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Today is October 15, 2018

Mississippi Seen

Bicentennial presents opportunity to bone up on Mississippi history

Bicentennial presents opportunity to bone up on Mississippi history

Near the imposing statehood monument, on the campus of Historic Jefferson College at Washington, are the so-called Burr Oaks. Their name perpetuates the idea that our early statehood history is littered with fable and forgotten lore. Maybe the attention of this bicentennial year will bring some of those tales to light. Photo: Walt Grayson

    Happy 200th birthday, Mississippi! Two hundred years ago this year, Mississippi graduated from territory to statehood. Well, the actual date of the signing of the constitution (therefore the official birthdate) isn’t until December. But a significant anniversary like two centuries should be celebrated for more than just one day.
    There are special events planned throughout the year in association with the state’s bicentennial. A twenty-star U.S. flag (Mississippi was the 20th state) and the handwritten first state constitution are on a year-long tour of the state.
    Jay Dean is putting together a concert saluting the state’s 200th birthday. Jay is director of orchestral activities and professor of music at the University of Southern Mississippi, and artistic director for the Mississippi Opera and the Natchez Festival of Music.
    Clay Williams is the sites administrator for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. In this capacity, he oversees operations at six historic sites across the state including two directly associated with early statehood, Jefferson College in Washington and the Old Capitol in Jackson. Clay is writing a book for Mississippi’s bicentennial. He says that in many ways 1817 really was a long time ago, in terms of daily living. But as for issues facing the young state, many are the same we face now.
    I admitted to Clay that I am a little fuzzy about Mississippi’s colonial history and early statehood. I know the French were here first, then the Spanish and then the English. Clay stopped me right there and said it’s way more complicated than that. First of all, the Native Americans were here first. Then came the French, then the Spanish and English. And the Native Americans were still here.
    Even the Colony of Georgia along with the French, the Spanish, the English and later, the U.S. Government and the Native Americans all had land claims in Mississippi at one time or another, or at the same time.
    So, well after statehood the government was still making treaties with the Choctaws and the Chickasaws over lands they owned that eventually opened up the interior of the state.
    It hadn’t even occurred to me that there were still Native American treaties being negotiated after statehood. I thought all of that was ancient history.
    Clay says there is a lot of fuzziness about that period in history. He said many people today wouldn’t even recognize the names of the most well-known personalities in the days of early statehood: George Poindexter, Winthrop Sargent, David Holmes, William Dunbar.
    For that matter, not a lot of people know that Washington was Mississippi’s capital at the time of statehood, nor do they even know where it is. For the record, Washington is just up Miss. 61 from Natchez. In a Methodist church on the campus of Jefferson College in Washington the statehood constitution was written and signed. The building is gone, but an impressive monument marks where it once stood.
    Overshadowing the church site are the Burr Oaks, under which Aaron Burr is fabled to have been put on trial for treason and murder. Only problem is the oaks weren’t even here in Burr’s day. Burr’s is another name mostly familiar today only because of the popularity of the play “Hamilton” about Alexander Hamilton, whom Burr killed in a duel.
    All of this is not a stone’s throw away from where Andrew Jackson camped his men on the way to and from the Battle of New Orleans.
    Hmm. More going on back then than I thought! Should easily keep us busy all of this bicentennial year with occasional stories.

 

    Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Contact Grayson at walt@waltgrayson.com.

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