Monday, August 29, 2011

Port Royal - Lost "Seat of Justice" of Coahoma County

Most citizens of Coahoma County have never heard of this little town but it was at one point the county seat (or “seat of justice” as it was referred to then) of Coahoma and also the oldest town in the county. 

In 1830 the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was agreed upon by the Choctaw Indians and the U.S. Government.  This was the first “removal” treaty carried out under the Indian Removal Act. This treaty ceded about 11 million acres of land, most of which located in the state of Mississippi, to the U.S. Government.  This land included lands in east Mississippi stretching from Clarke County to Lowndes county, crossing the state to lands in west Mississippi from Coahoma County to the border of Tunica and Desoto Counties. 

(Maps of Mississippi showing (at left) the area ceded by the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek and (at right) the present day county borders)

Following this treaty and the move of over 15,000 Choctaw Indians to Oklahoma (incidentally, ‘oklahoma’ is the Choctaw word for ‘red people’), the lands ceded the U.S. were available for settling in Mississippi. 

Driven by the prospect of cheap land and fresh starts, people began to move, many arriving by river.  In those days, counties on the Mississippi River typically made their “seat of justice” a town along the river because that was their principal point of travel, commerce, and society.  It was for these reasons that Port Royal was originally designated as the seat for Coahoma County.

(Early map showing the location of several plantations along the Mississippi River. Helena (Arkansas), Delta and Port Royal are clearly marked.  Though this map is from 1839 it shows the 'Horseshoe cutoff' already having been completed and the river diverted from Port Royal.  Records indicate the completion of this cutoff did not occur until 1848. Speculation exists that the maps plate was changed post 1848 to reflect the change in the river, but the truth of the matter is not known.)

Unpublished histories of the region assert that a settlement existed as Port Royal as early as 1833.  According to records, land sales were being made by the U.S. Government for the Port Royal, Rescue Landing, and Sunflower Landing vicinities even before the county was established in 1836. 

Though never incorporated and never having established a post office (according to U.S. Post Office Department records), the town still became the most important town in the county.  On February 4, 1839 the Mississippi Legislature issued a memorial to the U.S. Congress asking that post offices be located at several riverfront locations including “Powhatan, the seat of justice in Coahoma County”.  Based on stories passed down from generation to generation, some believe that Powhatan existed on the Mississippi River shore opposite the southern end of Island No. 63.  Historians however disagree and believe Powhatan to have been the original name of Port Royal. 

The name for the settlement, according to George Maynard’s memoirs, was given by William J. Oldham who owned considerable amounts of land at the south end of the ‘U’ in horseshoe bend.  According to the memoir, Oldham was born at Port Royal, S.C. and chose the name of his birthplace for the settlement in Mississippi.  Since Oldham didn’t come to Coahoma County until 1939, it’s entirely possible the settlement was called Powhatan previous to his arrival. 

(Oil painting by artist John Stobart entitled "A Night Run to Friar's Point".  Steamboats like this were commonplace during the 'steamboat era' of the Mississippi River.  Towns like Port Royal, Delta, and Friar's Point were the major ports for these rambler's of the Mississippi, but it was not uncommon for larger plantations along the Mississippi River to have their own ports.)

During this time the settlement most assuredly was the largest and busiest community in Coahoma County.  The 1840 census lists just 1,290 people (766 whites, and 524 slaves) in the entire county and most of which settled in the locations of Port Royal, Sunflower Landing, and Rescue Landing. 

The only available description of Port Royal is included in a script that was prepared for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Hernando DeSoto’s discovery of the Mississippi River and it states:

“Her rude stores, saloons and shanties stood back a safe distance from the precipitous edge of the river’s bank. At low stage, river craft landed at her feet; at high stage they unloaded their cargoes into her one muddy street. At flood stage, river and village were one.
Both public buildings and private homes were roughly but stoutly constructed of logs.
Although accorded the honor of being named county site, no [official] courthouse ever was built in Port Royal. Court, school and church were held in the same one-room log house. When the jury retired to deliberate upon and decide the fate of those early transgressors against the law they took themselves into a thicket of low timber behind the ‘courthouse and’ seated themselves in solemn dignity upon the trunks of felled trees.
The (official county) records, so it is told, were kept in a trunk and carried about by the clerk in an ox wagon.”
Before the settlement was even a decade old, it would succumb to the volatile nature of the Mississippi River.  The river, which is said to possess a will of its own, finally cut across the 1 mile wide stretch of land that separated the bends of horseshoe bend thus straightening the river and marking Port Royal as no longer a riverfront settlement or steamboat landing. 

(Extract of a google map showing present day terrain around the former location of Port Royal.  Horseshoe Lake, as indicated, has dwindled to a scant shadow of its prior significance as seen in the early map above.  It, like Moon Lake in this extract, was abandoned to its own devices when the mighty and aberrate Mississippi River chose other paths. 

Upon the realization that Port Royal would no longer be a riverfront town, a vote was held to elect a new county seat.  The county seat chosen was Delta, MS, a town located approximately 5 miles north of Friars Point, MS.  This removal of the ‘seat’ from Port Royal had an immediate impact on its business and commerce. 

Today Port Royal exists in record only.  The remains of the town have never been found or identified though some theorize that they were cover by the levee built to protect from the untamable Mississippi river.  What truly became of that town may never be known but its existence was paramount as it was the first gateway into the cotton empire of Coahoma County.   


**This post would not have been possible without the research of legendary Clarksdale historian and newspaper reporter Harry Abernathy who's articles on the topic of early Coahoma County provided the lion's share of information for this blog.

2 comments:

  1. I appreciate you giving my Uncle Harry credit for his research. I so wish he'd written a book.

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  2. I'm sure that it was Port Royal that we visited a few years ago and up on the hill above the river are some buildings and a church to signify where the town supposedly was moved and later abandoned. We also visited the cemetery on the hill. It was very interesting to visit and not so easy to find on maps or Mississippi tourism. I think that tourists would love visiting there because we did.

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