Debt and Default on the Alabama Frontier: Notes on a 19th Century Justice’s Ledger

The subject of this blog post is a ledger used by Justices of the Peace in Clarkesville, Alabama during the 1820s and 1830s. Justices of the Peace used ledgers like this one to record developments in the cases they heard. This ledger specifically deals with the complaints filed between neighbors for outstanding debts. In it, we see the financial mechanisms of an early 19th century Alabama frontier society. Thanks to Hudson Cheshire, our former research assistant and newly-minted J.D. for this post.

Debt and Default on the Alabama Frontier: Notes on a 19th century Justice’s Ledger

Hudson Cheshire

The subject of this blog post is a ledger used by Justices of the Peace in Clarkesville, Alabama during the 1820s. The ledger is about 200 pages long, with cardboard panels and a badly deteriorated leather spine. It is 14 ½ inches in length, 6 ¼ inches wide, and 1 ¼ inches deep.[1]

William A. Robinson, a Justice of the Peace of Clarkesville County, Alabama, began recording cases in this ledger in June of 1824.

Image of first page of Justices' Docket.
First page of Justices’ Docket

The last case recorded is from August of 1830. During this period, the docket went into the hands of at least two successive justices: Samuel Beckham, from July of 1827 to May of 1828, and Kendrick Ford from September 1828 to July of 1830. The successive justices continued to record developments in the cases first handled by their predecessors. The contents of this book were not, in all likelihood, a matter of public record, but instead a mechanism for recording, for future reference, whether disputes had been resolved. Thus, there is little in the ledger by way of common law precedent or factual background for any of the legal disputes.  In that respect, it is closer to an accounting notebook than a legal document. Still, it sheds light on the legal lives of Alabamians in the 1820s. To best contextualize the ledger’s contents, a few words are in order regarding Clarke County circa 1825 and the Justices’ legal duties.

Clarke County is located in southwest Alabama, just below the Black Belt and west of Monroe County, the hometown of author Harper Lee and inspiration for the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird. In the novel, narrator Scout Finch credits the events of the book to Andrew Jackson: “If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t?”[2] If the Creek War of 1813 accounts for the origin of Lee’s fictional town of Maycomb, it also seems to have been a major catalyst for population growth in Clarke County. While Alabama historian Thomas Owen writes that by the time of the Creek War, Clarke County was populated enough to “furnish many soldiers to Gen. F.L. Claiborne’s army,” he also notes that the greatest population growth occurred in the decade after the war. According to Owen, a tannery, shoe factory, water mill, “iron screw” (for cotton packing), and a sawmill were all erected in Clarke County between the war’s end and 1821.[3]

The Justices who kept this ledger lived in Clarkesville, which, in the years the ledger covers, was the county seat (in 1831 the citizens voted for the county seat to be moved to Grove Hill, “the geographic center of said county”).[4] That in this time Clarkesville was the seat of a rapidly growing county is interesting because this particular ledger is almost exclusively devoted to cases involving debt and financial obligations. Through the ledger, we see the financial interdependence of a growing rural community. We see the Justice of the Peace, not just as a public servant, but also as a tradesman, who played the role of facilitating financial transactions between the citizens of his community.

The Justice’s jurisdiction is laid out in the 1819 Alabama Constitution (Art. V, § 10), which provides that “a competent number of Justices of the Peace shall be appointed, in and for each county” and limits the justice’s civil jurisdiction to cases in which the amount in controversy does not exceed fifty dollars. The language is an apparent vestige from the 1807 Act of the Mississippi Territory legislature, which confers essentially the same authority to Justices.

