They Live on the Land: Life in an Open-Country Southern Community

They Live on the Land: Life in an Open-Country Southern Community


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They Live on the Land: Life in an Open-Country Southern Community by Paul W. Terry, Verner M. Sims

"First published in 1940 as part of the information-gathering effort of the TVA, the work examines Gorgas, Alabama, a predominantly white farming settlement. Hailed as the most intensive case study ever made in the South, the book provides a detailed portrait of southern rural life on the verge of extinction."
—Florida Historical Quarterly

"One of the finest examples of the genre of the community survey. . . The book is remarkably free of special pleading. And every chapter is paced with fascinating data and insights. The University of Alabama Prss is to be congratulated for reissuing this splendid community study; the volume fits the description of a classic. And Clarence L. Mohr's introduction alone is worth the price of the volume."
—Journal of Southwest Georgia History

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817305871
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 02/28/1993
Series: Library Alabama Classics Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.80(d)

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They Live on the Land

Life in an Open-Country Southern Community

By Paul W. Terry, Verner M. Sims

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1993 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-0587-1



In the first decade of the Nineteenth Century the area that is now Alabama was a great unpeopled wilderness. There were a few scattered settlements around the struggling village of St. Stephens on the lower Tombigbee River and a small but rapidly growing community of planters around Huntsville in the Tennessee Valley. Both communities cultivated cotton which was soon to become the chief marketable product of the entire region. Between these clearings lay hundreds of miles of territory, much of it rough and broken, that was inhabited by Indians and by straggling white traders and squatters. Irregular and precarious communication between these outposts of civilization was maintained over the rivers and forest trails that traversed the region. The government of Mississippi Territory which officially controlled the country was far away in New Orleans.

Not many years before this time events took place in other parts of the nation that exercised a far-reaching influence over the area with which we are concerned. Power machinery was applied to the spinning and weaving of cotton cloth and the invention of the cotton gin had made commercially profitable the cultivation of short-staple cotton. The good prices thereafter available for this fibre induced the piedmont farmers of Georgia and the Carolinas to abandon tobacco and plant their fields in cotton. But transportation to the coastal markets from these areas was difficult, the lands were wearing out, and the population was increasing rapidly. A great army of land hungry people began to look with covetous eyes across the old frontiers to the new lands of the Southwest that seemed to be just what was needed. The pressure grew and it was but a matter of time before the swarm would break loose in a mad rush for new homes.

Events in Alabama and elsewhere moved fast to open the new country for settlement. When the War of 1812 ended the demand for cotton was tremendously increased and the price rose rapidly. Mobile, which was the natural export market for the entire region because it lay at the mouth of a great system of navigable rivers, was taken from the Spaniards in 1813. Jackson's victory over the Indians at Horseshoe Bend in 1814 broke the power of the savages and cleared the country of the Indian title. New land offices were set up and millions of acres were offered for sale. Alabama was soon established as a territory and shortly thereafter as a state. While these events were taking place small numbers of immigrants had trickled in but by 1817 the stream of newcomers turned into a great flood as thousands upon thousands laboriously worked their way over the hard trails to the virgin acres that lured them on.


One of the chief routes over which the pioneers traveled in Alabama was the Huntsville Road which started from Madison County in the Tennessee Valley and ran south until it struck the headwaters of the rivers that flowed through the southern half of the State toward Mobile. The first bands of settlers pushed down the streams until they came to the broad bottom lands of the main rivers and their tributaries. Later comers left the road higher up and worked into the interior searching for fertile lands along the smaller streams that flowed through the region of broken hills in the central and northern parts of the State. Thus it was that in the year 1818 a family named Brum left the little town of Shallow Ford on the Huntsville Road and pushed south along an Indian trail for about twenty-five miles until they came to a bend in East River that is now known as Upland Bend.

The Upland Bend section looked good to the pioneers. The river, a clear upland stream that was rarely more than twenty yards across, was plentifully supplied with fish. A half dozen little creeks made their way over the bottoms and several strong springs furnished a never failing supply of wholesome water. The sandy loam soil of the lowlands was very fertile. Higher up a wide expanse of rolling ridge land reached to the eastern hills at the foot of which ran the road that came from Shallow Ford. The soil on the plateau was not the best in the world but it was much like that of the piedmont sections and the settlers knew how to cultivate it. Stands of virgin short-leaf pine and smaller growths of cedar here and there provided an abundance of wood. In the open places there were fine patches of the wild pea vine which attracted large herds of deer and other wild game that was valuable for food. The only undesirable feature of the situation was the distance to a navigable stream and the difficult nature of the road that led that way. This was a serious handicap to the wealthy planter who owned a large number of slaves and who had to ship considerable quantities of cotton to Mobile. But most of the immigrants were small farmers who grew only the few bales that their own families could raise. Having little money to pay for land they were forced to confine their choices to the less accessible places. Upland sections were preferred by many who considered them more healthful than lower locations. The immigrants liked to settle, moreover, in a country such as that from which they came. Thus it was that sections like Upland Bend were just what large numbers of the pioneers were hunting for.

