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Story Archives: Drunk preacher's arrest almost causes a revolt in Natchez
|Drunk preacher's arrest almost causes a revolt in Natchez|
(Sixth in a series)
It was a Baptist preacher -- a drunk one at that -- that almost incited open warfare between the U.S. and Spain during the volatile spring and early summer of 1797 in Natchez. The spark that almost caused a revolt occurred at an American camp located within a rifle shot from the Natchez fort on the bluff and occupied by a small force of Spanish soldiers and local militia.
The key players were Manuel Gayoso, the Spanish governor of Natchez, and Andrew Ellicott, a surveyor sent by President George Washington to mark a new southern boundary separating the Mississippi Territory (comprising the present day states of Mississippi and Alabama), and Spanish West Florida.
At Pittsburgh in the fall of 1796, Ellicott departed for Natchez with a crew of 30 armed woodsmen with a military escort. His flotilla of flatboats carried baggage, instruments and provisions. He arrived in Natchez on February 24, 1797, was formally welcomed by Gayoso and three days later, set up his camp.
Historian John Monette wrote in his 1846 history of Mississippi that Ellicott "pitched his tent, and located his camp upon an eminence within the limits of the present city of Natchez, about five hundred yards north of Fort Panmure (Rosalie), which was strongly fortified, and occupied by a garrison of Spanish troops. At this point, not far from the present location of Wall and Jefferson streets (House on Ellicott Hill), he hoisted the flag of the United States, and having commenced his astronomical observations, he found the latitude of his markee...about thirty-nine miles north of the intersection of the thirty-first parallel of latitude, and the proper point for commencing the line of demarcation."
From the beginning there were conflicts. The Spanish didn't like it when the Americans raised the flag over a land that still officially belonged to Spain. They didn't like it when a small U.S. military force pitched tents beside the American survey commission. On the other hand, the Americans were upset because, according to terms of the treaty, the Spanish were to evacuate Natchez upon the arrival of the U.S. boundary commission led by Ellicott.
Other factors clouded the dispute. Ellicott, a brilliant man but lacking patience, was pushy. He took advantage of the pro-American spirit in Natchez to force the Spanish evacuation while awaiting for the arrival of an advanced guard of U.S. troops en route from Fort Massac on the Ohio River. That advance arrived in April with Lt. Piercy Pope's detachment of 40 men.
Daniel Clark Sr., who owned a plantation in what is now the southern end of Wilkinson County, Miss., had business dealings and friendships with both Spanish and Americans living in the Natchez region in the 1790s. Clark said one group in the Spanish district of Natchez was angry at Gayoso because he would not provide them land grants. Another group, said Clark, was comprised "of low characters," mostly frontier riffraff who enjoyed "the practice of murdering and plundering."
Historian Jack Holmes said a third group was made up of Natchez settlers who were "deeply in debt, felt that the confused political situation of the province -- already ceded by the Treaty of San Lorenzo...but not yet evacuated by Spanish troops or the Spanish government might conceivably help them avoid paying their obligations, and the presence of American troops...emboldened their resolve" to rebel against Spanish authority.
Ellicott noted in his journal that by June 1796 "the public mind might be compared to inflammable gas; it wanted but a spark to produce an explosion." That spark came on June 9, 1797, when Barton Hannon, a 36-year-old shoemaker from Pennsylvania who was a lay preacher on the side, was arrested by the Spanish. What led up the arrest was this:
Hannon asked Ellicott if he could preach a sermon at the American encampment on June 4, the Sabbath. Public preaching by anyone other than a Catholic priest was strictly prohibited in Spanish Natchez. Ellicott recalled that a "public protestant sermon, being a new thing in that country, drew together a very large, and tolerably respectable audience; and though the preacher meddled not with politics, the effect was nearly the same..." Ellicott said the congregation "very naturally preferred a sermon which they understood, to a mass, which few of them knew any thing about."
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|Frank Morris Murder Series|