For a reference regarding their specific duties and obligations, the justices of this ledger may have turned to Harry Toulmin’s 1823 Digest of the Laws of the State of Alabama, specifically, pages 510-518, which summarize the Act “to Revise, consolidate, and amend the several Acts relative to Justices of the Peace, and Constable” (hereinafter Act of 1814). The act conferred upon the Justices the authority to hear complaints and issue writs, including summonses, judgments, and executions against the property of debtors in default. The Constable was responsible both for serving the documents and collecting judgments against defendants.[5]

Together, the justice and constable comprised a team through whom disputes between neighbors could be peacefully resolved. However, the credibility of their respective offices depended on clear record keeping. Thus, section 2 of the Act of 1814 seems to account for the very existence of the ledger: “[J]ustices shall cause fair entries to be made in books to be by them provided for that purpose, of the names of the plaintiff and defendant in any suit brought before them, with the debt and costs ajudged, and the time when the warrant issued, was made returnable, and when judgment was given, together with the return made upon all such process.”[6] The Clarksville justices likely saw this ledger as a mundane (and statutorily required) record of debts and payments. Doubtless, they had no way of knowing that the details of the notebook would create a window into Alabama frontier life for 21st century readers.

To open this two-hundred-year-old notebook and turn its pages is a surreal experience, not just because of the centuries that stand between a contemporary reader and the book’s original owners, but also for the accessibility of its contents. The ink is still dark enough to easily read and the slanted cursive is legible. The collection also includes loose documents with names and case numbers that correspond to the suits in the ledger. There are generally two cases to an open page with the parties’ names, debts, and legal fees on the verso of one leaf, and writs, payments, and appeals on the adjoining recto of the leaf. As a result, after reading about a plaintiff’s claim against an indebted defendant, the reader can easily look across the open book to see whether the dispute has been resolved.

However, the ledger isn’t without its challenges. The notebook was apparently handed down through the years for scrap paper and miscellaneous record-keeping. On several pages, math problems are worked in pencil over the judicial records. One otherwise blank page records a debt from January of 1863: 60¢ (“for sharpening 4 plows @ 15”) and 75¢ (“laying plow”). The binding is so deteriorated that to even talk of “turning” its pages may be a mischaracterization: to open the book in the middle is essentially to divide a stack of loose pages into two piles. At some point after the binding broke, the pages were scattered and shuffled together in no apparent order. While most of the pages are numbered, occasional discrepancies between the verso and recto of opposing leaves suggest missing pages. Further complications come in the form of creative spellings and abbreviated Latin phrases: the justices sometimes refer to “oppen” court, and the issuing of an “ales” (alias) or “caps” (capias). The spelling and jargon are rendered more difficult by the scribbled cursive. Notwithstanding these expected obstacles, the internal consistency of the ledger yields remarkable glimpses into the financial transactions of rural Southerners in the early 1800s: not just in the form of debts incurred by citizens, but also in the form of the legal services rendered by Justices and Constables as they carried out the duties of their offices.

There are two cases on the first page of the docket book. In the first, Deborah Thornton sued Michael Secrest and Simeon Rogers. In the second, she sued only Simeon Rogers. In both cases the debt in question was handled the same way: Justice Robinson wrote that while the parties do not appear, the suit is founded on a note judgment against the defendant(s), so judgment is entered for the plaintiff. This turn of phrase (the parties do not appear… judgment entered for the plaintiff) recurs on almost every page of the book. For the most part, a plaintiff’s verdict resulted even when the parties did appear. However, there are a few exceptions. For instance, Toulmin’s Digest advises that if the dispute involves a sum of twenty dollars or under, the justice may “at the trial of the cause, proceed to examine plaintiff and defendant, on oath, and give judgment as to him the right of the cause may appear.”[7] Thus, after being summoned to answer for a debt to Hansford Cherry, Asa Pate “appeared and made oath that he does not owe the pltff [plaintiff] any accompt in 1827 or 1828 whereupon judgment of non suit was entered up against the pltff for cost of suit.”

The scarcity of such exceptions seems to prove the general rule that in these cases, the underlying facts were rarely in dispute: the defendant became indebted to the plaintiff and openly acknowledged it (either upon being summoned to court, as we see in a few cases, or upon incurring the debt, by signing a promissory note)[8]. A note for seven dollars from Middleton Harris to Hugh McCall offers examples of both creative spelling and how debt might have been incurred: “[t]ogiting a whatch minded 4.00, to two day’s work 2.00, to one dollar lint 1.00.” While this note was acknowledged by a public official, others are less formal.

Image of promissory note, December 1830.
Promissory Note from H. Moody to Jesse Doyle, December 1830

One is merely a slim piece of paper that reads: “on or before the first day of January next I promise to pay Jesse Doyle or barer the sum of twenty five dollars for value received of him this 21st day of December 1830. (signed) H. Moody.” Diagonally across the text are the words: “judgment by default.”

