< Romance and High Adventure >
by Harper Lee

Albert James Pickett was born in 1810, in Anson County, North Carolina, and moved with his family to what is now Autauga County, Alabama, in 1818, where his father established a plantation and trading-house. He received a "gentleman's education," which meant a military academy in Connecticut and Stafford County Academy in Virginia. In 1830 he returned home. Although he acquired extensive acreage in the vicinity of his father's plantation, Pickett was no farmer. Agriculture, he said, "did not occupy one-fourth of my time. Having no taste for politics, and never having studied a profession, I determined to write a history." It was lucky for us that he did.

After spending more than seventeen years collecting the material, Pickett began writing his History of Alabama in 1847. It was published in 1851 and, after having gone through several editions to 1900, was out of print until 1962, when it was republished as a sort of historical curiosity.

We Americans like to put our culture into disposable containers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way we treat our past. We discard villages, towns, even cities, when they grow old, and we are now in the process of discarding our recorded history, not in a shredder, but by rewriting it as romance. We are eager to watch docu-dramas on television; we prefer to read a history of the American Revolution as seen through the eyes of Mad Anthony Wayne's last mistress. Now there is nothing wrong in reading historical fiction--perhaps two-thirds of the world's classics are written in that form. But these are impatient days; more than ever it seems that we want anything but the real thing: we are afraid that the real thing might be dull, demanding, and worst of all, lacking in suspense.

So it gives me the greatest pleasure to remind the members of my own generation (who have all read it) and report to the younger ones among us, that although it's the real thing, Pickett's History of Alabama is a work so fraught with romance and high adventure that even John Jakes would sit up and take notice.

In what would occupy a few paragraphs of an American history survey, Pickett took 669 pages to unfold a story that is more hair-raising than anything yet seen on television. Indeed, in today's terms, it is almost as though Pickett trained a camera in relentless, unblinking close-up on a period of Alabama history that we seldom think about any more, a period that sometimes seems to live only in our place-names and on roadside markers. (Where was Maubila? On the Tombigbee somewhere? Where was Tookabatcha? On the Coosa, or was it the Tallapoosa? Maybe it was on the Alabama. These were the names of separate and distinct peoples, with their own history.)

In a prose style that falls somewhere between Macaulay and Bulwer-Lytton, Pickett's history opens with a blood-curdling account of Hernando DeSoto's progress through our state, in which he destroyed nearly everything in his path, including the Mobilians and their giant chief, Tuscaloosa, the Black Warrior.

Had he been a modern historian, Pickett would have gone straight on from there, but "as our soil remained untrodden by European feet for nearly a century and a half," Pickett passed the time between DeSoto and the arrival of the French with five chapters of what makes for compulsive reading. In a long digression describing the native inhabitants of what is now Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, he wrote a miniature social history that can hold its own with any modern work. For these chapters alone, I think Pickett deserves a place in American literature.

We meet them all, but the most prominent tribes were the ferocious, insolent Chickasaws, who put paid to DeSoto somewhere in Mississippi; the silver-tongued Choctaws, who could not swim, who were unaggressive when not defending their own turf, and who were notable even among their own kind for their revolting burial practices. In the northeast were the comparatively genial Cherokees, and in the west the aristocratic, despotic Natchez. On center stage were the Muscogees, later known as the Creeks, who, after pushing into the state in the vacuum created by DeSoto, formed a confederation with the Alabamas and remnants of the Creeks and the people who destroyed them.

The Creeks were a remarkable people. Their social and political structure was as complex as anything in Europe, and in some ways was far more advanced than that of the earliest settlers. Divorce, for example, was at the choice of either party and with only a slight advantage to the man: he could remarry immediately, but the woman had to wait until The Green Corn Dance was over. "Marriage," said Pickett, "gave no right to the husband over the property of the wife, or control or management of the children he might have by her." Adultery, however, was another matter. The pains and penalties for that sport rendered its practice infrequent.

They were a gregarious people. "Their most manly and important game was 'the ball play'," said Pickett; it seemed to be a version of lacrosse. The warriors of one town challenged those of another, and "for several days previous to the time, those who intended to engage in the amusement took medicine, as though they were going to war." In the presence of multitudes, the players "rushed together with a mighty shock...were often severely hurt, and sometimes killed, in the rough and unfeeling scramble which prevailed.... In the meantime, the women were constantly on the alert with vessels and gourds filled with water, watching every opportunity to supply the players. It sometimes happened that the inhabitants of a town gamed away all their ponies, jewels, and wearing apparel...." Does that sound familiar? Every fall and winter weekend finds today's Alabamians at similar pursuits.

