Early Life in the Jackson Prairie, Newton County, Mississippi
By George L. Mason
My father was born in 1878 and my grandfather in 1856, a statistic that few can claim, and having heard the stories told to me by my father and his peers gives me a unique perspective not just of this century nor the one before but of the 19th century.
My father, George Lafayette Mason, was six years old and moved south of Bethel Church with his father, General Blucher Mason, in 1884 when Grandfather married a second time.
General Blucher Mason, my grandfather, was born in 1856 in Mobile, Alabama, and was married first to Alice Bingham and secondly to Mary Aletha Chapman. My father, George Lafayette Mason, who married in 1913 to Etoile Donegan, worked as a farmer in this prairie soil almost continuously except for three months in the local country school, part of a year at Mississippi College and one year in the Oklahoma and Texas territories. When he was forty-two years old, he moved his family about 1 ½ miles south of Newton onto sandy land to escape the prairie soil. Having lived in the prairie for thirty-six years, he was well qualified to speak about the soil.
In the southwestern part of Newton County, Mississippi, there is a soil type commonly known as the prairie. On the western county line it extends from the southwest corner northward to Lake, Mississippi. On the southern county line it extends from the southwest corner eastward half way across the county. This prairie soil also extends through parts of Clarke, Jasper, Smith, Scott, Hinds and Madison counties. Nearly all of Jackson has prairie soil.
The professionals call this soil the Jackson prairie or Jackson group of soils. There is no other soil in Mississippi so named.
Following the signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830 and the formation of Jasper and Neshoba Counties in 1833 and Newton County in 1836 (the latter created from the south half of Neshoba), many new settlers moved into the area, among the first being the Evans family. There were few roads in the interior of the county, mainly Indian trails.
The only town in the area was Garlandville in Jasper County and at Garlandville was a large Indian settlement. During the early 1830’s the Choctaws Indians convened here to begin their forced march to resettle in Indian Territory west of the Mississippi, as directed by President Andrew Jackson. At the same time, white settlers moved into the Garlandville area to find new land on which to live and farm.
The early settlers came to the prairie land because there was little undergrowth. The trees and absence of undergrowth made it park-like. After they depleted the natural lime in the soil and crop productivity declined significantly, the exodus began. Very few people live in the prairie now. Very little of it is cultivated. Mostly it is now grasslands and woods. I know of only two large cultivated prairie farms in this area today.
When prairie soil was cleared for cultivation the fertility of the soil lasted only a few years. Commercial fertilizers, used to restore the natural fertility of the land, were not widely applied in this area until well after 1880; therefore, more land had to be cleared Eventually there was not more “new ground” to develop, the soil would not longer produce viable crops, and farmers began to leave the area.
The Jackson Prairie is shown in gold.
On the road from Bethel Church to Nance’s Hill is an area that has been called “Puny Point” as long as I can remember. The land was cultivated at an early time but lost most of it minerals in as few as five years, thus giving it this nickname.
Most of the early settlers established large plantations and owned a considerable number of slaves. More than forty landowners are noted in the early records of the southwestern part of the county, but the families that would have the most binding effects would be the Chapmans, Walkers, Nichols, Thompsons, and Evans.
While quail hunting in the southern part of the county many years ago and east of Nance’s Hill, I walked upon a cemetery in the woods with a number of marked graves. All of the monuments, save one, were for Evans. There were 14 stones with only two not having a name. I took time to record all graves that were marked, as noted below:
Catherine Evans 4/2/1809—3/15/1887
Nannie Evans 4/2/1838--11/19/1886
Kate W. Evans 8/28/1845—5/2/1875
Isabel McKay, w/o L. McKay 7/26/1819—7/28/1872
Lucile Evans 2/14/1872—9/9/1882
Daniel Evans 10/18/1843—6/21/1873
John Evans 12/16/1836—9/18/1859
Serena A., w/o John Evans 5/7/1838—7/26/1859
William Evans 4/16/1797—8/7/1850
Catherine Evans 1768—2/23/1841
Martha Evans, d/o 10/11/1841—9/16/1845
Watson and Catherine Evans
Who were these people? Where did they come from and why did they abandon the area in the 1880’s? Certainly they arrived in the area quite early and were prosperous enough to erect grave markers, few like stones which can be found in Newton County prior to the Civil War.
I could tell, the day that I visited the cemetery, that the land had not been cultivated in many years, and that the area had grown up in trees. A public road that once led to the town of Roberts had been closed for many years and had grown up in trees, as with many other roads that once criss-crossed the prairie but which are now abandoned.
Life was not easy on the prairie. When it rained, the water caused the prairie soil to expand greatly and it became very sticky. On dairy farms the cows brought in great globs of this soil into the barn when it was wet. This characteristic of prairie soil caused dairymen even more work when washing the floor of the barn every day.
When there was little rain, the soil dried, became very hard, and would shrink. The shrinkage caused wide cracks to form. Some folks said, “The drought killed all of our quail this year,” in reference to the juvenile quail falling into the cracks and being unable to scramble out. Others said, “If you stick to the soil when it’s dry, it will stick to you when it is wet.” Another figure of speech was, “The prairie is a man and mule-killer.”
Farming in the prairie soil was mostly a struggle for families to stay alive. To look for something better was common and many left the area. GTT (Gone to Texas) was often painted on barn tops as families abandoned the area. My father, however, had been to Texas and found life to be just as much a struggle, so he returned to Mississippi. He then saw the opportunity to exchange the prairie land south of Bethel church for the sandy land south of Newton and took it. Today much of the prairie land is in timber or grass for cattle. In the early days there was no demand for either.
As a young man and prior to his marriage, my father bought 40 acres in this prairie and clear-cut the trees. Timber was practically worthless at that time, so the timber was piled and burned. Each tree was cut by Father first climbing to the top of the tree with an ax. As he cut off each limb, it would, by its fall, break many of the limbs below. Father would continue to descend the tree in this fashion until he reached the ground. He would then saw the trunk down, pile up the limbs and trunks, then burn them. With whatever help he could get, he cut and burned the entire forty acres.
The logs had to be piled up before they could be burned. This was accomplished by men who placed poles about six feet long under the logs and physically carried the logs to the piles. Neighbors, friends, and relatives helped you and you helped them on similar occasions.
The stumps and roots were left, but the field was designated as “new ground” and was ready to use. You can imagine how hard it was to cultivate land filled with stumps and roots, but it was done. I have even done some of it myself and can tell you personally that there is little physical labor today that compares to that of following a pair of mules and a middle buster as you try to create a straight furrow through the maze of stumps and roots of a new ground.
There were two critical problems to be overcome by people who chose to live in the prairie land. The first was the condition of the soil. The second was water.
Hand-dug wells were not reliable during the dry seasons since the soil would not hold water. Cisterns came into common use as a way to store water in anticipation of these dry seasons, but they often turned into the breeding ground for mosquitoes. These were circular water tanks dug into the ground and completely lined with bricks. A hole at the top center extended a foot or two above the ground. The water ran into it when it rained from gutters on the house. Some cisterns still exist, as I have discovered while hunting in the prairie.
Evans Sulky Plow