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|How tobacco shaped politics in frontier Natchez|
Tobacco created two political factions in Natchez country in the 1790s and that split remained for years.
When Natchez became an American possession in 1798, the division determined which faction sided with the President and which side didn't. The merchants in town went one way. The farmers in the country went the other.
When Fortesque Cuming journeyed through Natchez country in August 1808, he wrote about this split and made a particular note of it shortly after riding his horse across the estate of Gov. Winthrop Sargent, whose fine antebellum mansion Gloucester still stands in Natchez today, located on Lower Woodville Road.
Cuming opened a gate, rode through a "spacious lawn" on the Sargent place, and then existed another gate. He then traveled a quarter mile through an "open wood" before arriving at the home of Col. William Scott. Cuming kept a journal of his Natchez country travels and wrote about the people he met.
Col. Scott welcomed Cuming "according to his usual custom with kindness and hospitality, and presented me to his lady and to governour (Robert) Williams, with whom he had been sitting at breakfast. I was invited to join the breakfast party, and I spent an hour very agreeably.
"The colonel had been a captain in the United States' army under General Wayne, and on his arrival in this country, he married a lively, genteel French woman with a handsome fortune. He quitted the army, and joining the militia, he is now adjutant general of the territory. He is a fine, dashing, spirited and friendly Irishman, and has only to be known to be esteemed."
The governor -- Robert Williams -- lived in nearby Washington and was the third territorial governor of the Mississippi Territory. Sargent was the first governor and William Charles Cole Claiborne was the second before moving on to the governorship of Louisiana in the Territory of Orleans following the Louisiana Purchase.
Sargent was appointed by President John Adams of the Federalist Party, which believed in a strong national government. Claiborne and Williams were Thomas Jefferson men, who didn't want the national government to have too much power and favored strong states' rights.
When Claiborne arrived in Natchez in 1801, so split were the politics that the capital of the territory was soon moved from Natchez six miles northward to Washington. The move was made mostly to snub the Natchez merchants who supported Sargent and Adams and opposed Jefferson. Jefferson's supporters were primarily farmers and planters who lived outside the town and with Jefferson in office now enjoyed the spoils of victory.
The relationship between the farmers and the merchants was at the time quite an uneasy one and it was mostly due to the tobacco dispute of the 1790s.
In the late 1780s, the Spanish government, which ruled Natchez then, encouraged the production of tobacco by offering outstanding prices (actually inflated prices) to encourage settlement. The government guaranteed 10 cents a pound for tobacco and promised to buy two millions pounds of tobacco per year.
The Natchez land, with favorable growing conditions, was capable of producing a ton of tobacco leaf per acre. In 1729, the French had grown a bumper crop of tobacco which stood shoulder high.
The provisions were this -- top and medium grade tobacco belonged to the King, while "third grade" product (culls) were sold in Natchez to locals. The high grade tobacco was floated on flatboats to New Orleans, which was graded and shipped to Spanish factories known for producing the finest tobacco products in the world.
To grow tobacco, Natchez farmers had to make a sizable investment in tools and supplies, and they had to build sheds to dry the tobacco plants. This also fueled the demand for slave labor. In 1786, Natchez farmers produced 589,920 pounds of the crop and production grew every year after.
In 1790, however, the Spanish pulled the rug out from under the farmers' feet. The government announced that it was reducing its purchases to 40,000 pounds a year. That's right -- from two million pounds a year to 40,000 pounds a year.
An economic glut in the European market reduced the tobacco demand, plus Gen. James Wilkinson, before he became the commanding officer in the U.S. Army, cut a deal with the Spanish to deliver to New Orleans prime Kentucky tobacco -- superior to Natchez tobacco -- at a reduced rate.
All of this came at a time when Natchez farmers had produced 1.4 million pounds of tobacco on 263 farms in 1789. One of the largest farmers, Adam Bingaman, produced 45,000 pounds that year. The highest production of tobacco was along St. Catherine's Creek, but Coles Creek to the north of Natchez and the Homochitto region to the south also had high production.
Spain's decision not only devastated farmers, but it nearly destroyed about a dozen merchants in Natchez, who reported $146,000 due in unpaid accounts from cash-strapped farmers. In New Orleans, 16 mercantile firms which had extended credit to Natchez tobacco planters were also in a bind. This crisis sent the Natchez economy into a spiral.
The farmers and the merchants each fought for terms before Spanish authorities. Farmers wanted extensions on the repayment of their debt. Merchants were agreeable but needed some guarantee of payment to assure their future. Tempers flared. Hard feelings resulted. Lines were drawn -- town versus country.
Manuel Gayoso arrived in Natchez as the new governor as this crisis raged. The Spanish had created the problem and Gayoso was sympathetic to both the farmers and the merchants. It would make sense, reasoned Gayoso, to lift the ban forbidding the sale of Natchez tobacco to anyone other than Spain. With everyone scrambling to survive, Gayoso saw this as an obvious solution.
Firstly, he boldly said, Spain should do the right thing, noting that the crisis endangered "this land that had already begun to flourish..." He added, "Should his Majesty not wish to continue buying the tobacco crops, let us ship it to any foreign European port, thus extending the privilege which only the French now enjoy..."
But the Spanish government stood firm. In the meantime, the planters and the merchants were at wits end and were taking out their anger on one another as the crisis continued.
Col. Anthony Hutchins, a planter who lived in the Kingston area of what is now Adams County, told Gayoso that when "the King declined taking any more tobacco, the merchants combined against us, and by agreeing upon a tariff of low prices, have so reduced the value of all descriptions of produce, that it now takes, exclusive of interest, one hundred percent more of the same to pay the same debts than it did four year ago." He predicted "matters will drift from bad to worse" and the day would come "when the planter must destroy the merchant or the merchant must destroy the planter."
A short time later, Peter Walker and Alexander Moore on behalf of the merchants told Gayoso that because prices were so uncertain for crops that the farmers had "no encouragement to work." They also said that the merchants had no desire in collecting what was rightfully owed them "to distress or ruin any honest, industrious debtor."
This economic issue later became a political issue which separated the town from the country for years to come. It is also an example of one big difference in a government by King and one of a democracy.
By 1796, Natchez farmers no longer exported tobacco, and according to Gayoso, the region barely produced enough of the product for "its own inhabitants." Indigo was grown for a while, but only four farmers, including William Dunbar, ever made money with that crop.
Production of indigo was costly. It required much equipment, huge vats and polluted the ground and streams during the intensive process to extract blue dye from the indigo plant, which is a weed. The process also resulted in a nauseating stench.
By the end of the 1790s, King Cotton was the crop of choice and with the invention of the cotton gin, its future was unlimited. But the tobacco dispute had left two distinct political factions in Natchez.
In 1808, after breakfasting with Col. Scott and Gov. Williams, Cuming noted in his journal: "I forbear mentioning my opinion of the governour, as the curse of party pervades this territory, as well as every other part of the United States, and any opinion of a publick character, would not fail to offend one or the other party."
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