That the parties seemed to rarely dispute the debt contextualizes the Justice’s function. Rather than determining which party was “right,” apparently these justices mostly just provided the legal mechanism through which the creditor could seize the property owed him. If a debtor defaulted on his loans, a creditor could simply take his case before the Justice of the Peace. Still, certain cases offer proof that legal action may have often been a creditor’s last resort. Specifically, the Justices’ services were often expensive relative to the debt involved.

Image of promissory note, December 31, 1824.
Promissory Note from Middleton Harrison to Hugh McCall, December 31, 1824

A good example comes from a suit Jesse Sanders brought against William Orme for $5.50.[9]  Apparently, Sanders’ strategy for collecting his debt was to summon men whom he believed owed money to Orme. James Jarvis, Amos Lively, and “Hudson” were listed as garnishees. This strategy proved inefficient. Hudson did not appear. Jarvis appeared and denied any obligations to Orme. Lively appeared and paid a debt of $2.00. While $2.00 was no small sum in 1824, Sanders may not have considered the cost of bringing the garnishees to court. The justice charged 12½ cents for issuing a summons and the constable charged 50 cents for serving it. By the time Lively had paid the $2.00 to which Sanders was entitled, Justice Robinson and Constable Beckham had earned $1.12½ and $2.50 in legal fees. Thus, we read on the verso page of the ledger: “received of Amos lively $2.00/ Cost settled to the Justice 62 ½ /Of the constables cost paid 1.37½.” While Sanders still had a claim against Orme for the $5.50, his legal pursuit did nothing but eliminate one potential source for that repayment.

If this moment demonstrates the possible inefficiency of legal action, it also foregrounds a recurring theme through the ledger: the justices and constables were, in some sense, tradesmen. Their service was not free. Note the calculated division of Lively’s $2.00 between Robinson and Beckham.  Robinson’s $1.12½ represented 31% of the total $3.62½ in services rendered. Thus, he took 31% of the $2.00 garnished from Lively. While the math used to reach this sum is absent from the pages of the docket, leaves of scrap paper in the collection are covered with calculations. Issuing summonses, judgments, and executions was only part of the Justice’s job. The other part was ensuring that he would be paid for such work. Ironically, sometimes (as in the case of Jesse Sanders) collecting these fees decreased the chances that the defendant would ever be able to repay the plaintiff.

As for what would cause a creditor to finally turn to the J.P. in hopes of collecting on his debt, the ledger offers grounds for speculation. Perhaps plaintiffs like Jesse Sanders, feeling they would never be repaid anyway, filed complaints with the Justice because they felt there was nothing else to lose.

In other cases, it is hard to imagine the plaintiffs being motivated by anything other than spite.  On May 12, 1830, plaintiff Thomas Skinner appeared in court to claim a debt of “ninety one cents and a half” against Maxfield Scarbrough.[10]  While the defendant acknowledged the “accompt,” he countersued for a debt of 75 cents, which the plaintiff also acknowledged. Sensibly, Justice Ford entered a judgment against Scarbrough for the difference ($00.16½).

Image of record of complaint, May 1830.
Justice’s record of complaint filed by Thomas A. Skinner against Maxfield Scarbrough, May 1830

Among the loose papers included with the ledger, we see the fi fa (fierifacias: a writ of execution against the defendant’s property) issued against the chattel in this case. “To any lawfull constable of said county of Clarke Greeting you are hereby commanded that of the Goods and Chattels of Maxfield Scarbrough you cause to be made the sum of one dollar and forty-seven and three fourth cents.” On the back, we have a schedule of the costs: the judgment (0.16½) Justices Cost (0.81¼) Const. Beckham Cost (0.50).

Thus, Scarbrough was made to pay nearly 10 times what he owed (the lion’s share going to JP and constable). Much earlier in the ledger, we see that Scarbrough had an outstanding debt of $20.50½ to Skinner. One has to imagine that Skinner had the (much larger) former loan in mind when he filed a suit for the 16½ cents.

