Stanley Nelson

During the winter of 1790 in the days of Spanish rule, a small flotilla of flatboats with 100 settlers from Pennsylvania on board arrived in Natchez.

Leading the American party was Ezekial Forman, who had enlisted the assistance of his nephew, Samuel Forman of New Jersey, on the journey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Ezekial planned to farm, intending to raise tobacco as his main cash crop. Before the bottom fell out of the market, tobacco was the number one crop in Natchez.

Nephew Samuel Forman was 24 and had grown up during the Revolutionary War where as a child he watched American and British troops battle. He also witnessed some of the defining moments of the founding of the country. The Forman family also was well connected and respected.

Samuel would spend only a year in Natchez, just long enough to help his uncle settle and to make many friends.

Ezekial Forman, who everybody called "Uncle Forman,” brought his family, friends and 60-plus slaves to Natchez. Samuel described his uncle as "a fine-looking man, very neat, prepossessing, and of genteel deportment, so that he was always much noticed." The story of their journey to Natchez and life in the region is told in Samuel's memoir, "Narrative of a Journey Down the Ohio and Mississippi in 1789-90," published in 1888.

 

FLATBOAT JOURNEY

 

The Forman party left Pennsylvania in five wagons -- one pulled by two horses and each of the others pulled by a four-horse team. They crossed the Allegheny Mountains and reached the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. Flatboats were built and outfitted for the journey.

Samuel described all as "floating houses" and said the largest boat was a 70-ft. "keelboat, decked over, with a cabin for lodging purposes, but too low to stand erect." All possessions, including Uncle Forman's "handsome coach horses and carriage" were packed onboard. "The bed and bedding lay on the floor, and the insides lined with plank to prevent the Indians from penetrating through with their balls, should they attack us. We had a large quantity of dry goods, and a few were opened and bartered in payment for boats and provisions."

Along the way, the party had to contend with swift currents, sawyers and snags, river bandits and adverse weather conditions. In Louisville, Kentucky, Samuel acquired a six-week-old bear cub that he intended to raise as a pet.

Few travelers made the river journey without losing comrades along the way. Helping Samuel navigate one of the flatboats down river were three men, one an "old sailor." The men followed the current "except when passing islands, when men must all beat their oars. I believe the old sailor, while on board, was a little deranged. After I discharged him at Natchez, he was found, I was told, in the woods dead."

After weeks and more than a 1,000-mile journey, Natchez country was finally in view.

 

NATCHEZ ARRIVAL

 

At Bayou Pierre in present day Claiborne County, the travelers found a small settlement known as Bruinsburg where around that time future president Andrew Jackson, then a young man in his 20s, was operating a small store and courting the love of his life, Rachel Donelson.

"At Bayou Pierre," wrote Samuel, "lived Colonel (Peter Bryan) Bruin, of the Virginia Continental line, who, after the war, took letters from General Washington to the governor of that country while it belonged to Spain, and secured a fine land grant. I once visited Colonel Bruin ... That section of country is remarkably handsome, and the soil rich. The colonel's dwelling-house was on the top of a large mound, and his barn on another, near by."

Bruin went on to become the first judge to take office after Natchez became American in 1798. Lake Bruin in Tensas Parish, across the Mississippi from Bruin's old home along Bayou Pierre, is named after the judge.

A day after landing at Bayou Pierre, the Forman party reached Natchez landing. Wrote Samuel: "When out little fleet of five boats first came in sight of the village of Natchez, it presented quite a formidable appearance, and caused a little alarm at the fort; the drum beat to arms, but the affright soon subsided...

"Natchez was then a small place, with houses generally of a mean structure, built mostly on the low bank of the river, and on the hillside. The fort was a handsome, commanding spot, on the elevated ground, from which was a most extensive view up the river, and over the surrounding country. The governor's house was not far from the garrison."

 

ST. CATHERINE HOME

 

Uncle Forman at the outset rented "a large house, about half-way up the hill from the landing, where he lived until he bought a plantation of five hundred acres on the bank of St. Catherine's creek, about four miles from Natchez," according to Samuel. "This he regarded as a temporary abode, until he could become better acquainted with the country.

