The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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- University of North Carolina Press, The
Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War
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Jones County's Carolina Connection
Class and Race in Revolutionary America
We can't boast of our ancestors because, when we get started talking about our families, out jumps the ghost of a pirate or a cousin of color. Sam Dabney, from James Street's Tap Roots, 1943Although South Carolina was the birthplace of most Jones County settlers, most of the parents of these settlers, especially those born before 1820, came from North Carolina. Swept by the forces of evangelical revivalism, the Regulator Movement, and the American Revolution, they participated in various "uncivil" wars, creating antiauthoritarian traditions among their descendants that later would support desertion of the Confederacy as well as secession from the Union. Thus the divisions that ripped apart families and neighborhoods in Civil War Jones County would be nothing new for the Welborns, Knights, Collinses, Sumralls, Bynums, Valentines, and Welches, who shared with one another a rich heritage of dissent and conflict.
[The Knights were of] the old aristocracy, bringing in slaves and finery from an older civilization. Ethel Knight, Echo of the Black Horn, 1951
While it would be a mistake to attribute Southern dissenters' political views and behavior to their ancestors' experiences, that heritage did influence descendants' future economic, geographic, and marital choices, which in turn influenced their Civil War behavior. So important, in fact, is the historical background of participants in the Free State of Jones that it, too, became contested terrain between novelist James Street and local historian Ethel Knight.
Street's allusions to pirates and cousins of color in Tap Roots were part of his effort to link the origins of anti-Confederate sentiment in Piney Woods Mississippi to the ancestry of its participants. Interwoven within his tale of action and romance were the Revolution, the War of 1812, the settling of the frontier, and the historical evolution of relations of class and race from the perspective of his fictional characters. As an author of history as well as fiction, Street wanted readers to understand that the past weighed mightily on the Civil War generation.
To understand Street's effort to connect the Free State of Jones to the Revolutionary era, however, one must read his earlier novel, Oh, Promised Land, published in 1940. The popularity of Tap Roots, reflected in Universal Studio's release in 1948 of a movie by the same name, overshadowed his earlier novel in which he discussed not only race relations but also the class origins and political backgrounds of Piney Woods settlers. Using the Dabneys as a fictional composite of Jones County's early Anglo settlers, Street placed them in frontier Georgia as former Tories, Indian fighters, and plain folk who eventually came to hate the institution of slavery.
If Street had gone back one more generation, he likely would have added Revolutionary era Regulators and radical Baptist exhorters from North and South Carolina to his cast of characters. Between 1750 and 1815 in the Carolinas, plain folk participated in religious schisms, civil disorders, and battles with Indians over possession of lands. Political and economic conflict rocked both colonies, driving people from one frontier to another until finally they headed to the Southwest. Baptist Separates, Regulators, Tories, and especially, land-hungry farmers fled from North Carolina into Tennessee and Georgia, but particularly over the border into South Carolina's districts of Camden, Orangeburgh, and Ninety Six. In 1766 tensions over taxes and lands culminated in North Carolina when farmers organized the Regulator Movement to overturn corrupt local governments dominated by elite planters, merchants, and lawyers. Regulators struggled to maintain their status as independent producers who enjoyed a "competency" based on both self-sufficiency and commercial exchange.
Among these families were many ancestors of Jones County settlers who later shared a historical predisposition to view the Civil War as a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Still, traditions of civil disaffection among the Southern yeomanry did not in and of themselves cause later generations to oppose the Confederacy. Indeed, in Jones County as elsewhere, many white Southerners believed that rebellion against the Union was the ultimate act of principled civil disobedience against greedy tyrants. The local context in which a family encountered Confederate authority greatly influenced whether that family would be anti- or pro-Confederate, and branches of the same families frequently adopted opposite stances.
