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|Bruin appointed judge when Natchez became American|
LIFE ON THE FRONTIER -- OUTLAWS, INDIAN ATTACKS, DRINKING, SURVIVING
(Second in a series)
When Peter Bryan Bruin, a Virginian and a Revolutionary War veteran, settled on Bayou Pierre in 1788 on a 1,200-acre Spanish land grant, he was on the fringes of the wild frontier.
Along with law-abiding men like Bruin, who built a home here in Natchez country and cleared land for crops, there were others who led different lives. These were men who resorted to thievery, mayhem and violence -- outlaws living in the forests, bandits operating along the Indian trails from Natchez to Nashville, misfits under-the-hill, and a few bands of Indians unhappy with the encroachment of the white men on their ancestral land. All, whenever they felt like it, would kill a man with a gun, a knife, an arrow, a tomahawk or a fist.
Because of these constant threats of violence, the governor of Spanish Natchez, a Spaniard named Manual Gayoso, considered frontier defense for the King's citizens one of his major responsibilities. Bruin knew how to use a musket and a Virginia rifle. He, like other frontiersmen, never left home without a flintlock on his shoulder.
Gayoso named him as an "alcalde," or magistrate. The position was similar to that of a constable. Bruin and a few others were given a degree of authority to assist the governor in providing law and order.
Not long after Bruin settled on Bayou Pierre, about 40 miles north of Natchez, he was visited by Major Samuel S. Forman, who wrote: "At Bayou Pierre lived Colonel Bruin, of the Virginia Continental line, who, after the war, took letters from General Washington to the governor of that country (Natchez) while it belonged to Spain, and secured a fine land grant. I once visited Colonel Bruin...That section of country is remarkably handsome, and the soil rich. The colonel's dwelling-house was on the top of a large (Indian) mound, and his barn on another, near by."
Bruin's home was located one mile from the mouth of Bayou Pierre, a waterway which got its name from two different cultures -- "Pierre" from the French and "bayou," from the Choctaw word -- "bayuk" -- meaning "dead water." Along this waterway, also lived a handful of other law-abiding settlers, some had been in the region for a number of years. But there was also a criminal element, represented by men such as Benjamin Payatt, who in 1792 took the life of a Choctaw.
The Indian murdered by Payatt was the father of Payatt's live-in girlfriend. Gov. Gayoso sent a man named Adam Ware, a constable, to bring Payatt to justice with strict instructions to shake down and carefully bind his dangerous prisoner.
After his arrest, Payatt pretended to be ill and convinced Ware not to bind him. Big mistake. Later, on the journey to Natchez, Payatt got his hands on Ware's knife and in a struggle killed him, stabbing him twice in the chest.
When Gayoso received the news, he organized a posse with the clear mission to bring Payatt to the governor, alive if possible. About 30 men joined a posse, each promised by Gayoso a land grant of 170 acres for six months service as a mounted police force. The posse hunted down Payatt on Bayou Pierre and delivered him to the governor, who, following Spanish law, quickly sent the prisoner to New Orleans for trial.
INDIAN ATTACKS IN NATCHEZ COUNTRY
For settlers like Bruin living on the frontier, attacks from small bands of Choctaw and Talapoosas were not uncommon. But in 1792 the problem caused great alarm when members of the MacFarland family, who lived along the Big Black, were viciously murdered by six Talapoosa braves.
Jack D.H. Holmes, who wrote a biography on Gayoso in 1965, said that when the governor arrived in Natchez "he found the outlying settlements in danger of constant attack and massacre from marauding bands of overzealous Talapoosas who made no distinction between American farmers living on Spanish lands with royal permission and those land-hungry Americans who penetrated traditional Creek hunting grounds."
Holmes said that in 1790 a band of Choctaws had "threatened a large group of planters, notably the Rapalye family on the Big Black, warning them to leave the Natchez district or face destruction."
