by Erin Kellen
Hal's Lake lies deep in Clarke County, near the community of Carlton, just north of where the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers converge. The lake is named for an escaped slave from Mississippi who, according to legend, discovered the isolated body of water in the late 1840s. Surrounded by cane brake, it was an ideal place to live undetected. Wild game was plentiful, and Hal "procured" other edibles from the nearby river plantations he visited at night. Soon he was recruiting other slaves to his hideout. Plantation owners attributed these disappearances to the underground railroad.
Stories about the enclave known as Hal's Kingdom have survived in oral tradition to this day. It was not for nothing that the settlement came to be called a kingdom, because Hal demanded unquestioning obedience from his "subjects." Inevitably, one man in the community refused to submit to Hal's orders and met with punishment. The rebellious individual angrily departed the settlement, returning to his former home in Monroe County, where he revealed the location of Hal's Kingdom to his master.
A raiding party broke up the community, which had survived for several years,and returned its citizens to the plantations. Some report that Hal was taken back to Mississippi, others that he was killed. But whatever his fate, his exploit stamped his name on the remote lake where no known trace of the settlement remains.
This same wilderness has given rise to another legend--that of "Uncle Ned." In the early 1950s, a white salesman named O.W. McHaney came across a number of "huge block and tackles," some two or three feet across in the vicinity of Carlton. The black residents nearby told him that "Uncle Ned used them to pull boats up here from the river" before and during the Civil War. Uncle Ned, they said, was a freed slave, a business man who repaired and built boats on the Alabama River. He had in his employ a number of former slaves who had been mistreated or had run away. According to the local people Mr. McHaney talked with, Uncle Ned was well respected by the white planters who shipped their cotton down the Alabama River. Whenever they knew of mistreated slaves they would inform Uncle Ned so that he could arrange to have them work for him and make them free.
The region between the Alabama and Tombigbee waterways, often called the "Forks of the Rivers," is possibly less densely populated now than it has ever been, and the stories of Hal's Kingdom and Uncle Ned are not as celebrated as they deserve to be. But just as it appeared that these legends might fade away from oral tradition, they seem to be reviving. And now we wonder: Why does the southern tip of Clarke County figure in these stories about slave refuge and liberation? Perhaps this is due to its isolation, and the fact that it is strategically located between two navigable rivers draining the cotton belt.
Alabama Folkways invites reader's comments and contributions about Hal's Lake and other topics related to Alabama folklife. Write: Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, 410 N. Hull St., Montgomery, AL 36104. The Alabama Center for Traditional Culture is a division of the Alabama State Council on the Arts.