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|An Englishman's 1797 visit to Natchez and the story of Stephen Minor|
At noon Thursday, May 11, 1797, Englishman Francis Baily, the 21-year-old son of a London banker, arrived in Natchez on a flatboat loaded with flour. This was a tense time in Natchez country history -- the Spanish flag was flying over Fort Panmure (Rosalie) and the American flag flying over Liberty Hill a few hundred yards to the north where the House on Ellicott Hill sits today.
A treaty had transferred possession of Natchez to the Americans, but the Spanish had yet to leave town, causing great tension. Much excitement was also in the air over cotton, a crop which was transforming the economic fortunes of the region, triggered by the invention of Eli Whitney's saw gin.
"There is a great deal of cotton raised in this district," Baily wrote in his journal, which was later published in a book. "There are several jennies erected...in order to extricate the seed from the cotton." On the bank of the Mississippi River at Natchez, Baily observed one gin owned by Stephen Minor and his partner that was "worked by two horses, which will give 500 lbs. of clear cotton in a day."
Like many frontiersmen, Stephen Minor suffered hardship, brushes with death and loss in the years prior to his rise to prominence at Natchez. He grew wealthy with land, yet people respected him not for his money but for his honesty and his fairness.
During the American Revolution in 1780, the Pennsylvania native traveled to Spanish New Orleans to procure military supplies for the Continental Army. Once the goods were packed on mules, Minor and his men headed up the western bank of the Mississippi in a caravan in route to the Ohio Valley.
Along the way, Minor fell ill and was at times so consumed with fever and chills that the caravan was forced to moved forward during the day while Minor followed their trail at his own sluggish pace, often catching up with the group at its encampment at night. One day as Minor laid back shivering with a high fever, the caravan was overtaken by bandits deep in the heart of Indian country in present day Arkansas, their goods stolen and the men murdered.
Minor found the grisly crime scene hours later, his life having been spared due to his illness. Alone in the vast wilderness, the 20-year-old stumbled back into New Orleans with news of the disaster.
About that time, Spain had joined the Americans in the fight against the British. Minor, always enterprising, learned the Spanish and French languages as he determined his next move. In the meantime, Spanish Gen. Bernardo Galvez amassed an army to take on the British in West Florida and Minor joined the Spanish effort, which resulted in a resounding Spanish victory. At Mobile, according to historian Benjamin L.C. Wailes, Minor caught the eye of Gen. Galvez who was impressed with Minor's bravery and heroism as well as his "remarkable skill with the rifle."
Minor was in Spanish service for most of his adult life. He was the last governor of Spanish Natchez, and was a man greatly respected in Natchez country. William Dunbar, who established the Forest Plantation south of Natchez in 1792 and was during Francis Baily's visit in 1797 designing a cotton baling press, said Minor "endeared himself to his countrymen, the American settlers, by his acts of friendliness and protection," and that when advice or help was needed, he was sought.
When Natchez lawyer and politician George Poindexter, a man often embroiled in controversy, challenged Minor to a duel in the early 1800s for some alleged slight, Natchez citizens thought he was insane. One friend advised Poindexter to back off, noting, "You must look to him (Minor). Whatever Major Minor states, upon his honor, you, and every other gentleman, are bound to accept."
Bailey heard about Minor during his visit to Natchez. Not long after inspecting Minor's gin on the river bank, Bailey prepared to take off for New Orleans. When the owners of the flatboat that transported Baily to Natchez sold their flour, the owner and crew headed back home through the wilderness along what became known as the Natchez Trace.
Bailey found a ride south on another flatboat, owned by a Mr. Douglass, "laden with cotton" bought at Natchez. Baily said the cotton was loaded into bags weighing about 200 pounds each and that the flatboat held an estimated 250 bags, about 25 tons. Douglass charged farmers and merchants an average of $1.50 per bag of cotton, garnering him a fee of about $375 for the entire shipment.
Natchez was a busy place, said Bailey, and Stephen Minor was a leader of men.
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