Mississippi Highlights

In History


Note:  The following contains information obtained exclusively from the pamphlet Mississippi  July 4, 1976, the Mississippi Celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution.  Sponsored by Friends of Jefferson College, Inc., Mississippi American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Natchez Bicentennial Committee, Natchez Historical Society.  Jefferson College, Washington, Mississippi, July 4, 1976.  The information herein is contingent upon the year 1976.  Officials and administrative policies, organizations, and other facts have most certainly changed in whole, or in part, since this pamphlet was printed, but that information has not been altered in this document.



Mississippi American Revolution Bicentennial Commission




The Mississippi American Revolution Bicentennial Commission was created by Senate Concurrent Resolution 545, Laws of 1972.  This resolution designates the Mississippi Department of Archives and History as the executive agency of the Commission and is responsible for the preparation and execution of a bicentennial program for the state.  Dr. R.A. McLemore, director of the Department from 1969 to 1973, served as the first executive director of the Commission.  Mr. Elbert R. Hilliard, who succeeded Dr. McLemore as director of the Department in 1973, has continued to serve as executive director of the Commission since that time.  Judge J.P. Coleman served as first chairman of the Commission.  Upon his resignation he was succeeded by Secretary of State Heber Ladner, who presently serves as chairman.  The Governor of the State is ex-officio chairman of the Commission.  Director of the Mississippi American Revolution Bicentennial Commission is Mr. Perry Snyder, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.



Mississippi Department of Archives and History


The Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the second oldest department of its kind in the United States, was established in 1902 to collect, preserve, and make available materials bearing upon the history of the state from the earliest times to the present.


The Department, now housed in the Archives and History Building, Jackson, is the central clearing house for historical activities in Mississippi, and directs a broad professional program through its five divisions:  Archives and Library, Museum, Historic Sites and Archaeology, Information and Education, and Mississippi American Revolution Bicentennial Commission.  The Department is under the control of a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees, and is administered by a director elected by the Board.



Historic Jefferson College


Historic Jefferson College is located six miles east of Natchez in the town of Washington, which served as the capital of the Mississippi Territory from 1802 to 1817.  It was incorporated as the first educational institutional in Mississippi by the Territorial Legislature in May 1802.  Because the Legislature failed to appropriate sufficient funds it was not until 1811 that the school was able to open, and then, only as a preparatory academy.  The campus includes the site of the Methodist church where delegates from all sections of the Mississippi Territory met in 1817 at the first State Constitutional Convention.  In 1818 the first permanent structure, the east wing, was built to accommodate college-level instruction.  The three decades following the completion of the east wing marked a high point in the history of Jefferson College.  During this time the faculty included such men as John James Audubon, ornithologist and artist, and Leonard Gale, author of college textbooks in chemistry and assistant to Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph.  During this period there were students who would later make names for themselves as scholars and statesmen.  Men such as Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; Albert Gallatin Brown, governor and United States Senator; John F.H. Claiborne and Benjamin L.C. Wailes, noted historians, were all students at Jefferson College.  The school was the focal point for the cultural and intellectual life of the young state of Mississippi.  In 1838 the west wing was constructed and two kitchens were built behind it.  The President’s House, on the southeast corner of the campus, was acquired.  The intellectual activities at Jefferson College culminated in this expansion of the college’s physical plan and its program, so that the institution entered the 1840s as a full-fledged institution of higher learning.


The nineteenth century buildings of Historic Jefferson College are currently being selectively restored to their mid-nineteenth century appearance by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, with the assistance of the Jefferson College Advisory Committee and Friends of Jefferson College, Inc.  The restoration project is funded by the Mississippi State Legislature and an historic preservation grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Exhibits interpreting the history of the college and its surrounding area are planned.



