Biography of John A. Steele

Farmer, Judge of Probate, Lawyer and Delegate to the Secession Convention

John A. Steele, the other delegate to the secession convention, never lived in Franklin County as it now exists, but lived for many years at Tuscumbia, which was at one time a town of Franklin County. His son, W. W. Steele of Tuscumbia, has courteously furnished us most of the data concerning his career and family history. We have also collected some information from old newspaper files, Dubose’s “Alabama History,” and in conversation with people who knew him personally.

He was born July 25, 1835, at Gainesville, Sumter County, Ala. It is said that he was the first white child born in that town. However, we do not know whether this is correct or not. He was a son of Judge William Jemison and Mary Dandridge (Winston) Steele, who were descended from prominent families.

When John A. Steele was about twelve years of age his parents moved to Kentucky, the state of his father’s nativity. He entered college at an early age, and graduated at Princeton University when only seventeen years of age. After he graduated from, Princeton he studied law at Transylvania University under Judge George B. Roberson, Chief Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Later he located at Tuscumbia, the home of the Winston’s his mother’s people. Here he continued to reside until his death which occurred in January, 1916.

He was one of the most prominent characters in the history of Colbert County, or in Franklin, as it formerly existed. After locating at Tuscumbia, he was constantly identified with public affairs, although he turned his attention to agriculture rather than law.

Being highly educated and endowed with fine common sense, he was qualified to be a leader of men. He was a man of considerable wealth and owned a large plantation where Nitrate Plant No. 2 is now located.

The Secession Convention is, in a sense, the most interesting of all the constitutional conventions of Alabama. In 1911 Judge Steele wrote a most interesting article on that convention which was published in the Montgomery Advertiser, The Franklin Times, and perhaps several other Alabama newspapers. As he states in that article, he was opposed to the Ordinance of Secession, but he seemed td have believed that his first duty was to the state rather than to the national government.

So when Alabama withdrew from the Union he stood ready to do his part in her
defense. He was not at all by himself in this respect. The reader will recall that a number of the most prominent Southern leaders, including Gen. Robt. E. Lee, were opposed to secession, but when their states withdrew from the Union they were at their service. So Judge Steele donned the uniform of gray and fought valiantly for the Southland. He served as captain for four years under General Forest, and was captured at Selma, Ala., during the last days of that memorable struggle.

When Colbert County was formed the people looked to him as one of their leaders. He served that county two terms as Judge of Probate, hence the title, “Judge.” He was also a representative in the Legislature several times and was registrar of the United States land office at Huntsville for some time. He was a candidate in 1900 for governor of Alabama on the Republican ticket, being opposed by Dr. G. B. Crowe, Populist, and William J. Samford, Democrat. Samford was elected.

Judge Steele was a Master Mason and a Knight of Honor. He took an interest
in certain social functions and was very fond of horse racing. He attended famous races in Lexington, Ky., St. Louis, Mo., and elsewhere. He was large in stature, as well as in intellect. His height was about six feet-two inches; his weight generally about two hundred pounds.

People who knew him say that he was very generous. One man with whom we talked, spoke of him as “a poor man’s friend.” Another man, a prominent physician of Russellville, once remarked that he wished he could “cast a thousand votes for Steele.” These remarks, here quoted, are mere examples of the estimation in which he was held.

His wife was Miss Martha Bacon Winston of Tuscumbia, and a relative of his mother. She was a daughter of William Winston, who owned a large plantation where the City of Sheffield now stands. She was also a sister of Mrs. Robert Burns Lindsay and a half sister of Governor John Anthony Winston of Alabama. The Winston family was very projulucut and closely related to the immortal Patrick Henry.

Nine children were born to Judge and Mrs. Steele: William Winston; John Anthony Winston; Thomas Winston; Helen, married Otey Figures; Mary Bacon, married Lee Armstead; Judith McCraw, married E. L. Goodloe; Sarah Miller, married Otey Figures, (Miss Helen Steele first married Mr. Figures. She died; then later her sister, Sarah Miller Steele, was married to him); Andrew Metcalf married Miss Mattie McCleskey; Edmund Winston married Miss Helen Allen.

Judge and Mrs. Steele are buried in the family cemetery near Tuscumbia.

Source: “Distinguished Men, Women and Families of Franklin Co., Alabama,” by R. L. James, pub. cir. 1927-1929, pages 67-69.

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