The Hermitage is ground zero for local history

Published 1:15 am Sunday, October 10, 2010

It’s 1800.

 John Adams is the second President of the U.S., which consists now of 16 states. Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee have been added to the 13 original ones on the Eastern Seaboard.

Louisiana would not be admitted until 1812 and Mississippi not until 1817.

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What we know now as the Southeastern U.S. is known to U.S. citizens then as “The Old Southwest.”

Later, the State of Mississippi and Alabama will be carved out of the territories, which were seized from the Indians in forced treaties after the Indians suffered military defeats at the hands of the whites.

In 1800, what is now the boothill of Mississippi, and what would later become Pearl River Co., and Picayune, is on the verge of a dispute between the Spanish and the Americans. The Americans of British descent had piled into the Mississippi boothill and now wanted to join and connect themselves with the U.S. They would declare themselves an independent nation before connecting politically with the United States.

The Spanish would turn over by treaty its lands west of the Mississippi to the French, and Napoleon would sell all of it to President Jefferson in 1803 in the largest real estate land deal in U.S. history for pennies an acre, the Louisiana Purchase.

But what we know now as Pearl River Co. would also be right in the middle of a dispute between the Spanish and the Americans, who had moved in and squatted on a lot of land that would later become the boothill of Mississippi. The Spanish after settling with the French moved their capital from New Orleans to Mobile.

And for 90 days in 1810 what would one day become Picayune would be a part of the free independent nation of the Republic of West Florida under the “Bonnie Blue Flag,” the true and first Lone Star flag and Republic. Later the boothill of Mississippi would be annexed by America and added to the state of Mississippi.

The Republic of West Florida for that 90 days stretched from Mobile to Baton Rouge, up to the 31st parallel near Lumberton and north of Lake Pontchartrain. Fulwar Skipwith was president and Reuben Kemper led an unsuccessful attack to try and dislodge the Spanish from Mobile.

But right now in the year 1800, an Indian village spreads over the hill on which later would be located the Hermitage and the foundations of Picayune laid. But Picayune would not come into existence until over 100 years later in 1904.

By 1800, the Choctaws had perhaps claimed for a thousand years this land at the confluence of what we know now as East and West Hobolochitto creeks. The original sachem who founded the village was named A’bola, after which the creeks took their names. Chitto in Choctaw means stream, so “A’bola stream.”

The Choctaws had possessed the bluff and the surrounding area long enough to construct a huge Indian mound in the forks of the two streams that ran together at the foot of the bluff.

As the Choctaws died, they were buried in the mound, which has never been excavated.

The Indians only numbered perhaps less than 500 when the white man appeared on the scene. Once upon a time, hundreds of years earlier, before the white man came, they had numbered in perhaps the thousands, but diseases spread by the Europeans when they made contact with the Indians had decimated their numbers, and most tribes were now small.

They lived in small huts made from polls and thatch, and sometimes several families lived in the same hut, in which a fire was kept alive 24 hours a day, seven days a week, used for warmth in the winter and cooking year round. The women and children tended the fire constantly and raised the sparse vegetables in scattered fields.

The men lounged around, and only hunted and fished and stirred themselves as warriors only when the village was threatened.

The Choctaws here practiced subsistence farming and lived off a few vegetables they raised and fish caught from the creek and game taken from the woods. Large game animals roamed the ancient forests here, including at the time buffalo and elk and bears.

One day, however, a white man, a Scotsman named Stephen Jarrell, about in the year 1800, some say as late as 1811, walked up the bluff to meet with the Choctaws. He asked to talk with the sachem and told him he wanted to build a trading post on top of the bluff. He offered to trade for the site, not mentioning the word purchase, which the Indians couldn’t understand. They had no conception of ownership like the white man had. But trading for something was a different matter. The Indians were expert trader-barterers.

It went down like the Dutch purchasing Manhattan, and the Choctaws vacated the bluff to Jarrell and probably moved across the creek to the mound.

Little is known about Stephen Jarrell, the Scotsman, where he came from or even how he got here or heard about this place. He probably came up by the Pearl River from New Orleans and then up Hobolochitto Creek. Or he could have walked in overland from the Gulf Coast along the old Indian and buffalo trail that skirted Pearl River and would later become the Columbia-to-Gainsville Road.

He chose this place evidently because he heard that the territory was opening up to white settlers along the Pearl River and their was an opportunity of selling necessities to them. The influx of white European settlers, mostly English Americans, later prompted the dispute between the Americans and Spanish. Jarrell was a part of that influx.

Jarrell, the first white man to settle in what would later become Picayune, built a small log trading post and settled in, mostly amongst the Indians. A few years later a U.S. surveyor, who was surveying the area after the Louisiana Purchase, dropped by and spent a few months with Jarrell on the bluff as he completed his work.

Jarrell asked the Indians how they came to settle here, and they told him their ancestors had oral traditions that said holy spirits hovered over the connection point of two streams or creeks, and also because it was so beautiful here.

Jarrell had traded with the sachem for two half sections in what is now the Northwest corner of Picayune.