Mississippi: Exploration to Statehood  1540-1817


1540: DeSoto enters Mississippi

1541: DeSoto discovers the Mississippi River

1682: LaSalle descends the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico

1699: Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, establishes the first colony on Mississippi Soil at Fort Maurepas, now Ocean Springs

1700: Iberville, Bienville, and Tonti ascend the Mississippi to the present site of Natchez

1716: Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, French Governor of Louisiana, builds Fort Rosalie where the City of Natchez now stands

1762: France cedes New Orleans and territory west of the Mississippi to Spain

1763: By treaty with France, West Florida, including Mississippi Territory south of 31st parallel, becomes an English province

1764: The King of England extends the boundaries of West Florida north to the mouth of the Yazoo, thus including the Mississippi settlements

1775: Revolution of American colonies begins.  British West Florida remains loyal to the Crown

1778: The Continental Congress grants to American soldier James Willing authority to descend the Mississippi and secure the neutrality of the colonies                                                            at Natchez, Bayou Pierre and other river settlements

1779: The Spanish capture Baton Rouge from the English, who surrender West Florida, including Fort Panmure at Natchez and the Natchez District

1797: The United States takes formal possession of Natchez

1798: April 7.  The Congress creates the Territory of Mississippi with bounds including the present State of Alabama

1817: July 7.  The Constitutional Convention opens its session at Washington, Mississippi Territory, with forty-seven delegates representing fourteen counties.  A state constitution is adopted on August 15

1817: December 10.  Act of Congress admits Mississippi as twentieth state in the Union



Mississippi and the American Revolution


By Robert V. Haynes


At the time of the American Revolution the two small settlements in Mississippi inhabited by white men were part of the British Province of West Florida.  The settlements in Mississippi were on the Gulf Coast and in the Natchez area, and the settlers were, by and large, loyal to the Crown.  Far from the momentous events of the eastern seaboard, the Natchez district would have felt only faint repercussions of the epic struggle, had it not been for the daring raid of James Willing and his band of Americans down the Mississippi River in 1778.


When the Revolution broke out in 1775, England had finally overcome the French challenge to her control of North America.  By the Treaty of Paris in 1763 that part of Mississippi south of the 31st parallel became an English province, known as British West Florida.  In 1764 the King of England extended the boundaries of British West Florida north to the mouth of the Yazoo River, thus including the Natchez settlements.  England, burdened with a large public debt, began to pass a series of laws designed to raise revenue from the colonies.  When the American colonists demonstrated their resistance to the tax on tea by dumping it into the Boston Harbor, England was furious.  Faced with what they considered unfair taxation without representation, the Americans had to submit or resist.  They chose resistance, and when American minutemen met British redcoats at Lexington on the way to Concord, fighting broke out and the American Revolution was on.  On July 2, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress declared to “an interested world” that “these United States are and of a right ought to be free and independent.”  Two days later, July 4, 1776, they publicly released the document known today as the Declaration of Independence.


In comparison to most eastern communities, Natchez was a new settlement.  Before the late 1760s, the eastern bank of the lower Mississippi Valley was inhabited almost exclusively by Indians, who had hunted the region for decades.  Beginning in 1768, the government of British West Florida which also exercised political control over this area, began issuing extensive land grants to settlers as well as the English speculators.  At first the region grew at a surprisingly slow pace.  During the 1770s, however, settlers began arriving in increasing numbers and by 1775, there were approximately 2,500 inhabitants along the eastern bank of the Mississippi between Walnut Hills (modern Vicksburg) and Manchac on the Iberville River.  The outbreak of the American Revolution led to a noticeable increase in settlers as large numbers of Tories, fleeing patriot fury, sought refuge in the districts of Natchez and Manchac.  Because of the exceptionally fertile nature of the soil around Natchez, most of the newcomers settled there, and the population of Natchez more than doubled during the revolution.


The inhabitants of Natchez might have escaped the ravages of the American Revolution, which was what most of them wanted, had it not been for two important factors.  The first of these was the closeness of their settlement to Spanish Louisiana, and the other was Willing’s Raid.  Since 1763, Spain had possessed the important port of New Orleans and had fortified the west bank of the Mississippi as far north as St. Louis.  Although the Spanish government refused at first openly to embrace the American Revolution, her officials welcomed any opportunity to embarrass the British and to weaken their position in the New World.  Meanwhile, the new Republic of the United States of America was seeking allies and assistance wherever it could find them.  Although France was the principal source of aid to Americans, Spain almost from the beginning of the conflict offered some valuable assistance to the United States.  One of the main channels through which Spain extended help was New Orleans and the Mississippi River.  This arrangement was largely the work of Oliver Pollock, an American merchant residing in New Orleans, and the Spanish governors of Louisiana, first Luis de Unzaga and later Bernardo de Galvez.  Pollock acted as commercial agent not only for the Continental Congress but also for Governor Patrick Henry and the Commonwealth of Virginia.


