Musings on plantations and politics in Yalobusha County

Published 4:00 pm Friday, October 21, 2022

By John Nelson

In the press coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, we were reminded of her long reign and her decades of selfless service to Great Britain. Most of the facts brought out were generally known, but a few details emerged that were surprising.

One such little-known fact was revealed in Sid Salter’s recent column explaining how the Queen, through her investments in the British textile firm Courtaulds, had once held an interest in a huge cotton plantation in Bolivar County.

It seems appropriate that the plantation known as the Queen’s Farm was in our state, since we were loyal to the crown during the American Revolution – another fact little known these days. The vast but sparsely-populated colony of British West Florida, of which present-day Mississippi was a part, was home to a number of retired British civil servants and military men who had received land grants for their service and wanted no part in overthrowing British rule.

About the only fighting documented down here occurred at Natchez when a party was sent down the Mississippi by the Continental Congress to purchase arms and supplies from the Spanish in New Orleans. In a confrontation with loyalists, five of the Americans were killed and the rest imprisoned for a spell.

The Queen’s Mississippi holdings bring to mind James K. Polk from Tennessee who was another absentee owner of a plantation in our state. Though he wasn’t royalty, Polk did rise pretty high in American political circles.

Polk’s presidency also seems little remembered today despite the fact that he entered office with an agenda that he mostly achieved and through the annexation of Texas and his successful direction of the Mexican War left the country half again as large as when he entered the White House.

Polk purchased about a thousand acres in Yalobusha County in 1835, but unlike Queen Elizabeth who didn’t have to contend with the management of her property, he was directly involved in the struggle to make the venture profitable.

A major problem in those days was that planters had to depend on an unreliable river system to get their cotton to market. From Polk’s fields, cotton was hauled by wagon to Troy Landing on the Yalobusha with hopes that a steamboat might make it up that far and not be sunk on a snag returning downstream.

The Whigs, a national political party of the day, believed that only a strong Federal government with a substantial sum in its treasury could undertake such large projects as improving roads, harbors, and
rivers, and that such improvements would benefit all the states.

The issue, known as Internal Improvements, was opposed by Polk’s Democratic party because the power to conduct such vast undertakings was not granted to the Federal government in the Constitution. Or so the Democrats said, but a more likely reason for their opposition was that they feared that a Federal government with unlimited spending power would soon be meddling in the affairs of its citizens in ways the founding fathers never intended.

By 1846, there was such popular support for Federal funding of national transportation projects that the Rivers and Harbors Bill passed the House and Senate and wound up on Polk’s desk. While Southern Democrats remained overwhelmingly against the bill, there was support for it along the streams in our area where the clearing of channels would have benefited river towns.

Editorials appearing in “The Mississippi Lynx,” a paper published in the old town of Panola on the Tallahatchie near present-day Batesville, reminded readers of the benefits of safe navigation and stated that 25% of the cost of shipping a bale of cotton to New Orleans was spent on insurance because of river hazards. The editor likely hoped that Polk’s own problems with getting his cotton down the Yalobusha would make him favorable to the bill.

Despite the fact that Federal funding of such projects might have eventually benefited him, Polk stood firm and vetoed the bill.

Present-day citizens might question Polk’s judgement on this issue, but in our time when many politicians see their offices as stepping stones to personal gain, we can appreciate that he stood by his convictions.

A number of years ago when the late Fonnie Black Ladd was editor of the Yalobusha Pioneer, the publication of the county’s historical society, he found an interesting tidbit while combing through Polk’s papers. It seems that while he was president, Polk sent his plantation manager to Memphis to get a new cotton gin manufactured. Polk’s man was told that the company considered politicians to be poor credit risks and requested some money up front.

Apparently, Polk wasn’t that offended for it was a time in the history of our republic when citizens didn’t kowtow to their leaders and viewed them as servants of the electorate. And Polk, though he was often strapped for hard currency, seems to have coughed up up some cash.

In today’s America when our presidents have claimed for themselves the kind of royal prerogatives that Queen Elizabeth would have been embarrassed to exercise, such an impertinent company might get a visit from the IRS.

Polk was capable of a little arm twisting to get his way, but it’s unlikely he would have ever taken such a vindictive action, and he couldn’t have used the IRS since that agency didn’t exist in his day. The forerunner of the IRS came along in 1862 and was on and off again till becoming permanent in 1913.

The IRS has been growing ever since, and recently there was a proposal to hire 87,000 more agents who would be armed and prepared to use force.

That shouldn’t be surprising since it’s a difficult job raising the funds required to give our Federal
government the unlimited spending power that the Democrats of Polk’s day feared that it might someday
have.

John Nelson writes a guest column for The Batesville Panolian.