The Strange experience of William Selkrig
by Morgan Gates, Historic & Haunted Vicksburg
It is January 1778, and we are going to visit the farm of William Selkrig.
In the winter of 1778 The American Revolution is ongoing and George Washington’s Army is encamped at Valley Forge, but that is over 1000 miles away “again, as the crow flies” and likely three times that far following the rivers. As far as William is concerned it might as well be on the other side of the world, but all that is about to change for him.
Selkrig is a simple man, a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. He has a plot of fertile land, he has industriously cleared it and built himself a simple cabin. William is no squatter however; he has come by his land honestly. He has a land grant signed by the governor of the colony of British West Florida in far off Pensacola and he is not sitting idly in front of his fire this winter day, he is out working on his land. As he looks up from his work he sees a flatboat rounding the bend. -- Flatboats, were not unheard of on the Mississippi at this early date, but not terribly common either. There were old French settlements far upstream and squatters in search of land had been pushing west of the mountains for many years, but likely it was not and everyday occurrence -- William did not get many visitors, his farm was about sixty river miles above Natchez, and while there were small settlements much closer, traveling upriver was a daunting task in his day. The local Indians would stop by to trade, or pilfer, from time to time, but that was about it. He expects a shouted halloo at best as the vessel drifts by with the current. Instead the flatboat puts ashore and a ragtag band of armed men disembark and take William prisoner, the American Revolution has just come south!
The flatboat is “technically” a Continental warship named The Rattletrap and the armed men are Captain James Willing and his company of Continental Soldiers. They are enroute to New Orleans where they hope to gain material support for the cause from the Spanish authorities. Along the way, they are attacking “Tory” farms. Forget the textbook pictures of the crisp blue coats and tricorn hats though, this is a ragged bunch of frontier ner do wells and Willing, who really does have a Continental commission and was a former resident of the area, is likely less the patriot than the profiteer. As The Rattletrap make its way south, the pickings were not as easy. Many of the British settlers are former military men and in a skirmish somewhere north of Natchez, Willing is captured, and his little expedition ingloriously comes to an end. Selkrig free once more, makes his way back to his remote farm. During his absence, however, the Indians have plundered his cabin, he stays for a while but he no longer feels safe this far from civilization. William abandons his farm and moves south closer to Natchez and help.
Things are about to start changing in this little corner of the world. Within twenty years it will pass out of British control to the Spanish and then to the fledgling United States. Once in American hands settlers will begin to flood in. William Selkrig will live to see this happen but he will lose title to his land grant in the transition.
The area where William’s farm was located was on a point of land formed by a large bend in the river known as Three Islands to the British, in the early days of American settlement of Warren County (in which Vicksburg is located) this same bend came to be known as Palmyra – named for a biblical city built by King Solomon – as the cotton boom began much of the land was purchased by a wealthy planter who soon became one of the wealthiest men in Mississippi. He in turn split off a sizable portion and gave it to his baby brother, who had just returned from military service. The little brother would use the proceeds of this fertile land to begin a promising political career, after he had built his own residence there of course. This residence, while much plainer than the antebellum mansions of Natchez and Vicksburg, was much finer than William Selkrig’s modest cabin. This new residence was named Brierfield, the home of Jefferson Davis, and the older brother was Joseph Davis, whose plantation Hurricane was right next door. War once again visits this bend in the river 84 years later when the US Navy burns Hurricane on its way to Vicksburg. Brierfield survives but post war it is converted into an experimental freedman’s colony, which eventually fails and in 1867 the restless Mississippi shifts in its course and “Davis Bend” becomes “Davis Island”. In 1931 Brierfield burned to the ground.
Today the spot where Brierfield once stood, while still part of the state of Mississippi is on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River. A few brick pillars, are all that remain of Davis’ home. A few metal farm buildings and a grass air strip for crop dusters nearby reminds that we are in the 21st century and not the 18th, but not much else. As for Selkrig’s cabin, nothing remains to mark its spot, nothing… nothing but the land, the trees and the river that is!
*any amount of frozen precipitation, of sufficient quantity, to be easily visible to the naked eye.
--Picture by Google Earth