While the ledger offers no evidence that spite was a major reason for bringing suits, personal relationships in general (and knowledge of other citizens’ financial conditions) permeate the legal actions depicted in the ledger. In a small, agricultural community this is probably unsurprising: for farmers, whose main capital asset was their land, credit transactions would have likely been a necessity. One implication of this interdependence (and perhaps an inevitability of any rural setting) would be that neighbors knew each other’s business. Thus, when Abner Wilson listed John Easley as a garnishee in a suit against Samuel Wilkerson, he must have (correctly)believed that Easley was holding some of Wilkerson’s property in his possession. Justice Robinson recorded Easley as testifying that, “there was some wareing apparel at his house belonging to Sam’l Wilkerson and a chest which was give to his wife…. (and) a shovel plow at Silas Rogerses house belonging to S. Wilkerson”[11]

But knowing each other’s business also entailed knowing when an outstanding debt might soon be unreachable, for instance, when a debtor suddenly moved away. The Wilson case mentioned above is one of three brought against Samuel Wilkerson on the same page (p. 70). The latter two are brought by Silas Rogers and James Savage. All are listed as attachments. Toulmin’s digest advises that in cases where a defendant’s property is likely to be uncollectible because “he or she absconds or secretes him or herself—that he or she actually resides out of this territory, or that he or she is about to remove, him or herself or effects from this territory, so that the ordinary process of law cannot be served upon him or her,” the plaintiff can prosecute an attachment. In short, the constable can collect the defendant’s property and hold it until the Justice issues a judgment.[12] In this case, the property attached was “one field of corn,” for each of the three plaintiffs, in addition to a “frow” (froe) for Rogers and a sidesaddle for Savage.

Perhaps Wilkerson had intended to leave Clarke County quietly, but word of his impending departure spread to these three plaintiffs, who then hurried to Justice Ford. However, if the attachments were in anticipation of Wilkerson’s departure, it does not appear that he ever left town. Six weeks later Wilkerson sued Silas Rogers for $15.00 (though there is no indication that this is related to Rogers’ earlier suit against him).[13] Further, it seems that Wilkerson would have been an unlikely candidate for “absconding” from Clarkesville. The record of Alabama’s Civil Appointments indicates that he was commissioned as a county judge in March of 1827 (just two years before this case). Why Justice Ford chose to issue attachments for Wilkerson’s debts is impossible to say. Still, as the attachments illustrate, if Wilkerson ever had any intention of leaving town, it wasn’t only his business but (literally) the business of his neighbors as well.

The communal nature of these suits is also demonstrated by the frequent assignment of cases. As the ledger demonstrates, a plaintiff’s note judgment could be traded to a third party for credit, or for extinguishment of the plaintiff’s own debts.

Recall Jesse Sanders, who listed Amos Lively as a garnishee in his suit against William Orme (and lost Lively’s $2.00 payment via legal fees). Sanders might have bypassed this problem by having Orme assign him his right to the suit against Lively. The resultant suit might have been recorded as “William Orme for the use of Jesse Sanders v. James Jarvis.”[14] A 19th Century Louisiana case explains the concept thus: “In a suit by A, for the use of B, the latter is the real plaintiff of whom the court and the defendant are bound to take notice… if [B] should come forward without the assistance of [A], he would be without any right. But [A’s] declaration that he sues for the use of [B] amounts to a relinquishment and transfer of his own right in his favor, and is considered as sufficient to enable [B] to appear as the real plaintiff.”[15]

If Orme were willing to sue for the use of Sanders (and the Justice rendered a judgment in favor of the plaintiff), Sanders would receive the full $2.00 from Lively and Lively would also be liable for the court costs (in nearly all of these cases, the costs of a successful suit are assessed against the defendant). The viability of this option, of course, would have depended on several factors. Beyond the obvious necessity of Orme willingly transferring his claim against Lively to Sanders, Sanders would need a way of proving Lively’s debt. More importantly, he would need to know that Lively was solvent and reachable. If either of these conditions weren’t met, he would end up where he started: incurring legal fees without collecting any of the money owed him.

An interesting example of plaintiffs suing “for the use of” other parties comes in a series of three cases that also involve Samuel Wilkerson.[16]

The cases are titled as follows:

“Thomas Saunders for the use of Sam’l Wilkerson v. John D. Starke” (for a note and interest of $33.20 1/3).