The Spanish had began work to form a militia to provide frontier defense in the mid-1780s and by the early 1790s, Bruin had organized on Bayou Pierre, said Holmes, "a type of minute-man frontier ranger force." Bruin was named a militia colonel and in a few years, the renegade Indian attacks ended.
In this rugged world, Bruin, carrying the scars of battle and small pox, turned more and more to drink. He wasn't alone. In a day of home remedies and primitive medical treatment, liquor became the one-drug cure-all. Under-the-hill Natchez was already a center for the hard-living rivermen, misfits and criminals who loved drink, women, dice and trouble.
Whiskey would ease a toothache, take the edge off a knife or gunshot wound, and relieve the delirium of a fever. Many drank all day long.
Liquor was so prevalent on the frontier that whiskey was a part of military rations and was as important to the soldier as a musket or salted pork. When civilians William Dunbar and George Hunter led the exploration of the Ouachita River in 1804-05 following the Louisiana Purchase, this military-based operation included 12 soldiers, a sergeant and so much whiskey that the leaders had to limit its use.
BRUIN RESPECTED, SUCCESSFUL
Bruin soon became a respected planter, rancher and citizen along Bayou Pierre. In December 1794, according to Holmes, Bruin "mortgaged his plantation to build a sawmill on Dec. 4, 1794."
Some Natchez settlers processed tar and turpentine from the thick pine forests in the region for the maritime industry in the construction of ships and other vessels. Sawmill operators like Bruin supplied Natchez and New Orleans lumber and staves, a thin slat of wood used to make buckets and barrels. Stave production continued through the early 20th Century in this region.
William Dunbar of the Forest Plantation, who moved to Natchez from Baton Rouge in 1792, once produced 17,000 staves in one month. He noted: "The white oaks are used for barrel staves, and the young white oaks and nut trees are used for hoops." Dunbar, a man who worked tirelessly to market his agriculture and forest products, shipped much of his stave production to the West Indies.
By the 1790s, Natchez craftsmen produced some of the finest axes in the South. Gayoso said they were the best.
Bruin's plantation prospered. Historian D. Clayton James said that Bruin was one of a handful of men who imported "purebred stocks of horses, cattle, sheep and hogs -- unknown around Natchez..."
For a brief period, according to W.H. Sparks, future President Andrew Jackson operated a store and a quarter horse race track at the mouth of Bayou Pierre near Bruin's home. Sparks said the store stood on the banks of the Mississippi and the horse track nearby.
As the district's population slowly grew, Gayoso named Bruin to the first civilian-based governing body in this region, based on the Spanish cabildo, or council. The board was granted minor authority under the governor's direction.
Some of the others named to this body were:
-- William Dunbar, the stave maker and a Scotsman, who lived on Second Creek, six miles south of Natchez. Dunbar was also an astronomer who followed the path of comets, a scientist who experimented with cotton seed, and an inventor who perfected the cotton gin. He was also a surveyor and explorer.
-- Bernard Lintot, an Englishman from Connecticut, a large landowner south of Natchez who was also a successful businessman. He was the father of Fanny Lintot, who was married in a ceremony performed by Dunbar to the horse hunter Philip Nolan in 1799. Another daughter, Catherine, married Stephen Minor, the American who served the Spanish for years and was the last governor of Spanish Natchez.
-- Capt. Joseph Vidal, a Spaniard like Gayoso who served as the governor's secretary and later became Vidalia and Concordia's founder, prominent in the early Spanish and American governments on both sides of the river two centuries ago.
This body met regularly at the government house on the Natchez bluff to view land grant applications, passports and other matters. Now 41, Bruin was the man to see on Bayou Pierre. He had political clout with a Spanish government dictated by a King in Europe.
THE TRANSFER OF GOVERNMENT
In 1798, the United States by treaty took possession of Natchez from the Spanish and created the Mississippi Territory. Gov. Winthrop Sargent, himself an American Revolution veteran, was named by Congress as the first governor.