Their religion, an integral part of everything that they did, was so complicated and structured as to delight the heart of a pharisee. Indeed, Pickett delights us with the theories of one James Adair, who lived among the Indians for more than thirty years and emerged from the forest in 1775 with an enormous volume that sought to prove that the Creeks and their neighbors were in fact Jews. After observing the intricate similarities of the two religions, the clincher for Adair was in watching the warriors dance "around the holy fire, during which the elder priest invoked the Great Spirit, while the others responded Halelu! Halelu! then Haleluiah! Haleluiah!"

Pickett's narrative of the sufferings, struggles, and massacres of the early colonists, the gradual opening of the region to commerce, the various wars and alliances of the three greedy powers--Britain, France, Spain--is one of fascinating detail. We follow the fortunes of the Sieur de Bienville, who must have been appointed governor of the French colony by mistake, because he was a decent, incorruptible and, on the whole, benevolent man. Along the way we meet the English General James Oglethorpe and his philanthropical experiment in Georgia, and incidentally get a glimpse of John and Charles Wesley. We meet schemers, rogues, and vagabonds; scores of minor characters come alive on the pages--one elegant lady on the razzle in the wilderness, claiming to be the Tsar of Russia's sister-in-law; the valiant Beaudrot, for whom many Southerners are named, but don't know exactly why; the Jewish trader Abram Mordecai, who spent fifty years in the wilderness and had his ear cut off for amorous dalliance with a married squaw.

Through the years, when the Indians felt too much pressure from the constant encroachments of the Europeans, they always responded to broken promises with savage violence, until there appeared among the Creeks their greatest chieftan, Alexander McGilliray, who led the to the high-watermark of their history. The story of McGillivray and his family should be so familiar to all Alabamians that I shall not repeat it, but say that if the Creeks ever had a chance to survive as a nation, they had it with him. Yet in the seventeen years of his spectacular leadership, McGillivray showed his feet of clay--his intrigues with the brand-new American government and with the Spanish authorities in Florida, for his personal aggrandizement, set the Creeks on a collision course with extinction.

The Indians hated the new Americans even more than they hated the British, French, and Spanish--there were even more of them. The second Yazoo Land Sale (the first was a fizzle) resulted in more settlers coming in as never before--this time under the protection of the American government.

The Americans established outposts and small forts on Alabama's rivers, cleared the forests, and gradually created a recognizable society in the wilderness, sometimes marrying the descendants of the first settlers who had married Indians. Many of the oldest families in Alabama can proudly point to their Indian heritage.

Now a note of warning--when we think of Alabama history we think of slavery and we should. In 1540 when DeSoto arrived with his slaves, he found the Indians enslaving each other; when the French first imported African slaves, the Africans were bought by prosperous Indians or captured as prizes in raids. In 1847 when Pickett began to write his history, slavery was a fact of life and he treats it as such, so don't be shocked. Slavery, you still remember, is man's oldest institution, and its abolition is the only fundamental moral change that Western man has yet made.

Well, just when everybody was settling in and government agents were helping manage Indian affairs, the United States and Britain went to war. The Indians had given permission for the new Federal Road to cut through the heart of their territory, which meant even more emigrants, and the Creeks, said Pickett, "with their usual sagacity, foresaw that they would soon be hemmed in by the Georgians on one side and the Tombigbee people on the other." The Spanish to the south hated the emigrants also. British agents, operating in Canada and as guests of the Spanish in Pensacola, urged the Creeks to come in on their side against the Americans, and from Detroit they sent to Alabama an evangelist I can only describe as a direct ancestor of the Ayatolla Khomeini.

Chief Tecumseh, a Shawnee of national reknown as a warrior, and his chief prophet descended upon Creek villages preaching fire and revolution. Pickett's description of their performance at the Creek capital, Tookabatcha, at a grand council of the Indians, is spine-chilling. Here is a summary of Tecumseh's remarks: return to your primitive customs, throw away the plough and the loom; become warriors again; stay away from the grasping unprincipled white race; when they've cut down your beautiful forests and stained your clear rivers, they will subject you to African servitude; dress again in the skins of beasts, use the war club, the scalping knife, and the bow; drive them out and destroy them.

