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|Natchez social season 1803-04; wedding of Lydia Carter & Mr. Poindexter|
The social season in Natchez during spring of 1804 came during a time of great political excitement in the Mississippi Territory. This region was growing, new citizens were arriving every day and the Louisiana Purchase signaled the American settlement of Concordia.
There were two big weddings that spring in Natchez country -- one north of Natchez uniting Judge Peter Bruin's daughter and Dr. John Cummins in March, and another south of Natchez where Mississippi Territory Atty. Gen. George Poindexter wedded the beautiful Lydia, the 14-year-old daughter of Capt. and Mrs. Jesse Carter.
The social season actually began in December of 1803 and extended through the spring of 1804. During this period of parties, weddings and various social events, there was one man who seemed to be at every happening -- Thomas Rodney, a Delaware judge and former Congressman, who was tapped by President Thomas Jefferson to serve as one of the three judges on the Mississippi Territory Supreme Court.
Rodney was appointed in July 1803, and began his 1,500-mile journey to Natchez in late August. He came part of the way by horse and coach, then with a few other men boarded a flatboat and traveled down the Ohio River.
Along the way he met Capt. Meriweather Lewis, who had recently served as President Jefferson's personal secretary. Lewis was busy preparing for the greatest journey of his life along with Capt. William Clark in the exploration of the western reaches of the Louisiana Purchase.
On November 8, Rodney and his companions entered the Mississippi River and by November 16 they reached the Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis), where they docked and spent the day washing clothes. During their 14-week journey, Rodney explored the countryside at the stopping points, and visited with travelers along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He wrote about it in his journal.
Somewhere between the Chickasaw Bluffs and Natchez, his flatboat hit a sawyer creating a "six-inch square hole." Water "rushed through her bottom." The small party was 150 miles from any settlement, and "lost many things."
The men escaped onto a skiff. After the current tore the flatboat off the snag, they towed it to shore, and encamped on "a mud bank all night." The next day, they turned the flatboat bottom up, "mended the break," slept in the vessel that night and headed out the next day facing no more "mischief" for the remainder of the journey.
'ELEGANT DINNER' IN DECEMBER
On December 1, the flatboat docked at the Natchez landing where Rodney noticed a bustling river trade. That very day, Mississippi Territory Gov. W.C.C. Claiborne left for New Orleans as a commissioner to accept Louisiana from the French in a ceremony planned at the place now known as Jackson Square.
Rodney bought a horse and rode to Washington, six miles north of Natchez, where the territory capital was located. There he began his duties as land commissioner and judge. Land deals were being conducted almost daily. Rodney prepared papers for a man named Tannell who sold 3,500 acres of ground 20 miles below Natchez near Ellis Heights at a cost of $10 per acre.
Accustomed to cold Delaware winters, Rodney was happy to find the weather on December 17th in Natchez country "fine and pleasant." He enjoyed the cool nights, the "white frost" instead of the Delaware snow, and loved the "clear, mild days." His health at the age of 60 was robust, invigorated by the pleasant Natchez climate.
At Washington, Tennessee troops were soon expected en route to New Orleans at a time when the Mississippi had "swelled 10 feet."
On December 22, the first two companies of "Tennessee Horse arrived at Fort Dearborn," a mile from Washington. Later, Rodney and other officials -- "34 gentlemen" in all -- enjoyed an "elegant dinner" at 3 p.m. All, said Rodney, were "social and joyous." They returned for wine and spirits at dark.
On December 23, a second company of Tennessee troops arrived with reminding 500 expected the next day. Then came Christmas and the new year of 1804. Rodney liked his new surroundings and was pleased to find the people of the Mississippi Territory "social and hospitable."
On January 12, Tennessee soldiers and a company of the Mississippi militia, led by Major Ferdinand Claiborne, raised the American flag at the Post of Concord, the site of present day Vidalia. Natchez Mayor Samuel Brooks and a group of Natchez citizens ferried across the Mississippi to take part in the ceremony. News had just reached Natchez that documents completing the Louisiana Purchase transaction had been completed and signed in New Orleans on December 20.
