The Land: Settling in Covington County, MS
The Duncan McKenzie family was forty-five days on the road, arrived and welcomed at Allan Stewart’s January 18, 1833. The next Saturday Stewart took McKenzie, Johnson, and McBryde to view three places. Duncan chose his place because of its proximity to a school. They are renting their land on which they find houses and equal access to a well. Duncan explains their tenant agreement in his January 1833 arrival letter:
“there is 120 acres of land in cultivation & as good buildings as
is to be found on any farm in this neighborhood in so much
that each Family have separate houses convenient to the
same well or Equally convenient it being 200 yards from
the nearest — the Rent we are to give is 100 pounds of
Seed cotton per acre for so much of the land as we can
tend in corn and cotton the balance we have given
in to us for oat and pasture round or if we choose to
give the 4th part of the corn fodder and cotton after
it is made we are at liberty then to take a choice” — Duncan McKenzie
According the the authors of the Mississippi Encyclopedia article titled “Covington County,” the land in this part of Mississippi was not particularly good for growing cotton, though Duncan seems to have supported his family and eventually eight enslaved people by growing peas, mostly corn, and cotton. Compared to the rich Delta farmland and parts of Northeast Mississippi, Covington County land had much less cotton potential. In fact, cotton production declined in this area during the decade before the Civil War. Though the McKenzie’s don’t mention growing it, rice appears to have been productive here. West toward the Mississippi River near Natchez, some of the most successful cotton plantations in the state could be found in 1833. The authors of the “Environment” article from the same encyclopedia also admit to the variety of the land in this area.
By February of 1833 the tenants (Duncan McKenzie, Allan Johnson, and Duncan McBryde) had divided the land they were to farm and Duncan writes to his brother-in-law confirming the tenancy:
“we have divided the land on
this plantation I have 58 acres 28 I expect to tend
in corn 20 in cotton 10 in Rye and oats I pay for my
part 42-50 lb Seed cotton or if I choos it 1/4th part
of cotton corn and fodder we have choise at the end of
the crop” – Duncan McKenzie
John P. Stewart’s Description
Though Duncan McKenzie offers us little description of the general lay of the land on his travels or upon his arrival, another Duncan McLaurin correspondent does – John P. Stewart, about seventeen to twenty years old when this letter was written. Stewart is the son of Allan Stewart and later becomes Clerk in Franklin County, MS where he lives out his life as a bachelor much interested in politics. In a June 1831 letter written to Duncan McLaurin he describes his travels westward from Covington County. It is possible that Duncan McKenzie was shown this letter and read it before making his decision to migrate a year or more later. As he travels with a cousin bearing the same name, John Patrick Stewart views the land he passes with a discerning eye. In describing the towns, Stewart takes pains to make comparisons with which his audience might be familiar. The following is his description of a portion of this part of the state:
West toward the Mississippi River
“I was on the eve of starting westward when you last heard from me in company with Cousin John Stewart We took a small tour toward the Mi. River – We were not Successful in getting into business – The season was too far advanced – Many persons employed in that section of the State were going up the river to their homes in the west as they are mostly birds of passage. We proceeded to Monticello on the Pearl a distance of 30 miles the first day Country similar to this in which we live Vis Broken and poor except on water courses or flats. This town is on the West bank of Pearl and has a handsome situation the buildings extending to the waters edge it is on this decline and pretty much resembles Lumberton. We proceeded thence over a very poor country 31 miles to Holmesville in Pike County. This last place is on a small river called Bogue Chitto and is a very flourishing village the buildings are new and mostly painted white – We thence proceeded to Liberty in Amite County The land was poor for the first ten miles it then improved considerably – Liberty is situated between the 2 branches of Amite River containing 4 or 500 inhabitants. It has a gloomy appearance when I was there the weather was very wet and the streets were as slippery as they would be in Rockingham at such a time. After leaving the latter place 11 miles I crossed Beaver Creek and entered the Thick Woods – Thickwoods indeed are they. having a large and luxuriant growth of white-Oak, Gum Beech, poplar and with a very thick undergrowth in this section the lands lie tolerably level and are productive but unhealthy indeed I think moreso than it is near The River As I approached Woodville the country becomes more broken and the undergrowth not so thick – It is yet a more desirable place than the latter the lands are more productive and better watered — The people in this Section Say their lands will produce from 15 to 2000 lbs cotton per acre but not so well adapted to the raising of corn and wheat The climate does not suit grains. Woodville is a handsome little town homes and the most splendid Court House I ever beheld – I concluded I must be lost in this section I could see none of my old friends and neighbors… They are banished or never could gain a footing – There are a few scattering short leaf pines” – John P. Stewart
