Mr. ELLICOTT'S WASHERWOMAN
by Robert Register
August 1st, 1794
"My Dear Sally,
...We live here like a parcel of Monks, or Hermits, and have not a woman of any complexion among us-our linnen is dirty, our faces, and hands brown, and to complete the picture, our beards are generally long-
O sweet Woman!
without thee man is a Brute,
& society a blank:
thou shapest man into a valuable being, and directeth his ambition to useful pursuits.
Can that man be possessed of rational sensibility who adoreth not a woman?
I am Dear Sally your
In our present age in which political expediency and twisted syntax replace legal proof and Biblical morality, it's almost refreshing to hear the old axiom, "There's nothin' new under the sun."
As one contemplates the following story, the self-evident truth of this old maxim applies once more to the unwavering foibles of the condition that goes by the title, "Human Nature."
As we contemplate more than 200 years of American dominion over this land we call "home",
we can find comfort in knowing that our ancestors had ample opportunity to witness the shortcomings of their leaders. So it was with the 1811 court martial of General James Wilkinson, Commanding General of the U.S. Army and, arguably, the most greedy, deceitful and devious rascal to ever walk across the stage of West Alabama history.
General Wilkinson's career in West Alabama was brief, but consequential. Under orders of President Thomas Jefferson, Wilkinson traveled during the summer of 1802 to the ruins of the old Spanish Fort Confederation near present-day Epes in Sumter County. By October he had produced a treaty that proved that in the future his powers of salesmanship would never be equalled by any slick selling cars or trailers on Skyland Blvd.
The ink on the yellowed paper of the treaty sez it all:
"...the said Choctaw Nation, for, and in consideration of one dollar, to them in hand paid, by the said United States, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, do hereby release to the said United States, and quit claim forever, to all that tract of land..."
In other words, with language lifted from an Alabama used car sale before the title law, Wilkinson picked up one-and-a-half-million acres in present-day Southwest Alabama, "in consideration of one dollar."
Almost nine years later, on April 10th, 1811, General Wilkinson took the offensive in one of the greatest feuds between men who shaped Alabama history. His legal arguments bore strange fruit in a federal courtroom in Frederick, Maryland. General Wilkinson, commander of the U.S. Army for seventeen years (1796-1813) was on trial for being the notorious secret agent "Number 13" for the King of Spain. Wilkinson, who would later claim Mobile for the U.S. from Spain in 1813, had spent more than two decades taking Spanish money in exchange for privileged information and now he was about to be convicted of treason. Options were of the essence so Wilkinson played "his ace in the hole."
Wilkinson's hidden ace was Thomas Freeman, Surveyor General of Mississippi Territory and the namesake of the Freeman Line passing east to west through Montevallo which separates North & South Alabama to this day.
The entire case for the government hinged on the testimony of Major Andrew Ellicott, the former commissioner for the United States during the first American survey of Alabama soil in 1799. During the survey of this first Southern Boundary of the U.S., Ellicott had intercepted a letter which proved Wilkinson was on the take.
Freeman, the man who established the Huntsville Meridian upon which every North Alabama property line is now based (including the lines which keep my neighbors off uv me here in Tuscaloosa as I type),
had a grudge to pick with Ellicott. Ellicott had fired Freeman during the U.S. Southern Boundary survey so the court martial was an opportunity for Freeman to get some payback.
Freeman testified that during the entire 1796-1800 survey of the first southern boundary of the United States, Andrew Ellicott and his son, Andrew Jr., employed
"a prostitute of the lowest grade" to share their camp cot during their trip through the wilderness. This testimony produced "the utter demolition of the character of the eminent astronomer."
It didn't matter that Ellicott could prove that Wilkinson was on the take. All the jury heard were salacious tales of the government's chief prosecution witness having "a beastly, criminal and disgraceful intercourse with a harlot."
What follows are excerpts from Thomas Freeman's sworn deposition:
Question: Did you know a woman called Betsy who sat at Mr. Ellicott's table?
What station did she appear to occupy in Mr. Ellicott's family, and what was her known character?
Answer: I did know the woman called Betsy who sat at Mr. Ellicott's table. She appeared to occupy the position of washerwoman to the party. Her known character was that of a prostitute,
and of the lowest grade.
Question: Did you observe and particular familiarity and attentions, in the intercourses of the said prostitute, with Ellicott and his son, and what was the age of the boy? Be particular in time, place and circumstances.
Answer: I did observe frequent, particular familiarities and attentions in the intercourse of Ellicott and his son and said prostitute. I cannot now, from recollection, be very particular in
time, place and circumstance. The boy appeared to be nearly full grown, of about nineteen years of age. I recollect that Ellicott introduced the woman, Betsy, to Governor Gayoso, on his first visit to the barge after we landed at Natchez [February 24, 1797: ed.];
and, as far as their conduct (Ellicott & son) came within my observation afterward, they continued to pay mutual friendly and familiar attentions to her.
It was said and generally believed that extraordinary trio:
father, son and washerwoman,
slept in the same bed at the same time-
I did not see,
but I believed it.
I was even pressed by the old sinner, Ellicott, to take part of his bed with himself and the washerwoman, for the night.
Question: Was it not your opinion and that of all the other gentlemen of the party, that Ellicott, the father, and son held criminal intercourse with the said harlot, Betsy.
Answer: It was my opinion, and I understand it to be the opinion of every gentleman of both parties, American and Spanish, that the Ellicott's, both father and son,held, and continued a beastly, criminal and disgraceful intercourse, with the said harlot Betsy.
J.F.H. Claiborne in his 1880 history of Mississippi makes this statement about Thomas Freeman's testimony:
"As Mr. Ellicott, in his journal and official correspondence traduced many worthy persons living and dead, and did not hesitate to break open private letters, surreptitiously obtained, and represents himself as pure and immaculate, it is but justice to show what manner of man he was. This can be seen by reference to the deposition of Major Thomas Freeman before the court-martial at Frederick, convened September 1, 1811, for the trial of Major-General James Wilkinson. The witness was a man of the highest character, then and until his death holding a responsible position under government, and he charges Ellicott, under oath, with untruthfulness and official corruption, and with conduct personally and most degrading, indecent and beastly."
So the next time you look at an Alabama property deed or drive down by the Florida line, the demarcation between the Anglo-Saxon civilization of the U.S. and the Latin civilization of Florida in 1799, think about Betsy- Mr. Ellicott's washerwoman. She was probably the first woman from the United States to see the 381 miles of impenetrable wilderness between the Mississippi and the Chattahoochee Rivers. By cleaning Ellicott's linen, Betsy added a civilizing touch to the survey party, but her place in history is assured because Betsy was the first of a legion of American "ladies of the evening" who followed the almighty dollar down the Mississippi River to the rowdier sections of Natchez, New Orleans, Mobile and Pensacola.
She survived the Ellicotts, Indian attacks, a voyage around the peninsula of Florida, a trip up the St. Mary's River to Okefenokee Swamp
& when her story was used in court,
she allowed Major General James Wilkinson, a clever scoundrel whose reputation is rivaled only by Benedict Arnold,
to get away with 23 years of espionage.