Remember When: Alabama Constitution Signers Day evokes stories of state’s earliest settlements

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 4, 2019

During this Alabama Bicentennial year of 2019, it is a good opportunity to research and understand how the early settlers came into this new territory even before Alabama became a state in 1819.

This “folk song” comes to mind that the travelers might have sung around the campfires of the day. “Will you come with me my Susie dear beyond blue mountains free, Where the blossoms smell the sweetest, Come rove along with me. Where the river runs like silver and the birds they sing so sweet, I got a pretty little cabin home and somethin’ good to eat. Wait for the wagon, wait for the wagon, wait for the wagon and we’ll all take a ride!”

Many families came in covered wagons seeking better ways of life. They heard of the land which Indians had occupied and thought they could buy land cheaply from the government. They came to the land grant office first in Cahaba. Settlers came predominately from Georgia and South Carolina, a few from Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Many historians write about the earliest travelers who did not have the opportunity to ride in a stage coach or a covered wagon but came on foot or on pack horses. Settlers who did not own a horse or an ox packed their goods and their necessities in a hogshead barrel. These items might have consisted of a few cooking utensils and small quantities of food and clothing. The father or oldest son would pull this contraption on a type of roller or trunion with the aid of a belt over the shoulder over the narrow trails in the wilderness, a sometimes almost unbearable, slow, and irksome task.  Some families rolled their goods from one state to another until they reached Alabama. The families lucky enough to come in covered wagons brought some pieces of furniture, perhaps a spinning wheel, a few pieces of pewter ware, and blacksmith tools.

In 1811 the government secured permission through its Agent for Indian Affairs to enlarge the original horse paths of the Creek Indians to accommodate travelers and their vehicles that might pass on it. From that date, the roadway received the designation of The Federal Road. This road was also important in developing a postal system from Washington to New Orleans.

It is noted in historical articles written about The Federal Road that taverns were to be found every 14 to 16 miles along the route of the stage road. The primary purpose of the coaches was for carrying mail. Travelers would often spend the night at the taverns. There were various forms of entertainment such as cock fights, gander-pulling, horse racing, drinking at night, square dancing, and sometimes duels. The better taverns served very good food such as turnip soup, roast beef, roast turkey, venison with sour sauce, and pork roasted with sweet potatoes.

As time passed, settlements grew up along or near The Federal Road. As more settlers moved into the area, the friction between them and the remaining Creeks increased. Some settlers stayed only a short while and moved on to Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, or Arkansas. Many, however, endured the hardships. The Indians made frequent raids on the homes of the settlers stealing cattle, hogs, and grain.

The vast forest had to be felled and the fields cultivated with almost no implements. A few axes and grubbing hoes of the rudest character were all many of the pioneers possessed. The early soil was tilled by barefooted men. The game was chased by men wearing no shoes. Men and women often times attended church with feet totally unprotected.

There were no health centers and sometimes no doctors for miles around. Home remedies had to be used most of the time to treat common illnesses such as colds, toothaches, worms, fever, dysentery, biliousness, chills, pleurisy, indigestion, and pneumonia. Some of the home remedies were turpentine and castor oil for pneumonia. Bathing the feet in very hot water and drinking red pepper tea was also a treatment. For dropsy, patients were bathed in warm salty water and given parched meal to eat. Medicine shelves were well-stocked with Epsom salts, castor oil purchased by the gallon, calomel, quinine, camphor, laudanum, paregoric, epecac, sulphur, turpentine, various kinds of pills and powders, vermifuge for worms, garlic for high blood pressure, bitters, and other concoctions.

The main concern of the settlers was work. Both men and women toiled from early morning hours and sometimes far into the night. Rails had to be split and fences built around the fields. Neighbors came in to help when there were house and barn raisings, log-rollings, corn shuckings, and quiltings. Work and pleasure were always combined. “Visiting” was a social institution in plantation time. Friends would come and spend a while because of poor transportation. Rural society was a happy way of life even though there were many hardships.

A most memorable date in Alabama was in the year 1833, November 13, when a most spectacular meteor shower occurred and “stars fell on Alabama!” The clear and frosty night was perfect for observing the spectacle that continued beginning about midnight for about six hours. The pioneer preachers had been preaching that a terrible judgment day was coming. Naturally, the people believed that this must be the day, and many fell to their knees and started praying. The Indians believed that this was an omen and that the coming of an everlasting curse upon the land from which they were being driven was here!

