My method, if you can call something so haphazard a method, has been to start with a document from The Pile, or an artifact within the walls of my apartment, and follow it until it leads to a story. Sometimes unexpected connections reveal themselves, as between a tattered two-volume history of Alabama, published in 1851, and the “LP Walker to Eliza” silver serving spoon passed down to me. Leroy Pope Walker was the first Secretary of War of the Confederacy. Eliza was Eliza Dickson Pickett, Leroy’s wife as well as the niece of Albert James Pickett, usually referred to as “Alabama’s first historian.” He is the author of the tattered volumes.
A.J. Pickett is also my great great grandfather.
I inherited a first edition of his opus, History of Alabama: And Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period. The black, leather-bound volumes have the title stamped on the cover in gold but they are so musty that I can’t open them without triggering an allergy attack. Since the yellowed pages are separating from the binding, I’ve read the History only on my computer screen.
Unlike most of the ancestors I have come across in The Pile, I actually remember hearing about Albert Pickett growing up. My parents were great readers and I suspect that because he wrote books, he engendered a certain amount of family pride.
I half-expected that I might also feel more of a connection to him – more than to, say, his distant cousin George Pickett, the Confederate general. Knowing nothing about Albert James Pickett, I’d vaguely imagined that, as an author, he’d led a life of the mind, at some distance from the brutal realities of plantation slavery.
I soon learned how hopelessly naïve this was. A.J. Pickett was a major slaveholder who inherited one Alabama plantation and married into another. Johanna Nicol Shields, an historian of the South (and also coincidentally a friend of one of my oldest friends), has written extensively about A.J. in her book, Freedom in a Slave Society.
Shields paints a distressing picture of A.J. Pickett, starting with his treatment of his niece Eliza, portraying him as a scheming uncle who conspired to hinder the girl’s educational opportunities and to gain a measure of control over her fortune.
When Eliza Dickson Pickett’s father died in 1837, shortly after her mother, he left her, at age 7, an orphan in possession of a plantation. Before his death, he had expressed a wish for Eliza to be educated in New England, where his wife’s sister lived. But Uncle Albert would have none of it. Although Eliza’s aging grandfather became her legal guardian, A.J. Pickett had the major say in managing her affairs.
First, he stalled, claiming “Little Dick” was too young to be sent away. Later he expressed his true sentiments in a letter to a family friend, confiding his fear that by going north, little Eliza would be subject to ideological contamination by abolitionists.
In the North, he said, “a large majority of the people . . . would desire to see our throats and those of our wives and children cut by our own slaves.” Eliza being rich, he also fretted that in New England she might become the target of fortune hunters. Her plantation was in Alabama, and that was where she should eventually marry.
So against the wishes of Eliza’s deceased father and her northern aunt, Albert contrived to have her schooled nearby in the home of family friends, where she would not be exposed to antislavery ideas. His success in steering Eliza’s course was rewarded when, at age 18, she married the prominent Huntsville widower Leroy Pope Walker.
From Albert Pickett’s perspective, this was an excellent dynastic match. It came at a price. The Walker family demanded a dowry-like settlement based on Eliza’s fortune. But because she was married off before her grandfather died, Albert himself stood to inherit a larger portion of the family estate -- a prospect he crowed about in a letter to his wife.
When I learned of A.J.’s interference in his niece’s fate, I was outraged on behalf of “Little Dick,” the Eliza of my spoon. Did she ever come to find out the role her uncle had played in refusing to send her to live with her mother’s sister in Connecticut? Did she wish to marry Leroy Walker, a hatchet-faced widower 24 years her senior, or was the match promoted as an expedient one for the fortunes of her extended family?
Eliza’s wealth did not survive the Civil War. Her plantation was seized and the cotton stored there was sold, with the proceeds going to the U.S. government. In 1906, Eliza and L.P.’s son brought an action before Congress to be reimbursed $11,205 for the 180 bales of cotton. The son maintained that his father had been granted a special pardon by President Andrew Johnson and that his mother had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States. But The Congressional court denied the claim, finding that “Leroy P. Walker and Eliza D. Walker were not loyal to the Government of the United States throughout the late Civil War.” And in any case, the court said, the statute of limitations on such claims had run out.
A.J.’s wealth was another story. He died in 1858 and in 1860 his estate held a just-in-time sale of many of his assets. What this meant for his heirs I don’t yet know but it is an area for further investigation.