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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 47

This webpage reproduces part of
Fortescue Cuming's
Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country

published in
Thwaites, Early Western Travels, Vol. IV.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 49
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Tour to the Western Country

[279]  p305  Vol. IV
Chapter XLVIII
The Walnut hills and Fort M'Henry — Palmyra — Point Pleasant — Big Black — Trent's point — The Grand Gulph — Bayau Pierre.

A mile below Cuming's island, is a settlement on the right, and four others immediately below it, all within a quarter of a mile of each other, and all apparently commenced last year. Three miles below Cuming's island, we passed the mouth of the river Yazoos on the left. It is about two hundred and fifty yards wide, and affords a fine view up it four or five miles. Opposite, on the right, is the fine settlement of George Collins, with the Walnut hills in sight over the trees at the end of the reach. Three quarters of a mile  p306 below Collins's there is another small settlement, from whence the Mississippi takes a curve to the N. E. and then again turns to the left, where at the end of a short easterly reach, we saw over the trees, a cliff of the Walnut hills three miles [280]lower down, and soon after, two large, well cleared farms, cultivated from the bank to the top of the hills, where are seen the earthen ramparts of Fort M'Henry, now abandoned. These hills are about as high as the lower Chickasaw Bluffs, but differ from them by rising gradually with a gentle slope, having a most delightful effect on the eye after the level banks with which it has been fatigued, since passing the Bluffs.197

Five miles below the hills, we lost sight of them, having passed several new settlements on the right, but none on the left below the hills for seven miles, where we observed a good large framed house with a piazza. Two miles farther we landed at a farm with a good negro quarter, belonging to a Mr. Hicks from Tennessee, where we got some milk, and returning to our boat, we boarded in the way the barge Adventurer, twenty-nine days from New Orleans, bound to Nashville.

There are a few new settlements in the next seven miles, when on a point on the left we passed the first farm in Palmyra, and rowing strong in to prevent being carried to the right of Palmyra island, we stopped and moored at the bank.

 p307  It is about seven years since several families from New England commenced this beautiful settlement. The situation is almost a peninsula, formed by a continued bending of the river in an extent of four miles, the whole of which is cultivated in front, but the clearing extends back only one hundred and fifty rods, where is a lake, and some low swampy land, always inundated during the summer freshes. There are sixteen families, who occupy each a front of only forty rods, so that the settlement has the appearance of a straggling village. The soil is very fertile, as a proof of which, Mrs. Hubbard, to whose house I went for milk, informed me that last year she had gathered seventeen thousand pounds of cotton in [281]seed, from nine acres, which, allowing it to lose about three quarters in cleaning, left five hundred pounds of clean cotton to the acre, which is a great excess of produce over the West India or Georgia plantations, where an acre rarely yields more than two hundred and seventy-five pounds. At this early season the corn was well advanced, and I observed some in tassel.

Palmyra is one of the most beautiful settlements in the Mississippi Territory, the inhabitants having used all that neatness and industry so habitual to the New Englanders. They now complain that they have too little land, and several of them have appropriated more on the banks of a lake about a mile behind the opposite bank of the Mississippi, in Louisiana. I think the lake and swamp behind Palmyra must render it unhealthy, and the pale sallow countenances of the settlers, with their confession that they are annually subject to fevers and agues, when the river begins to subside, confirms me in my opinion. Indeed this remark may be applied to the banks of the Mississippi in the whole of its long course, between the conflux of the Ohio and the Gulph of Mexico.

June 6th. — We proceeded this morning through the  p308 channel between Palmyra and Palmyra island, which at low water is almost dry.

The Mississippi has a westerly course past Palmyra, from which it crooks gradually to the southward, and then to the eastward, so that Point Pleasant in Louisiana, fifteen miles by the river below Palmyra, is only two miles distant by a road across the swamp from the opposite bank. There are some islands in the river in that distance, but few settlements on either bank, until we came to Point Pleasant, from whence downwards the banks gradually become more thickly inhabited.

