History of Newton County, Mississippi, from 1834 to 1894

Chapter 4



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The number of white citizens at the time of the organization of the county was necessarily small. An old citizen remarked that less than one hundred votes elected the sheriff. Say that it took one hundred votes to elect an officer at that time, it may be inferred that his opponent received nearly as many but was slightly in the minority. It may have been that there were nearly two hundred votes; probably quite that number, as it is not usual that all go to the elections. To multiply that number by four would give eight hundred white population, and it must be remembered that there were quite a number of negroes, probably one-third as many as whites. This would have given about one thousand persons, exclusive of the Indians, who were then more numerous than the whites.

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The first census ever made in the county, in 1840, gave the population of Newton 2,527. This included the negroes as well as white people. It will be seen from this statement that Newton county had more than doubled the population from 1836 to 1840. If the first figures be correct, that there was 1,000 or a little over when the first officers were elected, this would be a very rapid increase in population in four years, and we must either admit that it is true or claim that the county had more inhabitants at its settlement than 1,000.

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It will be recollected Newton county offered very flattering prospects to the new settler. The county had been a portion of Neshoba, and for three years, or nearly so, there had been officers of the county with a representation in the Legislature, so it was not as if the county had no organization before 1836.

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As early as 1834 quite a number of persons had moved and made permanent settlements in this county. A few came even before the county of Neshoba was admitted in 1833. The lands were surveyed in 1832, and with that came a few adventurers and traders, who settled among and traded with the Indians. They could not enter lands, but they could for a time live in the Purchase. In the year 1833 there was a very large emigration of the Indians from this part of the country, which gave room for settlers and their families and immediately following it was that many came from the counties of Wayne, Simpson, Hinds and Copiah. In connection with these early settlements, from 1834 to 1837, came settlers from most of the States east of Mississippi. Quite a number of land speculators, merchants and general tradesmen came to the new county hoping to make favorable investments, and many for permanent settlement. The county continued to grow in wealth and importance, and when the second census of 1850 was taken, the population amounted to 4,467, nearly doubling itself in this decade.

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What the face of the country was when the white man came to Newton county, can only be learned from the few old men who are left in the county, who came as early settlers. This number is very small -- will probably not reach more than a dozen. All agree that the county was a beautiful one, very inviting to the new comer. The Indians were in considerable numbers, but they did not wantonly destroy the country or kill the game in waste. They used what they needed and allowed the balance to remain for the future. They only cultivated small patches of ground and had only paths to go through the country. There were no large trees that had ever been cut. The large timbers were confined to the swamp and the long leaf pine forests. The swamp at that time had no undergrowth except cane, which grew in great abundance, not so large as on the rivers and creeks in the western part of the State, but sufficiently thick and high as to completely cover the swamps in many places -- making secure hiding place for wild animals, and affording a wonderful winter pasture for cattle and hogs. The latter used the acorns that fell from the massive oaks that in many places grew thick in the swamp.

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In these swamps not only grew the oak, but gum, ash, poplar, beech, magnolia, bay, elm, hickory, and in some places a few walnuts, and occasionally a few cypress, frequently very large, short strawed pine. The long leaf pine forests were covered as an undergrowth, only, with grass, that grew up in some instances as high as a horse's back. This grass was killed to some extent every winter, and in the spring it came out fresh and looked beautiful.

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Occasionally the forests were burned off. Some times these fires were very dangerous and very hard to stop. That part of the country known as the "flat woods," and ridges and hill lands of the county not growing the long leaf pine, were very open, only occasionally showing a few trees. This part of the county was beautiful to observe, and offered a place of great sport for the hunter. The same kind of grass did not grow in all respects on the flat lands as in the pine woods. A most luxuriant growth of ferns, wild roses, small flowering vines, besides the grass, all mingled in solid mass so as to almost obstruct a passage through it; also a wild pea grew in the pine and flat woods that served as fine food for stock, especially the deer.

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A gentleman relating his recollections of the beauty of the "flat woods" section in the north-western part of his county, says the ferns grew in a mass two feet high; that a small flowering vine climbed upon and showed its blossoms in profusion over the ferns. The wild roses entwined themselves among the foliage, and all together, vines, ferns and roses presented a solid body, looking like one grand bouquet covering the ground. When the hunter came with gun and dogs and the deer are "jumped," the race commences. The yielding mass of ferns and flowers are so inter woven that when it is disturbed by deer, dogs and hunters it resembles the waves of the sea.

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In the southwestern part of the county were open prairies, covered with a growth of very rich grass and a very parterre of flowers. These bald places were occasionally relieved by a clump of trees, forming an oasis as in a desert, and sometimes a stream of water was there which served to allay the thirst of man and beast.

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These open spaces were called the "shell lands," and in many instances, had large accumulations of small shells in the soil, and a great number of oyster shells of large size. The oyster shells were largely used in the early settlement of the county in making lime. These shell lands were only productive of corn and other grain. They would not make cotton -- it would "rust." The woodland prairie made fine cotton and corn. When the growth was post-oak it produced cotton better. These lands required good plows to break and to bed up the ground. Long ago the plow known as the Carey plow, was used. It had a long point with wooden mould-board. This plow was drawn by two horses, or oxen, and was considered an excellent plow for the work; and when this land was well broken, and particularly in winter, the crop was almost assured and with but little more work. In late years the steel plow, without the wooden mould-board, is used, and does good work.

