"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Florida And The Old Southwest

For the past three months I have been travelling in what was called The Old Southwest – Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Florida – and began to learn about the history of that region between the arrival of Hernando de Soto in 1540, the late 1700s and the Civil War.  It is a fascinating story of the expansion of America and how it was made possible through deft international politics; military supremacy and favorable Indian alliances and treaties; environmental factors; and rugged individualism, entrepreneurial spirit, and the desire for wealth and position.  It is a story of partnerships as well as conflict – alliances between nations, between the US and the Indians, among Indian tribes; and between private sector interests and government.

The social, political, and economic environment into which the white settlers of the Old Southwest found was complex and ever-changing. What was known as West Florida – most of the Florida Panhandle and parts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi – shifted hands many times, often back and forth between French, Spanish, British, and finally American interests.  New Orleans was first settled by France which later ceded it to Spain after the French and Indian War.  Then, largely because of European wars, conflicts, and treaties, Spain ruled for only 25 years, then returned it to France.  Finally France sold New Orleans and the vast area of the Louisiana Purchase to the United States.

To add to the mix, after a violent revolution through which Haiti won its independence from France in 1804, most French colonists and ex-combatants – including mixed-race Haitians and freed slaves – fled to New Orleans.  The society of the city was like none other in the South.  It had little to do with the aristocratic planter society of Mississippi which was basically divided in two – rich white planters and slaves, with fewer yeoman farmers and freed slaves.  New Orleans society had many stratifications including mixed race quadroons and octoroons who were accepted as lovers, concubines, and geishas to the wealthy white population, but who established their own subculture.

The entire Caribbean was the domain of the Pirates and Privateers during the 1700 – 1800's. The height of the Caribbean Pirates reign was 1700 – 1725 when terror ruled the trade routes. More than half of the three thousand recorded instances of piracy between 1814 and 1824 were on U.S. shipping vessels.

The Americans, therefore, inherited a city more foreign than any they had encountered; and the consolidation of political, military, and economic rule meant successfully negotiating the complex social, linguistic, cultural, and legal environment.  New Orleans was the cornerstone of development in the Old Southwest.  It was the most important port on the Gulf and the gateway to the interior.  The new American administration had to reform governance to assure that French laws were made harmonious with the very different Anglo-Saxon ones.  Property titling, whether land or commercial property, such as railroads and ports, had to be properly adjusted and completed.  Social harmony had to be achieved so that the traditions of the plantation South and the more independent free labor philosophies of the North were accommodated to an largely foreign intelligentsia; and so that the racial perceptions of Northern and Southern America did not clash too harshly with the more nuanced picture in New Orleans.  Faulkner’s canny understanding of class, race, and status gave his character, Thomas Sutpen, a recognizable downfall.  Sutpen was unable to appreciate the dangers behind the subtle shadings of New Orleans society.  

The Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee Indians had been trading with the colonial powers since the late 1600s, and European traders made their way into the interior by waterway or by land to establish trading posts.  Theirs was a peaceful co-existence until the European powers’ ambitions in Europe spread to their colonies in the Americas.  Then the Indians were seen more as potential enemies or military allies, or at best neutralized nations which would not take sides.

It is important to see the development of the Old Southwest from a geographical perspective.  First, the Black Belt or Black Prairies of Eastern Mississippi and Alabama was some of the richest land in America at the time, rivaled only by the Mississippi Delta farther west, the fertility of which came from its alluvial soil as the Mississippi River regularly flooded like the Nile, laying down nutrient-rich silt every year.  The original settlers in the late 1700s came to the Old Southwest largely because of this natural resource, but also because of the vast timberland and the many navigable rivers which facilitated the transport of natural resources from the interior to the coast and finished products upriver to both Indians and white settlers.

A quick look at a map of the Gulf Coast of the Florida Panhandle to New Orleans will give an idea of the number of important waterways that offered not only commercial but military opportunities.  The Mississippi and the Alabama Rivers were the most important, especially because they flowed into natural harbors (New Orleans and Mobile), but the Apalachicola, the Tombigbee, the Perdido, the Mobile, the Pearl, and the Atchafalaya were also important waterways.  These rivers featured in the early development of the region and in its wars.

I spent the Spring (2012) in Columbus, MS which is on the old Tombigbee River which was a principle route for trade and for military action in the Creek Wars and in the War of 1812.  I followed the history of the Tenn-Tom Waterway, a massive public works operation which linked the Tombigbee and the Tennessee Rivers, thus creating a river system which linked not only south to the Gulf of Mexico, but north and east into the Ohio Valley and beyond. 

Roads were rudimentary in the early 19th century and railroads were non-existent, so the principal transportation was by river.  When the steamboat appeared in 1814 river traffic increased significantly, and by 1834 the number of steamboats arriving in the Port of New Orleans had increased nearly 1000 times over. 

The Natchez Trace and other traces were critical for linking the rivers to land transportation before the steamboat.  Traders floated their wares downriver to New Orleans and then made their way back to Tennessee and beyond on the then-primitive Natchez Trace.

What makes the region of the Old Southwest particularly interesting are the more localized interests – that is, how economic and social development occurred in towns, villages, and cities; and how various public and private interests combined.

I have written about Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Thomas Sutpen, the fictional alter ego of the early Americans who settled the Old Southwest, and who came from the hard-life upland backcountry farming in the mountains of Western Virginia; or from increasingly depleted plantations of the Tidewater and North and South Carolina.  The journey from the East to the fertile, promising lands of Mississippi was one of incredible hardship, especially because the trip was made with family and slaves through tangled canebrakes, swamps, subtropical forests, snake-infested savannahs, and uncharted rivers.  Most of those who made the move had money – these were not the dirt-farming Okies of the Great Depression who made their way west to California because they had nothing; but Southern entrepreneurs who saw a declining return on investment in one area but the opportunity to make millions in another.

