You, me and a skiff in the current of the Pearl
Just thinking out loud, what would one see if he drifted with the Pearl River current beginning at what is now NASA’s Stennis Space site. More than likely, he would drift slowly south, as the Pearl drains hundreds, maybe thousands, of square miles north of that point; while somewhat tidal, there is normally a flow downriver. The water up this high is fresh, and history records that it was once clear.
I would ask that my companion would try not to see anything recently created, but to think only of what came before.
A viewer would look to his left as he drifts; i.e. to the east. To the west is a vast flat marsh and swamp, which includes the dense Honey Island. Maybe there were tall trees there on the west side one day, but no longer. It was the eastern bank where the pioneers made their presence known, where they built towns – towns that no longer exist except in name and memories. The cemeteries live on.
When distance is approximated, it should be considered that all we have to offer is “road” miles; the bends back and forth in the river cannot be estimated.
Sections of what follows have been borrowed from other writings, some by Dr. Marco Giardino, others in joint effort with this writer.
At the western edge of Stennis is a lovely bluff. One must abstract away from the huge structures of the test site and its many private contractors and imagine that time has gone backwards. An employ of a “willing suspension of disbelief” makes it possible to really see the bluff and the cypress swamps across from it for their beauty.
It is high ground, and thus was a settlement made there, which became the town of Gainesville. A Spanish land grant was made to Dr. Ambrose Gaines in 1810 for 500 arpents on the Pearl. The grant was issued by John V. Morales and confirmed by William Crawford, U.S. Commisioner. Gaines appears in early tax rolls of the county as having 500 acres. In the years 1819 to 1821, according to those records, he had one slave.
Gainesville was a thriving community during the early and middle 19th century. It received its own post office in 1840. In 1846, a bill was introduced in the Mississippi Legislature to move the Hancock County courthouse from Shieldsboro to Gainesville, a reason being given that “Gainesville citizens have to travel 25 to 30 miles over a bad road.” While it served as county seat, an unfortunate fire destroyed the courthouse and its records in 1853.
In its heyday, the town shared early Pearl River trade with Pearlington and Logtown. On two days of the week, steamers visited the town. Mississippi being “dry” floating barrooms across the river on the Louisiana side served the town workers.
The Gainesville Advocate was published from April 8, 1845 to May 9, 1846. A cursory reading reveals a city bustling with business. Ads for hotels, stores, a dancing school, and various services are in evidence.
In its final edition, the editor did not shy from pointing out the merits of the area. “This is a section of Mississippi which has been much overlooked and greatly underrated by those abroad, and superficial observers at home. Its geographical position is enough at once to establish the value of its importance, both for agricultural and commercial purposes.” He boasted of “…the finest of fruit, such as the fig, the peach, the orange and the lemon, all of which flourish here in voluptuous luxuriance…. The extensive forests of matchless timber of various kinds, has for a long time afforded a profitable investment of capital and labor to a large portion of the citizens. This application of industry may be pursued to an indefinite extent, as the quantity of timber is almost inexhaustible…. There are in the trade between this place and New Orleans, three fine steamboats running regularly for the transportation of passengers and produce. The country on Pearl River, with its mild and salubrious climate, offers its beautiful villages convenient and helthy (sic) retreats to the inhabitants of the city, during the sultry and sickly season of the summer.”
Benjamin Wailes passed through Gainesville in 1852. He observed a very large steam sawmill, commenting that the site was at the head of tidewater. Overall, he thought the town “not as handsome as Napoleon.”
No structures remain of the towns south of Stennis until one reaches Pearlington. All such had to be removed under the easement owned by the federal government and surrounding the test site.
Napoleon – about three miles downriver
Named for the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, this village lay just south of Gainesville. It was first settled in 1798 by Simon Favre, whose father had received a grant from the Spanish government. This was a smaller community compared to Gainesville and Logtown, and like the latter, it is survived by a lovely cemetery. When still a town, its people also engaged in the timber industry, and practiced agriculture and stock raising as well. Lately, we have found that brickmaking was also part of their economy.
Simon Favre’s father, John Claudius, was the previous owner. He transferred this parcel to his son, who is believed to have built the first house and store at Napoleon, the store eventually becoming the back of the Napoleon Baptist church. According to the WPA, it was near two large oaks and one large cedar tree. Simon eventually owned at least three sections of land along the Pearl.
