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|The incredible sufferings of Matthew Phelps: He lost everything in Natchez|
When Captain Matthew Phelps, a veteran of the French and Indian War, first heard that a group of veterans was planning to head for Natchez country to begin new lives, he liked the idea.
In addition to staking a land claim in the rich soil of the lower Mississippi Valley, the move would take his family far away from the brewing revolution pitting the colonies against the mother country back in England.
One war was enough for men like Phelps. They had seen the carnage of war. Additionally, Phelps and other veterans felt loyalty to the crown but didn't want to take up arms against their fellow colonists. This was a heart-breaking situation for many veterans who loved New England but found themselves being forced to take sides against their will.
When the British government decided to allow the colonization of Natchez, it determined that veterans of the French and Indian War should be rewarded with land grants. Colonists like Phelps had fought along side British regulars to secure England a victory over the French in North America in a nine-year war that began in 1754 and ended in 1763.
Natchez was then an isolated country long held by the French who had abandoned the region years earlier. Only a few rugged frontier traders and Choctaws moved in and out of the long-neglected Fort Rosalie at the top of the bluff.
Natchez was described by the occasional traveler as a beautiful country, almost magical, with lush, green meadows found in thick forests where wildlife was abundant. It was a land, they said, of crystal clear lakes and streams abounding with fish, where thick patches of cane grew to heights of 30 to 40 feet and where the first view of the Natchez country bluffs from the Mississippi River was stunning. And the view from atop those bluffs to the west (Louisiana) breath-taking.
It was also a land with great agriculture potential, and in the mid-1770s, 19 in 20 people lived on farms in North America even as the population of the colonies exploded. No region on the planet was growing faster than the Atlantic seaboard. In 1775, just before the revolution ignited, Philadelphia was the largest city with 40,000 residents, New York claimed 30,000, Boston 20,000.
The French had grown shoulder-high tobacco in the 1720s on the land around the Natchez fort. The potential for growing crops in the rich soil and for raising livestock in the lush meadows had no known limits.
With Spain in control of Louisiana and New Orleans, the British also saw Natchez as a strategic military point on the Mississippi.
PHELPS STAKES LAND CLAIM
In New England, Phelps was one of scores of veterans who became part of an organization known as The Company of Military Veterans, composed of French and Indian War veterans from that region. Their leader was Gen. Phineas Lyman, a well-respected and highly-decorated war veteran who drew praise for his service against the French in Canada and later served briefly as the military governor of Cuba.
A native of Harwington, Conn., Phelps grew up on a small farm, and before reaching 20 married young teen named Jerusha. With a $150 inheritance from his father and a gift of furniture from Jerusha's father, the couple started life together and soon had children.
As plans to colonize a part of Natchez country were finalized by the military adventurers, different groups traveled here at different times due to their individual circumstances. Phelps arrived in 1774 to scout property on which to make a claim.
According to historian Robert V. Haynes, "Permanent title to the land was contingent upon the company (of military adventurers) planting the required number of settlers upon the lands reserved in its name." In all, the huge colonization project sought 380,000 acres along Bayou Pierre and the Big Black in present day Claiborne and Warren counties.
In late 1773, Phelps was among an excited group of 45 adventurers on two vessels in route by sea for New Orleans. We have an outstanding record of Phelps' first and second journeys to Natchez country because he wrote about it in his memoirs, which were edited by Anthony Haswell and published in Bennington, Vt., in 1802.
Rarely did sailing the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico come without danger and hardship. At times the vessels were "wind-bound," on one occasion one ship struck a reef. Later, the first mate led a mutiny and took over one ship from an unwise captain. There were many frightening times when all on board, said Phelps, were "trembling and weeping under the most painful apprehensions."
Arriving by ship in New Orleans in the spring, he and other veterans acquired small boats, and faced the swift current of the Mighty Mississippi with enough room on each vessel to store each man's provisions.
"From Fort Rosalie," wrote Phelps, "to Petit Gulf (Rodney) is ten and half leagues. There is firm rock on the east side of the Mississippi for near a mile. The land near the river is high, very broken, very rich, and several plantations have opened."
Phelps founds the land along Bayou Pierre to hold "several quarries of stone...and the land has a clay soil, with some gravel on the surface. On the north side the land is generally low and rich; on south side much higher and broken into hills and vales" He saw timber "heavy and valuable."
Ten miles to the north, he said, was the Big Black, where he found ground "high and much broken," several springs of water, and "acres of good, rich soil." Phelps chose a location along the Big Black, described by historian John F.H. Claiborne in his 19th Century book on Mississippi as a "small improvement or settlement" that he bought for $50.
While doing some preliminary work on the property, he met two men -- a Virginian named John Storrs and his 22-year-old son. The two were destitute having spent every penny they had to get to Natchez country. Phelps said both were sick with fevers and chills, possibly malaria, and their only possessions were their axes and guns.
He fed and nursed the two men to health. As he prepared to return to New England for his wife and children, Storrs offered to repay Phelps for his generosity by clearing land and performing other work on Phelps' claim until he returned with his family.
They shook hands on the deal and Phelps headed back home with a good feeling about his decision. He liked the few settlers he met in Natchez country and one, John Ellis, who lived along the cliffs about 12 miles below the Natchez fort, encouraged Phelps and praised the unlimited possibilities of this promising region.
HARROWING TRIP TO NATCHEZ LAND
Almost nine months after leaving his family in Vermont, Phelps arrived home weary and tired. He had been sick with high fever and chills on the trip home and once was so low in health that he said he was "reduced to the borders of the grave."