Back in Washington, there was "a great ball" at Rodney's house "where there were 25 well dressed ladies and as many young gentlemen..." The revelry continued the next day as Mississippi Territory Secretary Cato West, serving as acting governor, gave a "public entertainment and invited the commissioners, Tennessee officers and a number of other gentlemen to his feast where we drank a number of patriotic toasts and spent the day with great accord and pleasantry." The kind words said with raised glasses were printed in the Natchez paper.
CUMMINS-BRUIN WEDDING BELLS ON BAYOU PIERRE
In February, on Sunday the 12th, Rodney and some new friends dined at the Forest Plantation with William Dunbar and his family. Dunbar, said Rodney, was "one of the principal nabobs of this country and (we) were entertained superbly and very genteely...our fraternity stayed there all night and were all greatly pleased with him and his family..."
Dunbar, who corresponded regular with Jefferson, had just two weeks earlier updated the President on happenings in Natchez, and included "three years of meteorological observations." Dunbar also expressed his concern about Jefferson College, which had been established but not yet built. Because many in the community had yet to contribute to its construction, Dunbar said the "college is in absolute poverty."
On Tuesday, February 14, Rodney, the aging Col. Anthony Hutchins, Judge Peter Bruin and Judge Bay of South Carolina retired to their lodgings at Washington "where we have none to disturb us but our own friends and company..had a pleasant evening till 10 o'clock." The other men went to bed, but Rodney stayed up to write his son about the day's events, adding "you know I sleep much less than anybody else."
Among the topics of discussion that evening were the weather, spring planting and the upcoming marriage of Judge Bruin's daughter to Dr. Cummins. The winter was progressing "mild and delightful," said Rodney. The garden peas and beans, the peach and cherry trees were all "in blossom."
In March, Rodney traveled 60 miles north to Bayou Pierre for the wedding of Bruin's daughter. Rodney told his son that in the Mississippi Territory "judges stand priests here in cases of matrimony" although the "Justices of the Peace also have authority to marry..." But, he added, "the better sort prefer having it done by the superior judges..."
March had been a cool month. A frost was recorded on many mornings. Gardens had been planted and the best two gardeners in Natchez -- William Dunbar at the Forest and former Gov. Winthrop Sargent at Gloster Place -- would "have peas next month."
VISITS WITH HUTCHINS, DUNBARS ALONG SECOND CREEK
In April, Rodney planned a trip to New Orleans with Atty. Gen. Poindexter and William Shields. As Poindexter and his bride-to-be put the finishing touches on their wedding plans, Rodney and William Shields visited John McIntosh, where they found about a dozen other men had also been invited on a gloriously "pleasant and fine" day.
But that night Rodney "got the chills, then a high fever." He was miserably sick, vomiting and sleepless. The next day, Dr. David Lattimore gave Rodney a dose of "tartar emertic" to produce more vomiting to "cleanse" Rodney's system. The judge reported that it seemed to work. Afterward he ate some chicken soup and began to feel better.
By the third day, the judge had recovered a great deal, but was too weak to make the journey to New Orleans. He spent two days in the home of Col. Hutchins and his wife at their "very pleasant place on Second Creek, a branch of the Homochitto river." Hutchins, one of the oldest settlers in Natchez, was 80-years-old "with a big family."
The colonel was the "Forest Gump" of Natchez, not that he was intellectually challenged but that he was in the middle of every major event in Natchez country during the previous three decades. Hutchins had a reputation for calumny, but Rodney found the colonel "very amiable, and the old lady and her daughters who were at home were very kind and friendly to me..."
Journeying northward to Washington, Rodney visited the Dunbar family on Second Creek, six miles south of Natchez, where he was "kindly received" for two days. Dunbar was one of the wealthiest men in the territory, a man of "great science" and "much respected."
