By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Oxonians toasted one of their town’s early benefactors Tuesday when they marked Jacob Thompson’s bicentennial with a lecture and reception at the University of Mississippi Museum.
Thompson, son of a North Carolina planter, became a lawyer and moved in the early 1830s to Mississippi – aiming for thriving Natchez but settling instead in Pontotoc and later in Oxford.
“He made four major contributions that we have identified to the community,” said Dr. Carolyn Ross, a historian who has focused on Thompson for several years. Those included public service as a congressman (1839-51), U.S. Secretary of the Interior (1857-61) and founding trustee of the University of Mississippi; founder of Oxford Female Academy; founding member of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church; and leading an influential and productive family in Oxford.
When Thompson was in Washington, D.C., travel was so difficult and dangerous, Ross said, that “Public service was truly a service.”
“Oxford’s being a crossroads of American history has always amazed me, and how we have all these people that seem to migrate to Oxford,” said Oxford historian Jack Lamar Mayfield. He put Thompson in the company of L.Q.C. Lamar, his protampégampé and the only American ever to serve in both houses of Congress, in the U.S. Cabinet and on the Supreme Court; F.A.P. Barnard, the university’s visionary chancellor and professor and rector of St. Peter’s; geology giant professor Eugene Hilgard, who later established the University of California’s agricultural college; and professor John Millington, who held degrees in both law and medicine and at age 69 was one of four original faculty members at the University of Mississippi.
Thompson’s loyalties were to the Confederacy during the Civil War. He was involved in plot to burn New York City in retaliation for the “scorched earth” warfare of Union forces in the South and lived in Canada afterward until the bounty on his head was rescinded.
“Thompson’s accused of being a scoundrel by some people,” Mayfield said. “But the good he did far outweighed those things.”
Dr. John Neff, professor of history at Ole Miss, reflected on the spirit of Thompson and like-minded pioneers.
“It must have seemed like you were living in a place where it seemed there was absolutely no limitation to what was possible except perhaps your ability to master yourself and those around you.”