He then began to mark off the old Columbia-to-Gainesville road that passed directly through his property. River Road from Goodyear Boulevard up to the Hermitage is part of that old road still being used. It was then nothing more than an buffalo and Indian trail.

Jarrell’s wife was named Patsy Martha.

Nobody knows what happened to Jarrell. He walks into history and then disappears in the mists after he sells the trading post and land. One wonders if he was involved in the intrigues surrounding the establishment of the Republic of West Florida.

Moses Cook was a quartermaster to one of the units of Gen. Andrew Jackson’s Army that marched through here in 1814 on the way to the Battle of New Orleans at Chalmette. Contingents of Jackson’s army passed Picayune on routes south and north of the bluff, one going across where McNeill is today and crossing the Pearl River at what is Poole’s Bluff today. Cook was in the contingent that passed just north of the bluff through McNeill area.

Cook was a native of Connecticut but hooked up with Jackson’s army in Tennessee. Cook was a survivor in 1813 of the Fort Mims massacre 35 miles north of Mobile in South Alabama where almost 300 whites had been slaughtered by the Creek Indians known as “Red Sticks.”

Cook heard about Jarrell’s trading post and dropped by one day to see what he could purchase from the Scotsman. Cook was smitten by the beauty of the place, too, and told Jarrell that after the war was over he would return and buy it from him, if he would sell. Jarrell told Cook he would sell if the price was right.

Cook kept his word. After the Battle of New Orleans, Cook returned and bought the place from Calvin Merrill and Henry Dillard, who already had bought it from Jarrell.

Jarrell is listed in the 1840 Hancock Co. census but not in the 1850 census, so he either died or moved away in the 1840s.

Cook was a native of Connecticut and joined Jackson’s army in Tennessee.

Cook expanded the place, built a larger house, a toll bridge across the creek and encouraged  settlement in the area. He later became a judge and founded the Moses Cook Masonic Lodge, which is still active in Picayune to this day.

Cook was accompanied by his wife, Dolly, and a friend George Washington Ross, a relative of Betsy Ross.

Later, as he and his wife became elderly, he contacted a friend, Leonard Kimball, and told Kimball that he would will the place to him if he and his wife would come down and take care of him in his old age. Kimball was from Pennsylvannia.

An agreement was worked out.

Cook was a probate judge, was worth $1,000 in the 1850 census and served as a state representative from 1840 to 1844. He died in 1855 and is buried in one of the graves at the Founders’ Cemetery, overlooking the Hermitage.

Leonard Kimball, best known for rearing the Hermitage’s best known occupant, Eliza Jane Pointevent, the Poet Laureate of the South, Pearl Rivers, and the first woman in the U.S. to own and run a major metropolitan newspaper, the “Daily Picayune,” later today’s “Times-Picayune.”

Kimball came to the Hermitage in 1843. He was a shrewd businessman and increased the size of the Hermitage property from 640 acres to 7,000 at the time of his death on Dec. 12, 1884. His wife, Jane Potter Russ, stayed at the Hermitage for several years after he died, but later sold it and moved in with her niece, Eliza Jane, whom she had helped rear at the Hermitage, and who had homes in Bay St. Louis and New Orleans.

Kimball also served as a state legislator and also as postmaster.

Eliza Jane was the Hermitage’s most illustrious inhabitant, having been reared there from 1852 till about 1868 when she went to work at the “Picayune” in New Orleans for Col. Holbrook, who she later married and inherited from him the newspaper after his death.

By the time she left the Hermitage for New Orleans, she was a nationally known poet. Her literary talents bloomed while she lived at the Hermitage, which was then a full-scale ante-bellum plantation with slaves.

The remainder of the history is hard to follow. Mark Clinton Davis has documented much of it pertaining to the late 1800s, and Don Wicks has chronicled much of Eliza Jane’s history. He has researched her in-depth for years and is writing her biography.

Lamont Rowlands, a business partner of L.O. Crosby, Sr., bought the Hermitage around 1918 and expanded the home, and R.H. Crosby, the eldest son of L.O.Sr., purchased it from Rowland. L.O. Sr., contrary to popular belief, never owned it, according to Davis.

After R.H.’s ownership it began changing hands ever faster and got to the point where those who loved it and knew how historically important the place was, feared that it would be destroyed.

Once attorney and real estate magnate Sonny Stuart owned it and lived there. It was donated by one owner to to USM for a tax write-off and USM later sold it to raise money to construct an athletic dorm.

It even became vacant and lovers of the property and those who realized its historical importance feared it would be set on fire and be lost as even vagrants at one time moved in and occupied the property, whose owners lived elsewhere.

Many felt it was headed for the fate that struck the E.F. Tate mansion on North Main Street.

But lovers of the place now believe and hope that it finally is in the hands of a couple, Lynn and Frank Burger of Ocean Springs, who appreciate its beauty and heritage, and will see that it is preserved.

The couple, who are antique dealers, are refurbishing the place and plan to open it up for the public a couple times a year to help support and promote animal and conservation causes they are interested in.

They plan to move and live here permanently.

Perhaps now those who love the Hermitage can rest and look forward to a new future for the place, which has been such an integral part of Picayune, Pearl River County and South Mississippi’s history.