Seargent S. Prentiss, a native of Maine who moved to Natchez at age 19 in 1827, later relocated to Vicksburg, a new town on the Mississippi that experienced rapid growth during the 1820s-30s.
A lawyer, Prentiss would one day represent some of the heirs of the white founding father of Vicksburg, who had settled on a Native American clearing in the woods, purchased additional property and later put into motion the creation of a town. Prentiss would gain ownership of part of the property and become rich. But an adverse court ruling coupled with an economic depression would ruin him financially at the very time of his marriage to a Natchez girl.
But before all of these things happened, another story was in the making.
THE STORY OF NEWITT VICK
Virginia born Methodist preacher Newitt Vick loved new frontiers. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had relocated to North Carolina not long after their marriage. There they farmed for four years. Eventually, they journeyed overland to the Tennessee River, bought a keelboat, and followed the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Cole’s Creek with plans to live the rest of their lives in Mississippi Territory.
They lived and farmed a few years near the creek at Selsertown – about 12 miles from Natchez – located in the extreme southern end of Jefferson County along the Natchez Trace.
Once the location of a tavern and stables and a few nearby cabins, the now extinct community grew and died in the shadow of Emerald Mound.
At some point, Vick learned of an attractive piece of ground located in the Walnut Hills along the Mississippi in Warren County.
Joseph Dunbar Shields in his 19th century book (The Life and Times of Seargent S. Prentiss) wrote that Vick’s decision to move upriver would result in the founding of a new town, to be called “Vicksburg” in Vick’s honor:
“The place he selected … about five miles east of the present site of Vicksburg … was called ‘The Open Woods’ because it had been cleared … by the Indians it was said. Before being cleared it was a dense wilderness of gigantic cane and forest trees. The cane was immense, ranging from ten to twenty or thirty feet in height, hollow between the joints (some foot in length), and loaded with foliage.
“At the proper season this cane was cut down, and lay in mass upon the ground till it was dry, when the torch was applied, and instantly the flames burst forth and spread with rapidity; they swept over the woods like the fires on a burning prairie. It was a sublime and stirring spectacle. The bursting of the pent-up air from the cane-barrels sounded like the rattle of musketry upon a battle-field of a hundred thousand infantry ‘firing at will.’ The undergrowth was cindered to ashes, the heavy timber girdled to death, and afterwards stood as dead sentinels of the holocaust.”
According to Shields, after Vick purchased the Open Woods, he “sent his son, Hartwell, in advance, to prepare for his coming; he followed the succeeding year, and settled there. Besides this … Vick purchased two other tracts fronting upon the Mississippi River; the lower one containing some hundreds of acres, the upper one containing two hundred acres."
According to Mississippi historian Dunbar Rowland, friends and relatives from Virginia soon followed Vick to his new home.
DREAM OF A MIGHTY CITY
Shields described Vick as “a man of indomitable energy and a prophet. As he stood upon the lofty hills of the ‘upper two-hundred-acre tract’ and gazed upon the mighty river winding at its base, then, casting his eye northward, beheld the Yazoo debouching itself a little way above into this stream, with prophetic vision he foresaw that here could be laid the foundation of a mighty city.
“True, the topography was rather inappropriate, for it seemed as though nature, in a storm, had quit there, leaving the earth-waves mountains high, and as steep, ay, steeper than the billows of the sea in a cyclone. Yet time and patience and labor could level these and bring them to their just proportions, for the hills themselves were founded upon a rock … his first essay was with a pocket-compass and surveyor's chain; with the help of these simple instruments he began, as early as 1819, to lay off lots south of Glass's Bayou, at a point northwest of what was afterward Lot 1, running thence south, thence east, thence north and west, including as far east as New Cherry Street. There was a pencil memorandum of a map, but this was lost.”
But before he completed the task, Vick died of yellow fever and his wife died 20 minutes later.
Thirteen children survived the couple. Although Vick left a will, legal troubles followed over the varied interpretations in the wording of that document.
VICK’S WILL CHALLENGED
According to historian Rowland, Vick’s will “provided that his executor should carry out his design, which was accordingly done by his son-in-law, the Rev. John Lane, who, in 1824, had the town surveyed and laid off in lots, and thus were sown the seed which have geminated and grown” into Vicksburg.