“Thomas Saunders for the use of Sam’l Wilkerson v. John D. Starke” (for a note and interest of $23.02).

“Samuel Overstreet for the use of Sam’l Wilkerson v. John D. Starke (for note and interest of $22.18).

These cases suggest the fluidity of financial obligations for the citizens of Clarke County in the 1820s. The same names reoccur in the ledger with great frequency, but almost never as only the defendant or plaintiff. The same Samuel Wilkerson who has three attachments issued against him in September is himself suing three different people for sizable sums in December of the same year.

This string of cases also raises interesting questions. For instance, why would Saunders have two separate claims against Starke? One possibility has to do with the combined amount of the two claims ($33.20 1/3 and $23.02). Perhaps the parties wanted any potential dispute to be handled by the Justice, who would not have jurisdiction to resolve claims exceeding $50.00. Another interesting question is how or why Wilkerson would have acquired the notes of two separate creditors against the same debtor. Were Saunders and Overstreet planning to pursue their claims against John Starke when Wilkerson overheard them and bartered for their notes? Were Saunders and Overstreet’s claims against Starke connected to an obligation to Wilkerson? The ledger offers no basis for speculation but the issue itself speaks to the interconnectedness of debts and legal obligations in the community.

Undoubtedly, the assignability of cases often depended in large part on the reputation of the third-party debtor: who would voluntarily negotiate for the right to sue an insolvent debtor? When he acquired Saunders and Overstreet’s notes against Starke, Wilkerson may have known that John Starke was good for his money. In each of the cases, one Thomas L. Starke is listed as the security and each time the costs are settled in full.[17] This fact only warrants mention because of a later incident involving John and Thomas Starke.

On May 17th of 1830, James Savage Sr. brought two claims against John D. Starke.[18] On the verso page of the ledger we learn of two developments in the cases: (1) on June 8th a “fi fa” was issued in both cases against 50 head of cattle; (2) the fi fa created a problem because it was not John, but T.L. Starke who claimed ownership of the cattle.

This case raises what would seem to be two common problems in a legal culture where officers of the court frequently seized defendants’ property in satisfaction of debts. One problem would be justices executing levies against property that actually belonged to a family member of the indebted party. Another problem (which was perhaps more likely) would be indebted parties fraudulently conveying their property to family members to keep it from being seized. In any event, it is easy to imagine that third parties frequently claimed ownership of property seized in connection to a defendant’s default judgment.

This exact situation (a third party claiming ownership of property that the justice issued an execution against) is contemplated in the Act of 1814. In such a case, “it shall be the duty of such justice to stay all proceedings, and issue a venire facias to the constable, requiring him to summon a jury of seven men… to try the right of property… taken into execution.”[19] Thus, on July 10, Justice Ford issued a venire facias in the case, which Constable Beckham executed by summoning seven jurors to “inquire into and try the right of property held by execution as the property of John D. Starke and claimed by Thos. L. Starke.”[20]

Consistent with the rest of the ledger, Justice Ford did not record any of the details that the jury considered in determining whether the cattle belonged to John or Thomas. However, he did have the foreman record and sign the jury’s verdict in the ledger itself: “[w]e the jury find the property subject to Executions. Signed John Gibson fore man [sic].”

The precise wording of the verdict may be insignificant, but it’s interesting that the jury did not directly answer the question of who actually owned the cattle. They were content to merely determine that the cattle were subject to the executions. Was this based on the jury’s personal knowledge of the Starkes? Did the jury’s determination have anything to do with the fact that Thomas was frequently listed as a security for John’s debts? Again, rather than answer these questions, the ledger only invites speculation. Still, it speaks to the community’s critical involvement in the debts of the individual. Who better to determine whether the cattle belonged to Thomas than Thomas’s own neighbors?

It seems that Thomas may not have been in agreement. On the recto page we learn that he appealed the matter to the circuit court.[21] Among the papers folded into the ledger is an incomplete document related to the case. While its precise purpose is unclear, it names two securities to stay the execution on the cattle until the case is decided by the circuit court. The first security, unsurprisingly, is Thomas Starke himself. The second is none other than Judge Samuel Wilkerson – the same man who collected nearly $100.00 from the Starkes only six months earlier.

