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Septimus D. Cabaniss papers

Identifier: MSS-0252

Scope and Contents

The S.D. Cabaniss papers were a gift of his great-granddaughter, University of Alabama in Huntsville history professor Dr. Frances Roberts, who used the papers to write her master's thesis, "An Experiment in Emancipation of Slaves by an Alabama Planter," for her history degree at the University of Alabama in 1940. The University of Alabama libraries acquired the S.D. Cabaniss papers shortly thereafter, before the establishment of a formal special collections library. Librarians, accustomed to the Dewey system and not trained in the importance of maintaining the original order of collections, attempted to gain control of the papers by arranging all materials--from a single receipt to a lengthy court document--chronologically. Though this approach brought some order to the collection, it resulted in the papers being largely unusable due to the variety of materials involved, their voluminous nature, and the considerable time span they covered. While processing the Cabaniss papers, efforts have been made to restore the papers to, if not their original order, something logically approaching how a 19th-century attorney would have maintained his filing system. Reconstructing the case files has required a considerable amount of analysis and judgment calls on the part of the archivist, something researchers should consider when using this series of the collection.

The Cabaniss papers consist of a mixture of both business and personal materials, with the bulk concerning the former. The papers are organized into seven main series: Correspondence, Estate Files, Legal Files, Kansas Lands, Financial Materials, Personal Materials, Cabaniss Family Materials, and Miscellaneous. A concise description of each series is provided in the Series Description portion of this finding aid. However, there are some sections which bear further explanation.

Estate Files consist of documents generated during the daily maintenance of the estate, such as receipts and promissory notes; Legal Files may also contain information about the same estate, but these documents will reflect litigation involving the estate or documents used as evidence in a case where the estate has been named defendant or plaintiff. Both the Estate Files series and the Case Files sub-series of the Legal Files series are arranged alphabetically and then chronologically within the folder. An effort was made to determine which party Cabaniss or his partners represented, and the documents were filed accordingly. If representation could not be determined, then the document was filed under the complainant, which is traditionally the first name appearing on a legal document. Both series contain folders pertaining to individual estates and cases, as well as folders labeled miscellaneous A, B, C, etc. If an estate or case had at least five documents, then it was granted an individual folder (sometimes multiple folders, depending on the size of the case). Otherwise, estate and case file materials were placed within the appropriate general alphabetical folder and arranged accordingly.

The collection is particularly notable for the materials concerning the estate of Samuel Townsend, a heavily litigated estate where practically all associated materials were used as evidence in the courts. In 1853, Cabaniss was employed by the wealthy, unmarried Samuel Townsend to draft a will that would allow him to manumit and leave property to a selection of his slaves, many of whom were his children. Townsend was concerned because the will of his brother Edmund Townsend, whose estate was valued at nearly 500,000 dollars at his death in 1853, had been held void by the courts. His will left the bulk of his estate to two of his slaves, Elizabeth and Virginia, whom he acknowledged as his children; but members of his extended family had protested and succeeded in nullifying the Edmund Townsend will for their own benefit. Samuel Townsend was concerned that his own will could be held void and hired Cabaniss to draft a will which would protect the interest of his chosen heirs. At his death in 1856, the Samuel Townsend estate was valued at approximately 200,000 dollars and included 8 plantations, seven of which were located in Madison County and one in Jackson County, Alabama. The estates totaled nearly 7,560 acres.

The bulk of the correspondence concerning the Townsend estate can be found in the Legal subseries of the Correspondence series. The scope of the Townsend estate was so massive in his career that much of his correspondence refers to the estate in some capacity. However, researchers should pay special attention to correspondence with select Townsend heirs--such as Wesley Townsend, Milcha Caldwell, Thomas Townsend, and Osborne Townsend--and businessmen and agents involved in the estate including W.D.Chadick, D.L. Lakin, R.S. Rust, and C.S. Jaffray. The correspondence from the newly manumitted heirs to Cabaniss is particularly interesting in that it details their efforts to gain an education and find jobs in an area far from their native Madison County. The letters also reveal an understandable impatience with the slow probation of the will. The rest of the Townsend materials comprise a subseries in the Legal Files series. These materials contain a wide variety of documents, but they are filed together as one large case as nearly everything concerned with Samuel Townsend was produced as evidence during years of litigation, first with the lawful heirs who contested the estate and later with debtors who owed the estate money after the Civil War.

