The first Baptist missionary to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, John B. Hamberlin
Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.
Although Baptists were well-established in the rest of Mississippi, they were late getting started on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In 1868, the Mississippi Baptist Convention listed the names of the Baptist ministers in Mississippi and their post offices, nearly all of which were in north or central Mississippi. Not a single Baptist minister resided on the Mississippi Coast. In 1873, W. H. Hardy of Meridian called attention to the lack of Baptist churches in Jones, Perry, Greene, Harrison and Hancock counties, and “the populous towns along the sea shore.” He called for the Convention to send missionaries to Pascagoula or Pass Christian “or some other convenient point.”
In 1875, the Mississippi Baptist Convention sent John B. Hamberlin as a missionary to the Mississippi Coast, where, he reported, there was “only one little Baptist church, and that in a disorganized state.” This church was located three miles in the country from Ocean Springs, and he relocated it in the town. He also started a church in Moss Point, which built a house of worship. Next, he targeted Biloxi, where “Roman Catholicism overshadows everything.” He found “a poor old widow” who was the only member left of a small Baptist congregation that once had a house of worship there. “He got possession of the old house, made some repairs upon it; has conducted two special meetings, and has recently organized a church of seventeen members.” Sadly, a yellow fever epidemic in 1876 took the life of Hamberlin’s wife while they were in Biloxi, and he sent his small child inland to get away from the epidemic, while he returned to his mission work on the Coast. Hamberlin wrote, “My wife is dead; my home is broken up; my child is gone, and my heart is desolate; but I hope in the future to be a better man, and to do more and better work for Christ than ever before.”
Minutes, Mississippi Baptist Convention, 1868, 22-23, 29-30; 1873, 17-18; 1875, 12; 1876, 24-25.
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.