambers County, of which it was the "chief city," contained not more than twenty settlers to each of its 620 square miles, almost one-half of whom were Negro slaves, and an unknown quantity of Muscogee Indians of the Creek Nation who still roamed the countryside, frightening women and children and in general adding no pleasure to an already rugged pioneer existence. Scarcely three years old, the county had been created December 18, 1832, carved out of territory ceded to the United States at the Treaty of Cusseta the preceding March. Already, however, settlers from Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia and the older counties of Alabama to the west were pouring into the new land, staking claims, clearing the piney-woods, building log houses and trading posts, planting crops, and otherwise slowly converting the backwoods wilderness into a livable outpost of civilization. By 1840, five years after Hooper's coming and the year of Chambers County's first census, 17,333 had arrived. Within another decade thousands more were to come, dotting the red clay hillsides with better and better homesteads, cultivating the bottomlands along Osanippa and High Pine creeks and the rich valleys that eastward led into the historic Chattahoochee River and westward to the Tallapoosa.
Hooper, doubtless through the good offices of his brother George, now one of the county's leading attorneys, adjusted himself quickly to East Alabama's pioneer life. He moved about the region easily, sharing his time between La Fayette and the nearby villages of Dudleyville, Dadeville and Wetumpka, making friends wherever he went. The Indians especially fascinated him, their councils, ball games, sham battles, dances, and hilltop camp-fires remaining sources of unending pleasure. "It was a right beautiful sight to look at," he once stated, "the camp fires of five thousand Indians, that burned at every point of the circular ridge ... and it was thrilling to hear the wild whoopings, and the wilder songs of the 'natives,' as they danced and capered about their respective encampments."
Quick to see the Indians' many faults, their drunkenness, stupidity and general undesirability as citizens in a white man's country, Hooper nevertheless lamented the ill-treatment these naive and unlearned people received at the hands of land-sharks, speculators and traders. "There are few of the old settlers of the Creek territory in Alabama," he wrote, "who do not recollect the great Indian Council held at Dudley's store, in Tallapoosa County, in September of the year 1835. In those days, an occasion of the sort drew together white man and Indian from all quarters of the 'Nation,'—the one to cheat the other to be cheated. The agent appointed by the Government to 'certify' the sales of Indian lands was always in attendance; so that the scene was generally one of active traffic. The industrious speculator, with his assistant, the wily interpreter, kept unceasingly at work in the business of fraud; and by every species and art of persuasion, sought—and, sooner or later succeeded—in drawing the untutored children of the forest into their nets. If foiled once, twice, thrice, a dozen times, still they kept up the pursuit. It was ever the constant trailing of the slow-track dog, from whose fangs there was no final escape!"
According to contemporary accounts, however, the Creeks were as a whole a revengeful, lazy lot of individuals who mostly lurked on the edges of the forest, a constant menace to the settlers. With "whiskey too much" they either lay about the piazzas of the village stores or, accompanied by "miserable-looking squaws" and filthy, naked children, begged food from white house-wives, "gobbling up their supper of hominy" and sneaking off into the shadows. Easily persuaded and largely controlled by intriguing settlers with the smoothest tongues, they remained constantly a disturbing element of Alabama's backwoods civilization. For years, until the Creeks were finally transported, the white man never dared let down his guard.
Yet the catalogue of the white man's frauds against the Indians was long, too, "as long almost, as the catalogue of Creek wrongs." He exploited them in every way, seduced their maidens, married them to get titles to their lands and left them, cheated and tricked them and laughed in their faces, refusing them at last even the beneficence of a horse and wagon in which to travel to the promised new lands in the West. Many a Creek, once self-sufficient and, after his fashion, proud, "was compelled to wait until the Government removed his people; and then he went in one of the 'public' wagons, among the 'poor' of his tribe."