The first important fruits of this mutual association were realized in early 1776 when Captain George Gibson and eighteen men came down the Mississippi from Fort Pitt.  Although Governor Unzaga acted with more caution than would his successors, he nonetheless furnished the American visitors with approximately 10,000 pounds of gunpowder.  In an effort to disguise the transactions from the British, Gibson voluntarily submitted to temporary arrest while his chief assistant, Lieutenant William Linn, returned upstream with most of the powder.  He arrived at Fort Pitt with the supplies just in time to save that post and another at Wheeling from falling into enemy hands.  Shortly thereafter, Gibson left by sea for Philadelphia where he planned to inform the Congress of his successful venture.


Meanwhile Pollock was urging his friends in and out of Congress to support an American expedition down the Mississippi River comparable in size and objective to the one launched against Canada during the winter of 1775-1776.  Toward that end, he apparently encouraged his friend James Willing who had resided in the Natchez area since 1772 to return to his previous home in Pennsylvania where he would be in a good position to promote Pollock’s scheme for an American invasion of the Southwest.  By the fall of 1777, Willing was in York, Pennsylvania, where Congress had taken refuge after the British captured Philadelphia.


Even before Willing’s appearance there, the Congress had debated and eventually rejected a recommendation by the Board of War to send an invasion force of 1,500 men under the command of Colonel George Morgan to seize the Mississippi settlements from England.  Disappointed but still determined to see the plan through, Pollock’s supporters in Congress, led by Robert Morris of Pennsylvania and assisted by Willing, persuaded the Secret Committee, which functioned as an executive department, to authorize a small and more secret expedition with some of the same objectives.  To lead this scaled-down version, the committee selected James Willing whose knowledge of the Southwest and whose intimate connections with several leading merchants of Philadelphia made him an ideal choice.


From the beginning Willing’s raid on the Natchez district was shrouded in mystery and the veil of secrecy has never been lifted.  Although the announced purpose of Willing’s southern venture was to bring back five boat-loads of supplies from Louisiana, he was also authorized, unofficially it would seem, to plunder Tory property along the way and dispose of it at public auction at New Orleans.  Nevertheless, Willing’s incursion into the Southwest brought the American Revolution to the doorstep of Natchez.  On January 11, 1778, Captain Willing accompanied by twenty-nine men, including two commissioned officers besides himself and a sergeant, left Fort Pitt in the U.S.S. Rattletrap.  While on his way down first the Ohio River and then the upper reaches of the Mississippi, Willing recruited additional personnel which enlarged his force to some 100 men, ranging in character from dedicated patriots to river riffraff.  By early February, Willing’s party had reached the mouth of the Arkansas River, where he permitted his men to take a brief rest.  Before continuing, Willing split his force in two groups.  He sent an advance contingent ahead while he and the rest of the men followed in close pursuit.  After dark, on the evening of February 18, the advance party, under the command of Lieutenant Thomas McIntire, surprised and captured four British Indian agents who were relaxing at the home of John Watkins, a Walnut Hills planter.


Pausing only long enough to secure their prisoners, McIntire’s men proceeded downstream to Natchez where they landed unopposed on the evening of February 19.  Under previous instructions from Willing, McIntire sent out two small detachments with orders to seize the persons and property of Anthony Hutchins and William McIntosh.  Captain Willing regarded the two planters as the settlement’s leading Tories, and he found them exceedingly obnoxious.  Their apprehension was relatively easy since the Americans had caught the Natchez settlers completely by surprise.  The next day, Willing arrived.  He immediately raised the American flag over the fort at Natchez and sent word to the settlers whom he declared prisoners of the United States “on parole,” to assemble in town.


