History of Greene County – Part II ( Early Settlement )
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mississippi’s statehood. On December 10, 1817, President James Monroe signed the resolution that admitted Mississippi as the twentieth state. Throughout the year, various activities are planned across the state to celebrate the bicentennial. We encourage you to contact the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for further information regarding these events.
In recognition of the State’s bicentennial, the Greene County Museum and Historical Society has chosen as its annual goal to provide the public some aspects of the history of Greene County as it paralleled the development of the State of Mississippi.
By BROOKS BALL
Special to the Herald
Following the end of the Revolutionary War, when families were returning to their pre-war activities/routine, an interest in finding new, more fertile land to cultivate, or to seek greater opportunities to start a new life, or to make a better living began to manifest among the population of the eastern seaboard states.
Agricultural lands had been exhausted from years of planting the same crops, season after season. Ignorant of the concept of crop rotation, it was more profitable to buy new land and repeat the process elsewhere.
About this time, late 1700’s and early 1800’s, lands to the west were beginning to be made available for settlement. These lands in the southwest, which would be referred to later as the “Old Southwest,” had previously been claimed by the French, the English, and most recently by Spain before Georgia and, finally, the United States. Earlier settlers had claimed lands from these countries and had, in many cases, documented land grants from one of them. In what was to become the Mississippi Territory, British claims covered the most valuable lands (Claiborne, J.F.H., Mississippi As A Province, Territory, And State, Reprint of the 1880 edition by The Reprint Company, 1978; p.295). Spain was processing land claims until the United States forced them to vacate the lands they occupied (the Natchez district) in 1798 and, what was Spanish West Florida in 1812-1813.
The State of Georgia, formerly a British colony, in 1785, laid claim to these southwestern lands from the 31st parallel in the south, to the “Yazoo line” (mouth of the Yazoo River) to the north and to the Mississippi River on the west and the Chattahoochee River on the east. This area of land was established as Bourbon County Georgia. In 1789 and again in 1795, the Georgia legislature sold land in this area to at least three “favored” land companies (Haynes, Robert V., “The Disposal of Lands in the Mississippi Territory,” The Journal of Mississippi History, Vol. XXIV, 1962; as included in A Mississippi Reader: Selected Articles from The Journal of Mississippi History, Edited by John E. Gonzales, 1980; p. 5). As it was learned that all but one of the Georgia legislators owned interest in these land companies, corruption ruled the day. Legitimacy of these land claims was made even more questionable when land companies sold their claims to other land speculators. This debacle was later referred to as the “Yazoo Fraud.”
While Winthrop Sargent, first appointed governor of the Mississippi Territory, was attempting to organize a government; old settlers with primarily British land claims were becoming restless and newcomers were being forced to squat on public lands, settle on Indian lands, or move into Spanish Territory (Haynes, p. 6). Uncertainty regarding who had a legitimate claim to their land was later thought to be one of the key factors delaying settlement of the Mississippi Territory and subsequently delaying the establishment of statehood.
Jean Strickland and Patricia N. Edwards provide a brief but thorough account of how lands were distributed by the United States government from territorial times through statehood in the introduction to their book, Who Lived Where: Greene County Mississippi, Book of Original Entry published in 1989. A copy of this book is one of many resources available in the Greene County Museum.
Prior to the establishment of the Mississippi Territory, settlers had migrated into two primary areas- the Natchez area on the west and the lower Tombigbee River settlements above and west of Mobile. The Natchez area far exceeded the lower Tombigbee settlements in population in 1800. At the time Greene County was established in 1811, the total population of the western portion of the Territory, including Greene County, was 31,306 – nearly half, or 14,706 of whom were slaves (Lowery, Charles D., “The Great Migration to the Mississippi Territory, 1798-1819,” originally published in The Journal of Mississippi History, Vol. XXX in 1968 and included in A Mississippi Reader: Selected Articles from The Journal of Mississippi History; pages 68-88).
The seat of government of the Mississippi Territory had been moved from Natchez to Washington, a small town six miles east of Natchez, in 1801. It was here that the land claims office for the western or Natchez district of the Territory was established.
The eastern district office was established at St. Stephens, originally a Spanish fort and outpost (Fort San Esteban) established on the west bank of the lower Tombigbee River 67 miles north of Mobile in 1789. The land claims was relocated to Augusta in Perry County- thought in 1817 to be a more centrally located site to serve claimants as far west as the eastern banks of the Pearl River. This was also the year that Mississippi established statehood with an eastern boundary line placing St. Stephens in the Alabama Territory.
According to J.F.H. Claiborne, prior to 1805, when treaties between the United States and the Cherokee, Choctaw, and the Creek Indians were negotiated, settlers traveling by land into or through the Mississippi Territory typically followed one of several primary Indian paths/trails. It was not until 1807 that the first wagon road from St. Stephens, on the Tombigbee, to Natchez, was located and opened…(Claiborne, p. 263).”
The Three-Chopped Way was reportedly established in 1807 and connected Natchez with St. Stephens east to Burnt Corn. While not clearly documented, apparently the Three Chopped Way was incorporated into the Federal Road by 1811.
There was also a trail running from Mobile, which intersected with the Three Chopped Way/Federal Road. It was this road that Andrew Jackson and his men took from Mobile to New Orleans in late 1814. “Gattins” Ferry on the Chickasawhay was located approximately ten miles north of where the Chickasawhay and Leaf join to form the Pascagoula River. General Jackson’s troops crossed the Chickasawhay at Gallins Ferry on Nov. 25.
General Jackson’s aide, Major Howell Tatum, who kept a detailed account of the expedition, did not mention any settlements along the route the troops encountered on their march from Mobile to New Orleans. Based on Major Tatum’s account of the Chickasawhay and Leaf River crossings, the first may have been where the Roberts’ Ferry operated prior to and during the Civil War. The latter crossing could well have been where the community of Leaf, also known as Salem, is located. Leaf was originally settled in 1847 and is located six miles south of McLain.
Two descendants of early families who settled in the area of “Lower Greene” County, Tommy Brown and Joe James, graciously took this author on a short hike behind what was originally the Pine Grove Methodist Episcopal (M.E.) Church (currently the Pine Grove Missionary Baptist Church). This property lies where the Vernal River Road and Ford James Road intersect. They pointed out an old, sunken roadbed, which they understood, from local lore, to be part of the old Jackson Military Road.
However, upon further research on the matter, the “official” Jackson Military Road passed through Wayne County north of Greene, then on to New Orleans. Based on the location of the old roadbed behind the church and cemetery, it is more likely that it served as part of the Federal Road General Jackson and his troops traveled between Mobile and New Orleans in 1814. This stretch of roadbed is also located in close proximity to where the Mobile-Natchez and Federal Roads would have intersected. The area surrounding this intersection would become the Vernal Community with one of the three post offices in Greene County in 1846.
The Federal Census for 1830 recorded a total population of 1,854 for Greene County. A very modest increase in total population was recorded in the 1850 Federal Census of 2,018. How many of these two totals represented slaves were not delineated, although there were a few Greene County settlers who were known to have slaves.
Part III in this series pertaining to Greene County history will take a look at the population dispersion of the early settlers. Some of the earliest towns/villages and communities where they tended to congregate will be located and described.
Great article! I grew up in the Bexley community and descended from the Ball family and knew none of this history. Wish I had asked more questions.