In 1856, Cabaniss re-drafted the will of Samuel Townsend to provide for the emancipation and removal of forty of his slaves to a free territory. All of his property was to be auctioned, with the exception of a plantation of 1700 acres that he left to Samuel C. Townsend, providing that he qualify as one of the executors of the estate. The residue of the estate after the auction was to be first put into a general trust and drawn upon for settling debts and for the expenses of removing slaves to northern territories. The slaves, henceforth referred to as legatees, were grouped in two classes, the first of which numbered 12 and the second of which numbered 28. The will was unsuccessfully contested for nearly two years by the natural heirs of Samuel Townsend, but in 1858 it was finally probated, though more legal battles and the Civil War would soon interrupt its disbursements.

The conditions of the will were complicated. Samuel Townsend ordered that the legatees of the first class be removed to a state where they could be emancipated and educated. Huntsville Reverend W.D. Chadick travelled to Ohio to find a place where the legatees could comfortably settle. In February of 1858, Chadick left with the oldest of the legatees, Wesley, age 27. After consulting with prominent Ohioans regarding the prospects for free African Americans in the area, Chadick recommended the Athens district in Ohio, as well as Xenia, Ohio, and the nearby Wilberforce University as suitable places for settlement of the first-class legatees. Chadick returned to Alabama, but Wesley Townsend remained in the Athens area, attending school and aspiring to purchase a blacksmith's shop. Just as preparations were underway to remove the rest of the legatees, James Steely and other natural heirs of Samuel Townsend filed a second bill of complaint to have the will set aside in 1859. This attempt was also unsuccessful, but it delayed the removal of the remaining legatees until January 1860, when the remaining were emancipated and relocated to the Xenia, Ohio, area. Seven of these legatees enrolled in Wilberforce University, where R.S. Rust was then president, and the remaining women and children were placed under the care of Wesley Townsend. The Townsend agents both went on to successful careers; Rust became secretary of the Freedman's Bureau and Reverend Chadick enjoyed prominence as an influential Cumberland Presbyterian Minister.

S.D. Cabaniss consulted many prominent political leaders, including C.C. Clay, William H. Seward, and Stephen Douglas, to determine where best to locate the second-class legatees and settle those of the first class as well. On February 25th, 1860, David P. Lakin of Huntsville, Alabama, was appointed agent for the second class legatees and travelled with 29 potential freedmen to the western territory of Kansas to find a place of settlement. The group was larger than initially intended, as it included children born to legatees after the probation of the will. Along the way, Lakin ventured to Xenia, Ohio, where arrangements were made to keep the seven younger first-class legatees at Wilberforce and provisions made to move the remaining legatees to Kansas. The two groups reconvened at St. Louis and continued their path to Kansas, where they settled in the communities of Leavenworth and Grasshopper Falls, Kansas, where Cabaniss would make personal land investments as well. Rust at Wilberforce and Lakin in Kansas were entrusted with the care of the legatees, but the Civil War would hamper their financial security. The Confederate courts determined that no further advancements or payments could be made by the executors to the legatees, so these newly emancipated legatees were largely on their own during the next 5 years.