Ethel Knight, raised to revere the American Revolution and slavery, as well as the supremacy of the white race, could not abide such a history for her ancestors. She assured her readers that although many early white migrants to Jones County were "without lands or money," or "simply adventurers and vagabonds," the founding families, including the Knights, were part of "the old aristocracy, bringing in slaves and finery from an older civilization." Historical records, however, do not bear out such aristocratic claims. As Street recognized, the ancestors of Jones County families were mostly plain folk who migrated to Mississippi Territory in search of elusive prosperity.
In 1951, however, Street's images of racially mixed ancestors disturbed Ethel Knight more than his class-conscious characters and drove her to write Echo of the Black Horn. Street's creation of the Tap Roots character Kyd Fermat Dabney, a Cajun orphan adopted by Hoab and Shellie Dabney who secretly possessed "Moorish blood," seemed particularly to disturb Ethel. Although Kyd was not by birth a Dabney, Street's PUBCOMMENTS of her as an orphan suggested that she might be modeled after Mason Rainey Knight, Newt Knight's mother and Ethel's direct ancestor.
The mysterious tales about Mason Knight, who was reputed to have been the "ward" of Jackie Knight before she married his son Albert, were tailor-made for Street's novel of adventure and scandal, and he may indeed have built on legends about her to create Kyd. In 1935 Tom Knight described his grandmother as an orphan whose surname was actually Griffin, not Rainey. He further explained that she was raised by Jackie and Keziah Knight alongside their own children. Around the same time, Martha Wheeler, a former Knight family slave, told Works Projects Administration (WPA) writer Addie West that "she had always been told" that Mason Rainey had "attached herself" to the Knights in Asheville, North Carolina, after her own people died of the flux. Strikingly similar to Wheeler's story was Street's PUBCOMMENTS of how a yellow-fever epidemic killed the parents of Kyd Fermat, causing her to turn to the Dabneys for sustenance.
Kyd Dabney's resemblance to Mason Rainey disturbed some Knights because of her mixed-blood ancestry. "Those black eyes of Kyd's," mused Kyd's adoptive father, Sam Dabney, "ay they glow like bits of polished ebony in a tiny spoon of milk. And those full lips. And her happy nature. She's too unrestrained to be all white." Ethel Knight thus widened the distance between Street's fictional Kyd and her great-great-grandmother by expanding on Tom Knight's and Martha Wheeler's tales. She insisted that Mason Rainey's true name was Rebecca Griffith and that she and her brother were orphaned by their wealthy parents' death from the "bloody flux" during their move west. Shortly thereafter, she claimed, a group of Masons rescued the orphaned children and found a new home for the girl among the Knights. Ethel claimed that the Masons showed up on the Knights' doorstep on a rainy nighthence, the Knights renamed her Mason Rainey.
To further counter any suggestion that Mason, like Kyd Dabney, might have had "black blood," Ethel described her as a "strange and beautiful" "Spanish-type lady." Since it was important to Ethel in 1951 that Mason's body contain not a drop of African blood, she explained her apparent lack of ivory skin and aquiline features by endowing her with an exotic (but European) ancestry. Because of Tap Roots and Davis Knight's trial, the racial identity of all Jones County Knights was openly in question at that time, and Ethel placed the blame for that squarely on the shoulders of James Street and Newt Knight.
Although Ethel Knight's racial attitudes conformed to those exhibited by many white Southerners of her generation, these sentiments had evolved over a period of three centuries. By the 1840s, claims of Indian, Iberian, or Mediterranean ancestry defended one's whiteness against race-based laws and social harassment. But before the nineteenth centuryand especially before slavery became firmly entrenched in the Carolina and Georgia backcountriesracial identity was more fluid, even negotiable in some cases. Nothing better exemplified its uncertain meaning in the era of the American Revolution than the prominent role played by Gideon Gibson, a light-skinned slaveholder of partially African ancestry, in South Carolina's Regulator Movement. As enforcement of race laws hardened, mixed people, including many of Gideon Gibson's descendants, migrated west in search of whiteness as well as fresh lands.
