Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jackson, Mississippi

On the outskirts of Jackson, Mississippi, there is shade at a campground under pine trees and, for Mississippi this time of year, weather that is lovely.

The weather was wonderful, the travel pleasant and uncluttered along U.S. 82 and 167 for the past two days, too. The countryside is Arkansan, Texan, Cajun, and Mississippian as the roads wind over the state lines. Towns we pass through are named for all these: El Dorado, Stamps, Magnolia, Homer, Bernice, Plain Dealing, Bayou Chanute, and Clinton. Whole sub cultures pass by in a drive through Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and across the river into Mississippi. I crossed the Mississippi River at Vicksburg. I have seen the Red River, the Pecos, and the Rio Grande now adding to my life list of rivers that I had only read about or heard of in song.

Jackson is in a rural southwestern part of the state, although there is a lot of rural in Mississippi. It was founded in 1821 as a trading post for furs headed down river to New Orleans. What recommended it as a place to live at all was that it was on a high bluff along the river. Founded by a French trader, it originally was known as LeFleur's Bluff. Later, the state moved the capital from the Natchez area to escape mosquitoes, the atrocious climate, and the so-called “Federalist” politicians that controlled it.

After some surveying around the area on commission of the state assembly, the Lattimore brothers found the bluff by following the Pearl River south and west. They reported to the Assembly that this was an area of healthful climate, abundant timber, and navigable waters, which was close to the then very important Natchez Trail. Apparently this was enough for the lawmakers. In November of 1821, they voted to move the central government to the site and to name it in honor of Major General Andrew Jackson, who had spent time in the state after the Battle of New Orleans which was a result of the War of 1812. I say it was a result because the battle, in which the British were decidedly thrashed, was fought after England had sued for peace and the war was over. There was no e-mail or cell phones to pass the word in those days and it was far enough from Washington that, until riders reached them some time after it was over, the surrender was not known. General Jackson later did an important and seminal turn as the first “western” President of the United States. Thus, it was au revoir Lefleur and hello to the "city" named in his honor. The Assembly appropriated the munificent sum of $3,200 to build a state house, awarded the contract, and got a thirty-foot square, two story brick building in return.

The importance of the capital’s proximity to the Natchez Trail, also known as “The Trace,” and its place in history cannot be understated. It was the main overland north and south thoroughfare for travel and commerce long before there was a southern or a western United States. It extended nearly 450 miles from near Nashville Tennessee to Natchez Mississippi. It was originally a footpath, used by native peoples as early as 1000 BC and then used heavily by the Native Americans, Spanish explorers, traders, the early settlers, Post riders, and boatman. Farmers would build flat bottom boats to ride the current down the Mississippi River to markets well beyond their reach otherwise and then sell everything including the lumber from the boats and walk home, sometimes more than a hundred miles. It seems inconceivable that this would be a profitable way to move goods to market, but the southern river markets were the only one’s there were for the farmers of the virgin land upriver and the river was the only way to move it efficiently. They had lots of time to get home once done. They needed to be there for spring planting, otherwise, time didn't much matter.

Meriwether Lewis had led the epic journey of the famed Corps of Discovery that had traversed the continent in 1802 from St. Louis to the mouth of the Colombia River and returned in 1804, died on the Trace. At the time he was the Governor of the Louisiana Territories. Unlike his partner, Captain Clarke, Colonel Lewis had political ambitions. The President had rewarded him for his astonishing journey with the patronage job he now held. While returning from Washington, at a place called Grinder’s Stand, an Inn and Tavern on the Trace, one of three things happened: He was murdered, committed suicide, or died of a raging fever from an underlying illness contracted on his earlier trip. Each version has had credence over the years . Historians are now reasonably convinced he was murdered, but remain divided as to why. He is buried there still.

There has been an attempt to restore the old Trace route. It will never be a foot trail like the Appalachian Trail. A road follows the approximate route much like the Blue Ridge Parkway. The evidence of the heavy early use includes places along the way where wide grooves in the hills more than 20 feet deep are found. Thousands of moccasins and horses hooves made them in the red clay soil.

Mississippi adopted four state Constitutions. The second, in 1832, moved the capital. They built what was for them, capacious quarters at Jackson. In 1961, after having survived a checkered career as offices and several attempts to burn it down, the capital became a museum and remains a lovely well cared for place more Greek than southern. The Governor's Mansion built at about the same time has had a different fate. When they built a new one, befitting one new governor or another, it became the seat of municipal government for the City of Jackson. It was built for $8,000 and 140 years later still serves the same purpose. There are no better deals in real estate than that.

The Union General Sherman marched through here three times. The local literature does not make clear why it took him twice as long to ravage the capital of this small rural place as it did for him to burn down most of Atlanta. There are many such anomalies about the War Between the States, as it is known here. The locals profess not to know why he didn't burn down the government buildings, or are at least vague about it. There may have been a Masonic Lodge in one of them, or a church, or something else he respected is how one story goes. The fact that they were likely being used as temporary hospitals sounds more likely.

Jackson was home to some 8,000 souls in 1900 and in 1990 had more than 395,000. Not a large metropolis by some standards, but a substantial place with teaching hospitals, a college, "two regional Malls", whatever that odious term may mean, and commerce mostly as a "distribution center," as the Chamber of Commerce calls it. I think, in English, it means that lots of trucks and boats move things through here to Dallas to the west and Atlanta to the east and New Orleans to the South. It is a very pleasant place, taken altogether, unless it is July or August at five o'clock, the sun is still high, you lack bug repellant, and all you have is lemonade to get you through the night.

In the shade of the pine trees, far back from the highway, on the out skirts of this peaceful place, I spent three days in the company of an extraordinary man and had a series of conversations which reminded me of the Dialogues of Plato. His name was Buddy. He was a legend in this campground. He pulled his forty-foot motor home in here one day, began to pay his rent on the very last day of the month, and always says he’ll be here just one more. He said that the first month and he said it the day after I met him.

"Boots," his tiny dog of many breeds, at eight months has had two life threatening pulmonary operations since Buddy got him as a pup. The veterinarian suggested he take the dog back. Buddy thought that was like giving a sick child back to the hospital. He was convinced the “breeder” would merely have disposed of the then six-week-old Boots. He kept him and paid for the expensive surgeries that allow Boots to breathe almost normally now. That is why Buddy stays here. He is nursing his dog and friend Boots back to health. The fact that Boots is alive is a testament to his spirit. Maybe that is why they are so close. They are much alike these two. No one stops here for 24 hours without meeting the pair. No one refers to them singularly, they are “Buddy ‘n Boots” since they are always together. When you see Buddy, you see Boots. Neither would be without the other, a fact that may be literally true.


  1. Fascinating historical details about a place I have never had a hankering to visit, sad to say. Mississippi sounds muggy and buggy to me, though, I'm sure its as least as beautiful as muggy, buggy Iowa in the summer.

    Love the way you zero in on details as you journey along.

    Guess what.....I just took a pan of Mississippi Mud Bars out of the oven.....to take to at funeral tomorrow.

  2. Never wanted to go there either, just happens when you wander around...Mississippi is a sad place sometimes, but no, no more hot, humid or buggy than Iowa on a July afternoon...

  3. Am roaming amongst the blogs to say "Happy New Year"!

  4. Very interesting blog you have here Reamus. I assume you found me from Jeannelle's blog. I will stop by regularly. I suspect I can learn a lot from your travels!

  5. Yes, that was the likely link....I do more of this when I am actually on the road, which I will be again in March or April.

    Thanks for the kind comments. I am enjoying yours as well.