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Story Archives: Writ of Habeas Corpus, 1798: The case of Zachariah Cox
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|Writ of Habeas Corpus, 1798: The case of Zachariah Cox|
(10 in series)
In August 1798, U.S. soldiers at Natchez arrested Zachariah Cox, a land speculator who arrived in Natchez with 32 armed men in a barge filled with trade goods. After spending a few days in Natchez, Cox intended to journey down river to New Orleans to sell his merchandise and to talk with Spanish officials about exploring possible settlement sites in Louisiana.
What happened in Natchez would make Cox a national figure. He was representative of many men who schemed to buy and develop frontier land. But unlike others, Cox was arrested, some of his supplies confiscated and his rights as a citizen abused.
He had long been involved in land speculation and most recently had developed or explored the development of settlements in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Cox's arrival in Natchez came at the worst possible time. The American government had just taken possession of the newly-created Mississippi Territory at a time when conspiracies -- real and imagined -- were the talk of the town. Speculators were seeking to profit from the frontier land development on both U.S. and Spanish soil. Many times these land schemes conflicted with the land claims of governments and of Indians.
Historian Isaac Joslin Cox wrote that Zachariah Cox "was a native of Georgia. He is first mentioned in 1785, when he became involved in a project to found a settlement at the bend of the Tennessee River. Possibly this scheme was part of the general plan to extend Georgia's claim over the western territory that was exemplified in the attempt to organize Bourbon County in the Natchez District, then under Spanish control. In that year (1785) the assembly of Georgia passed an act to organize a county on the Tennessee and Cox was sent out...to explore the region. The project failed because of Indian opposition, but it is probable that Cox at this time saw the commercial advantages of a settlement at this point.
"Five years later Cox again appeared in connection with this region, this time as promoter rather than subordinate. He was the head of one of the three corporations that received from the state of Georgia, what were popularly known as the 'Yazoo Land Grants.' These grants...formed the most malodorous, but not necessarily the worst, of our early landgrabs."
Zachariah Cox and his associates purchased millions of acres of land at cheap prices for development, deals sometimes made with the help of unscrupulous state politicians who benefited financially. But protests by Indians over the lands in question concerned U.S. authorities.
Cox and his men passed Fort Massac, the American fort on the Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi, on Aug. 1, 1798. The next day, Gen. James Wilkinson, commander of the U.S. frontier army, ordered the arrest of Cox in a dispatch to Mississippi Territory's first governor, Winthrop Sargent, who arrived in Natchez on August 6.
Cox's party arrived in Natchez five days later. Wilkinson's letter was handed to Sargent on August 18. A few hours after that, Cox and his brother were awakened in the middle of the night by armed U.S. soldiers.
"I asked their business," Cox later recalled. "They told me they were the unwelcomed messengers of bad news; their business was to take me into custody. I asked their authority. They told me it was from Governor Sergeant. I put on my clothes. They forced me at the point of the bayonet to" the Natchez fort. "I demanded their authority" and was shown "orders to the following...'You are ordered to take under your command a sufficient number of men, and to take into custody the body of Zachariah Cox, if he is found to be in this district, and in case of any opposition, you are to repel force by force, treating him in every respect as a common enemy.'"
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