[282]Let it be remarked that the river is generally from half to three quarters of a mile wide, except in such parts as I have particularized its breadth. Big Black river, which is deep, but only forty yards wide at its mouth, after a S. W. course from the Chickasaw nation, discharges itself into the Mississippi on the left, seven miles below Point Pleasant. There are several settlements on the banks of Big Black, for forty miles above its mouth, and a town was laid out on it which has not succeeded, and on account of its unhealthy situation, probably never will.198 A quarter of a mile below Big Black, a ridge of hills called the Grand Gulph hills, terminates abruptly at a bluff on the left bank. At the base of the bluff, are a heap of loose rocks, near which is a quarry of close granite, from which some industrious eastern emigrants have cut some excellent mill and grindstones. These hills form a barrier which turns the river suddenly from the eastern course it had held for a few miles above, to a S. W. direction, and it is at the same time narrowed by a projecting point on the right, called Trent's point, to about a quarter of a  p309 mile wide. The acute angle and the sudden compression of the waters of the river, form what is called the Grand Gulph, immediately below the narrows, making two great eddies, between which the true current runs in so narrow a limit for about half a mile, that some skill and dexterity are necessary to keep a boat in it, and to prevent her being sucked into one or the other eddy, in which case, particularly in that on the left, she will be carried round in a circle of a mile or two, and require the greatest exertions of the oars to extricate her. Delay is the only inconvenience attending the getting engulphed, as there is no whirlpool of sufficient suction to draw down even a skiff. Trent has a good house and farm, and a most delightful situation on the right hand point, which is as high above common inundation, [283]as any other part of the river level banks, but the swamp approaching close behind, contracts the farm more than a proprietor would wish.

I may here observe that the banks of the Mississippi form a natural dam, barrier or levée,º more or less broad, from fifty paces to three or four miles, behind which the land slopes to nearly the level of the bed of the river, so that in every summer flood, there is a general back inundation, on the subsiding of which, so much stagnant water remains, as to cause annual attacks of fever and ague, which accounts for the sallow complexion of the inhabitants of the banks.

In the eight miles between the Grand Gulph and Bayau Pierre, there are several settlements on the right, and but three or four on the left bank of the river, the most conspicuous of which is that of Major Davenport, began about a year ago.

At three, P.M. having cast off from Mr. Wells's boats, we rowed into the mouth of Bayau Pierre, up which we advanced a quarter of a mile, and then fastened to a willow, in the middle of the river.

 p310  The contrast between our situation now, and while in the Mississippi was very striking. From a noble, majestick, stream, with a rapid current, meandering past points, islands, plantations and wildernesses, and bearing the produce of the inland states, in innumerable craft of every kind, to New Orleans and the ocean. To find myself suddenly in a deep, dark, narrow stagnate piece of water, surrounded closely by a forest of tall willows, poplars, and other demi aquatick trees, and not a sound to be heard, except the monotonous croakings of frogs, interrupted occasionally by the bull like roaring of an alligator — the closeness of the woods excluding every current of air, and hosts of musquitoes attacking one in every [284]quarter. The tout ensemble was so gloomy, that a British seaman, one of Wells's boat's crew, who had volunteered to assist in getting our boat into the bayau, looking round, exclaimed emphatically —

"And is it here you stop, and is this the country to which so many poor ignorant devils remove, to make their fortunes? — D–––––n my precious eyes if I would not rather be at allowance of a mouldy biscuit a day, in any part of Old England, or even New York, Pennsylvania, or Maryland, than I would be obliged to live in such a country as this two years, to own the finest cotton plantation, and the greatest gang of negroes in the territory."

The Editor's Notes:

197 Walnut Hills is the site of Vicksburg, which was laid out as a town in 1811. This territory, between 31° and 32° 30′ north latitude, was in contention between Spain and the United States from the treaty of 1783 until that known as Pinckney's treaty in 1795, when Spain consented to recognize the right of the United States to the disputed strip. Meanwhile, the local authorities refused to surrender the forts, and it was not until 1798 that a detachment of United States troops took possession of Fort Nogales (built on this site in 1789), and changed its name to Fort McHenry, in honor of the then secretary of war. This territory was part of the grant of the Yazoo Company, whose frauds caused so much contention over titles in the district. See Haskins, "The Yazoo Land Companies," in American Historical Association Papers (New York, 1891), V, pp395‑437. — Ed.

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198 This settlement on the Big Black was made by Connecticut emigrants upon a grant to General Phineas Lyman (1775), when the region was part of West Florida Several journals detailing the hardships of the colonists are extant, notably that of Captain Matthew Phelps. — Ed.

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