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Albert James Pickett

James P. Pate, University of Mississippi
Albert James Pickett
Albert James Pickett (1810-1858) is best-known for his two-volume History of Alabama, And Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, From the Earliest Period, published in 1851, and as Alabama's first historian. A wealthy plantation owner, he honed his writing and research skills early on by publishing newspaper articles. Through his voluminous correspondence, he developed important contacts with early settlers, military leaders, and politicians that produced firsthand accounts, reminiscences, documents, and oral interviews. His History became a classic study of the intersections between Europeans and American Indians who shaped the state of Alabama.
Pickett was born August 13, 1810, in Anson County, North Carolina, to William Raiford Pickett and Frances Dickson Pickett, who immigrated to the Alabama Territory in 1818. He was one of four children. While growing up in Autauga County, his prominent father's trading house exposed young Pickett to the stories and reminiscences of Creek Indians, Indian traders, and Revolutionary War veterans. His father's background in farming cotton and grains, business, and service in the Alabama House of Representatives and Senate provided Pickett with singular experiences that molded his perception of early Alabama, its people, and its emerging institutions.
Pickett's formal education was typical for an early Alabamian. He received the basics of a classical education in Autauga County. He later enrolled at Harwood Academy, a large boarding school in Stafford County, Virginia, where he received more traditional instruction in writing, literature, history, and philosophy from 1828-30. He then began a two-year study of law in Montgomery, Montgomery County, under the tutelage of his brother William Dickson Pickett, judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit. Although he never practiced law, his work in his brother's law office exposed him to courtroom procedures, document analysis, and legal research techniques that strengthened his writing and research skills.
Pickett's legal training also exposed him to the hustle and bustle of Montgomery, especially its newspapers, the Alabama Journal and the Planter's Gazette. These papers and others became important conduits for his political and literary commentary. From 1832 through 1847, Pickett wrote dozens of articles and published several pamphlets on a wide range of subjects. His writing garnered statewide attention, providing him contacts with newspaper editors, political elites, and business and community leaders. Nonetheless, neither his correspondence nor public utterances even hint of any intent to write a history of Alabama.
In 1832, Pickett married Sarah Smith Harris (1816-1894), and the couple would have nine children who lived beyond childhood. Harris's dowry lands, a 1,900-acre tract known as Forest Farm in Montgomery County (near the present-day Montgomery Zoo and later known as Pickett Springs), added to Pickett's extensive land holdings in Autauga County. By 1837, the Picketts divided their primary residence between Forest Farm and the city of Montgomery. They developed lucrative plantation operations focused on self-sufficiency, owned many head of cattle, hogs, and sheep, practiced crop diversification, and kept a market garden valued at $2,500 in 1850. The Alabama Journal described their dairy operation as one of the finest in Montgomery County. Pickett, an early practitioner of scientific farming, corresponded with Richard T. Brumby, professor of chemistry at the University of Alabama, regarding weed control. Brumby had read Pickett's articles on "The Redlands of Alabama," published in the Southern Cultivator, and he solicited Pickett's assistance to promote rice cultivation over cotton in south Alabama.
Page from Pickett's History of Alabama
Despite the demands of managing his family, two large plantations, and numerous enslaved workers, Pickett immersed himself in public affairs. In a speech on July 4, 1832, he supported the reelection of Pres. Andrew Jackson and declared his opposition to the South Carolina "nullifiers," those politicians who threatened secession over Jackson's tariff policy. In 1835, he authored a Montgomery grand jury report that was shaped in part by the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion and his fear of its influence in Alabama. In it, he condemned abolitionists, called for laws to inhibit the introduction of enslaved people from other states, promoted stricter enforcement of slave laws and slave patrols, and advocated removing persons who "stirred unrest." A great admirer of Jackson, Pickett called for the first statewide party convention in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, in 1835 to support Jackson and Jacksonian Democrats and to build a party centered on Jackson. In 1836, he wrote a series of articles supporting the presidential aspirations of Democratic vice president Martin Van Buren and opposing Whig candidate Hugh Lawson White, a senator from Tennessee. This early political activism and writing brought him in contact with influential members of Alabama's social and political elite.
The Second Creek War of 1836, in which he served as an aide-de-camp to fellow Jacksonian Democrat Gov. Clement Comer Clay, and the Panic of 1837 immersed Pickett even more in Alabama's no-holds-barred political arena. His brief military experience earned Pickett his honorific title of "Colonel." In September 1845, Gov. Benjamin Fitzpatrick, a confidant, appointed Pickett as a bank examiner. This appointment and his service on a Montgomery grand jury in that year may have convinced Pickett to completely withdraw from politics. In his second grand jury report, he endorsed the prohibition on the importation of enslaved people into Alabama and a ban on interstate slave traders, causing a statewide controversy. Although some newspapers supported Pickett, others branded him a wealthy aristocrat promoting his own interests. At this point, he may have decided to launch his seminal writing project.
