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Story Archives: The Mississippi roots of Natchez promoter Jefferson Davis Dickson Jr.
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|The Mississippi roots of Natchez promoter Jefferson Davis Dickson Jr.|
(Second in a Series)
In 1940 "the Ringmaster of Paris" and Natchez native, Jefferson Davis Dickson, Jr. returned to his birthplace.
There he created a number of attractions including the Devil's Punch Bowl, White Apple Village, and Fort Rosalie, all designed to lure tourists into town. Like the modern "heritage tourism," his efforts were more about promotion than heritage – that is little attention was paid to truth. Regardless, the mixture of Mississippi history with salesmanship was a reflection of Dickson himself whose family went back to the roots of Mississippi history.
Jeff Dickson's great grandfather was the first of the family to arrive in Mississippi in the early years of the nineteenth century. David Dickson, Jr. was born in Georgia on March 22, 1792, the son of General David (1750-1830) and Martha Cureton Dickson. A native of South Carolina, his father had served in the Revolutionary War, attaining the rank of captain. After the war and living in Georgia, he served variously as a justice-of-the-peace, member of both houses of the legislature, and general of the Georgia state militia.
David, Jr. came to the Mississippi Territory during the second decade of the nineteenth century and settled in the midst of the newly opened Mount Dexter cession lands. These were frontier times and therefore ones of rapid change. Until this time there were only two areas in the territory open to American settlement: (1) the Natchez District which was the core of the territory; it claimed both the largest population and the capital and (2) far to the east a small, more sparsely populated area on the Tombigbee River. The intervening area consisted of about 150 miles of Indian Territory claimed by the Choctaws, which meant that the land was under Federal jurisdiction and under tribal law and non-Indians were not allowed to settle there.
In 1805 the Choctaw tribe ceded a vast strip of land to the United States government to pay off debts they owed to trading companies. The cession was known after Mount Dexter, the location where the treaty was signed. The land provided a bridge connecting the Natchez District with the Tombigbee settlement turning the area available for settlement into one continuous strip from the Mississippi to the Tombigbee River.
The treaty wasn't ratified by Congress until 1808 and then the land had to be surveyed before it could be sold. Consequently the lands weren't opened for settlement until about 1810. Sometime after, the young David Dickson, a physician by trade, arrived in the midst of the newly opened area. We don't know exactly when he arrived but he couldn't have been much more than 20 years old. He was probably accompanied by his "child bride" Letitia Harris Dickson (b ca 1795 GA) whom he had married on September 10, 1810.
Despite his practice of medicine David showed an aptitude for politics like his father. On July 7, 1817 a group of men convened in the Methodist Church in Washington, Mississippi, in order to draft a constitution for the new state of Mississippi that would be carved out of the western half of the Mississippi Territory. At the time Washington was the territorial capital, although it was little more than a suburb of the larger, and older, Natchez. The Methodist Church at that time stood adjacent to the campus of Jefferson College.
Among the convention members was David Dickson, representing Pike County which had only been formed two years earlier. Also in attendance was Christopher Rankin (1788-1826), representing Adams County. Like Dickson, Rankin would play a major role in Mississippi politics. Both men would eventually die in office as Congressmen representing the state. Rankin's name would be used for Rankin County, Mississippi. The men apparently became good friends, because Dickson named a son after Rankin -- Christopher Rankin "Rank" Dickson, the grandfather of Jeff Dickson, Jr.
The convention signed the first constitution for the state of Mississippi on August 15, 1817. Today the site of the convention is on the grounds of Historic Jefferson College. The Methodist Church is long gone with the site marked by a granite monument. Inscribed on it you can the names of both Dickson and Rankin.
The constitutional convention marked the beginnings of Dickson's political life. He was subsequently elected to the first state senate which met in Natchez at the Texada house which still stands today. In 1818 he became brigadier-general of the state's militia, and, like his father before him, would be known as General David Dickson.
In 1821 he was elected for a two-year term as lieutenant governor and began serving the following year in the temporary state capital of Columbia on the Pearl River. The state government at that time was involved in looking for a permanent capital, one more centrally located than Natchez or Washington. In late 1821 commissioners appointed by the legislature located a promising site known as "Lefleur's Bluff" on the west bank of the Pearl River and well above flood level. They proposed that the new capital be located there and be named Jackson, after General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans. The General was still some years from becoming president in 1829.
Peter Vandorn of Port Gibson surveyed the capital city in early 1822. In June, meeting for the last time in Columbia, the legislature approved Vandorn's survey and voted to move the government to the new site. And so too moved Dickson with his wife and children becoming one of the first ten purchasers of lots in Jackson and in October the first postmaster. Few lots were sold however; the town would be slow in growing into a city. As the streets were being hacked out of woodland and a few buildings thrown up here and there, the legislature met in Jackson for the first time in December in a hastily constructed two-story brick state house. As lieutenant governor, David Dickson presided over the senate. He was there to stay. For decades to come, Jackson would be the home of the Dickson family.
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