Benjamin Wailes, not one to bestow idle compliments, considered the town “handsome.” Like Gainesville, Napoleon also has a beautiful bluff, dropping almost straight down to the river. In front to the bluff is a lovely island with a stand of tall cypress. Wailes wrote in his journal that it was first called Pearltown. The origin of this name comes from the accounts of Iberville that the Indians found pearls in the clam shells here, and proffered a bag of then to Bienville.
The first printing press in Hancock County is said to have been located here.
According to a legend involving Napoleon, his brother Jerome came to America to enlist help in rescuing the Emperor from exile. Supposedly, Jerome had landed at Waveland. The story includes a tale of buried treasure somewhere around the settlement later called Napoleon.
The line of vision may be too obscured for one to see past the high land and forests on the river’s banks, but if a person could project past them he would see Devil’s Swamp. That is where the Choctaws hid out during Indian Removal of the Jackson years, and where the Koch boys escaped conscription by the Rebel army – escaped, up to a point, anyway.
Possum Walk – about two more miles
Drifting under the Interstate 10 high-rise over the Pearl will bring one out of his musings for a little while, but then comes the site of Possum Walk. It might be recognized by the sight of a large pile of shells at the river’s edge just downstream. There might be a depression visible also. That would be Bogue Homa, Choctaw for Red Bayou. That waterway is virtually dry now, but it figures into the story of the Koch family, told of elsewhere, under the category “Pioneers.”
Parallel to the main road leading into Logtown, the bayou separated Possum Walk, a community of black workers separated from the white area of homesteaders and workers at the Weston mill.
It is therefore immediately adjacent to Logtown.
Logtown – just past Possum Walk
An observer cannot miss the high area with some chunks of concrete and rusted iron, still visible, rising high above water level. This ruin is atop an ancient shell midden, essentially a garbage heap of a long ago established settlement of prehistoric peoples. The midden is of such proportions that it became, in the 19th century, the foundation for the main part of the Weston mill.
The leftover ruins were simply too strong to be removed when the town was razed. They are all that remains of the mill, which indeed at one time had the appearance of a city all to itself. There were large buildings and high smokestacks, workers quarters and plant equipment, a railroad and piles of huge logs.
It was here that Joseph Chalon received a grant in 1788 from the French for 1200 acres. The site was known as Cabanage Latanier. Early on, a town began to develop to harvest the vast groves of pine and cypress.
Logtown became the location of the Weston sawmill, according to some the largest sawmill in the world. Horatio Weston had two mills built with slave labor and employed 1200 men. The first mill, begun in 1845, was in operation for almost a century.
Judge David R.Wingate owned the mill before Weston. It stood at the confluence of Bogue Homa and the Pearl. Wingate sold this enterprise in 1854 to John Russ and the Carre’ brothers, who eventually sold their shares to Weston. It eventually became the largest mill in Logtown.
At its peak, Logtown contained a population of about 3,000. The town boasted of a hotel, a swimming pool, a large commissary “which sold everything from ladie’s hats to coffins.” In its later days, Logtown supported an eight-grade school, a grocery, two churches, a Masonic Lodge, a post office and its own telephone exchange.
The Weston mill closed in 1930. Like Gainesville, it suffered the loss of its timber, once said to be inexhaustible by important people like W.C.C. Claiborne and by DeBow’s Review. Before Logtown was closed down, less than 25 families remained.
The Koch home was located near Logtown, just up Bogue Homa. Dating back to about 1840, the original rooms were made of logs. The kitchen floor had timbers thirty inches wide and several inches thick. The source had been a flat boat that had come down the Pearl.
Still in use and a lasting memorial to the town is the Logtown cemetery. It is beautifully maintained by the former townspeople.
7.Pearlington – another 3 to 5 miles
Unlike the above towns, Pearlington still exists as a town, although many of its early houses, an historic church and other structures were removed by hurricane Katrina. It remains picturesque, its ancient oaks lining the main road, but only a shadow of its nineteenth century vitality.
Altough Pearlington is considereded to have been founded as a town about 1819, its cemetery at one time had gates from the 18th century. They were stolen by vandals and never returned.
Reading the cemetery markers is like going through a litany of the saints of Hancock County.
In 1819, the land was acquired by General George Nixon from Isaac Graves. The latter had received his title from Celeste Favre, who had settled there in 1812 with her husband Simon Favre. After Favre’s death, Celeste married Graves.
It was the first high ground encountered when ascending the Pearl. It was platted on a formal basis, a grid with five main streets and ten cross streets. Thus were delineated 55 squares and 550 lots.
