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Elisha Wolsey Peck (1799 - 1888)
Elisha Wolsey Peck (1799 - 1888)
Elisha Wolsey Peck is regarded as one of Alabama’s great early advocates, usually representing the defense or handling appeals.  He was born in New York State in 1799 and was admitted to the Bar of New York in 1825.  That same year, he moved to Alabama, settling at Elyton.  He later moved to Tuscaloosa, then the capital of the state, which offered him more opportunities.  In 1832, he formed a partnership with Harvey W. Ellis.  In the June term of 1836 they handled between them 25 appellate cases.  Later he partnered with Lincoln Clark and during the June term of 1847 he argued appellate cases originating in Covington, Dallas, Lowndes, Marengo, Mobile, Monroe, Perry, Pickens, Russell, Shelby, and Tuscaloosa counties.

A case which illustrates Peck’s skill as an advocate involved a black woman in Tuscaloosa named Milly Walker.  She had asserted her status as a free person of color in an action against a man who had come to Alabama from Virginia claiming that Walker and her children were fugitive slaves.  Walker had been born to a free black woman in Virginia around 1800 and therefore was free herself.  At about the age of 15 she moved to Tennessee and eventually came to Alabama as an indentured servant.  She had to litigate her status when she was unknowingly sold with her children into slavery.  That litigation ended in a finding of her freedom.

Peck entered the life of Milly Walker 15 years after this litigation when Richard W. Fields of Virginia filed a claim that Milly and her three children were all his slaves and were fugitives from Virginia.  Peck first attempted to end this matter with a non-jury habeas corpus proceeding which he won but which the Alabama Supreme Court reversed.  He then had to file a formal petition for Walker’s freedom which called for a jury trial.  The trial was held in September 1852 and a jury once again decided that the Walkers were free persons of color.  Richard Fields then appealed the trial judgment.  However, Peck’s brief won the day when the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the trial court.  This case is reported in 23 Ala 155 (1853).

Peck was appointed one of the first judges in chancery in Alabama and served for a few years before he resumed his private practice.  He was a Whig and a Union man who opposed secession.  He favored returning to the Union during the Civil War, though he was never disloyal to the Confederacy.  After the war he became a Republican.  For a short time he left Alabama and lived in Illinois but after a few months he returned to his home in Tuscaloosa.  Thereafter, in 1867, he was elected chairman of the military reconstruction convention.  A few months later he was chosen to serve as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.  He remained on the bench for five years until he resigned.  Peck continued to practice law in Tuscaloosa and he died a respected citizen in 1888.

Peck was described in the memoirs of E. A. Powell, a circuit court clerk, as simply the best lawyer he had ever seen in a courtroom.  Peck’s long history of service to the profession and his desire to remain in Alabama testify to his stature as a member of the Alabama legal community.

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