PHYLLIS HARPER: Storytelling offers history of good times, bad times

Call them pioneers or white settlers, or in the name of Manifest Destiny, many of our ancestors arrived in northern Mississippi in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

A petition from Mississippi Territory, Elk River, Sims's Settlement, dated Sept. 5, 1810 (and found by Itawamba Historical Society in 1984), was sent to President James Madison that said 2,250 people in 450 households were living on Indian land. The petition shows that settlers came long before the Indian land cession in the early 1830s, but numbers increased during the next two decades, and some names are familiar today.

“We your petitioners humbly sheweth that a great many of your fellow citizens have unfortunately settled on what is now called Chickasaw land which has led us into difficultys that tongue cannot express if the orders from the war department remove us off of said land. … We will not remove our fellow citizens off which will bring many women and children to a state of starvation mearly to gratify a heathen nation who have no better right to this land than we have ourselves …

“In settling this country men was obliged to expose themselves very much and the climate not healthy and respectable men have deceased and left their widows and orphans … (but) all of us could live tollarable comfortable if we could remain on our improvements.”

Stories I wrote in 1984 said that settlers, many from the Carolinas, traveled by horseback and wagons through Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, and arrived in Mississippi. Some brought slaves and carved out plantations, others had a scant wagonload of household possessions and farm implements to claim a few acres of land from the wilderness. Many settlers were second sons, seeking opportunity in times when all inheritance went to the oldest male in the family.

“Mississippi: A History,” a textbook by John K. Bettersworth, said that by 1840, “could boast a wealth and prosperity that in some areas rivaled that of Natchez.” Local historian Bob Franks, my friend and fellow Itawambian, has been one of my best resources for finding information about these times and places.

My interest in the once-lost site of Van Buren, and the settlement of Cardsville, meant my paternal ancestors originally settled in this area where some were buried. Grandy, my grandfather, was born there, but moved to Fawn Grove as a young man.

in dense forest alongside the Tombigbee River, there are remnants of a thriving town telling a silent history: a solitary marble monument, scattered handmade bricks, building foundations, boat landing, ferry site, and sunken road beds where none but hunters have set foot for more than a century – until IHS members found the site. On a trek with Bob Franks, I went to Van Buren, and as well to other treks and historic sites.

This was the largest village or town in the country, bigger than Fulton in the 1840s, and a bustling place where cotton was hauled from the rich bottomlands to the boat landing and sent down the Tombigbee.

In the 1840s census, 300 families lived in Van Buren where there were a dozen businesses, but by the 1880s one business was left. Railroads became death tolls for towns and villages because commerce – and people – moved to the railroad routes.

The Civil War and Reconstruction changed history and left poverty for a century, during which we lost a lot of our area history, one being a dearth of storytellers with the advent of radio and television and other modern pastimes.

I am compelled to justify my penchant for telling the old stories, but even so, I am more interested in where I've been than where I'm going. Storytelling – in the oral tradition and in writing – is our heritage, our history of the good times and the bad times.

Phyllis Harper's column appears each Sunday in the Daily Journal.