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2120EARLY SALTPETER MINING AT SAUTA CAVE

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  • Ann Chambless
    Nov 21, 2002
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      The 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,
      documents, 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
      understood.
      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
      Archives.

      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
      abc123@...
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