Against these unscrupulous, conniving settlers Hooper, the "Champion of the Creeks," vented his special anger. With apparent great glee he rejoiced when "those lords of the soil!—the men of dollars—the fortune-makers who bought with hundreds what was worth thousands!" fell victims of "retributive justice." Within ten years, he declared, nine out of ten of the cheaters had "lost money, lands, character, every thing! And the few who still retain somewhat of their once lordly possessions, mark its steady, unaccountable diminution, and strive vainly to avert their irresistible fate—an old age of shame and beggary. They are cursed, all of them—blighted, root and trunk and limb! The Creek is avenged!"
As he moved about the countryside in these early, formative years, when life itself leaned heavily on the rifle, the axe and the froe, Hooper observed not only the white man's treatment of the Indians, but also the white man's treatment of himself.
To begin with, the old Southwestern frontier was a mecca for every sort of American, the good, the bad and the indifferent. Some who came, the large majority, no doubt, were hard-working, honest pioneers who desired more than anything else to exchange their old, worn-out soils back east for fresh, to build homes, churches, schools and to better themselves and their families for all time to come. They were steady, sturdy farmers, carpenters, mechanics, blacksmiths, merchants, printers, saw-millers—the numerous little people, largely unlearned but, like true pioneers everywhere, God-fearing folks filled with zeal to carve a homeland out of a wilderness. With them of course travelled some few already well-to-do planters and their families who rode in comfortable carriages, their slaves trailing behind in wagons sagging with Sheraton and Hepplewhite. Doctors, lawyers, editors, teachers, surveyors and other professional men came too, partly for adventure, perhaps, but largely because of man's eternal faith in the pot at the other end of the rainbow. Many were college graduates, men who had flung aside profitable careers and enviable reputations to join the southwestward caravan. Once on the frontier, however, they pitched eagerly into the practice of their professions, posting their shingles, opening schools or starting newspapers. Frequently they also tried their hands at farming or trading, but always they found that the last river they crossed had been their Lethe ...
But not all who came were angels on horseback. A loud-voiced minority were shiftless ne'er-do-wells, the parasites of progress, hangers-on to whom the other fellow's grass seemed always greener and freer. Not a few were fugitives from justice. For reasons never discussed they somehow felt that Alabama's climate might be particularly healthful. Convicts emptied from the bowels of prisons in the old states cut paths westward, also. Indeed, some of all the flotsam and jetsam of a fabulous America, for one reason or another stifled by the too-sweet aromas of organized society, found their way to the backwoods of Alabama in the 1830's.
Once this adventuresome medley of the clean and the unclean reached their destination, they were strangely bound together by a common denominator of necessity. The frontier was America's greatest leveller. There were Indians to master and forests to clear, homes to raise and roads to build, crops to plant and food to gather. From sun-up to sun-down—from can to can't—was a day and each was hard and sombre. The unlearned farmer plowed around his stumps and shot the panther on his doorstep. The learned doctor, forced to spend the night on a shuck-and-straw mattress in a settler's chinked-and-daubed cabin, remote and not infrequently filthy, or the learned lawyer, obliged to hobnob with ignorant, drunken, tobacco-spitting clients or rascally land speculators, or the learned politician, making merry over a pewter piggin full of red-eye in a crowded, itchy, foul-smelling roadside tavern, came face to face with a happy breed he might possibly have considered many notches beneath his dignity. If he did, he could not afford to have the fact known. And so it came to pass that, for all his homespun jeans, his rawhide galluses and his bare feet a man was accepted for what he was, not what he had been, and no questions raised. It might have been frontier etiquette to ask a settler whence or even how he came to Alabama—but never why.
If life was bleak and rough, it also had its fun and frolics. Like the Pilgrim two hundred years before him, Alabama's pioneer shouldered old Silver Heels and trekked through the virgin forest to take part in a neighbor's log-toting, house-raising, wood-chopping, corn-husking, picking-bee, or that most social of all socials, the break-down. Funerals, too, though solemn to tears, were eagerly anticipated as gala occasions, important both to business and society. Usually they were preached weeks or months after the actual burial and were publicly advertised in the press and by widely distributed announcements. Few people passed up the opportunity for such get-togethers: at them office-seekers saw votes, horse-traders horses, creditors uncollected debts, farmers land, oxen or mules. All saw a good, rowdy time. "Brethering, as being as I'm here," announced one preacher as he opened a service for a colleague, "I'll open the meetin' fur Brother Buncomb, an' then he'll preach the funeral sarmint accordin' to previous a-p'intment. But while I'm before you, I want to say as how my main business over here is a-huntin' of some seed peas, and if anybody here has got any to spar', I'd like to know it after meetin'."
