Stanley Nelson

(Part 1 of 2)

Matthew Phelps, orphaned at age 8, grew up on a small farm in Connecticut. When he was 20, he married his teenage sweetheart, Jerusha.

In the early 1770s, Phelps heard that a group of British military veterans like him -- known as the Company of Military Adventurers -- planned to begin life anew in Natchez country. He decided to join the group.

Phelps wrote about his Natchez country experiences in a book (Memoirs and Adventures of Captain Matthew Phelps, 1802). He described his first journey South as a scouting venture to find land in the Lower Mississippi River Valley.

As part of the British government's plan for the colonization of Natchez, veterans of the French and Indian War, 1754-1763, (in actuality a war between the British colonies and New France) were awarded land grants to help settle the region. Permanent title to the land was contingent upon the company of military adventurers planting the required number of settlers upon the lands reserved in its name.

In all, the huge colonization project sought 380,000 acres along Bayou Pierre and the Big Black in present day Claiborne and Warren counties, an area considered part of Natchez country.

 

‘NEST-EGG OF OUR POPULATION’

 

Mississippi historian John F.H. Claiborne wrote in his 19th century book that these veterans and their land grants represented "the nest-egg of our population." The grants "attracted a class of enterprising and intelligent men who, after the peace of 1763, had been drifting about. Immigration (to Natchez) rapidly set in, consisting, at first, of disbanded officers and soldiers. The troubles and dissensions between the colonies and the mother country were growing serious. Great diversity of opinion existed among the colonists, and especially in the Carolinas.

"Many persons loyal to the Crown, but unwilling to take part against the people among whom they lived, embracing, in numerous instances, their kindred and even their own households, sought refuge in West Florida {which included Natchez} from the distractions at home. It has been the custom to denounce these men as Tories, and enemies of their country. Such censure would be proper when applied to men who drew the sword against their countrymen, and waged upon them a savage and relentless war. But the same sentence should not be pronounced on those whose sense of loyalty forbade them to fight against the king, but rather than stain their hands with kindred blood, renounced home, comfort, society and position for an asylum in the wilderness. The right of conscience and of opinion is sacred, and at this distance of time these men, once generally condemned, may be properly appreciated."

 

 

PHELPS SCOUTING VENTURE

 

 Arriving by ship in New Orleans in the winter of 1774, Phelps and other veterans, many with their families, acquired small boats, and rowed against the swift current of the Mighty Mississippi with barely enough room on each vessel to store each man's provisions. Phelps had left his wife and children behind while he scouted for a place to build a new home.

"From Fort Rosalie” at Natchez, wrote Phelps, "to Petit Gulf (Rodney) is ten and half leagues (about 25 miles) ... several plantations have opened” during the early 1770s.

Along the Big Black River that flows into the Mighty Miss above Grand Gulf, Phelps found ground "high and much broken," several springs of water, and "acres of good, rich soil." He chose a tract of land along the river described as a "small improvement or settlement." Phelps obtained the land "by paying a resident fifty dollars to relinquish his possession in my favor which by the custom of the country ensured a title to me."

In the vicinity, Phelps met two men -- a Virginian named John Storrs and his 19-year-old son. The two were destitute, having spent every penny they had to get to Natchez country. Both were so sick with fever and chills that they were "scarcely ... able to crawl." The Storrs' only possessions were an ax and a musket.

Phelps fed and nursed the two men for days. Each eventually recovered his health. As Phelps prepared to return to New England for his wife and children, Storrs offered to repay Phelps for his generosity by working Phelps’ place in his absence.

Almost nine months after leaving his family, Phelps arrived home in August 1774 weary and ill with the ague. He had become so ill -- unable to "rise or stand alone" -- that he felt "reduced to the borders of the grave."

 

A REVOLUTION BREWS

 

In New England, wrote historian Robert Haynes, "the quarrel between the colonies and England had reached a crisis stage. In anger over the destruction of tea in Boston, the British Parliament passed four Coercive Acts which alienated numerous American colonists and led directly to the calling of the First Continental Congress which met in Philadelphia the last of September 1774."

For a while, Phelps was unsure what to do, but when war seemed inevitable, he determined to make the move.

In May 1776, he loaded his children and pregnant wife onboard a ship and headed for New Orleans. It was a harrowing journey as the ship avoided warships along the way.

In the Gulf, their vessel drifted in the waters on windless days. In time, food and water had to be rationed. On July 30, six days before they reached the mouth of the Mississippi, Jerusha gave birth to a son, the couple's fourth child. Although he was born in the Gulf, Jerusha named him "Atlantic," on the suggestion of the sailors on the ship.

 

UP THE MISSISSIPPI

 

Soon they arrived in New Orleans.

After resting for several days, the Phelps teamed up with two other families -- Joseph Leonard, his wife and six children, and Joseph Flowers, his wife and one child. Wrote Claiborne: "Mrs. Flowers sickened soon after they left New Orleans. The weather was intensely hot, and the current of the river very strong."

Twenty-four hours after the party left the Flowers' at New Roads, Claiborne reported, "Captain Phelps, his wife and children, all became ill and were compelled to tie up the boat." While the Phelps' attempted to rest and recuperate, Joseph Leonard "hired another boat and proceeded with his family, but his wife sickened and died at Natchez."

On Sept. 16, one of Phelps' daughters, Abigail, breathed her last. Claiborne wrote that Phelps "was obliged to bury her himself, rising from his sick pallet to dig the grave." On Sept. 23, Atlantic, the child born at sea, died in the arms of his grieving and deathly ill mother. Phelps himself was so ill at one point with fever and chills that he expected to die, but recovered.

 

DISTRESS AT ELLIS CLIFFS

 

In early November, the family reached Ellis Cliffs, 14 miles south of Natchez, where Phelps hoped to get help from John Ellis, one of the largest landowners in the region. When scouting the country in 1774, Phelps had met Ellis, who encouraged him to return with his family and settle. Ellis also offered to help Phelps and his family in any way he could.

But Phelps said Ellis turned him away when he (Phelps) sought help: "I was so emaciated by sickness, or impoverished by misfortune, or both, that he (Ellis) did not now know me, neither could I engage him, amidst my severe distress, to afford me the least assistance. Quitting this great land speculator and pretended philanthropist therefore, in the severest disgust, we proceeded forward, and the next day reached Natchez."

 

TRAGEDY AT GRAND GULF

 

By the time the family reached Petit Gulf (Rodney), Jerusha could travel no farther. A settler there -- Philip Alston -- opened his home to the Phelps family in their time of grief and need. By this point, Jerusha was exhausted, heartbroken, wracked with fever and chills, and suffering from diarrhea and nausea

She died on Nov. 14.

Devastated, Phelps wrote that the "world appeared to me almost a dreary waste, and the scene of life as if nearly divested of all its decorations." But he had no choice but to press on, while now considering the comfort of his two remaining children, Ruth and Luman, his number one task.

Aboard a small flat-bottomed, Phelps docked at the mouth of the Big Black on Nov. 24. His land was just a few miles upstream. Also onboard Phelps' boat was 14-year-old Abram Knapp, who Phelps' hired to assist him on the remainder of the journey "for sickness and fatigue had so reduced me I was unable to manage the skiff alone."

(Part 2 next week)

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