While it differs from its neighbors up the Pearl in that it is an extant community, it has shared their fate in other ways. William J. Orr, writing of his ancestors of Pearlington, states, “The surrounding area, once covered with thousands of acres of towering virgin yellow and long leaf pine, is now covered by second and third growth pine and hardwood trees. The only remaining virgin pines are those that once graced the yards of old time residents.”
Referring to early nineteenth century as “in those days,” John Claiborne compared Shieldsboro to Pearlington. The former was “but a small village with no commerce, resorted to merely as a summer retreat.” Pearlington, on the other hand, “…was the commercial point. It had been laid out on a metropolitan scale, covering, I believe, near a section of land, and it had been visited by the legislature, then sitting in Columbia, in 1821, who were sumptuously entertained, and went away with the most favorable impressions.”
According to Danish seaman Christian Koch, Pearlington of the early 1830’s was “a small, insignificant town.” Koch, of course, was comparing the fledgling village to cities he had seen in his travels. “The only trade is in wood and cotton with New Orleans. There is no church so there is service only twice a year when a Methodist preacher comes from another town and holds services for three or four days. The town is situated on the north side of the river in the midst of a large pine forest owned mostly by the government. Although everyone can cut as much wood as he likes, still it is pretty expensive. Marriages are always performed by the sheriff, who is the only officer in the place. The Negro children are never christened, and there is a big fine for teaching one of them to read. Some of them preach to others, but it is always some terrible nonsense.”
In 1852, Wailes observed two large steam mills being erected, and noted an academy for boys and girls. Mixing his critical sensibilities with practical appraisal, he said of Pearlington that it was “a scattering and dingy French looking village on another bluff within eight miles of the mouth of the River, with the salt marsh on the opposite side and extending down to the lake. This is said to be the best and most accessible harbour in the State, with a fair depth of water.”
Other sources indicate that in 1852, there were already eight lumber mills in operation. In addition to its lumber industry, Pearlington was also known to be a major cotton depot in pre-war days. It was sometimes called “the Gin,” referring to a cotton ginning operation at Simon Favre’s farm.
Publius Rutilius Rufus Pray
Important early settlers made their home at Pearlington, including the noted attorney Publius Rutilius Rufus Pray.
One of the most celebrated jurists of Mississippi, Pray lived for years in Pearlington. He served in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1827 to 1829. In 1832, he was president of the State Constitutional Convention. Five years later, he was elected judge of the High Court of Errors and Appeals.
Born in Massachusetts in 1793, he married his cousin Maria Learned of Maine in 1820. Both came from a long line of English settlers in New England, tracing their ancestry back as early as the “second ship” in 1621. In the1820’s, Pray and his wife moved to Pearlington. He accomplished much, but died young, at age 46 in 1839.
He and Maria had a number of children, some of whom died early. Of four who survived to maturity, son Rufus Otis Pray married Sarah Hamlin Daniell in 1842. After the death of Publius Pray, Maria married Lewis Daniells, the father of her daughter-in-law. Eugenia Amelia Pray married her first cousin once removed, Charles Walker Daniell of New Orleans, son of Josiah Daniell, who was the brother of Judge Lewis Daniell and Robert Daniell of Hancock County.
Wealth was often protected and preserved by such closeness, in those days as in the days of kings and nobles.
It was not until 1846 that an Administrator’s Sale announcement appeared in the Gainesville newspaper with regard to the Pray estate. The administrator was Samuel White. He advertised several parcels of land, listing first a tract of 401 acres near Pearlington, known as the “Gin Place.” There was also a half section on the Turtleskin Creek, and another half section on the Irishman’s branch, which were located within four miles of Gainesville. Lastly, there was half a lot in the town of Pearlington.
From the Eastern States Federal Land Grant database we have the location of five Hancock County Federal land grants made to Pray, although strangely they are all dated after his death in 1839, one as late as 1851.
General George Nixon
A prominent military personality of Pearlington was General George Nixon who moved from South Carolina to Mississippi territory in 1809. He fought in the Creek war and the War of 1812, and served as a state senator. He also was a member of the first state constitutional convention. He died in Pearlington in 1824, his grave and that of his wife being prominent in the old Pearlington cemetery.
According to local tradition, Nixon was an ancestor of President Richard Nixon. While this does not seem to be so, it may well be that he was a collateral ancestor, as there were in fact three George Nixons in the President’s direct lineage, but the general was not one on them.
