The first Baptist church in Mississippi
Article copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.
(In a previous blog post, I told the story of how a group of Baptists emigrated to the Natchez District in 1780-81. This post tells how they started the first Baptist church in Mississippi.)
The Spaniards had taken control of the Natchez District from the British in October 1779, shortly before the emigrants arrived, but the Spanish had not established an efficient government or any control over land sales or occupation by adventurers. The first objective of the newly arrived settlers was to earn a livelihood. In this new land they were dependent upon themselves for supplying all of their needs. As they had likely arrived in the spring of 1781, they began to plant crops, as well as devote themselves to the construction of houses. They built for their protection the usual log houses from the abundant materials that were available. The experience of one of these settlers has been described by a descendant of John Jones:
“He found rich land… a plentiful supply of game in the woods and fish and water-fowl in the creek, with plenty of spring and creek water convenient for man and beast. He soon put up a log cabin, cut and burned the cane and undergrowth… and by doling out a scanty supply of seed-corn by the grain, soon had it planted… For a time, bread was not to be had, but Mr. Jones, with his trusty rifle… kept his family supplied with game, principally venison and wild turkeys.”
This patriotic band of Americans was living in an area conquered by Spain during the Revolutionary War but which was ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris in 1783 with Great Britain. Spain was determined to hold the territories she had captured, because of their intrinsic worth and because they afforded protection for her holdings south of the 31st parallel and the great Louisiana territory west of the river. The basic Spanish policy was to win the loyalty of those who resided in the territory and to increase the migration of Americans into the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. The Spanish modified their traditional colonial policy by permitting the toleration of “heretics,” the admission of foreign immigrants, and the granting of a considerable degree of commercial freedom. These policies failed to win the ultimate allegiance of the settlers in the Natchez region.
Meanwhile, on Cole’s Creek, the group of settlers, most of whom were Baptists, met privately in their homes for Bible study and prayer, but did not worship publicly, thus avoiding attention from the Roman Catholic authorities. They lost their patriarch, Richard Curtis, Sr., who died on November 10, 1784, at age 56, but the embers of his faith were fanning to flame in the next generation. His young son Richard Curtis, Jr., was already a licensed preacher, though only 25 years old when they left South Carolina. Young Richard was 29 years old at the time of his father’s death; however, he was becoming known as a good preacher, and his brothers-in-law, John and Jacob Stampley, were also gifted at teaching the scriptures. Richard’s older brother William and step-brother John Jones were known for their prayers. By 1790, other American settlers were inviting them to visit their homes and share their faith. Whatever they may have lacked in education, they seemed to make up for in zeal. The conditions prevailing in 1791 thus were favorable for the establishment of formal Baptist religious worship. A group of seven people met at Margaret Stampley’s home on Cole’s Creek in what is now Jefferson County to organize themselves for religious worship. The members of this group of pioneers were: Richard Curtis, Jr., pastor; William Thompson, recording clerk; William Curtis; John Jones; Benjamin Curtis; Ealiff Lanier; and Margaret Stampley. Ealiff Lanier is the only name of this group whose name does not appear in the list of those making the journey from South Carolina in 1780-81. Notably missing are several male members of the first settlers, including Margaret Stampley’s husband, who may have died. The church was informally called Cole’s Creek Church, as late as 1806. They finally settled on the name Salem Baptist by the time the church name appears in the minutes of the Mississippi Baptist Association in 1807.
The Baptist pioneer trek to Mississippi
Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Missississippi Baptist Convention Board
(In a previous post, I told how a group of South Carolina Baptists decided to flee the devastation of the Revolutionary War and make a new life in Mississippi. This post tells the story of how they got to Mississippi.)
The Curtis family decided to establish their new homes along the Mississippi River near Natchez, in what was then called West Florida. After the French and Indian War in 1763, the British took Florida from Spain, (West Florida included the panhandle of modern Florida and the areas now in southern Mississippi and Alabama), and Englishmen from the colonies had begun to settle there. The stories of productive farmlands that were free to all settlers and the peace they would have from the turmoil of the fratricidal strife in South Carolina must have made the prospects of beginning again very enticing. In 1779, Spain took advantage of the British distraction with the American Revolution, and Spain conquered the Natchez district from the British and added it to West Florida. Despite this, the emigrants did not anticipate any difficulty from this source. As we shall see, they were wrong.