Like funerals, weddings were all day or all night affairs where corn whiskey flowed freely down the throats of celebrants of both sexes, including the Man of God who frequently relied upon a dram or two for added inspiration. Homemade white-lightning was as common as homemade cornbread. There were week-long religious camp-meetings held under the trees, quilting parties, cock and dog fights, shooting and cotton-picking bees, horse-racings, wrestling matches, militia musters, house-warmings, goose jousts and gander-pullings—all keyed more or less to the tune of frontier rowdyism. Every crossroads had its "tippling house," "confectionary" or "grocery" where rot-gut and bust-head licker, peach brandy and other "sperrits" were sold by the keg, jug or dipperful. Along with their men-folks women smoked, chewed or dipped unceasingly, so much so that ministers railed from their make-shift pulpits against the evil of the "filthy weed." But to no avail. For it was considered quite an art to hit the bucket at twenty feet: apparently few were so accomplished, however, judging from the sluices of tobacco juice that found the floors or trinkled down the walls of stores, homes and public buildings.
Yes, Hooper's Alabama was a rough, tough, swearin', gamblin', heavy drinkin', fist-fightin' country and physical prowess, not mental, was usually its own reward. The "champeen" of any activity, be it shooting, wrestling or corn-shucking, easily crawled up the ladder of social prestige—and not the least affluent was the champion drinker, the man who could take on the most and walk away. It was, as the oft-quoted Henry Watterson once stated, "the good old time of muster days and quarter-racing, before the camp-meeting and the barbecue had lost their power and their charm; when men led simple, homely lives, doing their love-making and their law-making as they did their fighting and their plowing, in a straight furrow; when there was no national debt multiplying the dangers and magnifying the expenses of distillation in the hills and hollows, and pouring in upon the log-rolling, the quilting, the corn-shucking, and the fish-fry an inquisitorial crew of tax-gatherers and 'snoopers' to spoil the sport and dull the edge of patriotic husbandry."
Crude and lewd though it was, Alabama's backwoods society had its virtues. Chief among these was a deeply ingrained sense of friendliness, or better still, of neighborliness. When trouble threatened, as it often did, a community became instantly a big family: it was a poor dog indeed that wasn't worth whistling for. Withal his roughness the real frontiersman was at heart an altruist, quick to come to the aid of his friends. Independence of thought and action he had, to be sure, and frankness and forthrightness and a lightly borne spirit of belligerency, but seldom did he covet a reputation in his region higher than that of being a staunch friend. Fist fights were routine affairs, along with drinking and church-going, but it was against the frontier's code of ethics for a man to carry concealed weapons, fight with a gun or a knife or attack an opponent smaller than himself. Locks on cabin doors, even in remotest sections, were taboo, and untaught pioneers had to take them off. It was insulting not to have the latchstring always on the outside. Man's faith in man was abiding and everyone was accepted as four-square until proved otherwise. Then, it often happened, it was too late.
In this simple but austere life, where free thought, speech and action was the unwritten law, American democracy found its finest testing-ground. Nowhere was ever more completely democratic, more wholly American than the frontier.
Excerpted from Alias Simon Suggs by W. Stanley Hoole. Copyright © 1952 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
I "... people is more like hogs and dogs ...",
II "... Yonder goes the chicken man!",
III "... good to be shifty in a new country ...",
IV "... a rough road to travel ...",
V "... dead—as dead as a mackerel ...",
VI "If Mr. Suggs is present ...",
VII "... then, where shall we be?",
VIII "... at liberty, is this our birth month ...",
IX "If it be agreeable to the Convention ...",
X "... through spits of rain and snow ...",