When he arrived in Vermont in August 1774, says historian Haynes, "the quarrel between the colonies and England had reached a crisis stage. In anger over the destruction of tea in Boston, the British Parliament passed four Coercive Acts which alienated numerous American colonists and led directly to the calling of the First Continental Congress which met in Philadelphia the last of September 1774."
For a while, Phelps was unsure whether to return to Natchez country. But as the war broke out, he determined to make the move and in May 1776, he loaded his children and pregnant wife onboard a ship and headed for New Orleans. It was a harrowing journey as the ship avoided British warships on the way.
In the Gulf, the ship drifted in the waters on windless days. In time, food and water had to be rationed. Six days before they reached New Orleans on July 30, Mrs. Phelps gave birth to a son whom she named Atlantic on the recommendation of some of the sailors on the ship.
After resting for a while in New Orleans, the Phelps teamed up with two other families -- Joseph Leonard, his wife and six children, and Joseph Flowers, his wife and one child.
Wrote Claiborne: "Mrs. Flowers sickened soon after they left New Orleans. The weather was intensely hot, and the current of the river very strong." When they reached Point Coupee, Mr. Flowers, his ill wife and their child stayed behind. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Flowers died.
Claiborne said 24 hours after the party left the Flowers' at Point Coupee that "Captain Phelps, his wife and children, all became ill and were compelled to tie up the boat." While the Phelps' attempted to rest and recuperate, Joseph Leonard "hired another boat and proceeded with his family, but his wife sickened and died at Natchez."
On September 16, one of Phelps' daughters, Abigail, breathed her last. Phelps, said Claiborne, "was obliged to bury her himself, rising from his sick pallet to dig the grave." On September 23rd, Atlantic, the child born at sea, died in the arms of his grieving and deathly ill mother. Phelps buried him north of Natchez.
By the time the family reached Petit Gulf (Rodney), Mrs. Phelps could travel no farther. Philip Alston, a settler who lived nearby, opened up his home to the Phelps family in their time of grief and need. Mrs. Phelps was sinking. Exhausted, wracked with fever and chills, suffering from diarrhea and nausea, her physical aches paled in comparison to the pain suffered from watching two of her children buried beneath the Natchez country dirt.
SICKNESS, TRAGEDY, DEATH FOR FAMILY
A few weeks later, Matthew Phelps stood in a November chill over the fresh grave of his wife as his surviving 10-year-old daughter and six-year-old son clung to him. Now that the family had been reduced to half its former size, Matthew Phelps kissed his crying, ill, heartsick little ones and determined to move on.
On November 14th, he docked his boat at the mouth of the Big Black where a few miles upstream was his property. He hoped to soon see John Storrs and his son who had promised to prepare his land claim for farming.
Also onboard Phelps' boat in addition to his surviving daughter and son and every possession to his name was 14-year-old Abram Knapp, who Phelps' hired to assist him on the remainder of the journey "for sickness and fatigue had so reduced me I was unable to manage the skiff alone."
To journey up the Big Black, Phelps had young Abram Knapp steer the skiff with the children on board, while Phelps pulled the boat from shore with "a rope for a tow line." Slowly, they made progress against the current which "was very high and rapid, and to add to our difficulty, soon after we entered it we came to a large willow tree which projected horizontally from the bank into the stream, and the top of the tree being half submerged a large drift had collected about it, and occasioned a whirlpool to set under the trunk of the tree between its sunken top and the bank, a space of thirty-five or forty feet."
Here, the darkness that had fallen over him along the Mississippi grew darker still. Said Phelps: "My two lovely children -- all that were left to me, a girl in her tenth and a boy in his sixth year -- were sitting on some blankets in the bow of the skiff, when, in an instant, it was drawn into the eddy under the tree, and the stern sank."
The 14-year-old steering the boat, Abram Knapp, panicked and jumped into the river and "swam around the head of the tree." Phelps, who couldn't swim, tied the rope to the willow and then he walked along the trunk of the tree toward the skiff, shouting to his 10-year-old daughter to remain still. Holding onto a willow branch with his left hand he attempted to get his six-year-old son off the boat first but "at that moment the roots of the fallen tree gave way and floated from the bank; the boat broke loose, filled and turned bottom upwards."
In the chaos "amidst the boiling waters," Phelps could only watch and listen to the "voices of my dear babies" scream for him -- "Father! Father" -- before sinking beneath the surface of the Big Black.
As Phelps sank in the water still reaching for his children, Knapp got to him and pulled Phelps to shore. Knapp rushed for help. When he returned with two men, says Claiborne, they "found Captain Phelps, naked, half-frozen and frantic." The men recovered the bodies of the children and two more graves were dug.
A few days later, Phelps, as alone in the world as a man could possibly be, made his way to his land claim and found John Storrs and son no longer there and another family on the property. In the custom of those days, said Claiborne, Phelps' "claim was regarded as forfeited, and new comers, finding it vacant, and no owner or representative in the district, had taken possession."
Just why Storrs left isn't clear. Perhaps he thought Phelps' two-year absence was a sign that he wasn't returning. But Storrs, who still lived nearby, came to Phelps' aid when he heard of his return. In his own cabin, Storrs comforted the grieving man and nursed him back to health just as Phelps had done for Storrs and his son many months earlier.
Without Storrs, said Phelps, "I had not whereon to rest my weary head, no family, no home, no money, a heart heavy with many sorrows, and even hope was dead." Inconsolable for many days, Phelps said the kindness of Storrs and his son, their hope and encouragement, brought him back to life.
Storrs told Phelps that "by the blessing of God" and hard work they had prospered. "These kind friends enabled me to purchase another claim on which there was a small house and field. They brought me a cow, a horse, farming utensils and stock hogs."
From the depths of despair, hope returned in Natchez country, said Phelps, "and my prospects grew brighter."
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