(17th in a Series)
When Black River planters St. John Richardson Liddell and Charles Jones arrived in Catahoula Parish in the late 1830s, a handful of the first frontiersmen who had settled there were still alive.
Long before their deadly feud began, Liddell and Jones had carved out their plantations on swampy land along the Black River that was subject to overflows. By the 1840s, the region was experiencing growth, and Catahoula, a land of hills and swamps, was an expansive place that then included all of present day LaSalle Parish. Originally, Catahoula was part of Rapides County (before the counties became known as parishes).
Dr. Andrew Robert Kilpatrick, another Black River planter, authored articles for DeBow’s Review in 1851 that described Catahoula and Concordia’s early years of settlement. He reported that in Catahoula, frontiersmen turned early settlers were “hardy hunters, but also fond of agriculture and the pastoral life: and many of them secured large bodies of valuable land from the Spanish government, or from the United States, by pre-emption.
“On looking over the United States land papers, it has been found that” in Rapides “there were 450 applications for grants … which came before the United States Commissioners … and the most of which were confirmed … But most of these, settlers and claimers, were afraid of the swamp, and located their grants in the pine woods. They seemed not to be willing to trust the waters, which, probably, was well enough for them, as they were poor, and there were no levees then to protect them in the least from the Mississippi River” and her devastating overflows.
“The early settlers clustered around Catahoula Lake and the prairie, and along on the principal creeks, in the pine hills, where the soil laid well, and was productive.”
From the foot of the hills north of Catahoula Lake to Whitehall, northeastward along La. Hwy. 8 to Rhinehart, Manifest, Harrisonburg and Sicily Island are the locations of early settlement. Among those early settlers was the Bowie family, where legendary frontiersman Jim Bowie spent his childhood along Birds Creek at Harrisonburg.
Kilpatrick wrote that when he settled along Black River in Concordia Parish during the 1840s, the creeks in the Catahoula hills were teaming with fish:
“Hundreds have been caught in a few hours with hook and line, while with the drop-net, many bushels have been secured in a very short space of time. Fishing parties and picnic parties afford great amusement in the summer months, when the citizens from the swamp resort there to enjoy the delightful breezes and spring water, which are so cheering and healthful
“While the lake is full, the fish in the creeks do not bite so well; in fact, that is the season when they are ‘not at home,’ but far away, roaming the lake and deep waters; but when the water is falling, they resort in countless thousands to the cool creeks, where they are caught in great numbers, and can be seen in the transparent waters in immense schools, ready to seize the baited hook.”
During early settlement, bears were numerous and an important food source, Kilpatrick wrote, while bear oil was used for two quite different purposes – to cook and to grease leather machinery. In 1813, G. W. Lovelace from Sicily Island gathered 243 bears skins, 450 deer skins and 28 beaver skins.
Panthers were commonly seen in the 1840s. Eight were killed one year. They occasionally attacked horses and humans. A Native American was killed by a panther and partially eaten. In fact, stories of panther attacks appeared in newspapers throughout the 19th century.
Also greatly feared were wolves. Kilpatrick wrote in 1851 that they remained “very numerous all through the pine hills; but there are more in the wild ravines” of Sicily Island than anywhere. At times, wolves were “very troublesome and destructive to young lambs and pigs.” During the fall of 1851, some residents “set poison for them.”
Although Harrisonburg emerged early on as the parish seat, Trinity had grown into a prosperous community by mid-century and some thought getting a little big for its britches. During the 1850s, an election was held to see if voters wanted to move the seat of government from Harrisonburg to Trinity. The voters said no.
In the meantime, no happening put Catahoula, Concordia and Black River on the map more than the Jones-Liddell feud when in the spring of 1854, Liddell was acquitted by a parish jury in the killing of Moses Wiggins, one of two men Liddell had shot to death two years earlier.
Without leaving the courtroom, the jury found Liddell not guilty immediately after being instructed by the judge to go to the jury room to deliberate. But for the jury, the verdict was easy. Liddell’s three powerhouse attorneys, without even calling him to the stand, easily convinced jurors that their client had acted in self-defense.
Because the verdict came so swiftly and with such conviction, the district attorney opted not to try Liddell in the case of the other victim – Samuel Glenn – who was with Wiggins as they rode in a carriage along the public road in present day Jonesville when Liddell shot the two.
Glenn and Wiggins, who had stated in public that they would not rest until Liddell was dead, were part of a group that sided with Jones, whose Black River plantation, Elmly, was four miles below Liddell’s Llanada, located on the outskirts of the present day city limits of Jonesville. The two had been feuding since 1847. Jones was the aggressor, infuriated when a woman, Eliza Nichols, shot him in the face and back during an argument at Jones’ Elmly Plantation.
After Jones had slandered Eliza, she confronted him. She had asked Liddell to accompany her to Jones’ home. There along the tree-lined avenue in front of Elmly, Jones and Eliza argued. He refused to apologize. Then, the unexpected occurred.
