2120EARLY SALTPETER MINING AT SAUTA CAVE
- Nov 21, 2002The following information is abstracted from an essay in the July 1989
edition of THE JACKSON COUNTY CHRONICLES published quarterly by the
Jackson County Historical Association (edited by Ann B. Chambless for
many years). The essay was written by MARION O. SMITH who is the most
knowledgeable person I know regarding saltpeter mining in Jackson County
as well as ANY cave in North Alabama. Marion O. Smith is an long-time
spelunker and a published researcher/historian/author as well.
The wonderful part about Mr. Smith's writing is that he documents,
EARLY SALTPETER MINING IN AND NEAR JACKSON COUNTY, ALABAMA
By 1812 a partial blooded Cherokee named Richard Riley (his father was
white man and mother was a Cherokee) was involved in saltpeter mining at
Sauta Cave. At this time two whites, William Robinson and Argyle
Taylor, with a number of laborers were also working at Sauta Cave. The
relationship of Robinson and Taylor to each other, whether as partners
or as employer-employee, and of both to Richard Riley is not now clearly
In 1812, William Robinson filed suit to recover damages from Taylor for
taking near "four hundred weight of salt petre." The case remained on
the Madison County, Alabama docket for years because the witnesses and
sometimes the defendant could never be summoned at once. Finally, the
court decided to settle the matter by use of written depositions.
Witnesses included Joseph Neely, John and Edward Frost, Archibald
McSpadden, Joseph Wofford, Daniel Winters, David Byrd, John or William
R. Inman, and Stephen Sandifer. The testimony of Archibald McSpadden
and Stephen Sandifer are the only two testimonies which survive.
McSpadden testified that during his stay at the cave about 1000 pounds
of saltpeter had been made, which had been applied to use of the camp
and in buying ashes and some to Col. Robinson's use. A few days after
the discharge of Argyle Taylor, Taylor returned to the cave and took 383
pounds of saltpeter which RICHARD RILEY helped weigh for him.
Stephen Sandifer claimed that in 1812 Taylor was Robinson's partner in
addition to being in charge of Robinson's workers. Taylor testified
that he had 7 men under him and used a wagon and oxen at the furnace.
He also testified the daily output was estimated at "70 to 100 weight."
NOTE: Another interesting tidbit is the fact that Marion O. Smith
found on the walls of the alcove nearly a half mile inside the cave two
scratched names associated with a November 3, 1812 date: Greeneville
and Edward Burnett. In the same area are other names, include John
Crobett or Corbett and J. J. Tripett. Nothing is known about these
men, and it can only be conjectured they were early miners.
MARION O. SMITH also wrote:
In the spring and summer of 1862, "incursions of the enemy" disrupted
the Confederacy's saltpeter producing areas, including Northern Alabama.
During the time the Confederacy mined Sauta Cave Captain James H.
Young's company had a total of 82 names on its rolls, including himself,
3 Lieutenants, four Sergeants, four Corporals, and seventy Privates.
Three of the men died; eleven were captured; two were deserters from
another regiment and were returned; and 42 deserted.
The roster of Captain James H. Young's company can be found as Guard
Company Alabama Nitre and Mining Corps, Record Group 109, National
N O T E: In a separate email, I will list the names of the men from
the roster of this company.
During the two years Sauta was mined by the Confederacy for saltpeter,
numerous individuals labored there in one capacity or another. The
total number is unknown but enough data exists to obtain a fair idea of
the labor sources and the different duties performed. Some of the
laborers were guards on extra duty. Others were full-time detailed
conscripts, who, if "found one mile" from the "works without a written
furlough" were "liable to be arrested as a deserter and sent to the
nearest camp of instruction."
Many more laborers were citizens of the surrounding counties who hired
out their labor for specific jobs ranging from only a few days to
several months' duration.
Much of the heaviest labor at Sauta was performed by slaves hired from
local owners. Accounts by surviving white laborers many years after
the war variously estimated the number of employed slaves at 25 to 60,
who dug the dirt and loaded the mule carts. Some of these reputedly,
"dug a well 70 feet deep to determine how far down the saltpeter
extended" without reaching the bottom. The most noted slave owner who
employed their chattels at Sauta were Confederate Senator Clement C.
Clay, Jr. and Thomas B. Jordan, both of Madison County, Alabama.
More to follow in second installment as this is getting quite long.
Ann B. Chambless, Editor, JACKSON COUNTY CHRONICLES
- << Previous post in topic Next post in topic >>