These entrepreneurs could never have survived on the frontier if it hadn’t been for the support of the US military.  As settlers moved into their new Southwest territory, they increasingly encroached on Indian lands.  The Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees saw the opportunities of trading with the new arrivals, but also realized the threat of their aggressive stance.  Tecumseh understood this threat perhaps better than any other Indian leader and attempted to form a political and military alliance with these tribes to keep the invaders from further penetration into Indian lands.  He was unable to do so, for the Chickasaws and Choctaws saw more advantage in peace and commercial accommodation with the whites than fighting them; and the Creeks were fighting too many internecine struggles to unify with Tecumseh against the Americans. 

Ultimately, the Creeks went it alone and lost to Andrew Jackson and his army of Tennessee militia, Indian warriors, and freed slaves.  Later when Jackson returned to fight the British in the War of 1812, the Chickasaws and Choctaws allied with him, hoping for increased political and economic gain.  They were disappointed in this hope, however, for the policy of the US Government was Indian removal west of the Mississippi and their military leader, Andrew Jackson, was one of the most ardent supporters of this policy. In fact the Choctaws were the first tribe to be forcibly resettled under the Indian Removal Act.

In any case, the area of East Mississippi and West Alabama was pacified, and the white newcomers could continue their settlement.  The community around Columbus, Mississippi was a very heterogeneous one.  The Chickasaws and Choctaws had traded for decades with the Europeans with whom they had made contact a century before and had become Westernized.  Intermarriage was common, and the dwellings, dress, and daily life of the Indians was little different from those of the white settlers.  Columbus was home to upper-middle class Indians whose life was relatively well-off compared to their kinsmen in the interior.

During the colonial period the spread of trade brought a large number of tribes in contact with the French and the English, and each nation strove to make allies among the natives. Their rivalry led to the French and Indian war, and its effects were felt as late as the first half of the 19th century. When the Revolution began the attitude of the Indians became a matter of importance, and plans were speedily devised to secure their friendship for the colonists and to thwart English influence. One of the means employed was the appointment of agents to reside among the tribes living near the settlements. These men were charged to watch the movements of the Indians and through the maintenance of trade to secure their good will toward the colonists (Wikipedia)

Many of us Americans take government for granted, and are perhaps not aware of the secondary role the federal government played before the Civil War.  ‘States Rights’ was not just the war cry of the South before Fort Sumter, nor only the rallying cry of the segregationist South, but Lincoln’s dilemma.  He knew that the Constitution did not allow for the sweeping powers that it has acquired today, and that the rights of the individual states were inviolable.  As states entered the Union, their sovereignty was guaranteed and the federal government was an enabler.  It negotiated treaties with foreign powers and with Indian tribes, surveyed land as it did of every square mile of the land of the Louisiana Purchase making ownership, titling, and capital secure, and assisted in facilitating commerce (Indian agents were really Economic Attaches). 

Local government was not the prime mover behind local development within new states of the Union, it was private entrepreneurs.  Some were individuals, like the fictional Thomas Sutpen, who came with their retinue to hack out land given by the federal government after Indians were removed; but most, especially in urban areas were private holding companies.  Individual investment entrepreneurs raised the capital to fund a corporation which in turn sold land to individuals; or to fund a corporation which bought rights of way and built for-profit railroads or ports, or shipping interests.  Government followed by providing the essentials of governance – contract law, titling, settlement of disputes; and the familiar public services of police and fire.

In short, the United States government facilitated the expansion of the new country by aggressive expansion achieved by pacifying and/or removing the Indians, by winning decisive battles with European powers (most notably the British in the War of 1812 which finally secured the Old Southwest in American hands), and by securing New Orleans. State governments granted charters to private companies which were then responsible for the purchase of land, rights of way, port facilities, and railroads.  Municipal government provided the essentials of governance.

I have never been a formal student of history – that is, one who studies periods of the past from an academic or theoretical standpoint.  Whatever I have learned has come from being in a place, for getting the taste and feel of a region.  I learned about the Chickasaws and the Choctaws because they inhabited the region around Columbus where I was staying.  I read about their history at Plymouth Bluff, and important outpost in both the Creek Wars and the War of 1812.  I handled shards of their pottery and porcelain that they had purchased from colonial traders.  I visited many of the locks and dams along the Tenn-Tom Waterway from Mississippi to Alabama and got a feel for river transport and its importance.  I studied the local economic history of Apalachicola which had been based on oysters and shrimp but then evolved into an important port until mismanagement and poor projections ruined its prospects.  I travelled the Natchez Trace and was able to at least imagine the commercial and military traffic that went down this important land route.  In short, living in the Old Southwest was the impetus for learning its history. 

I came to Columbus and the South because I wanted to learn about another important period of American history – the Civil War, the antebellum period, and especially Reconstruction.  I soon found out that one cannot understand American history without understanding Southern history; and that the Civil War did not end in 1865 but 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the following federal interventions to fully dismantle segregation.  Without being here – without being in the place where battles were fought, where Sherman marched and burned, where Grant’s battleships shelled Vicksburg.  It is important to see Confederate statues in every town square and Confederate cemeteries; and to hear recollections from older Southerners who at 90 have heard and remember stories from their grandparents about Reconstruction or the War itself.

I have turned to the period around the War of 1812 because it was more important to this region than the Civil War, and because it was a big hole – one common to most Americans – in my basic understanding of US history.  When I return to Columbus and the Panhandle and many places surrounding and in between, this fascinating journey into our past will continue.


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