So the Brum family was soon followed by others. Several of these, like the Brums, came from Elbert County in Georgia but most of the newcomers were from Anson and Buncombe Counties in North Carolina or from the piedmont sections of Virginia and South Carolina. A few Tennesseans arrived at this time and there was one family of Dutch extraction from Pennsylvania. Some of the early families settled in the bottom lands but others took to the ridge. As fast as they could they erected modest log cabins, girdled the trees on small patches of ground, and planted crops. Corn was raised for the family and for the animals but cotton was cultivated for money. Pigs and cattle were turned loose to forage for themselves in the woods. Whenever the family wanted a change of diet one of the men bagged some game in the forest nearby or caught a mess of fish in the river. After the cotton was picked the farmer laboriously carted it to Shallow Ford and sold it to one of the merchants there.

The farmers from Upland Bend probably sold most of their cotton to John Brum who was the brother of their neighbor of the same name. John Brum was the first merchant to bring goods up the river from Mobile to Shallow Ford. Poling or warping a keel boat that distance up stream required from a month to six weeks though a flatboat could float down in about two weeks time. The boats headed for Mobile carried cotton mainly, fifty to a hundred bales a trip. Those coming up brought sugar, coffee, flour, and whiskey for the most part. In 1820 when the steamboats came to Shallow Ford transportation was more regular and rapid. But this improvement did not mean very much to the pioneers in Upland Bend because the road to Shallow Ford was too hard to travel often and most of them lacked money with which to buy what the boats brought. Thus isolated the settlers learned early how to live on a self-sustaining basis. But at that life in Upland Bend must not have been unpleasant for later comers continued to trickle in until by the end of the 1820's most of the original families had arrived.


Fortunately for the scattered settlers in Upland Bend the wood path over which they came from Shallow Ford led to other and more populous settlements to the south. There was thus created a strong demand to make the path into a turnpike. In 1819 the State Assembly honored a petition to that effect and authorized a Mr. George Corley to construct the road. Scarcity of funds delayed completion until 1830. But for twenty years thereafter the builder had the right to collect tolls that ranged from 75 cents for a four-wheel carriage to 1/2 cent a head for a drove of hogs.

Some of the most colorful happenings in the early history of Upland Bend centered around this old road. Of these incidents one of the most memorable was the passage through Upland Bend of the Choctaw Indians who were on the way to their new lands across the Mississippi. One band of several hundred, some on foot and some on horseback, reached this section late in the afternoon and camped for the night. From all about the settlers came to inspect the quarters of these unusual visitors. With her father, who was one of the leading farmers, was a beautiful dark haired girl nineteen years of age. Her attractions struck the eyes of a burley warrior who tried to purchase the girl as a slave. When the father refused the Indian raised his price several times until at last he was given to understand that the girl was not for sale at any price. During the night one of the Indian babies died and before the band left in the morning the baby was buried in the hollow trunk of a large oak tree that stood beside the road.

Animals with which to stock the new farms were needed soon after the settlers arrived. These were supplied by drovers who brought horses, cows, hogs, and turkeys from the older settlements in Tennessee and drove them south to Shallow Ford, Upland Bend, and points beyond. When they learned that a herd was moving down Corley's Road the farmers who wanted animals repaired thereto and waited. A number of the oldest residents remembered purchases made by their fathers in this market. One recalled a flock of several hundred turkeys that was driven by a group of men on horseback. The turkey drovers, he said, never could tell when or where the birds would stop for the night. Late in the afternoon, when they got ready, the whole flock suddenly took wing with a thunderous roar and flew up into the nearest trees where they roosted until morning. And there was nothing their masters could do but stop and make themselves as comfortable as they could. Before the railroads came stage coaches drawn by four to six powerful horses passed up and down this road. These often met farmers going to town in large covered wagons drawn by one or two yokes of oxen. During the Civil War Confederate soldiers, then Union soldiers, and later carpetbaggers traveled by Upland Bend on Corley's Road. There were reports of camels that went by. One family that owned a beast of this description stopped in Upland Bend but they did not stay long. In later years when the westward movement began anew some of the Upland Bend families with all their worldly goods piled onto a wagon or two left the community by this same road. The last of the passing incidents was that of the herds of wild western ponies which horse-traders drove down Corley's Road. These animals were cheap and many of the Upland Bend farmers bought them. But the ponies were so hard to break and so poor to work that they were soon discarded for the small mule that for many years has been the farmer's favorite work animal.


Upland Bend like other parts of the State suffered from the Civil War. Only two or three families owned slaves and only a few slaves at that. For this reason and the isolated situation of Upland Bend it is difficult to believe that sentiment in the community was overwhelmingly in favor of the war in the beginning. But the conscription law had its effect here as elsewhere and before the end practically all of the eligible men had enlisted in the Confederate cause. In the southern part of the community near Corley's Road, there was a drill field to which recruits from this section of the county reported for preliminary training before they were sent to larger military centers.

