In 1828, Seargent Smith Prentiss began a brief stint as a school teacher at Rokeby, the name of a home and plantation along Fairchild’s Creek in southern Jefferson County not far from Church Hill, Mississippi.
Prentiss was 19, a native of Maine, who due to a lame right leg could walk only with the support of a cane. His disability was the result of a mysterious illness that had seized him in infancy, paralyzed him briefly and almost killed him. He looked upon his mother, Abigail, who loved and nursed him through the months of suffering, as a guardian angel. But she had no doubt her son had survived thanks to a merciful God.
As a child, Prentiss’ elder brother, William, carried him or pulled him in a cart to common school until Prentiss was big enough to manage a horse. His father’s business as a sea captain had suffered during the economic downturn of 1812. The captain’s small farm also suffered.
But because of their son’s yearning to learn and his inability to perform hard physical labor, the family decided to sacrifice as much as they could to send him to college. Prentiss excelled amongst boys much older than he and following a brief stay in Cincinnati, he came to Natchez to teach school on a plantation while he studied for his law license.
He found the perfect job at Rokeby, the home of Mrs. William Bayard Shields, the widow of Mississippi’s first federal judge. Her husband had been an influential participant in the early territorial government of Mississippi.
A native of Delaware Shields, as a major on Mississippi Governor Robert Williams’ staff, along with Attorney General George Poindexter, had escorted former Vice-President Aaron Burr from Cole’s Creek to the territorial capital of Washington where a grand jury declined to indict Burr for treason in 1807.
Shields became one of the most prominent lawyers in the territory, served as attorney general, was a representative in the general assembly and elected judge of the Mississippi Supreme Court. In 1818 President James Monroe nominated him as the first U.S. district judge for the state. The U.S. Senate quickly approved the nomination. Shields served until death in 1823, four years before Prentiss arrived in Natchez.
In Natchez and at Rokeby – really, wherever Prentiss went – he made a lasting impression on those he met. His intelligence was obvious, but his kindness, friendliness and easy manners were magnetic. Even his political enemies in the years to come would love him.
Before his death at age 41 in 1850, Prentiss would become one of the nation’s great orators, a speaker who could make grown men cry. His shyness, limp right leg, slight lisp and short statute caused him to doubt himself with the opposite sex although women were drawn to him.
At Rokeby, Prentiss was hired to teach Mrs. Shields’ five children, the oldest only a few months older than Prentiss himself. He was allowed to bring neighborhood children into the fold who were willing to pay for the service. Even more importantly, Prentiss was given use of the late Judge Shields’ law library, considered to be the most extensive in Mississippi.
One of the children, Joseph Dunbar Shields, co-wrote a book about Prentiss (The Life & Times of Sergeant Smith Prentiss).
“The school-house,” Shields wrote, “was a hewn-log house, chinked and daubed with cat and clay. It stood upon an adjoining ridge, about a hundred yards from the dwelling; it was the whilom overseer's house, now elevated to a school-room. I am thus particular in describing the spot because it was the first home of Prentiss in Mississippi, and from that fact … long after his body had mouldered into dust, the halo of his association threw a protecting aegis over it and saved it from desecration. In this humble log cabin he began the treadmill life of tutor.”
In a short time, Prentiss visited Captain James Truman Magruder, who, like Prentiss’ late father, had made his living as a sea captain. Magruder had gone to sea at age 14. By age 20, he was the captain of a ship. Now retired, Magruder lived at his plantation, Mount Ararat, at Church Hill. Magruder’s son, Nathaniel, noted his first recollection of Prentiss a half century after the fact:
“Everything is as plain to me now, after fifty years, as though it were yesterday,” Nathaniel wrote. “It was a damp, drizzly day. My father had a habit, when excited or interested, of walking rapidly back and forth, with his hands behind him, as he had been wont to do on the deck of his ship. It was in this act of 'walking the deck' under a good deal of excitement, but evidently pleasurable, that I found him, as I entered the hall from the rear of the house with my gun (I had just returned from hunting).
“When he heard my step he looked up and asked, 'Is that you, Nat?' then, turning and pointing to the lane in front, 'Do you see that lame brat riding off there?'
"I answered, 'I see a gentleman on horseback, father, but can't discover his lameness at this distance.'
“'Well,' said he, 'I've just engaged him as your teacher, and he's the smartest man that ever entered this house. If he's not at the head of the bar in Mississippi in ten years I shall be more deceived than I ever was in man.'”
Prentiss had handed Magruder a note from Mrs. Shields asking that he allow Prentiss to teach Magruder’s children as well. The captain decided to interview Prentiss first, quizzing him on many subjects.
Magruder asked Prentiss about mathematics, the captain’s favorite school subject. Prentiss answered and then posed a question for Magruder that he couldn’t answer.
Exasperated, the captain responded with the harshest swear words he was ever known to speak at home, “Holy spoon!”
“A school-boy's memory is like his slate,” wrote Joseph Dunbar Shields, “the sum of one day is rubbed out to make room for that of the next: here and there a scratch may occur to make a lasting impression …We little ones, of course, tried his patience day after day, but I do not remember that he (Prentiss) ever spoke a cross word to any of us save once: he became fretted with my little sister, and he pulled her ears till she cried.”
SLAVES & WEALTH
In February 1828, Prentiss, lonesome for his family, friends and beautiful Maine, wrote his mother:
“I do not like the manner of living here, so well as I do our Northern fashion. The white people themselves differ very little, as I can perceive, from those of our own part of the country.
“Slavery is the great pest of this as well as all the other Southern States. It is considered disgraceful for a white man to do any kind of hand labor – and everything is done by the slaves. Of course, things are done in a very poor and slovenly manner; and, though people here are far wealthier than they are in the North, yet I do not think they live so comfortable or so happily.”
In April, he wrote his brother, William, explaining that he would eventually return to Maine: “I would dislike to live in a slave-holding State; furthermore, I have seen no part of the Union which I think pleasanter, all things considered, than that which I left.
“The only advantages which these Southern States possess over those of the North, are the great facilities they afford for the accumulation of wealth, and this, you know, I consider a very small item in the account of human happiness. At least, I know it would have small influence upon my own. There are some other reasons which induce me to think that, in the course of two or three years, you will see me amongst you again.”
HONEY-POTS, GATORS & FIGS
In June, he complained to brother William about the heat of the South and how he missed the mountains of Maine. An avid hunter and fisherman, Prentiss found that the Mississippi streams and brooks dried during the summer into “muddy puddles, running through gullies and quagmires.”
But, oh, the lakes were “perfect honey-pots, very similar to one or two little ponds, which you may recollect, on the way to Sebago Pond. These lakes abound in snakes and alligators.
“I have frequently rode out to several lakes a few miles from here, for the purpose of hunting wild ducks, and have seen some of the enormous alligators – twelve or fifteen feet in length.”
Later in the summer he answered a letter from one of his little sisters, Abby, complimenting her on her improved penmanship.
“I suppose apples are about getting ripe with you now,” he wrote. “They do not thrive well here; neither do cherries or plums; but peaches and melons grow in abundance, and also the fig, a most delicious fruit, of which I am extremely fond. I wish I could send you a basket of them. I know you would like them.”
(To Be Continued)