In 1825, the town was incorporated.
By then, questions were being raised and court documents filed about the intent of the will and the various properties involved. As the number of heirs grew, so did the dissent, especially when it became obvious that the town site property was quickly becoming the most valuable. Almost every line of wording in the will was soon questioned.
The daughters split from the sons, reunited, split again and so on.
Wrote Rowland: “When John Lane sought an order of the court to sell town lots to pay debts, he was opposed by the daughters” of Vick.
This fight went to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which “sustained the daughters, and ordered a partition. Commissioners made the partition, and filed a plat, on which Levee street, afterward known as the Commons, was left open to the public.”
Lane sold more than 60 lots and paid the estate’s debts.
But more legal entanglements and ever changing inter-family alliances and break-ups followed. In 1833, the City of Vicksburg had claimed “title to the Commons by public dedication.” Three attorneys represented the city.
Seargent S. Prentiss led a team of four lawyers representing some of the sons of Vick. A decision in favor of the city was challenged and wound up in the hands of the state Supreme Court. In the interim, Prentiss had purchased the interests of a majority of the heirs.
In 1836, Prentiss wrote his brother, William:
“My speculation consists of having purchased an interest in a portion of land in the town of Vicksburg, which is claimed by the town as Commons, or public property. I purchased of the original proprietors of the town of Vicksburg, and the matter is now pending in a suit, which will be decided by the Supreme Court of the State, this winter. If I succeed, it will make me wealthy.”
In 1837, the state High Court ruled. It unanimously reversed a Chancery Court ruling that had favored the city. Prentiss, wrote Shields, “was at once elevated to wealth.”
At the time, wrote Prentiss’ brother George: “Vicksburg, in 1836-7, was a remarkable place. Like so many flourishing towns along the great lakes and rivers of the West, it had sprung into existence as if by magic. The city was younger than half the children who played about its streets. As a shipping point for a rich and rapidly growing cotton region, its business was very large. Capital and population flowed in from every quest.
“Magnificent steamers, freighted with the products of our own and distant climes, were perpetually stopping on their way to and from New Orleans, Nashville, St. Louis, Cincinnati or Louisville; and rarely did an up-river boat arrive without landing one or more passengers in pursuit of fortune. Vicksburg was, in fact, a sort of rendezvous for planters, lawyers, physicians, schoolmaster, mechanics, clerks, and merchants, who in search of business, were emigrating to the Southwest from New England, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and other parts of the Union.”
THE PRENTISS HOUSE
Seargent Prentiss immediately began work to develop the property. He estimated he would make from $100,000 to $350,000, which would translate into millions of dollars today. He decided to anchor his investment near the waterfront with a hotel, which would become known as the Prentiss House.
Dallas C. Dickey wrote in his 1946 book (Seargent S. Prentiss: Whig Orator of the Old South), that the three-story brick hotel overlooking the Mississippi was built in the early 1840s:
“The entrance was on Levee Street, and columns or pillars extended from the top of the first floor to the cornice of the third, making a balcony in the center of the building. Unquestionably the hotel was Vicksburg’s finest in those days. The business part of the city was close to the river below the bluff, with the river traffic stopping near by.”
The Vicksburg Daily Whig said the hotel was one of the finest in the South with a fine restaurant that would seat 200 and offered well-furnished rooms that were “elegantly supplied.” The dining room served “red fish, oysters, turkey, venison, roast beef, &c., with a choice assortment of vegetables.”
COURT BATTLE RAGES ON
But the family of John Lane, who had laid out the lots and was married to one of Newitt Vick’s daughters, was not done. The Lanes, the daughters and the city had lost to Prentiss in the state Supreme Court, a decision that in 1842 had been sustained by the federal court in Mississippi’s southern district. Undeterred, the Lanes appealed that decision as well.
According to Prentiss’ biographer Dickey, “The basis of the appeal … was that if the Commons did not belong to the municipality of Vicksburg, then the property belonged to all the Vick heirs, and not the sons alone,” and that “the daughters of Vick had been denied what was rightfully theirs. If this was true, it followed that Prentiss and others did not have clear title to the property. In further consequence, the improvements to the land, such as the hotel, estimated to be worth $100,000, could be claimed by the Vick heirs.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the heirs and Prentiss' fortune vanished.