Jeremiah Clemens, A Vintage Vignette
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
January 13, 2010
In 1916 Robert Emmett Wiggins wrote a 5-page letter describing the history of Madison. The letter was in response to a request from Thomas McAdory Owen for information. Owen was collecting data for one of his volumes of “A History of Alabama” as head of the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery at the time. Wiggins was born near today's airport in 1843, before the town was established in 1857. He resided in the town most of his adult life, excepting the period of the Civil War when he served in the Confederate Army. Wiggins' mother was Jackey Dunn, sister of Madison's first and long time railroad depot agent, physician William B. Dunn. Robert was 14 years old when Madison was founded by James Clemens, so he personally witnessed the town's development to the time of his writing.
On page 3 of Wiggins' letter he wrote that “C. C. Clay Jr. and the Honorable Jeremiah Clemens, both U. S. Senators from Alabama, were born within two miles of Madison on plantations owned at that time by their fathers, who lived on them.” Owen would later write that C. C. Clay Jr. was born in 1817 in Huntsville, and it is known from many sources that Jeremiah Clemens was born in Huntsville in 1814. These birth years were well before it was legal to live on the land within two miles of 1916 Madison. Clay and Clemens were born about 25 to 30 years before Wiggins, so he was not providing first-hand information in his statement about them. It may be that time had confused Wiggins' recollection (he was 73 at the time of his writing), or he may have simply provided data that was wrong when he heard it.
There was a likely basis for Wiggins' error about the location of the birth of Clay and Clemens. The fathers of both men in fact did later own plantations within about two miles of the Madison historic district. However, since no part of the area within several miles of Madison was offered for sale by the government until February of 1818, neither man could have lived legally on plantations here before that time. They could have resided illegally on the land, as a large number of “squatters” did begin farming land here several years before the legal purchase date. Also, their sons may well have lived as children part of the time in this area. C. C. Clay Jr. was Clement Claiborne Clay, son of Clement Comer Clay, who became the 8th governor of Alabama. One of Clement Comer Clay's many plantations was at the north end of the jetplex. Jeremiah Clemens was a son of James Clemens (1777-1860), Madison's founder. However, it was 1854 when James Clemens purchased the land that became the village of Madison at the time of the first lot sale in February of 1857. His delay in buying the land of Madison was because it had been reserved by the federal government for the state's use to support public education. Clemens did own several other properties in the nearby area from early 1818, including some lots in the town of Mooresville, land on today's Redstone Arsenal, and some between Madison and Triana. However, James Clemens' primary residence was in Huntsville at the junction of Clinton Avenue and Church Street.
Jeremiah Clemens lived with his father in Huntsville until around age 15, when he went away to LaGrange College. He graduated from the University of Alabama in 1833. Admitted to the bar in 1834, he initiated his law practice in Huntsville. Jeremiah fought in the Texas War of Independence and became a colonel in the Mexican War. He was one of Alabama's U. S. senators 1849-1853. He was succeeded in that capacity by Clement Claiborne Clay. He moved to Memphis in 1858 to become editor of the Memphis Eagle and Enquirer newspapers. Jeremiah returned to Huntsville by 1861 and held office in the Confederacy, but he became a strong Union supporter in 1864. He died in 1865 of pneumonia before his father's estate was settled, so he never owned land or a house in Madison.