Rodney said Dunbar's second daughter, Peggy, was "very pretty" and considered the "belle of the territory." His young friend William Shields was among the many "much smitten" by Peggy Dunbar. "Poor Shields," Rodney said of the lovesick young man.
By early May, as the wedding of George Poindexter and Lydia Carter neared, Rodney had recovered fully from his illness of April. He was relieved to learn that the mosquitoes, horse flies and other insects and bugs, including fleas, weren't too pesky at all during his first spring in Natchez country. But in the forest, he said, are "millions of ticks."
May 1804 brought much more than showers to Mississippi Territory. Rodney said "there was a great rain here...that overflowed all the creeks and did much mischief. It rained 24 hours and in that time seven and one-half inches of water fell, and was the greatest fall of rain that has been in so short a time since 1773." The rain "raised the small rivers and creeks about 12 feet higher than they have been..."
On May 29 Rodney left Washington for the marriage of Lydia Carter and George Poindexter. The judge "stayed all night" with the Dunbars. Rodney's arrival at The Forest came just 16 days after Dunbar had replied to the President's request concerning a proposed expedition to explore the Arkansas and Red rivers. The President wanted Dunbar to find a man from Natchez to take part in leading the expedition.
Several of Jefferson's letters lay on Dunbar's desk. He wrote the President on May 13: "It will be no easy task to discover here persons (even) moderately qualified to conduct the expedition..."
By late summer, Dunbar had agreed to lead the expedition himself, and because war parties of the Osage Indians were roaming parts of the Arkansas River, Dunbar determined to explore the Ouachita instead. The President had found in Dunbar the most qualified man in the country to lead any exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. Of the leaders of the four expeditions, including Lewis and Clark, no one knew more about science, geology, geography and nature.
LYDIA CARTER'S WEDDING DAY
As Dunbar quietly contemplated exploration, the girls at The Forest were up half the night talking about the exciting events to come the next day. On the morning of the wedding, Rodney rode with the "young ladies Miss Peggy Dunbar and Miss Ellen Girault" to Captain Carter's for the nuptials.
Peggy and Ellen -- both "young and handsome" -- were the bridesmaids and the groomsmen were William Shields and David Ponnel. Shields, said Rodney, was "terribly in love with Peggy," and "young Ponnel with Miss Girault so both of them were highly pleased at being at the wedding."
Lydia Carter, the bride, had dreamed of this day. As she stood gazing into the eyes of George Poindexter as they exchanged vows, Natchez country was wrapped in a wonderfully bright and warm day.
In Washington, young ladies and their escorts walked along St. Catherine's Creek and rested in the shade of the trees. In Natchez, those pausing atop the bluff observed cows and horses grazing across the river on the lush green meadows of Concordia. Corn fields dotted the landscape.
George Poindexter had just days earlier received a congratulatory note from an old friend from his native Virginia, who now resided in Natchez also.
"You have drawn a valuable prize in the matrimonial lottery," wrote H.B. Trist of Lydia Carter. "Her great beauty is, as far as I can judge, her least recommendation for she blends grace and intelligence with every amiable trait that adorns her sex."
But, Trist advised: "Only preserve yourself an evenness of temper, dispel gloom when it assails you as your bitterest enemy, as well as too much levity, and your prospect for happiness will be bright indeed." Trist knew of Poindexter's great depths of depression, his quarrelsome nature, his love of bar rooms and brawls, and his inclination, said another who knew him, "for rowdyism."
But Lydia didn't know of these things.
As Judge Rodney performed this late spring ceremony, Lydia's hopes for the future, for children and for happiness were delivered to the heart of this 25-year-old Virginian named George Poindexter.
To the vow of love she answered, "I do."
But poor Lydia did not know the nature of this man who had captured her love. In time, the joy in this bride's eyes would melt in tears and she would regret this day.
(Next week: Life after the wedding day.)
|Frank Morris Murder Series|