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Mississippi Historical Society

Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Historical Note on "River's Bend"

If you are contemplating purchasing River's Bend for your own reading pleasure, stop reading now. This historical note is a spoiler.

Between the end of the War for Southern Independence and the 1880s, over three million Southerners left the South. Some went west and some to large northern cities, but many, mourning the loss of their way of life and disgusted with the abuse the Republican Congress inflicted on the South, in tandem with that body’s clear violation and subsequent desecration of the U.S. Constitution, left the United States altogether to begin again in Canada, British Honduras (Belize), Venezuela, and Mexico, the latter an ill-fated venture to live as colonists/fight as mercenaries for Emperor Maximilian.

The presence in Mexico of Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, archduke of Austria and puppet of the imperialistic Napoleon III of France violated the Monroe Doctrine, forbidding European interference in the Western Hemisphere. The French design came at the behest of Mexican conservatives determined to drive out the government of Benito Juarez, who had become President of Mexico in 1858. Maximilian accepted the offer of the Mexican “throne” in 1863 and was crowned emperor in June of 1864. By April of 1865, when the United States’ conflict was ending, Mexico was embroiled in a bloody civil war of its own. French forces had driven Juarez and his followers to the Texas border. That same month, the United States government demanded the French withdraw from Mexico.

When Major General Joe Shelby, C.S.A., with perhaps as many as one thousand men, entered Mexico City in August 1865 offering service to the French, Maximilian declined, but did offer them refuge in one of the colonies he envisioned for American Southerners leaving their homeland. But though Mexican conservatives and French royalists were happy to have the Confederates (Americans) in their midst, the Juaristas were not. Not only were the French oppressive, the memory of the Mexican War (1848) had not faded, and when Maximilian fell in June 1867, so did the Confederate colonies in Mexico. Many Confederates died, as did Maximilian, others escaped back to the United States, but some moved farther south to the more-welcoming Brazil, home as it turned out of the largest and most lasting Confederate colonies.

Though maintaining neutrality during the War, Brazil had displayed sympathy for the Southern Cause and protected Southern blockade runners pursued by the U.S. Navy. The Federals’ over-zealous pursuit of Confederate ships into sovereign Brazilian ports strained relations between Brazil and the United States. I used this latter as a plot point in my story to explain the purpose of my fictional shipment of gold down the Mississippi.

Though a figurehead, Brazil’s Emperor Dom Pedro was very popular both at home and abroad (particularly in the American South). He openly recruited defeated Southerners to his shores as cotton farmers, doctors, dentists, businessmen and engineers. Even a handful of freedmen immigrated to Brazil during the post-War years.

The number of Southern emigrants to Brazil is unknown; movement between nations did not suffer the restrictions applied in modern times, and Brazil did not keep immigration figures in those days. No passports or visas were required. Southerners simply caught a boat (many chartered for the colonists) out of New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, New York, and other cities and entered Brazil at any of a dozen ports, the most active being Rio de Janeiro. Popular estimates for the number of Southern emigrants to Brazil between 1867-1885 range from 10,000 to 20,000. Most made their way to the rich São Paulo province in south-central Brazil. Others, less in number, settled along the Amazon River (Santarém colony) much farther north.

For two generations the real Confederados maintained their dreams and memories of the Old South. Some eventually returned to the United States, but many more stayed, intermarried and are today Brazilian. For those of you interested in further study of the Brazilian Confederados, I refer you to Eugene Harter’s The Lost Colony of the Confederacy, University of Mississippi Press, 1985.

The banner belonging to Morgan Ward’s Seventeenth Horse Soldiers (company) is, like the Seventeenth itself, fictional. How-ever, like the fighting companies that rallied in defense of the South in 1861, company banners were real. These colors identified the individual companies that made up Confederate regiments—and since it was a feature of the Confederacy that small localities formed up companies (with their local banners), which in turn supplied Confederate regiments (ten companies to a regiment), Southern regiments often carried multiple “colors” into battle.

Company banners were made with love and pride by the wives, daughters, mothers, sisters, sweethearts, friends, and neighbors of the men who fought for the Cause. Many banners were patterned after the First National Flag of the Confederacy (Stars and Bars) with their unit identification highlighted in bright colors and augmented by patriotic mottos. They were given to the companies in formal ceremonies prior to the company’s “marching off to war.” By the close of 1861, the plethora of “regimental” colors as well as battlefield confusion between the Stars and Bars and the Stars and Stripes prompted the Confederacy to adopt the single regimental Battle Flag still honored by true Southerners today.

The return of the Seventeenth’s colors as narrated in my story by Henry Gifford, follows a similar pattern for many real banners that were returned to Confederate societies by the Northerners who captured them and/or the U.S. War Department decades after the war ended.

Those who have read my first novel, The Devil’s Bastard, will recognize River’s Bend as the home of the pseudo-villain André Richard, albeit a century later. For the purpose of my story, River’s Bend is located on the river roughly halfway between Natchez and St. Catherine Bend. Like many of the old plantation homes along any body of water, it had its own landing, and steamships routinely stopped at the private docks. The existence of an antebellum showcase that began life as a one-room French Dominion cabin might be stretching things a bit, though there are several houses in the area known to go back to the Spanish era (1780s)—including Hope Farm and Airlie—that began much smaller and more simplistic than they are today.