Detour – Mulatto Bayou – perhaps eight miles
After drifting under the Highway 90 bridge below Pearlington, there will be a dog-leg turn of the river, first to the N/E, and then to the S/E. Just past that point is a confluence. As Yogi Berra has advised, when you come to a fork in the road (river), take it. In this case, one may have to paddle, row, or use an outboard, as the next destination is up Mulatto Bayou.
Here is found the Hancock County Port and Harbor, but that is the stuff of modern times. To return to pondering the past, one must be ready to receive fascinating information about this deeply historical area.
Two major plantations bordered the east side of the bayou. They were Laurel Wood, owned by JFH Claiborne, and Clifton, owned first by Judge Daniels and then by Andrew Jackson Jr.
John F. H. Claiborne, Mississippi’s most prominent historian, lived here during the middle of the 19th century. He grew cotton, traded slaves, wrote books, and spied for the Union during the Civil War.
As much as has already been written about John Claiborne, no attempt is made here to completely profile him. What follows is a backdrop of his life and activities in order to understand his experiences in Hancock County, where he moved after reaching middle age.
John Claiborne was born of a famous father, General Ferdinand Claiborne, who had been commander of the Southern wing of the Army during the Creek War and one time Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, John Claiborne was also the nephew of W. C.C. Claiborne, governor of the Mississippi Territory and of Louisiana.
John Claiborne too had ventured into politics, on both the state and federal levels. As a young congressman, he was a member of the lower house from 1835 to 1838. During his tenure, he was in the middle of considerable controversy, and was not reelected in 1838. Moreover, because of his staunch defense of the government and the Choctaws against the fraudulent actions by land speculators, he made many powerful enemies.
Having suffered many disappointments and being in poor health, Claiborne changed lifestyles and in 1849and bought Laurel Wood Plantation. The manor house, according to some records, was built by Francois Saucierwith slave labor 1800.
The house was a raised, handsome one, with a belvedere. A New Orleans artist had decorated its walls with murals. Unfortunately, it was razed in the early 1960’s. Some local inhabitants of Hancock County still remember what appeared to have been a slave prison under the raised house. Lang, citing a WPA report, states, “… the small house with pitched tin roof was supported by high brick piers joined by iron bars to hold Negroes brought ashore from slave ships in the early days of the century. Slave quarters were located to the rear of the main structure.”
Claiborne’s enterprise as a planter was successful. By 1861, with the help of 100 slaves, “he was out of debt and had an annual income of $6,000.” His cotton production averaged 800 pounds per acre. Earlier, the New Orleans Picayune had reported enthusiastically, “We yesterday examined the sample of 22 bales of Sea Island cotton, sold in this city a few days since. This cotton was grown upon the plantation of Col. J.F.H. Claiborne and Major Andrew Jackson, on Pearl River, Hancock County, Mississippi, and was sold at the handsome price of 35, 40, and 44 cents, 16 bales bringing 40 cents per pound; the whole consignment of 22 bales netting to the enterprising planters something over $2250, after deducting freight, commissions, and all other charges.”
Sea Island cotton was a cash crop in Hancock County. It had a special, long-fiber, much in demand, but it could not be grown in cooler climates just up the Mississippi and Pearl rivers.
If Claiborne’ character appears fairly consistent in the foregoing, it was during the Civil War years that he divided his activities, if not his allegiance, between the Union and the Confederacy. Considering his devotion to Mississippi and to a son who fought for and was ultimately to die for the Confederacy, his clandestine support of the Union is surprising. In truth, he walked both sides of the road, and might have been motivated strongly to safeguard his own security by duplicitous actions. For example, he resigned his United States appointment as timber agent, but accepted a commission to administer oaths and acknowledge deeds for the Confederate government in southern Mississippi. This was August 1861. But by the next year, if not before, he was engaged in heavy correspondence with Major General Nathaniel Banks, who commanded New Orleans for the Union.
There were benefits to Claiborne. Even during the blockade of the Civil War, he was able to get his cotton through.
Having received a payment from the state of Tennessee in 1856, Jackson Jr. made his first purchase in Hancock County in December of that year. This was the Clifton plantation, for which he paid $8,525. It was comprised of 647 acres, a working plantation next to Judge Claiborne’s Laurel Wood Plantation. The heirs of Judge Lewis Daniells, who had died earlier that year, sold Clifton. Like Claiborne’s Laurel Wood, this plantation too grew sea island cotton.
