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|1790 shipwreck at Ellis Cliffs south of Natchez on the Mississippi|
On Sunday, July 4, 1790, news of the shipwreck of a barge at at the White Cliffs reached Natchez, where there was no celebration of U.S. Independence Day. That's because Natchez was then a possession of Spain, under the authority of a King and an in-residence Spanish governor.
Natchez country at this time was populated by a diverse people, led by a number of British residents, many of whom had left the American colonies before the revolution broke out in 1776. Here, in what was then a British province, they sought refuge from the war, choosing to live on a rugged frontier. Among the first British colonists at Natchez was a Virginian named Richard Ellis, who settled in the vicinity of the beautiful White Cliffs below Natchez. St. Catherine Creek flowed into the Mississippi at the head of the cliffs on property that is now part of the St. Catherine Creek Wildlife Refuge.
Both the cliffs and the mouth of St. Catherine's Creek were well known landmarks on the river for centuries. During the 19th Century, the Mississippi changed course and moved away from the cliffs while engineers cut off the southern flow of St. Catherine in 1871 and redirected it to just below the Natchez city limits.
The Ouachita River Expedition of 1804-1805 launched from the old mouth of St. Catherine Creek. The leader of the expedition, William Dunbar, lived six miles away. According to Dunbar the mouth of St. Catherine was at the location of Latitude 31°26'30" North, Longitude 6h5'56" west of Greenwich. He said the cliffs were "a little below" St. Catherine, and stood about 100 to 200 feet high. In 1825, the steamboat Teche, which had been docked at the mouth of St. Catherine during a heavy fog, suffered a fatal boiler explosion after relaunching into the Mississippi. Half of the passengers, about 35 souls, died. This area was the site of many historic events, including a battle during the American Revolution.
On July 4 of 1790, Greenbury Dorsey walked onto the grounds of Fort Panmure, known during the French days as Fort Rosalie. Here he reported to Spanish authorities that at 4 p.m. the previous day, there had been a shipwreck of a barge (or flatboat) 15 river miles below Natchez at the White Cliffs. Dorsey, from Kentucky, said he owned two flatboats and was in route to New Orleans to sell his cargo and his vessels when misfortune came his way.
Aboard the flatboat Washington, which sank at the shore of the cliffs, was a cargo of 54 hogshead of tobacco, 600 pounds of hog lard, 350 feet of walnut plank and a quantity of hemp. (During colonial times, a hogshead of tobacco stored in a large wooden barrel weighed up to a 1,000 pounds.)
Dorsey owned everything on board with the exception of 29 hogshead of tobacco, which belonged to Messrs. Thompson & Company. Dorsey asked Spanish authorities to make an accounting of the cargo and the flat, so that the boat and the goods could be sold at public auction to benefit the insurer from Philadelphia.
Local inhabitants Thomas Burling and John Ellis, the son of the Richard Ellis of the White Cliffs, were asked to inventory the wreck. Each signed a statement noting that the Washington "made fast to shore near the White Cliffs" and "foundered." They found "54 hogshead afloat in her and a quantity of hemp." Richard Ellis would die two years after this shipwreck. He left behind an estate of 6,000 acres and 150 slaves. By 1800, the White Cliffs would become known most commonly as Ellis Cliffs.
The captain of the Washington was Benjamin Taylor, who along with two of his crewmen -- James Lee and Issac Taylor -- gave depositions on the shipwreck. Taylor said the two flats owned by Dorsey left Natchez on July 3 and were at the foot of the cliffs by 4 p.m. when at a point 200 yards from a sandbar, the flatboat Washington "got into a strong eddy."
Records of this shipwreck are found in a jewel of a book -- "The Natchez Court Records, 1767-1805, Abstracts of Early Records" -- compiled by May Wilson McBee. The later part of the 18th Century comes alive in this book, where you'll find stories of many crimes and misdemeanors, of wills, contracts and land grants, and of runaway slaves and murderers.
Captain Taylor said his men couldn't initially row out of the grasp of the eddy and were additionally hampered by the strong winds ("blowing hard") of a thunderstorm. He testified that the flat was headed for the sandbar as the men rowed furiously to miss it when "they struck a log and, the waves running high, the water came in on both sides of the bow..."
They finally managed to maneuver out of the eddy and made a hard push for the shore of the cliffs. Against great odds they made it, but their problems weren't over. Taylor sent a man to the bank to secure the flat. Just as a cable was tied to a tree, Taylor said "the strength of the current aided by the quantity of the water" in the boat "broke the cable and the boat could not be brought to shore for some time."
A short time later, however, the flat was anchored near the bank where the crew managed to "make her fast by the bow and stern." Taylor decided then to abandon the boat after determining that it was now "impracticable to save the cargo."
The flat and Dorsey's salvageable cargo were appraised for $150 and sold at public auction to Bernard Lintot for $110. Nineteen hogshead of tobacco owned by Messrs. Thompson and Co. were valued at $30 and bought by Alexander Mills at the appraised value.
(Stanley Nelson can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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