Frightened by the unexpected appearance of an armed force in their territory, the inhabitants of Natchez authorized four prominent planters to arrange favorable terms of capitulation with Willing in order to avert further disaster.  On February 21, the American captain accepted their offer not to take up arms against the United States or to assist any of its enemies in exchange for his promise to protect their property as long as they remained neutral in the war.  During his brief stay in Natchez, Willing persuaded a number of the settlers who were sympathetic to the American cause to join his force.


Meanwhile, the advance group under McIntire’s command was on its way down the Mississippi with Anthony Hutchins and most of his slaves in custody.  Assisted by a dense early morning fog, these men manages to surprise and capture the Rebecca, an English vessel, anchored to the river bank at Manchac.  After sending out small detachments of men to search the countryside for slaves and property of known Tories, McIntire waited on the appearance of Willing from Natchez and Oliver Pollock’s nephew Thomas from New Orleans.  Further to the North, Willing’s larger force was busy plundering the property of Tories in the Baton Rouge area.  Although a few settlers had some advanced warning of Willing’s approach and managed to escape into Spanish territory, even there most of the inhabitants were taken by surprise.  Before he departed, Willing and his “Troop of Rascals,” as one disgruntled settler described them, left a trail of devastation seldom equaled in the annals of western history.  As another inhabitant expressed it, in somewhat of an exaggerated fashion, there was “nothing to be seen but Destruction and Desolation.”


William Dunbar, perhaps the most prominent planter in the vicinity, was particularly vivid in his description of the havoc wrought by Willing’s men.  “All was fish that came into their nett,” he wrote.  They spared nothing.  They seized “all my waring apparel, bed and table linen,” Dunbar recalled: “not a shirt was left in the house – blankets, pieces of cloth, sugar, silver ware.”


Miraculously, no one was killed, although there were a few narrow escapes.  One British Indian agent was “obliged to fly in his night shirt to the Spanish Fort at Manchac” barely ahead of his determined pursuers.  Rumor had it that the Americans planned to slice Harry Alexander “into a hundred pieces” and to flay Alexander Ross alive when they captured him.  Fortunately both men remained a step in front of Willing’s band.  Although Dunbar and the other victims refused to admit it at the time, Willing was not completely indiscriminate in his choice of victims to plunder.  Those known to be sympathetic to the American cause were spared the same fate met by those who were outspoken British partisans.


While Willing was busy plundering the property of British settlers around Baton Rouge, Oliver Pollock was preparing Governor Galvez for his expected arrival in New Orleans.  Galvez declared Willing’s men refugees and then granted them asylum in Louisiana.  He also permitted them to purchase supplies in New Orleans, including weapons, and extended to Willing the use of several public buildings as barracks for his troops.  Finally, and most important of all, he allowed Willing to dispose of the booty at public auction.  These sales eventually netted the Americans more than $62,000.


Willing’s initial raid on the Mississippi settlements was not the end of it.  From his new base in New Orleans, he sent out additional raiding parties which seized more slaves, the personal effects of planters overlooked during the trip downstream, and several barges and other vessels owned by English “Royalists.”  For instance, they captured the English brig Neptune, loaded with lumber bound for Jamaica and the schooner Dispatch and its cargo of fifty “Picked Negroes” and 100 barrels of flour.


These continued invasions of British territory alarmed Governor Galvez, who feared Great Britain might use them as an excuse for seizing Louisiana.  He grew increasingly anxious for Willing and the other American visitors to leave the province, and he persuaded Pollock to support him in these efforts.  On the other hand, Willing was in no hurry to return to Fort Pitt, and he employed excuse after excuse to delay his departure.  These tactics annoyed Galvez and infuriated Pollock, who was afraid Willing’s extended stay would jeopardize his close relations with the Spanish governor.


Galvez had cause for concern.  Peter Chester, the British governor of West Florida, in response to pleas from the aggrieved inhabitants of Natchez and the other settlements along the Mississippi, sent two frigates to New Orleans.  He ordered the captains of these two ships to demand restoration of all property seized illegally by Willing, and punishment for all those responsible for offenses against British citizens.  For more than two months, the two British ship captains and the Spanish governor traded insults, but Galvez remained firm in his commitment to Pollock and continued to shield Willing and his men from the British threats.  Still the presence of British war ships off the port of New Orleans made him uneasy and desirous for Willing’s early departure.