"The place had a small clearing and a log house on it, and he put up another log house to correspond with it, about fourteen feet apart, connecting them all with boards, with a piazza in front of the whole. The usual term applied to such a structure was that it was 'two pens and a passage.' This connecting passage made a fine hall, and altogether gave it a good and comfortable appearance...

"Boards were scarce, and I do not remember seeing any saws or grist-mills in the country. Uncle Forman had a horse-mill, something like a cider-mill, to grind corn for the family use. In range with his dwelling he built a number of negro houses, some distance off, on the bank of St. Catherine's creek."

Not long after arriving a number of new settlers in Natchez fell ill. Samuel said 1790 "was a very sickly one for unacclimated persons in the Natchez country. All our family adults had more or less fever, and fever and ague. Uncle Forman was severely affected with gout -- a lump almost as big as a small hen's egg swelled out at one of his elbows, with something of the appearance of chalk. Poor Betsey Church was taken with a fever, and died in a few days; a great loss to the family, having been a valuable and much respected member of it for many years. I was the only adult of the family who was not confined to the house with sickness."

 

FAREWELL TOUR

 

After about a year in Natchez, having completing his promise to Uncle Forman to help him make the trip down river and to set up his farmstead, Samuel prepared to head home to New Jersey.

"When the time was fixed for my departure," he recalled, by the way of New Orleans, and thence by sea to Philadelphia, Uncle Forman said: 'Well, you must direct Moses, the coach-man, to get up the carriage, take two of your cousins with you, and take leave of all your good friends.' The carriage, which had its top broken off crossing the mountains in Pennsylvania, had been fitted up in Natchez, with neat banister work around the top of the body, which rendered it more convenient for the country. 

"We sometimes took the family in it, and went out strawberrying over the prairies. Cousins Augusta and Margaret accompanied me on my farewell tour. Ours was the first four-wheeled carriage that ever passed over those grounds — I can't say roads, for the highway was only what was called a bridle path — all traveling at that day was on horseback. 

"When we visited one place, some of our friends from another locality meeting us there would ascertain the day we designed visiting their house, that they might have the cane-brakes along the trail cleared away sufficient to permit the comfortable passage of the carriage; and we must, moreover, be on time, or some small gust of wind might again obstruct the passage. Our visits were all very pleasant save the unhappy part of the final bidding each other farewell."

Samuel and his cousins were also invited to visit in the home of Col. Anthony Hutchins, who settled along Second Creek south of Natchez in the early 1770s. When they departed, "all came out of the house to see us off, and I asked the ladies in a jocose way to join us in the ride, when they began to climb over the wheels as though they might endanger the safety of the carriage; but this frolicsome banter over, we took our departure. We spent several days in performing this friendly round of visits — by-gone days of happiness never to return."

 

BRIG NAVARRE

 

Finally, by June 1791, the day to leave Natchez arrived.

"The parting with my kindred," Samuel wrote, "was most trying and affecting, having traveled and hazarded our lives together for so many hundred miles, and never expecting to meet again in this life."

Samuel's pet bear cub, however, didn't make the journey home with him.

"When twelve or fifteen months old," wrote Samuel, "he (bear) became very saucy; I only could keep him in subjection. When he became too troublesome, Uncle Forman had him killed, and invited several gentlemen to join him in partaking of his bear dinner."

Uncle Forman accompanied Samuel to New Orleans and the two "stopped the first night with Mr. Ellis, at the White Cliffs (a few miles below Natchez), and next day embarked on board of a boat for New Orleans. On our way down we sometimes went on shore and took a bowl of chocolate for breakfast with some rich planter, a very common custom of the country."

In New Orleans, Uncle Forman and Samuel met Esteban Miro, the governor of the Spanish province of Louisiana. Two weeks later, Samuel boarded the brig Navarre, along with a number of Americans, and set sail for Philadelphia.

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