At noon Thursday, May 11, 1797, Englishman Francis Baily, the 21-year-old son of a London banker, landed in Natchez on a flatboat loaded with flour. His arrival came at a time in Natchez country history when the Spanish flag was flying over Fort Panmure (Rosalie) and the American flag over Liberty Hill a few hundred yards to the north where the House on Ellicott’s Hill sits today.
A treaty had transferred possession of Natchez to the Americans, but the Spanish had yet to leave town, causing great tension. Much excitement was also in the air over cotton, a crop that was transforming the economic fortunes of the region thanks to Eli Whitney's revolutionary saw gin.
"There is a great deal of cotton raised in this district, which is shipped down to New Orleans," Baily wrote in his journal, which was later published in a book (Journal of a Tour of Unsettled Parts of North America in 1796 & 1797, published in 1856). "There are several jennies erected...in order to extricate the seed from the cotton."
On the bank of the Mississippi River at Natchez, Baily observed one gin owned by Stephen Minor and his partner that was "worked by two horses, which will give 500 lbs. of clear cotton in a day. They have one-eighth part for their trouble. The seed cotton loses three-fourths of its weight by jenning.”
Like many frontiersmen, Minor suffered hardship, brushes with death and loss in the years prior to his rise to prominence at Natchez. Although he grew wealthy with land and became the first president of the Bank of Mississippi, people seemed to respect him not for his money but for his honesty and his fairness.
During the American Revolution in 1780, the Pennsylvania native traveled to Spanish New Orleans to procure military supplies for the Continental Army. What happened next to the 20-year-old frontiersman was reported in an 1839 Family Magazine article --- “An Historical Sketch of the Natchez, or District of Natchez, in the State of Mississippi: From 1763” -- by Mann Butler:
“He (Minor) succeeded in his mission, and proceeded on his return by land, on the western bank of the Mississippi, with a caravan of loaded mules. In the course of his journey he was attacked by one of the violent intermittent fevers, which so sorely infest the banks of Southern streams. This prevented him from pursuing his route, in company with his men, when the fit was upon him. In this condition he would lie by, until the ague had passed off, and then ride on to overtake his company at their stage, or rather encampment for the night. One day, when not far from the present post of Arkansas, he was as usual attacked by his fever, followed by an ague, that compelled him to stop.
“On recovering from the chilly fit, he followed the trail of his caravan, and after riding a few miles he came upon the murdered bodies
of his men; his goods had all been taken off; and he left sick in the heart of an Indian wilderness. Circumstances not a little disheartening, but such and even worse were often manfully endured by the pioneers. Minor partook largely of their indomitable spirit; he made the best of his way to the post, whence he returned to New Orleans, with nothing but his own energy to support him in a foreign colony, but at a bustling time…”
Francis Bailey, the 21-year-old Englishman, had heard about Minor during his visit to Natchez. Not long after inspecting Minor's gin on the riverbank, Bailey prepared to take off for New Orleans. When the owners of the flatboat that transported Baily to Natchez sold their flour, the owner and crew headed back home through the wilderness along the Natchez Trace.
Bailey found a ride south on another flatboat "laden with cotton" purchased at Natchez. The cotton was loaded into bags weighing about 200 pounds each. The flatboat held an estimated 250 bags (25 tons). A man named Douglass, the flatboat’s owner, charged planters and merchants an average of $1.50 per bag of cotton, garnering him a fee of $375 for the entire shipment.