Liddell was as shocked as Jones when Eliza pulled out a pistol and shot Jones in the face and back. Jones later accused Liddell of firing the second shot with murder on his mind. Although the allegation was untrue, that didn’t matter to Jones. He wanted revenge and as result of this one encounter, a two-decade long feud was born.
Jones’ blood had been spilled and now two of his followers – Glenn and Wiggins -- were buried in their graves while the man who shot them was walking free. Yet Jones, the man whose name was mentioned multiple times by trial witnesses, was not part of the court proceedings.
In a book edited by Nathaniel C. Hughes (Liddell’s Record), which is Liddell’s account of his participation on the Confederate side during the Civil War, Hughes writes: “By 1857 calmer heads prevailed and a document was drawn up between Liddell and Charles and Laura Jones, ‘agreeing that Liddell and the Joneses would pass one another as strangers and without recognition.’ If either party had a grievance they would alert the other before any action was taken. It is significant that Liddell did not sign the document.”
But for seven years, from 1854 to 1861, there was peace along Black River.
‘I LOVE HIM TOO DEEPLY’
During the 1850s, both Liddell and Jones remained occupied with operating their plantations. The year 1856 was both a prosperous and sad year for Liddell.
In June, his father, a retired Mississippi judge, died.
The Independent newspaper in Harrisonburg noted that the 72-year-old retired judge died in Warm Springs, Arkansas, on June 3. The judge had been born in South Carolina in 1785. In 1804, he moved to Mississippi, first to Greenville along the Natchez Trace, then to Natchez and afterward in Woodville, where he lived for 32 years and where his son, John, was born.
During the last six years of his life, the judge had lived with his son at Llanada Plantation on Black River.
In Liddell’s Record, editor Hughes writes that during the 1840s the judge’s “letters to John leave little doubt that, though he admonished him and used a stern tone from time to time, he indulged his only son.” A relative wrote son John about his father: “You cannot believe what affection he bears for you,” and quoted the judge saying once: “There is not a night I lie down but what John is uppermost in my mind … I love him too deeply – my whole life and soul and feelings are centered in that boy.”
According to the obit, “The deceased was emphatically the author of his own fortunes. For several years he was engaged as a clerk for Abijah Hunt, of Natchez, until his removal to Woodville where he embarked in mercantile business on his own account.”
Judge Liddell also farmed and was rich with land. He had been ill since the winter with pleurisy and erysipelas before traveling to “the Warm Springs in the hope of restoring his health,” but without success.
LIFE ON LLANADA
But life goes on, and a few months later, in October, The Independent reported that John Liddell had built a “Mammoth Cotton Gin” on Llanada. The paper reported that a gin of “extraordinary size has just been built for Major St. J. R. Liddell, by the Eagle Cotton Gin Company. It is a double Gin, having 120 saws, with the main pully in the center and calculated to gin fifteen bales of cotton a day.
“The plan for the gin was drawn up by Major Liddell, and the manufacturers have given it the name of the Liddell Gin, in honor of the originator.” One worker “will be able to feed it, and there is no doubt it will come into universal use. The gin has been thoroughly tested at the factory and worked admirably. It combines all of the late improvements in machinery, and is finished in a superior style.” Painted on the gin were “handsome eagles, the coat of arms of this State, and the name of the builders.”
On the plantation, life was busy. One year, according to his journal entries, Liddell in January was busy “killing hogs, clearing ground, rolling logs, piling brush, burning brush, making shingles, women cut cane, salting meat, sewing oats, branding cattle, plant Irish potatoes.”
In March, he planted sweet potatoes, corn, cotton and a garden, including “onions, parsley, red pepper, tomatoes, cabbage, beans, pumpkins and melons.”
In April he had 11 ploughs running.
Historian Hughes wrote that plantation work and levee construction were of utmost interest to Liddell, adding, “He loved any type of gadget … had a mechanical bent and a talent for sketching … drew farm animals, and made designs for plows, water pumps, buildings, and all sorts of devices,” including the “Liddell Attachment,” a plowing implement.
“He participated in water control projects and petitioned local and state bodies, requesting action and offering alternative plans and designs. He encouraged lobbying on behalf of the ‘swamp,’ and saw that the right persons were present at carefully staged political dinners.”
In June 1858, according to The Independent, the Police Jury granted Liddell permission to “lay down a railroad track across the public road in front of his plantation, a sufficient height, not to interrupt travel.”
But Charles Jones had been busy, too, and in the 1850s he would become involved in politics, continue to grow his plantation and hold down his urges to kill Liddell.
Soon, the Civil War would consume both men and the feud would stay on the backburner. And as if the early years of the Black River War weren’t hard enough, harder things were yet to come.
(Next Week: Civil War coming.)