Table of Contents
Introduction. Sacred Wars: Race and the Ongoing Battle over the Free State of Jones 1
I The Origins of Mississippi's Piney Woods People
1 Jones County's Carolina Connection: Class and Race in Revolutionary America
2 The Quest for Land: Yeoman Republicans on the Southwestern Frontier
3 Piney Woods Patriarchs: Class Relations and the Growth of Slavery
4 Antebellum Life on the Leaf River: Gender, Violence, and Religious Strife
II Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Struggle for Power
5 The Inner Civil War: Birth of the Free State of Jones
6 The Free State Turned Upside Down: Colonel Lowry's Confederate Raid on Jones County
7 Reconstruction and Redemption: The Politics of Race, Class, and Manhood in Jones County
8 Defiance and Domination: White Negroes in the Piney Woods New South
Epilogue. The Free State of Jones Revisited: Davis Knight's Miscegenation Trial
1 Selected Descendants of the Knight Family
2 Selected Descendants of the Coleman Family
3 Selected Descendants of the Welborn Family
4 Selected Descendants of the Bynum Family
5 Selected Descendants of the Collins Family
6 Selected Descendants of the Sumrall Family
7 Selected Descendants of the Welch Family
8 Selected Descendants of the Valentine Family
9 The White Negro Community, 1880-1920
What People are Saying About This
Local studies have made us increasingly aware of the many different ways in which southerners experienced the Civil War. Few communities fought as much of the war on their own terms or generated as distorted yet profound a legacy afterward as did the men and women of this renegade county in Mississippi's Piney Woods. It's a fascinating story, and Victoria Bynum tells it remarkably well.--John C. Inscoe, coauthor of The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Victoria Bynum has done an impressive job of research that goes a long way toward explaining how race, class, and gender affected, and were affected by, the development of social customs in the South. She uses as her central focus the Free State of Jones, formed by the infamous secession of a southern Mississippi county from the Confederacy, and investigates why the participants were so willing to flout authority during the Civil War. She ends by analyzing a trial in 1948 that decided whether one of the descendants of the leader of the Free State of Jones was legally white. Throughout the book, the depth of research is astounding. The second part of The Free State of Jones deals with the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the twentieth century. It was during the Civil War that some families of the county of Jones in southern Mississippi, led by Newt Knight, declared themselves independent of the Confederacy and proclaimed the Free State of Jones. Bynum uses these two novels to pose the question, "Who owns history?" Each side claimed their version of events as the truth. Was Newt Knight a good man who resisted serving in the Confederacy because he believed it was a rich man's war and a poor man's fight? Or was he an evil, power-hungry man who used the anarchy of the war to aggrandize himself? Bynum uses the usual scholarly sources to find out what really happened, but she also pays heed to current versions of the past to analyze the effect of those events on modern Southerners. The fact that Newt Knight had a long-standing relationship and several children with Rachel Knight, a mulatto woman and former slave, brought the race issue to the forefront of many arguments. The fact that Rachel was a strong woman who took responsibility for her own life in difficult circumstances made gender a definite factor in what people wanted to believe, during the war and later. All of these facts and factors came together in the miscegenation trial of Davis Knight, the great-grandson of Rachel, who married a white woman in 1948. Bynum suggests that the publication of Tap Roots in 1943 renewed awareness of Newt Knight and his offspring, and so Davis's marriage five years later became a matter in which townspeople felt they had a vested interest. Bynum brings together three turbulent times in American history--the Revolutionary Era, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement--and shows how several extended families participated in all of these upheavals. Her variety of sources is stunning, ranging from the manuscript census to church records, county records, and oral traditions. There is enough research here for three books, but Bynum's writing is so good that readers are simply swept along by her story.
This book has given me great insight on my family history and my great great great great grandparents Newton and racheal and has made me more intrested in my heritage.I love this book so much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!