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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.

The Mississippi Baptist story begins in South Carolina

The Pee Dee River Valley of the Carolinas, from which the Baptists first migrated to Mississippi

Copyright by Robert C. Rogers and the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

   The story of Mississippi Baptists begins in South Carolina. The Baptists of South Carolina furnished the first Baptist migrants to Mississippi and thus are of special importance in the history of Mississippi Baptists. Historians record that Rev. Richard Curtis, Jr. was 25 years old when he traveled with his parents and a group of fellow Baptists, who migrated from the Pee Dee River Valley of South Carolina in 1780 to settle on Cole’s Creek, about 20 miles north of Natchez, which at the time was controlled by Spain as part of West Florida. The precise location in South Carolina where these Baptists came from is unclear. One theory seeks to connect Richard Curtis and Mississippi Baptists to the historic Welsh Neck Baptist Church in Society Hill, in what is now in Darlington County, South Carolina. However, the church minutes of Welsh Neck Baptist Church from the time period are available for examination, and they never mention any of the Baptists who first settled in Mississippi. It seems more likely that they came from the region of Florence, South Carolina. There Richard Curtis, Sr., father of Richard Curtis, Jr., lived on Lake Swamp of Lynches Creek, near modern Florence, South Carolina, in 1766. In addition, Richard Curtis, Jr. was ordained by Benjamin Mosely when he fled back to South Carolina in the 1790s; Mosely was pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Florence, South Carolina from 1784-1794.

   The Revolutionary War period was one of great disturbance throughout South Carolina. There was a large group of Tories who were fanatical in support of England, but there was an equally powerful and more numerous citizenry who were American patriots. The conflict of these two groups stifled the economic development of South Carolina and brought fear and frustration into many parts of the colony. Over a hundred battles between American patriots and the British were fought in South Carolina alone. In 1774, Richard Curtis, Sr., and two of his sons, Benjamin and William Curtis, and his step-son, John Jones, enlisted with the American forces of Francis Marion, nicknamed the “Swamp Fox.” The records reveal that they served in three campaigns against the British, and then they were mustered out in 1779. In 1779 conditions had become almost unbearable, especially when British forces occupied Charleston. From this center, the British began a campaign to bring all of the colony under their control. The British were eventually overcome by General Nathanael Greene and his forces, but the turmoil and distress created by the war were undoubtedly a factor in encouraging some South Carolinians to seek a more peaceful place to live.

   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, 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.