The pain & tears of Capt. Matthew Phelps
by Stanley Nelson - posted Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 @ 1:48 pm
When Captain Matthew Phelps first heard in the early 1770s that a group of veterans -- known as the Company of Military Adventurers -- was planning to begin life anew in Natchez country, he decided to join his comrades.
A native of Harwington, Conn., Phelps had grown up on a small farm, and before reaching age 20 had married his teenage sweetheart, Jerusha. A few years later, the captain found himself penniless and homeless. Over the course of a few weeks, he would lose his wife and four children to sickness and tragedy on the Natchez frontier in a chain of events that remind one of the life of Job.
As part of the British government's plan for the colonization of Natchez, veterans of the French and Indian War (1754-1763) were awarded land grants to help settle the region. According to historian Robert V. Haynes, "Permanent title to the land was contingent upon the company (of military adventurers) planting the required number of settlers upon the lands reserved in its name." In all, the huge colonization project sought 380,000 acres along Bayou Pierre and the Big Black in present day Claiborne and Warren counties.
Mississippi historian John F.H. Claiborne wrote in his 19th century book that these veterans and their land grants represented "the nest-egg of our population." The grants "attracted a class of enterprising and intelligent men who, after the peace of 1763, had been drifting about. Immigration rapidly set in, consisting, at first, of disbanded officers and soldiers. The troubles and dissensions between the colonies and the mother country were growing serious. Great diversity of opinion existed among the colonists, and especially in the Carolinas.
"Many persons loyal to the Crown, but unwilling to take part against the people among whom they lived, embracing, in numerous instances, their kindred and even their own households, sought refuge in West Florida (which included Natchez) from the distractions at home. It has been the custom to denounce these men as Tories, and enemies of their country. Such censure would be proper when applied to men who drew the sword against their countrymen, and waged upon them a savage and relentless war. But the same sentence should not be pronounced on those who sense of loyalty forbade them to fight against the king, but rather than stain their hands with kindred blood, renounced home, comfort, society and position for an asylum in the wilderness. The right of conscience and of opinion is sacred, and at this distance of time these men, once generally condemned, may be properly appreciated."
Phelps wrote about his Natchez country experiences in a book ("Memoirs and Adventures of Captain Matthew Phelps"), which was edited by Anthony Haswell and published in Bennington, Vt., in 1802.
Arriving by ship in New Orleans in the winter of 1774, he and other veterans, many with their families, acquired small boats, and rowed against the swift current of the Mighty Mississippi with barely enough room on each vessel to store each man's provisions. "From Fort Rosalie," wrote Phelps, "to Petit Gulf (Rodney) is ten and half leagues...several plantations have opened."
To the north where the Big Black River flows into the Mighty Miss 25 miles below Walnut Hills (Vicksburg), Phelps found ground "high and much broken," several springs of water, and "acres of good, rich soil." He chose a tract of land along the river described by historian Claiborne as a "small improvement or settlement." Phelps obtained the land "by paying a resident fifty dollars to relinquish his possession in my favor which by the custom of the country ensured a title to me..."
In the vicinity, Phelps met two men -- a Virginian named John Storrs and his 19-year-old son. The two were destitute, having spent every penny they had to get to Natchez country. Both were so sick with fever and chills, commonly called the "ague," which could have been caused by malaria, that they were "scarcely...able to crawl..." Many individuals died from this ailment. The Storrs' only possessions were an ax and a musket.
Phelps fed and nursed the two men for days and each eventually recovered his health. As Phelps prepared to return to New England for his wife and children, Storrs offered to repay Phelps for his generosity by "working on my place" in Phelps' absence.