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|Green outwitted Spanish, U.S. on Villa Gayoso property|
BY JACK ELLIOTT
During the early 1790s as the population of the Natchez District continued to grow, the Spanish rulers established a town at Natchez and a secondary administrative center north of Natchez.
The new center would be known as Villa Gayoso, named after the well-liked Governor Manuel Gayoso de Lemos. It would serve not only as a Spanish administrative center, but later as the first seat of Pickering (now Jefferson) County, one of the first two counties (along with Adams) established in the Mississippi Territory in 1799.
After overseeing the development of the district for almost two decades, the Spanish withdrew as the result of Pinckney's Treaty (1795) which recognized the United States as the rightful owner of the area. On the morning of March 30, 1798, Spanish troops began departing, loading onto boats at Natchez.
American troops under Captain Isaac Guion occupied the Spanish administrative facilities, raising the American flag for the first time over the old Natchez fort. A delegation of troops under Corporal Archibald Diddess was sent northward to occupy the buildings at Villa Gayoso which included military housing, a church, and priest's house.
However, upon arriving they ran into a problem when they found the buildings locked and the property claimed by Everard Green (ca 1781-1813), youngest son of Col. Thomas Marston Green, Sr. (1723-1805), patriarch of the large Green family that was prominent in the area. Corporal Diddess was suspicious of the situation, believing it unlikely that the Spanish Governor Gayoso would have spent so much money constructing the buildings without having a good title to the land. Why then did the Greens have the audacity to claim public property?
In mid-May 1798, Diddess allowed the locks to be broken so that the buildings could be inspected. Then, as he reported "the houses were [scarcely] opened before Colo Green arrived with one of his sons and upon seeing the doors opened and Mr. Smith…inspecting the houses he fell into a Violent rage and wished to know from what authority I had to let or assist men to open any buildings belonging to himself or son…." Nevertheless the troops held onto Villa Gayoso, but so did the Greens to their claim.
Meanwhile, on September 29, 1798, the month after his arrival in Natchez, Governor Winthrop Sargent wrote that he proposed to divide the Mississippi Territory into two counties with Natchez being the seat of one and Villa Gayoso of the other. He noted that at Villa Gayoso there were buildings sufficient for court purposes which would save the government considerable money. Recognizing that the buildings were occupied by the military, he noted that they weren't of any real use and could provide an adequate county seat. He did ominously note that "a Mr. Green pretends to claim [the site]".
The background of the Green claim to Villa Gayoso can be constructed from a deposition by Stephen Minor, an Anglo-American who had served briefly as the last Spanish Governor of Natchez. This position indicates that he was intimately familiar with the operation of the Spanish government and with Governor Gayoso.
In 1787, the Spanish commandant Grand-Pré purchased a tract of land from James Elliott in the Coles Creek vicinity to serve as an administrative center for the area. Soon after acquiring this property Thomas M. Green approached Governor Gayoso telling him that the Elliott tract was inadequate as an administrative center and that he, Green, had a more adequately situated tract of land which he would be willing to trade to the Spanish government. Green managed to sell Gayoso on the idea and so the land was swapped. Green acquired title to the Elliott tract, while Gayoso acquired the Green tract and this is where Villa Gayoso would be established. However, Green never provided the governor with a deed, despite the fact that the governor repeatedly requested one. Nor did he mention to the governor that in May 1790 about the time the land swap was transpiring that he gave the property as a gift to his nine year old son Everard, almost as if to invalidate the agreement with the Spanish without their knowing it. While the Spanish invested considerable money in developing the tract, Green watched and said nothing.
Then shortly before the Spanish evacuation, Minor recalled an ominous sign: "Mr. Thos. Green Senr solicited permission from Governor Gayoso to reside in one of the public buildings for a few months until he could accommodate his family on a place which he had lately purchased. When the time for which he had obtained the use of said building was expired, Governor Gayoso was informed that the said Thos. Green Senr intended to keep possession of said land and buildings. In consequence of this information the deponent [Minor] was directed by the governor to order Mr. Green to quit the public buildings, which order this deponent [Minor] executed…."
Governor Gayoso did offer to sell the Villa Gayoso tract back to the Greens, but Thomas Green said that the asking price was too much. Apparently he had in mind regaining ownership for nothing.
The garrison remained at Villa Gayoso through February 1799 before turning the buildings over to the civil government. In that year the Mississippi Territory's first two counties were established, as per Governor Sargent's plan: Adams County with Natchez as the county seat and Pickering County (the name was later changed to Jefferson County) with Villa Gayoso as the county seat. The church building served as the courthouse, while the commandant of the local militia occupied one of the dwellings. An educational society, the "Franklin Society for the Acquisition of Useful Knowledge," met at the county seat for a period of time.
In a letter dated November 1, 1799, Sargent seemed to think that Villa Gayoso should "be evacuated" because "the situation is deemed unhealthy" and the county seat moved elsewhere. However, by early 1800 the seat was still there. In a letter dated January 2, 1800, Sargent seemed to reconsider keeping it there, noting that title to the property could probably be obtained easily from the U.S. government which would save the expense of establishing a new county seat.
However this was not to be. Sargent believed that the US government had inherited a valid title from the Spanish government. When Sargent refused to recognize the Green claim to Villa Gayoso, Everard Green took the case to court and won title in 1802. Apparently the deciding factor was Thomas Green's having not provided a deed to Gayoso after the land swap and muddied the title history by giving the land to Everard. As it was, Green had instigated swapping his land to the Spanish for the Elliott tract then recouping the Villa Gayoso tract by virtue of failing to live up to his obligation to provide Governor Gayoso with a deed. It would appear that justice was not served by the court ruling.
By late 1802 with the government having lost claim to the Villa Gayoso tract, the county seat was moved to the town of Greenville -- a town ironically named after the Green family -- on the Natchez Trace and in 1825 moved to Fayette, the present county seat. Villa Gayoso was incorporated into the plantation lands of Everard Green.
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