In addition to blockading the mouth of the Mississippi River and preventing the Americans from leaving by sea, as the two frigates did, the British planned to cut off Willing’s northern escape route as well.  Governor Chester dispatched a small force of Rangers and militiamen to Manchac where they surprised and captured a large number of Americans who were asleep at the time.  About the same time, Anthony Hutchins broke his parole in New Orleans and headed for Natchez with news that Americans intended to plunder the property of planters there as they has those in Baton Rouge.  After rallying a few of his old friends to his side, he planned to ambush Captain Reuben Harrison and the Americans at White Cliffs, some fifteen miles south of Natchez.  John Tally, a resident in the area and an enemy of Hutchins, uncovered the plot and warned Harrison ahead of time.  Harrison sent Tally back to inform Hutchins and the other inhabitants of Natchez that he was coming in peace and not to plunder and rob them.  But Hutchins and a handful of his supporters remained unconvinced of Harrison’s peaceful intentions.  When the Americans reached the White Cliffs, both sides eyed each other suspiciously, and someone fired.  Before the shooting ended, Harrison and three of his men were dead, and the rest of the Americans had surrendered.  Natchez was again in British hands while Willing and his men were trapped in New Orleans.


With both ends of the Mississippi River closed to them, the Americans obtained from Governor Galvez a promise of safe conduct through Spanish Territory.  The majority of Willing’s men left New Orleans in August 1778 and marched overland through Louisiana to Fort Kaskaskia in the Illinois country where they joined Colonel George Rogers Clark’s western army.  Willing left for Philadelphia in October on board a private sloop which was overtaken at sea by the British.  He was eventually sent to New York where he remained a prisoner until exchanged for a British officer in September of 1781.


The ease by which Willing and his men had descended the Mississippi River taught the British an important lesson.  No longer would they leave the “flourishing settlements” along the eastern bank exposed to attack and unprotected by soldiers.  In early 1779, Major General John Campbell arrived in West Florida from Jamaica with 1,200 fresh troops.  Most of the reinforcements consisted of German mercenaries from the province of Waldeck and American loyalists from Maryland and Pennsylvania.  Although General Campbell assigned most of his troops to Pensacola and Mobile to protect the two valuable ports from attack, he dispatched about 400 of them to the Mississippi frontier.  He advised Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Dickson, commander of the western forces, to erect a fort at or near Mancnac and to repair Fort Panmure at Natchez.


Progress in fortifying the Mississippi moved at a snail’s pace as Dickson encountered problem after problem.  The German mercenaries had difficulty adjusting to the hot and humid climate of the Southwest, and sickness and death took its toll of the men.  Under these conditions, Spanish efforts at encouraging desertion from the British army met with much success.  Dickson faced the added burdens of scarcity of provisions and shortage of funds.  As a fitting climax to his troubles, heavy rains during the late spring and early summer caused the Mississippi to overflow its banks and to flood his camp at Manchac.  In desperation, Dickson abandoned the work at Mancnac and moved his troops to higher ground at Baton Rouge in early September of 1779.


This move came none too soon.  In late June of 1779, Spain declared war against England while refusing to join France in supporting the American Revolution.  Galvez, who received advance notice of Spain’s intentions, rallied the citizens of Louisiana behind him and made preparations to seize British possessions along the Mississippi before Campbell was ready to attack New Orleans.  In other words, Galvez decided that the best defense was a good offense.  He enlisted what men he could, including Indians, French, and German residents of lower Louisiana, free Negroes, and a handful of Americans (one of whom was Oliver Pollock), for the march northward.  A few days before he planned to move his men out of New Orleans, a violent hurricane battered the city and plunged the Spaniards into a state of depression as “everything on the river was under water.”  A lesser man than Galvez would have given up and abandoned the plans.  But the determined Galvez put his men to work cleaning up the debris and repairing the damage.  Within a few days, he was ready to try again.