Tecumseh's chief prophet was also busy. He established a sooth-saying college and turned out local prophets trained in new and potent magic. Although the rank and file drank the magic brew eagerly, the Big Warrior at Tookabatcha was skeptical. Tecumseh said, "You do not mean to fight. I know the reason. You do not believe the Great Spirit has sent me. You shall believe it. ...I shall go straight to Detroit. When I get there I will stamp my foot upon the ground and shake down every house in Tookabatcha."

The common Indians, said Pickett, believed every word of Tecumseh's threat, and they counted the days it took Tecumseh to reach Detroit. "One day," said Pickett, "a mighty rumbling was heard in the earth, the houses of Tookabatcha reeled and tottered, and reeled again." As if a fortuitous earthquake were not enough, the British at Pensacola provided a further incentive to war: they offered the Indians $10 a scalp.

The Red Sticks--the war party, the fundamentalists--went on the rampage throughout Alabama. Creek families were divided (not the least of which was the family of Alexander McGillivray) and they fought each other as well as the Americans. It was not until after the massacre at Fort Mims, led by McGillivray's nephew, William Weatherford, that help came from the north.

Andrew Jackson with his Tennesseans at Talladega and General Claiborne in the south at the Holy Ground--where, incidentally, Alexander McGillivray's sister was found tied to a stake surrounded by a lightwood fire, and where her nephew, Weatherford, who had put her there, made his famous escape--were engagements that began to spell the end, which came, as we all know, in a few furious hours at Horseshoe Bend in Tallapoosa County.

Tecumseh's revival meeting at Tookabatcha resulted in the Creeks losing nearly one-half of what is now Alabama, and their eventual removal from the state.

Pickett ended his history with the admission of Alabama to the Union in 1819. "To some other person," he said, "fonder than we are of the dry details of state legislation and fierce party spirit, we leave the task of bringing history down to a later period."

But I wonder if that was his reason. I think Pickett left his heart at Horseshoe Bend. I do not believe that it was in him to write of the eventual fate of the Creek Nation, of the Cherokees, of the Chickasaws and Choctaws, which was decided well within his own lifetime.

Pickett's History of Alabama, this unique treasure, now lies hidden in old family bookcases, has been discarded by libraries, sometimes turns up in rummage sales, and is certainly not used in our schools. In my opinion it should be in every school library in the state.

I have no idea what today's historians think of Albert Pickett--very little, I should guess, for Pickett's history is composed of small dramas within a huge drama, much of it drawn from the memories of those who were there, from individuals whose bravery and sacrifice created the state of Alabama. Modern research techniques and professionally objective evaluations were unknown to Pickett, as they were unknown to his contemporaries Macaulay and Prescott, but then who reads them any more?

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"Romance and High Adventure" is a paper presented by Miss Lee in 1983, in Eufaula, Alabama. In 1985 it was published with other essays and stories from the same festival, by Mercer University Press in the anthology Clearings in the Thicket. There is a photograph of Miss Lee signing copies of To Kill a Mockingbird. The essay is lively and witty; detail obsessed readers of Mockingbird will find information on the Creeks, the Indian tribe mentioned twice in her novel. The introduction was written by the editor of the anthology.

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Alabama's best known fiction writer, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird, made a rare public appearance in Eufaula in March of 1983 to participate in the Alabama History and Heritage Festival. No one suggested a topic to her, but the paper that Harper Lee presented to that gathering--published here in its entirety--provided a perfect illustration of the festival's theme. Alabama's history is charged with drama and meaning, but who cares nowadays? Who reads Albert Pickett, the writer to whom all students of Alabama history owe a debt? And what is there for those who do seek the drama of nineteenth-century Alabama? What did Pickett see in Sam Dale, Jere Austill, Caesar the slave, and those warring Creeks in the great canoe fight? Obviously the fullness of Albert Pickett's work is not lost on Harper Lee. As a fiction writer who has observed the turbulence of her own century and its effect on a small Alabama town, she is aware that history is a seamless garment. Her ability to define characters such as Scout and Jem against the backdrop of Alabama history may be one reason why twelve million copies of her novel have 0been sold. With swift authority Harper Lee does more in this essay than simply present to us a quaint and forgotten fragment of our past. She pricks our conscience and reminds us--yet again--that history is a living creature, waiting to be noticed. -- Jerry Elijah Brown

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I am always interested in reading and writing about To Kill a Mockingbird.
Jane Kansas + kansas at chebucto.ca Last revised 25 May 2004.