Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.
(In previous posts, I told the stories of how Baptists from South Carolina settled the Natchez District about the same time that the Spanish took control of the area from the British, and how the Baptists started Salem Baptist Church on Cole’s Creek, 20 miles north of Natchez.)
Concerned about so many English-speaking American emigrants to the Natchez District, who were not Catholic, the Spanish issued a religious edict in 1795. It declared “that if nine persons were found worshiping together, except according to the forms of the Catholic Church, they should suffer imprisonment.” They sent a man named Ebenezer Dayton to spy on the Baptists, pretending to be in sympathy with them as he was Presbyterian, and Dayton reported that their pastor, Richard Curtis, Jr. continued defend his right to preach the gospel and obey God rather than man. The Spanish Governor, Manuel Gayoso, arrested Curtis in April 1795, and forced him to sign a pledge not to preach. At the urging of his congregation, Curtis continued to preach, so Gayoso sent an armed posse to break up the house church in August 1795, but this time Curtis fled to South Carolina.
Meanwhile, the American government began the process of taking control of the Natchez District. The months between the signing of the Pinckney’s Treaty of San Lorenzo in October 1795, until the surrender of the area to the United States on March 30, 1798, were a period of turbulence and disorder in the Natchez region. The Spanish authorities controlled the government and exercised the legal authority that existed. The control of the Spanish was weakened by a large influx of American settlers and by the knowledge that the Spanish authority was of a temporary nature.
In February 1797, Louisiana’s governor sent orders to Gayoso to prepare dismantling the fort at Natchez in compliance with the treaty, but soon afterward, Gayoso received orders from Spain to postpone the departure, as Spain hoped to talk to the Americans about alterations to the treaty. The same month, Andrew Ellicott arrived with a commission from the American president to mark the southern boundary of the United States at the 31st parallel, which was about 30 miles south of Natchez, in accordance with the treaty to give to America all lands on the east side of the Mississippi River, north of the 31st parallel. He had a small army escort under Lieutenant Percy Smith Pope, and two dozen woodsmen from Fort Pitt. Ellicott, Pope and their party of Americans docked at Natchez on February 24, 1797. They camped on a knoll overlooking the town. At Patrick Connelly’s tavern atop the hill, the Americans boldly raised the United States flag, so that it could be seen by the Spanish in their fort. Gayoso and his garrison of 60 Spanish soldiers refused to leave. Ellicott and Gayoso wrote letters back and forth, neither party willing to give in, as the standoff continued for months. Lt. Pope preferred a direct attack, and even recruited 200 men from Cole’s Creek, which likely included some of the Baptists, to assault the Spanish fort, but Gayoso arrested the leaders and broke up the plot. Commissioner Ellicott, who was a Quaker, preferred negotiation and political maneuver to get the Spanish to leave. He counted on the loyalty of the majority of the American settlers, since it was only a few wealthy landowners who were solidly loyal to the Spanish. He got the leverage he needed from a Baptist preacher.
The Baptist preacher whom Ellicott needed was named Barton Hannan, who had previously been active at Salem Church on Cole’s Creek. Hannan arrived in Natchez preaching fiery words, damning the pope and recruiting volunteers for a revolt. Hannan got into a drunken brawl with some Irish Catholics on June 9, 1797, and the irate Irish Catholics mauled him. Governor Gayoso arrested Hannan for disturbing the peace, which only led to more disturbances. His wife marched to Natchez, baby in her arms, and demanded that Governor Gayoso release him. Gayoso tried to calm her by caressing the baby and giving her presents. “I don’t want your presents; I want my husband,” she said. He replied, “I cannot grant your request, madam.” She answered, “I will have him before tomorrow morning, or this place shall be deluged in blood; for there are men enough who have pledged themselves to release him before morning, or die in the attempt, to overcome any force you have here.” She was not making an idle threat, for on June 12, over 300 armed men assembled at William Belk’s tavern on the Natchez Trace to organize a rebellion. The governor released Hannan, and from that point forward, the Spanish lost real control of Natchez. In December 1797, Captain Isaac Guion arrived in Natchez with a large unit of American troops, and put greater pressure on Gayoso to leave. The Spanish finally departed on March 30, 1798.
Immediately after the Spanish had withdrawn, the American officials raised the “Stars and Stripes” over Natchez, and invited Bailey E. Chaney preach. He was the son of William Chaney, the deacon who, in Richard Curtis’s absence, was leading Salem Baptist on Cole’s Creek. Chaney preached before a large gathering, the very first sermon under the United States flag in the new Mississippi Territory. At long last, religious freedom was allowed in Natchez, and a Baptist was called on to celebrate it with God’s Word.