On the morning of August 27, 1779, Galvez at the head of an army of 667 men set out for Manchac.  Along the way he was joined by an equal number of civilian volunteers and a detachment of Indians which brought his strength up to more than 1,400 men.  He easily surprised and overwhelmed the small squad of British soldiers left at Manchac after Dickson had abandoned it only a few days before Galvez’s army arrived.  Although the British were still unaware that they were at war with Spain, Dickson’s decision to move to Baton Rouge saved his forced from being completely surprised.  After resting his men for a short time at Manchac, Galvez resumed the march.  The Spanish troops arrived at Baton Rouge on September 19, only a day or so before the British had finished the fortifications.


Having lost the element of surprise, Galvez resorted to a clever trick in order to reduce the British positions and force Dickson to surrender.  During the night, he sent a small number of men to one side of the British stockade and instructed them to attract the attention of the enemy by making as much noise as possible.  At the same time, he ordered a larger detachment to set up the heavy cannons on the other side of the fortifications.  The plan worked to perfection.  The British wasted much of their ammunition and most of their energy in bombarding a handful of noisy soldiers.  Besides, they failed to wound a single Spaniard.  At daybreak, with the British cannon pointed in the wrong direction, the Spanish began an incessant firing that tore gaping holes in the British embankments.  Furthermore, one cannon ball supposedly landed on Dickson’s breakfast table and interrupted his meal.  By mid-afternoon, Dickson had had enough.  He asked for a truce while the two sides arranged the terms of capitulation.


Galvez drove a hard bargain.  He demanded that Dickson not only surrender his forces at Baton Rouge but the British fort at Natchez as well.  Even though the British officer knew that Fort Panmure at Natchez was far more defensible than the hastily-built fortifications at Baton Rouge, he had no choice, under the circumstances, but to accept Galvez’s terms.  On October 4, the British commander of Fort Panmure surrendered his post to a small force of Spaniards hastily sent there for that purpose.  A number of Natchez settlers were bitterly unhappy with the turn of events.  Although a few disgruntled inhabitants complained that Dickson had sacrificed their interests in order to gain more favorable terms for himself, a larger number publicly thanked him for his heroic exertions in defending the Mississippi settlements against overwhelming odds.


The next year, Galvez followed up the smashing victory at Baton Rouge with an assault on Fort Charlotte at Mobile.  Although again delayed by a furious storm which damaged his fleet and delayed his departure from New Orleans, Galvez successfully took the fort and the town of Mobile in a campaign that lasted several weeks.  The formal surrender of Mobile took place on March 14, 1780.  Although General Campbell braced for an immediate attack on Pensacola, the last British stronghold in West Florida, Galvez postponed further actions for almost a year.  Encouraged by the Spanish delay, Campbell tried unsuccessfully to retake Mobile in early 1781.  Finally, on March 9, 1781, the long-expected Spanish expedition against Pensacola arrived off Santa Rosa Island which guarded the entrance to Pensacola Bay.  After holding out for two long months, awaiting reinforcements which never came, Campbell surrendered when a Spanish shell landed at the doorway of the magazine while the soldiers were passing out ammunition.  For the first time in history, Spain was in complete control of the lower Mississippi Valley.  The treaties of peace which ended the fighting in 1783 confirmed this fact.  England was stripped of both Floridas and Spain was left in possession of both banks of the Mississippi as far north as the Yazoo River.  The United States received all former British territory north of the Spahisn Floridas and south of the Great Lakes.


The was in the Southwest might have turned out differently had it not been for the results of Willing’s raid down the Mississippi in the spring of 1778.  If Willing had been more anxious to win over the settlers to the American cause and less interested in plundering their property, the United States might have gained a foothold in the lower Mississippi Valley. Galvez, who was more respectful of American rights than most Spaniards, might not have seized Natchez and Baton Rouge and might have been content with capturing only Mobile and Pensacola.  Unfortunately, history is not what might have been but what was.  The truth was that Spain took possession of the lower Mississippi River and subsequently used her control of this river to retard American development of the West.  Natchez remained in Spanish hands until the Pinckney Treaty of 1795 when Spain agreed to recognize the 31st parallel as the southern boundary of the United States.  In 1797, the United States took formal possession of Natchez, and a new chapter in the history of Mississippi began.



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