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Newton county had quite a number of "Reed-brakes." These were not considered desirable at first, but after trial, became the most fruitful sources of corn of any lands in the county. They were very boggy places, covered with reed. This species of cane differs from that growing in the swamps. These brakes were well ditched, which to a great extent dried them. The places occupied by the brakes are usually in valleys, in the long leaf pine woods. These valleys at one time had pure streams of water flowing through them, from one large or several small springs. At a remote period the grass began to grow along the margin of these flowing streams, and then the reed came also on the edges of its banks. This invited the black birds to roost, and after the lapse of centuries, perhaps, this stream is filled up by these bird deposits, and becomes a sluggish, dangerous quagmire, until after it is ditched; then it becomes a thing of beauty and profit. There is a considerable amount of these lands in Newton county, but in small bodies. The depth of the soil is sometimes several feet. The cane of these reed-brakes is not of the same character of that grown in the swamps. The leaf of the reed-brake cane is larger and greener; the reeds are much thinner and more easily broken. These brakes are evergreen and particularly attractive are they in the cold season; they all grow up very even and near the same height, and when everything around is nipped by the frost their symmetrical forms, waving gracefully in the breeze, presents an appearance both attractive and beautiful.

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In these deep swamp jungles, high grass and reed-brakes, there must have been great quantities of game and snakes. It seems that the county was not infested to any great extent with snakes, yet in all new wooded and swampy country they abound more or less. The rattle-snake was rather numerous, and the moccasin and ground rattle-snake abounded to some extent. There were quite a number of less poisonous snakes, but most of the rattle-snakes are gone.

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The amount of game in the county at the time it was settled was almost incredulous. From the statements of all the old settlers it existed in great abundance -- deer, turkey, squirrels, coons, wild cats, some bear, panthers, and many wolves. These last named animals were so plentiful and destructive that by an act of the Legislature of 1837, a reward of five dollars was offered for every wolf killed in the county. Deer were so plentiful that a hunter could go out and find a herd and easily take choice as to the one he would shoot.

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A very truthful man who came to the county in 1835 or '36, says that he could go out in sight of his dwelling house and see as many as twenty deer feeding. He states that he and his brother, besides doing the plowing for several hands, usually went out hunting in the afternoon, and the two killed one hundred deer from the first of January to the first of July. The Indians did not kill the game of the country as the white men; they killed it as they needed it. The white man kills for use first, then for sport and for the hides, and in this way very soon destroys the game in the country. Quite a number carried the hams of venison to distant markets after they were dried whole, which they did vary nicely, and brought good prices. Not many years elapsed before the game became much wilder and scarcer, and much harder to secure, and for more than twenty years it is rarely the case that deer are found. There was a large number of turkeys, abundance of squirrels, considerable amount of fish, great numbers of birds, some ducks, a large number of rabbits. A variety that has almost become extinct was the large swamp rabbit -- nearly as large as the jack rabbit of Texas -- he is now rarely seen.

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The style of society was rough at this time and of the most primitive character; so were also the houses in which some persons lived. There was no building material except what was gotten out by hand; the great haste to get a shelter for the present caused the houses to be rough and small log cabins, with dirt or puncheon floor, put up almost, if not entirely without nails. using what was called the weight poles to fasten on the boards on the roofs, not having rafters but ridge poles forming the place to lay the boards.

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Sometimes a man would make a neat cabin by chinking the cracks and filling with mud, so as to keep out the wind. For a floor he would take a small pine tree or sapling, hew it to a straight edge on two sides, then he would face it six inches wide and chop in on the opposite side to fit his sleepers, and by this means he would make what resembled a six-inch plank after it was laid on the sleepers. This method, if the puncheons were dressed after they were laid down, formed an excellent floor. Sometimes a whip-saw was used. This was a large rip-saw resembling a long cross-cut saw, by which two men sawed logs into plank -- one standing on top of the log, the other in a pit in the ground under the log. It was hard work, but these pioneers were accustomed to it and enjoyed it. A good "stick and dirt" chimney was then put up, sufficiently large to warm the family and for the wife to do the cooking. Those fireplaces would sometimes be from five to six feet wide. A degree of comfort, with much hospitality and welcome to a visitor, made these rude houses of the pioneers something to be remembered. The style of society was as rough, or more so, than the houses in which the early settlers lived. These rough people would entertain a stranger, were glad to have his company and would not charge a cent for entertainment.

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The use of ardent spirits was very free among the early settlers, most of them using it without stint. It was not uncommon to find it in the houses of most of the people, and all who visited them were welcome to it and expected to use it. It was openly sold in any part of the county when a man wished to do so. The morals of the people in those times were necessarily bad, with some notable exceptions. Profanity, gambling, horse-racing and fighting, and numerous immoralities were indulged in, and the people felt free and easy to violate the Sabbath in any way that suited them, and no one questioned these violations.

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There was a great scarcity of schools and churches at this time, and want of them was keenly felt. This state of society continued for a term of years, until the population, by its increase in numbers and improvement in morality, demanded a change.