The route the migrants followed to their new homes was the familiar one used by many who were a part of the great westward migration, but it was not an easy trek. Our source for this journey is John Griffing Jones, a direct descendant of one of the travelers, John Jones. He writes that they left their homes in South Carolina early in 1780, loading their horses with their clothes, furniture and tools, and traveled north by land, crossing the Appalachian Mountains, and arrived on the banks of the Holston River near the present location of Kingsport, Tennessee, a trip of about 300 miles. Primitive roads and mountains made the trip difficult, as they carried their supplies on pack horses, the men traveling by foot. They arrived on the Holston River in the early spring and immediately began the task of raising a crop of corn, hunting game to salt and preserve, while building flatboats for the river journey that lay ahead.
In the fall of 1780, the travelers were ready to begin their voyage downriver. The party included Richard Curtis, Sr., and his wife Phoebe; two brothers William and Benjamin Curtis and their wives; Richard Curtis, Jr. and his wife Patsy; John Courtney and John Stampley and their wives (Hannah Curtis Courtney and Phoebe Curtis Stampley, respectively, daughters of Richard Curtis, Sr.); John Jones, his wife, and son William; and others whose names are unknown. On the second boat were Daniel and William Ogden and their families, and a Mr. Perkins and his family. The records do not reveal the names of the occupants of the third boat.
The emigrants knew from the experience of other travelers that they might have trouble with the Indian tribes. After all, they were planning to take lands formerly occupied by the Indians and make permanent homes for themselves. The natives did not want to give up their lands. The French had virtually exterminated the Natchez tribe in 1732, although other tribes such as the Choctaws were still in the area, but they knew they would encounter other tribes along the way, especially since the hostility of the Indians was encouraged and supported by the British against Americans during the Revolutionary War. In order to protect themselves, the emigrants always traveled in as large groups as possible.
The migrants’ travel took them down the Holston River for 87 miles to what is now Knoxville. There, they entered the Tennessee River. The three boats had only traveled about 40 miles downriver, when they faced their greatest danger. This was the country of the Cherokees, who had been faithful allies of the British during the Revolution. These Indians attacked the flotilla on a bend in the Tennessee near the mouth of the Clinch River, near present-day Kingston. The Cherokee attack focused on the first flatboat, occupied by the Curtis and Jones families. Some of the women and children took over the oars while the men fired their rifles in defense. Hannah Courtney was grazed on the head by a ball, and Jonathan Curtis was slightly wounded on the wrist. While John Jones fired his rifle, his 12-year-old son worked the oars and his wife held up a thick stool made of poplar wood as a shield. A bullet hit her stool, and later Mrs. Jones laughingly remarked that “their guns were very weak, as they did not make a very deep impression on the stool.” The second boat floated by the point of attack unharmed, but the third boat was far behind, and became an easy target for the Indians. The occupants of the third boat had contracted smallpox, and so they were floating in the rear and camping at a separate place each night. The Cherokees killed everybody on the third boat except one woman whom they captured, thereby also contracting smallpox, which took the lives of many in the tribe.
The survivors made the rest of their trip without further molestation. They traveled about 600 miles down the winding Tennessee River, riddled with rocky shoals and swift currents, until they met the Ohio River near the city of Paducah, Kentucky. A short trip of 44 miles on the Ohio River brought them to the mighty Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois. Then they traveled another 450 miles down the Mississippi River. They landed near the mouth of Cole’s Creek, about twenty miles north of Natchez, settling 3.5 miles eastward on the creek at “Curtis Landing,” and established a village known as Uniontown, west of the present town of Fayette. Given the distance they traveled, at the mercy of the flow of the rivers and resting each night, the trip should have taken several months. Jack Curtis, a descendant of Richard Curtis who has done extensive research on the family, estimates that they arrived in the Natchez District about March, 1781. By the grace of God, they had survived a trek through the mountains, an Indian attack and navigated over 1,000 miles of rivers to reach their new home.
Dr. Rogers is revising and updating A History of Mississippi Baptists.