Bruin was friends with many important American military and civilian leaders, including Andrew Ellicott, who represented the U.S. government in Natchez during the transition of power between Spain and the United States.
Bruin's comrade at the Battle of Quebec in 1775, Aaron Burr, was an influential politician who had just completed a term as a U.S. Senator in New York and by 1800 would be vice-president under Thomas Jefferson. Bruin knew many officers from the Revolutionary War, many in public office at the time, including the nation's first president, George Washington.
On Feb. 23, 1797, Ellicott, accompanied by a military escort, docked his barge at the mouth of Bayou Pierre. Ellicott was the U.S. Boundary Commissioner who helped oversee the transition of power from Spain to America. After the transition, he was to mark the new Spanish-American boundary line 60 miles below Natchez that would stretch from the Mississippi River eastward. But he couldn't performed the work until the official government transfer was complete.
On his journey down the Mississippi, Ellicott had been joined by the horse hunter Philip Nolan, the dashing young bachelor who was the protégé and confidante of Gen. James Wilkinson, who arrived in Natchez a short time after Gov. Sargent. Ellicott and Nolan walked to Bruin's home, arriving at 2 p.m.
From Bruin, Ellicott "expected to obtain much valuable information respecting the principal characters in that (Natchez) country, and the line of conduct it would be proper to pursue...In my expectations I was not disappointed."
"We were received by the Colonel with that politeness and hospitality for which he has been so long and justly esteemed," said Ellicott, who asked Bruin, the American patriot, to accompany Nolan on the horse hunter's boat to Natchez to gather some intelligence on the Spanish officials.
Ellicott had learned that Gayoso, under orders from his superiors, had been directed to delay the transfer of government. Bruin gathered what information he could prior to Ellicott's arrival at Natchez and then formally introduced Ellicott to Gayoso without letting on that Ellicott had been a guest in Bruin's home a day earlier.
Such intrigues and cat-and-mouse games would mark the next 13 months in Natchez until the Spanish finally left and the American form of government was established here. For quite a few years Natchez country had been divided by various factions and as the smell of democracy filled the air, many men, Bruin included, began to jockey for political positions and power.
But it was Bruin's connection to many, many important American men that led to his Congressional appointment as one of three territorial judges in the newly-created Mississippi Territory. Territorial judges and the governor were given broad authority in this infant frontier government in a way that struck many as very undemocratic. In fact, the right to vote did not exist in the early phase of territorial rule.
BRUIN BECOMES FIRST JUDGE
A man without an education or a law degree, Bruin was the only local man named to a judgeship and he was the first to take his seat, making him the first American jurist in this region of the United States.
During the early days of territorial court, wrote historian William Baskerville Hamilton, the court system "consisted of superior courts held by the federally appointed judges in each of three districts twice a year, with both legal and equitable, both civil and criminal, jurisdiction. The districts were Adams, made up of Adams and Wilkinson countries; Jefferson, composed of that county and Claiborne; and Washington, comprising all the settlements on the Alabama side...It was an isolated region. Appeals to superior courts could be made from the county courts."
By 1805, due to "the multitude of petty appeals from the county courts, the court system was remodeled." A Supreme Court of two territorial judges "possessing original equity jurisdiction but otherwise an appellate court," sat twice a year in Adams County.
"From the lower courts," says Baskerville, the Supreme Court "heard and determined not only appeals but such matters as reserved points, demurrers, and motions for new trials. One or more of the three judges presided at the circuit courts twice a year." By 1809 the Supreme Court "was abolished and the circuit courts in each county were now styled 'Superior Courts of Law and Equity.'"
As a judge, Bruin's actions in the courtroom could drastically affect a man's life. He could sentence a horse thief to 50 lashes or death. With such power, he needed to be at his best mentally when holding the gavel.
Now 44, the old war wound and the debilitating months on a British prison ship were taking a toil on his health. The whiskey had become all important in relieving the mental and physical anguish. The problem was this dependency was slowly taking over his life.
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