This anecdote may speak to the nuances of legal actions in rural communities of 19th century America. In one sense, the suits that community members brought against one another would have been intensely personal: these people were neighbors. They listed garnishees based on personal knowledge of the defendant. They prosecuted for attachments based on personal speculation that the defendant was a flight risk. But in another sense these suits would have often been impersonal: filing a complaint against one’s neighbor for collection of a debt did not necessarily entail animosity or bitterness; it was merely a matter of financial necessity. Thus, Wilkerson could appear as a plaintiff against the Starkes one moment and list himself as a security for them in an unrelated case the next.

The rare cases in the ledger that don’t deal with debt or default judgment still address the same themes of the interconnectedness of the community and the individual’s relationship to society as a whole. For instance, on November 3, 1824, Hansford Cherry, the “overseer of the road,” brought a suit against Adam White.[22] Road overseers were appointed by county courts to “apportion the hands liable by law to work on public roads.”[23] If someone selected to work failed to appear, the road overseer had a cause of action against him. However, only white men between ages 18 and 45 and slaves between ages 18 and 50 were eligible for selection. White appeared and made oath that he was over 45. Believing the excuse, Justice Robinson dismissed the case.

In a case involving an entirely different aspect of community’s infrastructure, Stephen Brown appeared before Justice Ford and, “being duly sworn and diposeth,” testified that he had been creditably informed that Jesse Doyle “does dispose of wares and merchandise goods or chattels on the first day of the week commonly called Sunday” It is unclear how this case was resolved.[24]

Anecdotes like the road overseer’s case against Adam White, and Jesse Doyle’s alleged work on the Sabbath are the sort of things one hopes for when studying obscure historical artifacts like this ledger: details through which the reader can make connections, and hopefully catch a glimpse of daily life in a different era. Records of promissory notes and payments, though mundane, serve the same purpose. The complex web of names, debts, and legal jargon spun by the justices in the course of their daily work casts the contours of life on the early 19th century Alabama frontier. It gives us a sense of the relationships, not just between the citizens and their neighbors, but between the citizens and the Justices. These relationships are perhaps most interesting for their stark contrast to 21st century American life: the idea of suing one’s friend or neighbor for an outstanding loan may, to most contemporary readers, seem offensive or uncomfortable. However, the concept of loaning one’s close friends or neighbors large sums of money likely seems just as foreign. The justices’ role was integral in small communities like Clarkesville because people took for granted the need to help their neighbors. Without a peaceable system to ensure that such help could be repaid, the possibility of survival on the frontier would have been far less likely.

[1] The Clarke County Justice of the Peace Ledger (hereinafter Ledger) is housed in the John C. Payne Special Collections Facility, Bounds Law Library, University of Alabama School of Law.

[2] Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: Harper and Rowe), 9.

[3] Thomas M. Owen, History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography (1921: Spartanburg, S.C.: The Reprint Company, 1978) I: 271.

[4] Ibid., 269.

[5] Harry Toulmin, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Alabama (Cahawba: Ginn & Curtis, 1823), 512 (Act of 1814, §2).

[6] Ibid., 510.

[7] Toulmin, Digest, 312 (Act of 1814, §10).

[8] Ledger, [page] 24.

[9] Ibid., 7.

[10] Ibid., 92.

[11] Ibid., 70.

[12] Toulmin, Digest, 18 (Act of 1814, §5).

[13] Ledger, 73.

[14] E.g., at Ledger, 22 we see Wm Brookshire for the use of Thomas Morgan v. Adam White; at ibid. 33, see J.G. Lyon for the use of William Johnston).

[15] The State, Etc., on the Relation of Charles E. Alter, Praying for a Mandamus, v. The Judge of the Fourth District Court of New Orleans, 17 La. Ann. 282, 286 (1866).

[16] Ledger, 75-76.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 93.

[19] Toulmin, Digest, 312 (Act of 1814, §9).

[20] Ledger, 95.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 9.

[23] Toulmin, Digest, 392 (Act of 1820, §4).

[24] Loose document laid in at Ledger, 96.