After the Civil War, S.D. Cabaniss would continue trying to liquidate and settle the remainder of the Townsend estate, and payments were often made to the legatees based on need and other extenuating circumstances. It was not until 1871, however, that Townsend's estate yielded major disbursements for the legatees. This delay was due to several factors, including failed efforts to collect the massive sum of debts owed to the estate. The debts totaled nearly $222,000 in 1866, of which nearly half could not be paid. From 1868-1871, Cabaniss received various orders from the court allowing him to compromise on some debts to reclaim what funds he could and to sell the property of the estate when necessary. The legatees received various payments from the Townsend estate throughout the 1870s, the last of which was paid in 1879. The estate was finally settled in 1890, when the remaining property was turned over to the estate of S.D. Cabaniss, as a partial payment for the administrator's salary owed to him totaling a substantial $18,047.62. In the final analysis, the Townsend legatees received less than 1/4 of the original value of the estate. During these years, many of the legatees moved around the United States, some even back to Huntsville, while others resided in Ohio, Kansas, and Alabama.


  • 1820-1937




Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection. Manuscript collections and archival records may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal or state right to privacy laws and regulations. Due to the nature of certain archival formats, including digital and audio-visual materials, access to certain materials may require additional advance notice.


Septimus Douglass Cabaniss, the prominent Huntsville attorney perhaps best remembered for his role as executor for the estate of Samuel Townsend, was born December 18, 1815, in what would later become Madison County, Alabama. His parents, Charles and Lucy Ingram Cabaniss, moved from Lunenburg County, Virginia, to the Huntsville area in 1810. Cabaniss was their 12th child, born a year after his brother Charles Pines Cabaniss, who would later become a successful agent for the Bell Factory in Huntsville, Alabama. Septimus Cabaniss's early education was conducted at the Greene Academy in Huntsville. After completing his primary studies, he attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He graduated from UVA in 1835, after which he returned to Huntsville to read law under local attorney Silas Parsons. Cabaniss was admitted to the Alabama Bar in 1838 and then commenced practicing law in Huntsville, where he would remain a prominent member of the legal community until his death in 1889.

An examination of his legal papers shows that he concentrated on civil matters, particularly the settlement of estates, almost from the inception of his legal career. After completing his apprenticeship under Silas Parsons, he began to practice law with a series of men who would become some of Huntsville's most prominent attorneys of the period. It is difficult to establish who Cabaniss was formally partnered with during his formative legal years, but he clearly worked alongside Silas Parsons and his partner Arthur Hopkins through the 1840s. In 1851, he formed a legal partnership with Robert Coman Brickell, who later served as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama from 1874-1884.

In 1858, Cabaniss left his lucrative practice with Brickell and Leroy Pope Walker (grandson of Huntsville founder LeRoy Pope) to concentrate on the settlement of the Samuel Townsend estate. Mr. Samuel Townsend, a wealthy Madison County planter, left a will leaving the bulk of his fortune to a selection of his slaves--many of whom were his children--and providing for their eventual manumission. The Townsend estate was sizeable and complicated in nature; overseeing the activities of these heirs, as well as the litigation involved in probating the estate, was a time-consuming endeavor.

Political aspirations may have also influenced Cabaniss's decision to leave his practice, as he was a member of the Alabama state legislature from 1861-1863. There is some speculation that Cabaniss served as a colonel in Confederate Army intelligence during the Civil War, but his name is not listed on any regiment rosters for the state of Alabama. He was active in Confederate causes during the war; an 1865 letter written from Colonel A.A. Russell to Major James Monroe Mason refers to S.D. Cabaniss as the "inspector of conscription" whose "contrary influence" hindered the addition of some 1500 soldiers to General Nathan Bedford Forrest's army. Despite his intention to focus exclusively on the Townsend settlement, Cabaniss resumed practicing law in 1865 after the conclusion of the Civil War. The Confederate government had frozen the Townsend estate in 1861; thus, nothing could be accomplished regarding distribution until 1867. After the war, he formally partnered with fellow attorney Frances P. Ward and continued to serve as executor of the Samuel Townsend estate while handling other fiduciary relationships and legal matters. He maintained an active legal practice in Huntsville, the bulk of which concerned estate law, until his death in 1889.