Most of the businesses and all of the people referenced as being in Natchez at the time of my story are fictional, however, the street names and a handful of the businesses, Natchez Gas Works, Rutherford & Dalgarn (Alabama coal), J.J. Cole & Co. and the Fisk Library were real. Natchez did have a hospital—on Cemetery Road, no less. I refer interested readers to an 1892 city directory published by the Banner Publishing Company in Natchez, which you can find at the Natchez Belle website.

Today Old St. Catherine Creek and Butler Lake are the site of a 25,000-acre national wildlife refuge, the realization of a twenty-plus-year reforestation effort following two decades of clear-cutting the Mississippi River’s bottomland forest for agricultural purposes. Since the area still abounded with hardwood forests and cypress swamp in the early 1960s, I assume it was wild and wonderful in 1895 and wilder still in 1865.

A little history, if I may, on Fort Adams and Warrenton, which along with my heroine’s hometown of Rodney, are today little more than notations on a map. All are victims of the whims of the mighty Mississippi, which dictated their founding and subsequent importance (and they were all important), then moved away and left them in isolation, where they’ve all but faded away.

In 1698 the French missionary, Anthony Davion, under the auspices of the Seminary of Quebec, itself affiliated with the Seminary of Foreign Missions in Paris, established a Catholic mission among the Tunica Indians on a high hill overlooking the Mississippi River. The little mission was roughly six miles north of the 31st parallel. He called it Roche à Davion. Father Davion maintained his mission off and on (depending on how friendly the natives were) for twenty years. He returned to France in 1725.

At the close of the French and Indian War (1763), the site of Father Davion’s mission fell to the British, who called it Loftus Heights. This region became part of Spain at the end of the American Revolution. In 1798, Spain surrendered the Natchez District to Captain Isaac Guion, representative of the United States government. Guion recommended Loftus Heights as the site of a fort to protect American interests in the region. Spanish Louisiana lay just across the Mississippi River and six miles to the south, across the 31st parallel. The stronghold, named Fort Adams in honor of then-President John Adams, served as the U.S. port of entry on the Mississippi River and boasted earthworks, a powder magazine, and a garrison of 500 U.S. regulars. In an 1803 letter to William C. C. Claiborne, governor of the Mississippi Territory, Commanding General James Wilkinson described Fort Adams as “the door to our whole western country.” The little town that grew up around the fort was also called Fort Adams. This is where, many years later, my character William Stone lived.

With the purchase of Louisiana in 1803 and the United States’ subsequent victory in the War of 1812, the Spanish threat disappeared, and Fort Adams was eventually abandoned. During the War Between the States, the Federals stationed the ironclad steamer Chillicothe at the foot of the hill upon which the fort had been built. The boat remained there one year, long enough, the story goes, for the drift of the water around its hull to cause the river to change course, moving more than a mile from the fort site.

Warrenton became the first county seat of Warren County in 1809. The region, originally part of the Natchez District, follows a pattern similar to Natchez. Here, Father Davion, the priest of Fort Adams’ fame, named his mission St. Pierre. The military post the French called Yazoo Post. The Yazoo Indians slaughtered both in conjunction with the Natchez uprising of 1729.

During the Spanish era (1779-1798), the Spaniards built a fort in the area and called it Nogales (Walnuts). After assuming control of the region in 1798, the United States called this area Walnut Hills. This became the site of Vicksburg in 1825. In 1836, the seat moved from Warrenton to Vicksburg. In addition to usurping Warrenton’s civic responsibilities, Vicksburg siphoned off the smaller town’s commercial assets. But when the War Between the States started in 1861, Warrenton’s inhabitants still numbered 500-600 people.

The Confederates fortified the town, and on 22 April 1863 its battery sank the Union boat Tigress, which had just escaped, unscathed, the mighty guns at Vicksburg.

In 1883, the Mississippi River changed course, leaving what was left of the town separated from the river by a huge sandbar, one mile wide. By the time of my story, Warrenton would have been no more than a small community south of Vicksburg. The Big Black Baptist Church and cemetery are fictional, but for my purposes are located to the southeast in a rural setting between Warrenton and the Big Black River (the Loosa Chitta).

Delilah’s home, Rodney, has a very old history, appearing on early eighteenth-century maps as Petit Gulph, and is believed to be the site of a river forge favored by the Indians. The town of Petit Gulph existed as of 1798. Residents changed its name to Rodney in 1814 in honor of Judge Thomas Rodney, the territorial magistrate.

It was in Rodney that Dr. Haller Nutt, a wealthy cotton and sugar-cane planter, developed the resilient Petit-Gulf strain of cotton, a disease-resistant cross of Egyptian and Mexican cottons and a primary contributor to the American South’s Cotton King-dom.

Rodney became a thriving commercial and cultural center and one of the busiest ports on the Mississippi, rivaling Natchez. On the eve of the War Between the States, the city had a thousand homes, 4,000 residents, numerous stores, newspapers, banks (with capital of one million dollars), and the first opera house in the state.

The misfortunes of war hit the town’s interests hard; then in 1876, its lifeline, the meandering Mississippi, meandered two miles farther west. By the time my heroine Delilah Graff left it at the age of twelve (1888), the city would have been struggling, a shade of its former self. Still today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a small population continues to reside there.

As for sunken ships and missing gold—stories abound all over Dixie, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell any reader who enjoys the type story I write how much fun it is to speculate about buried treasure. And to give the reader a perspective for what the raiders of the Gilded Rose were risking their lives at War’s end, one hundred thousand dollars in 1865 would be worth roughly $1.5 million in 2011.

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