“I then proceeded to Natchez a distance of 37 miles. After leaving Woodville for 2 or 3 miles this country becomes very broke and what very much surprised me was to see the Cane growing on the top of the most elevated ridges – We traveled as I was told a ridge road. It was indeed on the ridges scarcely broad enough to admit of a road in many places. Caused or cut down with precipice on either side – The growth on these hills comprised what grows in the swamps of rivers in Carolina. Vis Elm, Ash, Horn Beam, Magnolia, Walnut, Linn a tree I never saw before whose bark strips like elm it looks something like Ashe in the Body and leaves similar to what is improperly called English Mulberry. I saw land cultivated more hilly than any I ever saw in Richmond County … 16 miles from Natchez I crossed the Homo-chitto River which is larger than Lumber River. The country there changes for the better and not so broken up. Every plantation in this section is ornamented with a grove of China trees. I was informed they are considered as conducive to health. This section is mostly owned by wealthy men who do not reside on their farms” – John P. Stewart
“Natchez contains by the last census (I think) 2774 inhabitants there was very little business going when I was there except on the wharves. Here I first beheld the noble and majestic Mississippi – It did not at first sight appear to me more than 1/4 mile in width and the current appears Sluggish. yet I was undeceived when I saw with what rapidity rafts and flat bottomed boats passed and observed the size of certain objects (cattle for instance) on the opposite bank – There were more than 200 boats at the landings when I was there and many more daily arriving indeed you could not look up the River without seeng a boat or boats within 2 or 3 miles – Provisions of all were plenty – They were mostly loaded with bacon, corn, flour Pork, whiskey Tobacco, livestock corn sold at about 20 c per Bushel and flour $5. Bacon 5 to 8. Natchez is on a high bluff more than 300 feet above the water the banks are very steep and precipitous – There are several buildings in this lower town under the hills mostly warehouses and house of ill fame – There is a small town on the Louisiana side called Concordia – The situation appeared to be low and flat. I saw the River a few miles above Natchez with the same appearance Vis West low E. High Banks” – John P. Stewart
“I proceed thence to Port Gibson on Bayou Pierre 45 miles above Natchez It is nearly as large as Cheraw There is considerable business done in that place in the winter season – it is about 12 miles from The River the Bayou is navigable – The country between this and Natchez is not so fertile generally as in many places below but should consider it more healthy except on large Creeks or rather Swamps as they are mostly wet weather streams There are very few miles west of Pearl River – Port Gibson I proceeded eastward the land lies generally level 15 or 20 miles – Pine woods thence to Covington Co. ” – John P. Stewart
“The inhabitants of this State having collected from Several States there is necessarily a great diversity of manners, Politics, Religion & c The people of this country are generally better informed than they are in Carolina I mean those of little or no education. They are very inquisitive and have all travelled more or less and see many … from whom they gather information – The inhabitants are as moral in this Section or more are where you live — At least they are more temperate in drinking spiritous liquors coffee is lesser thereof – Raising cotton absorbs all their politics & meditations – The first salute to a neighbor is how does your cotton look” – John P. Stewart
The letters written by Duncan McKenzie and John P. Stewart are remarkable in that they convey in words from the past a time, place, and circumstance that has disappeared from our physical sight forever. Yet they leave us with a virtual image of what was.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan McLaurin. 29 January 1833. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Letter from Duncan McKenzie to Duncan Mclaurin. 3 February 1833. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Duke University.
Letter from John P. Stewart to Duncan McLaurin. 20 June 1831. Boxes 1 and 2. Duncan McLaurin Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Mississippi Encyclopedia Staff. “Covington County.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson. 2017. 209
Prewitt, Wiley C. Jr. and Saikku, Mikko. “Environment.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson. 2017. 392-394.