May 1, 2019 in Montgomery was celebrated as “Alabama’s First Constitution Signers Day.”  All of the descendants of the signers of the first constitution that could be located were invited to the event hosted by the State Department of Archives and History. Our own local citizen Aurelia Scherf Robertson, being one of the descendants, received an official invitation to attend along with some of her cousins. She invited me to accompany her to this historic occasion. Her mother’s grandfather Dr. John Watkins from Burnt Corn was a delegate from Monroe County who participated in drafting the Alabama Constitution at the Huntsville constitutional convention in 1819.

Dr. Watkins came to Alabama in a caravan from South Carolina to the Fort Mims area shortly before the Massacre in 1813. He administered aid to the surviving victims. He later moved to Fort Claiborne and then to the Burnt Corn area north of Monroeville.  Watkins was the only physician between the Alabama and the Chattahoochee Rivers,” author Mary E. Brantley wrote in “Early Settlers Along The Old Federal Road in Monroe and Conecuh Counties, Alabama.” If the readers will look at an Alabama map, it will be noted that the Chattahoochee River is the Alabama – Georgia line. In other words, Dr. Watkins was a physician in the vast area that encompassed most of South Alabama!

Dr. Watkins, born in 1793 near Appomattox Court House in Virginia, received his medical education at the University of Pennsylvania and settled in Alabama when it was only a territory. After he helped form the Alabama Constitution, he was elected to the state senate several times representing Monroe, Conecuh, and Butler counties. He married in 1831 at Belleville, to Mary Howard Hunter, the grandmother of Mary Frances Andrews Scherf, Aurelia’s mother.

Watkins rendered the State of Alabama good service by the wisdom of his counsels and his calm, patient manner of investigating the various subjects of public concern before the Senate. His manner in discussion was simple, clear, and pointed. In his bearing, Dr. Watkins was gentle, unpretending, and dignified. Possessing the advantage of much reading and culture…his influence was great in legislative and social circles. He was a physician of ripe attainments and as a citizen he exerted a salutary influence upon the people of his vicinity.”

As part of Alabama’s Bicentennial, this event that was hosted in Montgomery featured the displaying of the original document, the 1819 Alabama Constitution on 26 sheets of parchment. Steve Murphy, Director of the State Archives and History, stated, “The document, 31 ½ feet long that appeared to resemble a scroll, existed for 150 years before it was ever stored in air conditioning so it accumulated some wear and tear over the years. It got a good professional cleaning to remove dust, grime, and dirt.” Descendants present at the Archives on May 1 were photographed, one family group at a time, beside the well-preserved document under a  glass cover.

On December 14, 1819, a resolution for the admission of the territory of Alabama to become the 22nd state in the Union passed. In March 1819, President James Monroe had signed an act enabling the people of the Alabama Territory to form a constitution and government which set the stage for Alabama’s admission as a state. Two months later 44 people from 22 counties were elected to serve as delegates to the convention in Huntsville including Dr. Watkins.

Covington was not even a county until 1821 so there was no delegate. There was one delegate from Conecuh, Samuel Cook;  four from Monroe County, John Murphy, James Pickens, Thomas Wiggins, and Dr. John Watkins.

Through the years, the Alabama Constitution has been amended more than 800 times. It is reported to be the longest constitution in the world. Alabama has had six (6) constitutions to date (1819, 1861, 1865, 1868, 1875, 1901), 1901 being the current document.

Governor Kay Ivey gave a short talk stating that through much determination and pride, the “will of the people has always prevailed.”

With much appreciation expressed to my friend Aurelia, I was pleased to witness the descendants of many of the signers view the document for themselves. I, like many of you readers, am proud to be a born and bred Alabamian. I Remember When I read for the first time pioneer stories in Jeanne Smyly’s 4th grade classroom at the East Three Notch School from our history textbook, “Singing Wheels.” A copy I found at a yard sale is one of the treasured possessions in my home library.

“Come listen to my story now, it will relieve my heart, So jump into the wagon, and off we will start. Wait for the wagon, wait for the wagon, wait for the wagon, and we’ll all take a ride!”

     Sue B. Wilson, AHS Class of 1965, is a local real estate broker and long-time member of the Covington Historical Society. She can be reached at