Pickett's intellectual curiosity transformed him into a dedicated bibliophile with an extensive library. He purchased books in Montgomery, Mobile, and New Orleans and added critical volumes on the Old Southwest and Alabama from book dealers in New York City and Washington, D.C. He acquired journals, travel accounts, and memoirs and other critical materials and personal papers from his correspondents. Most notably, New Orleans lawyer Alfred Hennen provided Pickett with letters written by Creek leader Alexander McGillivray and an original copy of the 1790 secret treaty between McGillivray and Pres. George Washington, known as the Treaty of New York. John Francis Hamtranck Claiborne, a Mississippi lawyer, newspaper editor, and historian, sent him the papers of his father, Gen. Ferdinand Leigh Claiborne, who commanded the Mississippi territorial militia during the Creek War of 1813-14.
While on a trip to New Orleans researching material on early Alabama, Pickett made several vital contacts, including historian Charles Gayarré, Hennen, and publisher James Dunwoody Brownson De Bow. He later related these experiences in a series of articles, "A Late Visit to New Orleans," in the Alabama Journal. The massive statewide popularity of the piece prompted Pickett to publish the sketches as a pamphlet in May 1847: Eight Days in New Orleans, in February 1847. The editors of the Tri-Weekly Flag and Advertiser urged Pickett to consider writing a history of the state. Pickett sent copies of the pamphlet to his correspondents requesting information and advice for his history, writing, and historiography. John Wesley Monette and William Gilmore Simms, the South's most prolific antebellum writers, commented on his writing style, structure, format, and organization. Harvard University's Jared Sparks gave Pickett a beginner's seminar on primary sources on De Soto's expedition and French colonial efforts on the Gulf Coast.
Figh-Pickett House
Pickett continued his extensive correspondence requesting specific information regarding people, places, and events. He meticulously conducted personal interviews with early settlers, military veterans, and public servants. At the same time, he continued to publish articles and pamphlets, such as Arrest of Aaron Burr in Alabama in 1807 and Invasion of the Territory of Alabama, by One Thousand Spaniards Under Ferdinand (sic) de Soto. The former became chapter 25 in his History. The De Soto pamphlet received widespread reviews, including in New York City literary journals. It became chapter one of his History, with the correct spelling of De Soto's first name, Hernando.
At his family's retreat at Robinson Springs (located in present-day Millbrook), Pickett worked tirelessly on his magnum opus. Adhering to the advice of Monette and his mentor Simms, he finished his handwritten manuscript by Christmas 1850. He traveled to New York on February 12, 1851, to work with engraver John William Orr on maps and illustrations. He next visited Charleston on March 22 to consult with his publisher, Walker and James. The printing of his two-volume History was completed in early July 1851, but the first copies did not arrive in Alabama until September. There was an overwhelming demand for the work, which sold for $3.00, about average for this kind of publication. His History generally received positive reviews from regional and Alabama papers and went through three editions by December 1851. It also received laudatory reviews from the New York City literary journals. De Bow's Review and the Southern Literary Review published lengthy in-depth reviews in 1852.
Despite some criticisms of his writing style, most modern scholars hold Pickett's History of Alabama in high regard. Harper Lee praised his long digressions and thought Pickett deserved a place in American literature. She called Pickett's History a unique treasure and said it should be in every Alabama high school library. Others hailed his understanding of the layered quality of history and his broader context for understanding his region and one that did not focus on English-speaking peoples. Pickett's History continues to be a relevant study of Alabama and the Gulf South's early history and foundations. His work as Alabama's first historian and his papers in the Alabama Department of Archives and History continue to be cited by scholars who study Alabama's colonial and territorial eras.
In addition to his public speaking and writing, Pickett also helped found the Alabama Historical Society in 1850 with other prominent Alabamians. He had begun a lengthy history of the present-day Southwest, but chronic health issues believed to be related to his heart and kidneys prevented its completion before his death at Forest Farm on October 28, 1858. Earlier that year he had purchased a home in Montgomery he would never live in, now known as the Figh-Pickett House. It was later used as a school and was documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1935. His remains were removed to Oakwood Cemetery in Montgomery following the death of his wife Sarah Harris Pickett in 1894. She had been quite wealthy, owning much property and more than 90 enslaved persons, but the Civil War and abolition left her impoverished and she operated the Figh-Pickett House as a boarding house. Prior to her death, she renewed the copyright on her husband's History in 1878, and his son-in-law Robert Carter Randolph reprinted Pickett's History in one volume in 1896. This edition has gone through numerous reprints by on-demand and other presses.

Additional Resources

Beidler, Philip D. "Antebellum Alabama History in the Planter Style: The Example of Albert J. Pickett." In First Books: The Printed Word and Cultural Formation in Early Alabama, 63-75. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.
Jackson, Crawford. Brief Biographical Sketch of the Late Col. Albert James Pickett of Alabama. Montgomery, Ala.: Barrett & Wimbish, 1859.
Pate, James P. The Annotated Pickett?s History of Alabama. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2018.
Published:  July 27, 2021   |   Last updated:  July 27, 2021