In the final year of the War when Union troops marched into Shallow Ford and later when a peacetime garrison was stationed there small parties of marauders disturbed the peace of Upland Bend over a considerable period of time. Incidents connected with these raids were still fresh in the minds of a few of the oldest inhabitants who witnessed them as children. One old man described his encounter with a squad of five or six Yankee soldiers on an April morning in 1865. He was barely old enough to ride the mule that was carrying him and a sack of meal home from the mill. Coming upon the soldiers unexpectedly he had just brought the mule to a halt when one of them called, "Say, boy, is that flour you've got there?" "Naw, it's only corn meal", the boy retorted as he started to move on. "Wait a minute, let's see", returned the soldier as he reached his hand into the sack. Having verified the lad's statement the soldier said, "You can keep that stuff, boy, we're looking for flour." Then he added, "Where is your daddy, son?" "He's off fighting in the War", was the immediate response. At this the soldiers laughed good humoredly and took off down the road. Parenthetically the old man added "Them damn Yankees didn't know corn meal was fit to eat."

An old lady who was born in 1850 recalled the war period as one of great hardship. Corn pone, the only bread that was available, was so scarce that each person in her family was rationed daily a single piece no larger than a man's hand. There was practically no meat, so vegetables were cooked with milk. Corncob ashes were substituted for soda and parched meal for coffee. Salt was very scarce. Some families boiled the earth crust of the smokehouse floor for this commodity while others evaporated water from a weak salt lick near the river. Federal soldiers visited her father's house several times. One group demanded money or jewelry under threat of dire punishment if these were not produced immediately. When convinced that no valuables were obtainable the raiders shot a turkey and three chickens two of which were left dead in the yard. On another occasion a squad of soldiers was accompanied by three negroes. The soldiers directed the negroes to take three good saddle horses from the barn and leave in their place a broken down old mare with a sore back. The horses were needed for an important mission, they said, but suspicion was aroused in her father's mind by the fact that the animals were ridden away by the negroes. When the party reached Corley's Road the soldiers turned north toward Shallow Ford but the negroes went south. Quickly collecting a number of friends the father went in pursuit of his horses. By nightfall the animals were back in the stalls of their owner but the recipients of the soldiers' bounty were buried in a small lake not far from where they were found.

Another old resident told of two raids on his home. On the first occasion the soldiers threatened to burn them out if money was not forthcoming immediately. His mother assured her callers repeatedly that nothing of that nature was in the house. Unwilling to believe her the raiders proceeded to build a fire on the floor with the aid of such papers and clothes as they could find. The mother continued her denial and as the fire died down the soldiers departed leaving a large charred spot in the middle of the room. On the second visit money was again the object. Receiving none the soldiers began wandering about the place poking their heads in here and there to see what they could find. Presently one entered the smoke house and began throwing hams and shoulders into the yard. When the leader saw this he commanded the man to "leave the lady's meat alone." Returning to the front yard the leader saw a pile of cotton at the edge of an adjoining field and he told the boy's mother that he would burn the cotton if she did not give him some money immediately. This he would have to do, she firmly replied, because there was none to give. So the men attempted to fire the cotton but it was too damp. Disgusted with this failure they all got on their horses and left cursing cotton and the country in general.


After the Revolution conditions in the young nation were ripe for a fresh sowing of the seeds of religion. The people had drifted away from their old creeds when Whitefield and the Wesleys began to preach a new faith that meant strength to those who were bent on conquering the wilderness. The Methodist and Baptist societies were peculiarly well fitted to cope with conditions on the frontier. Little in the way of education was asked of the clergy by the church or by the people with whom they labored. All that was needed was a fiery zeal for the Cross, courage to endure the hardships of an unsettled life, and willingness to work for small compensation in a material way. In those days men were inclined to be open and definite in the expression of their views; if they were for religion, they were for it. Thus they were ready to be moved by the strong emotional appeals with which the intrepid old circuit riders preached the Gospel.

The original settlers of Upland Bend had not long to wait before the church made its appearance among them. The first institution to be formally organized was the Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church which was founded in 1824—only six years after the arrival of the first family. A few years later the second and last of the early institutions, the Tabernacle Methodist Church, was established. These two churches were among the first to be set up in Chehaw County and both were soon taking a prominent part in the religious activities of the denominations to which they belonged. In the beginning the people of Upland Bend were Baptists or Methodists as they have remained to this day.


Excerpted from They Live on the Land by Paul W. Terry, Verner M. Sims. Copyright © 1993 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction by Clarence L. Mohr,
Photographic Section,
Contents to the 1940 Edition,
Preface to the 1940 Edition,
1. Origins of the Community,
2. The People,
3. Economic Life of the Community,
4. Civic Life,
5. Health and Medical Services,
6. The Homes,
7. The Churches,
8. The Schools,
9. How the People Spent Their Time,
10. What the People Thought,
11. Leadership of the Community,

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