…getting hands dirty for fun and history
We spent three glorious days digging at the site of the old Poitevent mansion in the heart of the historic section of what used to be Gainesville. The weather was not as warm as usual for May and the breeze blew most of the time. NASA keeps the area pristine, and so we did not have to cut our way through a wilderness. Thanks to your tax dollars at work.
Not even a problem with bugs.
Gainesville was a town founded about 1810 on a beautiful bluff overlooking the Pearl River. At one time, it was the county seat for Hancock County, but lost that distinction to Bay St. Louis later. While Gainesville still held that job, a fire in 1853 burned the courthouse there and all its records, making it difficult to research the period prior to that.
The town was at one time a bustling one, with lumbering being a major industry. There was the Poitevent-Favre mill there, which I believe was the largest mill on the Pearl at the time. Thousands of board feet of lumber were produced there and at places downriver, like Logtown and Napoleon. Some towns were also important ports for ship building and the shipping of cotton from upriver. Some of these communities had to be disbanded and the buildings razed after 1960, when NASA took over the area to build the Stennis plant.
For a while in the 1840’s, there was a newspaper called the Gainesville Advocate, the microfilm of which I was able to have our library secure a few years ago. From its pages we can learn a lot about the daily operation of the court, the restaurants and coffee houses, and even the dance school.
There are other sources of information too. For example, our historical society has a copy of a daily journal kept by a couple of ladies of the Russ family. They had crossed over to Hancock from the Carolinas in the 1820’s, possibly in a kind of wagon train. They were relatives of Asa and Samuel Russ who had preceded them and were being successful. Probably relatively wealthy, they had come with their slaves and had bought several pieces of land during the period of Indian removal.
Of Particular interest to this dig was the mention in the journal that on a Sunday morning, February 21 (the year is not clear) W. Poitevent “ran away with the cart and broke it to pieces it was repaired and all started again. We passed through a miserable swamp. The cart broke down and we were obliged to stop travelled 15 miles—.” [sic]
This was the same William Poitevent who by the Civil War had become one of the most successful planters and politicians in the county. We have a photo of his home on the bluff; it was of the classical plantation type, two stories with eight columns across the front. We believe our dig site was probably in the area of the outbuildings.
Of special interest to me is the fact that Eliza Poitevent was born there in 1849. Just before Katrina, I had received approval for a historical marker for a Waveland home that was known as “Fort Nicholson.” This had been the summer home of a lady who was far ahead of her time. The daughter of William Poitevent, she first achieved a bit of fame as a very young poet, eventually to write under the nom de plume of Pearl Rivers. She had been invited to go to New Orleans as a young woman to write for the struggling Times-Picayune.
This in itself was a scandal in those days. But go, she did, and soon married the publisher, whose name was Nicholson. When he died she inherited the Picayune, but was advised to collapse it because its finances were in distress. She went to work, however, in innovative ways, creating such reader attractions as a scandal column.
The bottom line improved. Eliza had begun the start of a long period of being the publisher of a major newspaper. A glance at today’s mast head on the editorial page shows that her tenure lasted from 1867 to 1898, with her estate succeeding her for another 18 years. Later, her son was publisher from 1918 to 1952.
We did not find anything spectacular in the dig. There were, however, numerous artifacts of the era, including rusted, square nails, broken glass, and some pieces of transfer ware. From earlier days there were a few flakes from the manufacture of projectile points by prehistoric Indians, as well as the tooth or claw from a large animal, perhaps a big cat or a bear.
But there were also a couple of pieces of porcelain dolls, an arm from one and a head from another. To me, this was exciting, as I wondered whether they had been played with by little Eliza as a child. After doing the research on her career a few years ago and having read some of the poems of Pearl Rivers, I want to believe it was so.