Matthew Phelps, Hard Luck Pioneer by Morgan Gates
The part of the world I call home, Warren County Mississippi --the County in which Vicksburg is located-- has been in existence since 1809. That of course is a mere political classification, for mankind has called this area home long before that. Native Americans have lived here for at least 12,000 years. First as archaic hunter gatherers, then in increasingly organized “nations” culminating in the Mississippians who lived here when Hernando DeSoto became the first European to see the Mississippi River around 1540. European diseases left behind by the early explorers ended the Mississippian Period before the next European visitor, Robert LaSalle, visited in 1682.
The French establish an outpost along the Yazoo River—the northern boundary of the county-- as early as 1698. This outpost named Fort St. Pierre existed until it was abandoned after an Indian massacre in 1729. After the French and Indian War ended in 1763 the British took over all French possessions in the New World. This area became British West Florida. On the west side of the River the land belonged to Spain which also controlled New Orleans. The British took over the old French Fort Rosalie (now within the city of Natchez, but Natchez as a city did not yet exist) rebuilt it and started encouraging British subjects to populate this new colony of British West Florida. The original 13 colonies are by now becoming somewhat crowded. The best lands of the coastal plains have long been occupied, newer immigrants from Britain or others seeking to better themselves had already begun to slip over the Appalachians in search of new lands, angering the Indians and causing them the join the French in the recently concluded hostilities. To pacify the Native Americans Britain banned any further settlement west of those mountains, as an alternative they offered free land in the new West Florida Colony. Enter Matthew Phelps!
Matthew Phelps lead a hard luck life it seemed but this early pioneer of what would become Warren County, pushed ahead nonetheless. Born in Connecticut, he was orphaned at age eight, and spent the rest of his childhood making the rounds of various relatives. His father had left him a small estate, a house and £150 but by the time he married at age twenty his relatives had mostly spent it all the money. He sold the house and moved to Norfolk VA. and there opened a store, doing well enough to support his family for a while, but as the family grew his fortunes declined. After speaking to several people planning a move to the new West Florida Colony, he traveled to the area alone to stake his claim before returning for his family. By the time, he returned trouble was beginning to brew in the lead up to the Revolution and he decided to not risk the trip, initially he headed toward Vermont, but changed his mind before arriving and instead booked passage to West Florida (Mississippi). Travel up river was a long and arduous journey before the steamboat and as they were ascending the Mississippi river his wife and baby died of fever. Even further up the river the boat capsized in a whirlpool and his two sons drown. He arrived at his stake on the Big Black River -then called by its Choctaw name Loosa Chitto alone and penniless. Matthew Phelps was no quitter however he is quoted as saying “something about the precariousness of life brings out the honor in the human character” he borrowed livestock, seeds and tools from neighbors and produced enough surplus to pay by his debt after the first season. Misfortune is not through with Matthew however by 1778 the American Revolution had come to West Florida. James Willing’s Raid, the British Blockade of New Orleans and finally Spanish intervention, made life along the Loosa Chitto untenable. Phelps gave up his freehold, joined the Army and left the raw frontier behind. After the war he returned to Vermont and remarried. Here the story of our hard luck pioneer ended, apparently, his luck changed for the better, for in 1802, “Captain” Phelps published a memoir of his life and adventures along the Loosa Chitto. A testimony to the strength of character required to be a pioneer in the early days of life along the Mississippi.
Information for this article came from Becoming Southern by Christopher Morris Oxford University Press 1995.