In quick succession, Jackson bought two other spreads the Russ place, which is now Buccaneer Park, and the Mitchell Place, not far away from Clifton. While the price of the third site was less than for the others ($2,760), it was the largest at 1,920 acres, fully three square miles. The seller was James Mitchell, who had married one of the daughters of Lewis Daniells and had participated in the December sale of Clifton. In addition to these three major sites, Jackson bought two minor properties, one of 40 acres and the other of 80 acres. As in the transactions for Clifton and the Russ place, Claiborne was intimately involved. On March 17, 1857, he receipted the draft and two notes tendered by Jackson, with the commitment that they would be handed over to Mitchell upon the completion of an agreement.
Jackson lost these properties in a sheriff’s sale after the Civil War.
Much more on the Jackson Jr. family appears in other articles on this site.
Cedarland and Claiborne Archaeological Sites
Early prehistoric people occupied the sites of the Claiborne and Jackson plantations. These are known as Cedarland, a mound made primarily of oyster shells, and Claiborne, of clam shell. Millions of shells, deposited over centuries by natives several millennia ago. But they contained more than shell: at Cedarland there was evidence of gar, bowfin, bass, and gaspergou, as well as turtles and snakes, alligators and frogs.
It is a horseshoe shaped midden, measuring 229 yard in outer diameter.
Rising high above the level of Mulatto Bayou, the Claiborne site once had even more clamshells than can be found today. It is known that many cubic yards now form a foundation underneath the streets of New Orleans. One might try to imagine the loss of artifacts when the removal was done many years before there was knowledge of the importance of this site. Today, it is accepted that it was part of the Poverty Point culture, in northeast Louisiana. This is dated at least to 1500 BC.
The Claiborne midden, like Cedarland, is also horseshoe shaped, but larger: 280 yards in diameter. It is felt that the latter came first, and that Claiborne was a recolonizing of Cedarland.
It is also possible that Claiborne predates Poverty Point, on the theory that settlers came up through the Gulf of Mexico and settled first on the Mulatto Bayou, before migrating northward.
Claiborne is rich in artifacts. Bones of birds show that turkeys were eaten, as well as the sandhilll crane. Also in evidence were the remains of dog, rabbit, and deer.
Drifting by, an observer can see a midden that rises high above Mulatto Bayou. That is a shell heap at what used to be Clifton Plantation. When he was having financial troubles, Andrew Jackson Jr. tried to sell part of it for street paving in New Orleans. In a casual, shallow probing with an ice pick on top of that midden, Marco Giardino once showed me a fish skeleton that looked as though it had just come off a hungry man’s plate.
Clifton’s riches date back to about 1500 BC. Nearby a massive earthwork stands tall over the parallel borrow pit. Elongated, it measures 1500 feet and has a bend in it. There are few artifacts, and while it is thought to have been possibly a ceremonial center, it is still a mystery.
Reliable stories are still told of large funeral urns having been removed from the bayou’s shores for the purpose of private collection.
Now resuming a float down the bayou, one’s mind will be returned to the recent past – to the 19th century again, almost like yesterday after Cedarland and Claiborrne. It is only a ruin now, the Baldwin Manor. At one time it was the fishing and entertainment lodge of a New Orleans man, Albert Baldwin, Sr., who had made a fortune in hardware during the Civil War. He had his own steam-powered boat with which to bring his guests to his palatial estate. All that remains are only the front steps and a swimming pool.
Pea Island – at the river’s mouth
This is the old name, by which I prefer to call it, as it was so christened by Iberville in 1699. It seems his crew had lost a sack of peas there and it may be assumed that the explorer was not amused. It is on today’s maps called Pearl River Island. Whatever its name, its chief importance in our history lies in the fact that it was a transfer point used by the British in December 1814, when troops were being sneaked into the back door of New Orleans before the decisive defeat by Andrew Jackson and his motley crew.
Along with their regulars, the British had brought troops from the Caribbean, where they had stopped to have barges built for the invasion. Unfortunately for those black troops, who had never experienced freezing, rainy weather, they died of exposure on the spot. It is doubtful that the British, after their rout, collected their bodies before returning to their ships.
Pea Island looks like nothing more than a marsh island with a railroad track, but it may also be a cemetery.
Battle of Lake Borgne
Floating out of the mouth of the waterway, our skiff enters Lake Borgne. This was the locus of a naval battle before British troops were ferried to Pea Island and then to St. Bernard Parish. It was not a happy battle for us, as the British barges blew our five ships out of the water.
But that was just the beginning of the hostilities. History records the rest.
With a little luck, our small boat should be able to resume drifting, as the Pearl will push it into the Sound, and from there the Gulf Stream, flowing from west to east, should take the boat to Bay St. Louis.
Well, maybe a little more than a little luck.