S.D. Cabaniss enjoyed at least one notable family connection in Alabama legal circles. He married Huntsville native Virginia Shepherd on June 20, 1843. Her brother, Yale graduate John Wesley Shepherd, was a member of the Bar of the Alabama Supreme Court and served as the official reporter of its decisions for many years. His publication "Shepherd's Digest of the Alabama Reports" was popular among the 19th-century legal community and remains a valuable historical resource today. Cabaniss's wife, Virginia Shepherd Cabaniss, lived in Huntsville from October 1, 1824 to March 21, 1907. Of the 12 Cabaniss children, only 6 would live to maturity: the Reverend Charles Eugene (1846-1938); Lucy Cabaniss Roberts (1851-1931); Septimus Douglas, Jr. (1853-1910); Frances (Fanny) S. (1856-1937); William M. (1860-1890); and James Budd (1861-1903). Septimus Jr., Charles, and Lucy were the only children of S.D. Cabaniss to marry. Lucy married B.L. Roberts and lived most of her adult life in Gainesville, Alabama. Charles and Lucy had three children: Virginia, Richard (father of Frances Roberts, donor of the papers), and Ellen. Charles Eugene Cabaniss, a graduate of Sewanee University who became an Episcopal minister, married Lucy Spotswood. The couple had one son, Robert Bolling Cabaniss, and two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Reverend Cabaniss served in many parishes around the United States, including Illinois, Texas, and South Carolina. Septimus Cabaniss, Jr., married Katherine Darst and moved to San Diego, California, where he resided until his death. The couple had no children. In 1903, James Budd died, and his sister Fanny Cabaniss superseded her brother as circuit court clerk of Madison County and served in that position for 41 years. Fannie used the initials F.S. Cabaniss, as it was unusual for a woman to hold the position of circuit court clerk at that time.

A member of the Democratic Party, Septimus Cabaniss also enjoyed a brief political career and a lifelong interest in party politics. He was elected the first register in chancery for Madison County, serving from 1839 to 1843. He also held the position of assignee in bankruptcy from 1841-1843. Later, Madison County citizens elected him as a member of the Alabama state legislature, where he served from 1861-1863. A religious man, Cabaniss was an Episcopal and an active member of the Church of the Nativity in Huntsville. He also served as president of the Northern Bank of Alabama and chairman of his local Democratic Party and was on the board of the Huntsville Agricultural and Mechanical institute. He died on March 30, 1889, while on a trip to Bartow, Florida, an area that he had previously invested in and where his son Septimus Douglass Jr. had once tried to cultivate an orange grove.

Sources: The S.D. Cabaniss Papers; Thomas McAdory Owen's History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography (Spartanburg, South Carolina: The Reprint Company Publishers, 1978); Frances Roberts's An Experiment in Emancipation of Slaves by an Alabama Planter (University of Alabama, 1940); James Record's A Dream Come True: The Story of Madison County and Incidentally of Alabama and the United States (Huntsville, 1970); The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1893); and with additional genealogical information provided by Nancy


31 Linear Feet


Legal and personal papers of the Huntsville, Madison County, Alabama, attorney, S.D. Cabaniss, who served as executor for the estate of Samuel Townsend. Also includes materials of other Huntsville attorneys and of the S.D. Cabaniss family.


Gift of Dr. Frances Roberts, 1952


Arrangement and description of this collection was made possible through a NHPRC-funded collaborative grant with Tuskegee University, "Bringing Alabama's African American History to Light."

Processing Information

Processed by Merrily A. Harris, 2007
Guide to the S.D. Cabaniss Papers
Merrily A. Harris
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Arrangement and description of this collection was made possible through a NHPRC-funded collaborative grant with Tuskegee University, "Bringing Alabama's African American History to Light."

Repository Details

Part of the The University of Alabama Libraries Special Collections Repository

Box 870266
Tuscaloosa AL 35487-0266