In the late 18th century a village was born that soon became one of the most famous places along the Natchez Trace.
Known as Greenville, the community was located 25 miles north of Natchez. In 1798 when Mississippi became part of the United States, it was a vibrant, thriving place.
Three decades later, however, despite the promise of its beginning, the village was the home of ghosts and memories.
Greenville was, according to Mississippi historian Dunbar Rowland, “a very old and influential settlement in Jefferson County,” which was populated by several men who were major players in the early history of the region.
The original settlement had two names.
It was first known as Greenbay, named after Henry Green, who built a cabin on the banks of the Muddy Creek branch of Coles Creek, which ran through town.
It was also known as Hunston or Huntley, named after Abijah Hunt, who operated a general store to the north of Green’s cabin. Hunt, who amassed great wealth through land and commerce, built the first cotton gin in Jefferson County. Farmers throughout the county were his customers. Hunt is best remembered as the man killed in a duel with politician George Poindexter at Vidalia in 1811.
Greenville became famous overnight in 1804 when two outlaws – James May and Wiley Harpe (known as Little Harpe and also by the alias of John Sutton) – were hung for the killing of Sam Mason, the head of a murderous Natchez Trace outlaw gang that included his two assailants. Little Harpe and May arrived in Greenville with Mason’s head in a sack. They were looking to collect the $2,000 reward for the capture of Mason, dead or alive, before they were identified as killers themselves.
General Andrew Jackson visited in Greenville, founded in 1805, on many occasions. Greenville was the seat of government for Jefferson County and comprised the area around Hunt’s store, property belonging to Ferdinand L. Claiborne and some of the late David Odom’s land near Hunt’s store. According to an act by the Mississippi Territory General Assembly, the “town shall be known and distinguished by the name of Greenville, in memory and honor of Major-General Nathanael Greene.”
Nathanael Greene was hero during his day for his service during the Revolutionary War. He was revered as one of the country’s greatest patriots. Many towns, counties and streets bear the name of Greene in the states east of the Mississippi River. He had been dead for a number of years prior to the founding of old Greenville.
One of nine children, Greene grew up in Rhode Island in the home of his Quaker parents, who opposed war and fighting. But in 1774, the 32-year-old Greene broke with his religion’s tenets to help form a militia as war with England neared. For this, the Quakers booted him out. Even the militia rejected him as its leader because he had a limp. Undaunted, he settled on beginning his military career as a private.
By the time of the revolution, Greene was serving as Brigadier General of the Rhode Island army, organized to defend the state. After the war began, Greene quickly showed his skill in battle. In 1778 he was appointed Quartermaster General of the Continental Army although he took the job only with assurance that he would continue to serve as a commander in the field.
By the end of the war, his brilliance on the battlefield was considered second only to his good friend George Washington. After the war, Greene was deeply in debt, having used his own money to feed his men.
In an outpouring of gratitude for his service, South Carolina voted to financially reward Greene for his defense of the state, while Georgia gave him a plantation on Cumberland Island, where Greene died in 1786 at age 44.
In 1808, Fortescue Cuming, traveling through the region on horseback while looking for land to buy, visited Greenville. In his book (Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country), Cuming found it “handsomely situated, on a dry sandy plain near the middle branch of Cole’s creek. It is surrounded at a little distance by small farms and woods, which add variety and beauty to its appearance.”
Cuming also noticed the town was showing signs of decline.
Greenville consisted “of one wide straight street nearly half a mile long, running N. by W. and S. by E. intersected by two small cross ones, containing in all forty tolerably good houses, many of which are now unoccupied, and offered for sale, at little more than a quarter of their cost in building
“It has a small church for general use of all Christian sects, a small court-house, a gaol and a pillory, a post-office, two stores, two taverns, and an apothecary’s shop. The town is well watered by wells dug to about thirty feet deep.”
A short distance south of town was the plantation of Colonel Cato West, a Virginian, who had 200 acres of cotton in cultivation, and farther south was Parker Carradine’s “delightfully situated plantation, with an excellent dwelling house, and good apple and peach orchards.”
Cuming theorized that Greenville’s decline in population might have been due in part to “bilious disorders” that occurred most often in
late summer and fall. Such fevers and sicknesses were common throughout the region.
Greenville’s decline accelerated when the county seat was moved to the newly created town of Fayette, six miles to the east, in 1825. The commission appointed by the general assembly chose Fayette the day after a mob, which favored the new location, trashed the courthouse in Greenville, a structure built of hand-sawed poplar.
A decade later, just as the town of Rodney, less than 10 miles to the northwest, was becoming a busy Mississippi River port, the writer J.H. Ingraham rode his horse through the deserted village of Greenville. He wrote about it in his book, The Southwest By A Yankee.
The town site, Ingraham wrote, “is delightfully situated in a little green vale, through which winds a small stream.” The main street was “bordered by two rows of dilapidated houses, overgrown with grass and half buried in venerable shade trees.
“From the prison with it dungeons fallen in, and its walls lifting themselves sullenly above the ruins by which they are enclosed, to the tavern with its sunken galleries, and the cobbler’s shop with its doorless threshold, all were in ruins, a picture of rural desolation … a ‘deserted village.’
“Greenville was formerly a place of some importance, but other towns have grown up in more eligible spots, for which this has been deserted by its inhabitants.
“One does not meet a lovelier prospect in this state, than that presented to the eye on descending the hill south and west of the valley, into the quiet little vale beneath, just before the going down of the sun.”
DEBT OF NATURE
Jefferson County native Col. John A. Watkins, who was born in 1808, the year Fortescue Cuming visited Greenville, wrote that the town was “a beautiful village, the seat of justice for the county,” home to “one of the oldest bars in the State.”
Yet he also recalled seeing what it had become: A “deserted village with one old house tottering to decay and McCullum’s blacksmith shop.
“But as this was many years ago, these have long since paid the debt of nature, and passed beyond the recollection of the present generation.”
Historian Rowland wrote in the early 1900s that the “last building standing was the old Cable hotel, and this was burned a few years ago.