Cotton Gin Port
Chickasaw Indians at the Port.
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Bell Indian Mission historic marker on top of Cotton Gin Hill
Hwy 278 West of Amory, Monroe County, Mississippi 
- Photo by Sharon Walls

The Chickasaw Indians at Cotton Gin Port 

Cotton Gin Port was located where a major Chickasaw trail crossed the Tombigbee in the shadow of a Chickasaw village where one of their most important chiefs had a home.  A sizeable Chickasaw long town, home of an Indian chief named Levi Colbert also known as “Itawamba Mingo,” sat on the bluff west of the river.  The trail which was later surveyed by the Americans as “Gaines Trace,” ran to Colbert’s Ferry on the Tennessee River.  (read more about Levi Colbert and the Colbert Family here: http://www.roark-family.org/Colberts/LeviColbert.asp)

Across the Tombigbee and half a mile north of the ruins of the Cotton Gin Port ferry, a flat mound stands in the middle of a soybean field.  Artifacts found here prove that the surrounding area was inhabited as early as 600 B.C., possibly earlier.  This region was one of a number of large centers of Mississippian culture in the Tombigbee Basin.  The mound itself was built during this period, dating from 1000 to 1700 A.D., by the ancestors of the Chickasaw Tribe. In area the mound measures about fifty yards square and is elevated over eight feet, clearly above high water level. (Hob Bryan, “Mound Site Dates to 600 B.C.,” Tupelo Daily Journal, August 13, 1971)

The location meant a great deal to the Chickasaws. 

 

 Hernando de Soto and the discovery of the Great River

Hernando de Soto is thought to have been the first European to travel through North Mississippi.  He was thought to have discovered the Mississippi River at Memphis.  

According to tradition, the Spanish crossed the upper Tombigbee a few miles south of Cotton Gin Port on December 17, 1540.  They called this territory the “Province of Chicaza” and captured Chickasaw hostages to insure a truce with that tribe.  The land was described as thickly populated and prosperous.  The intruders spent four months with the wary Chickasaw, wintering in a fortified village called Chiasahha near Pontotoc.  When de Soto prepared to continue his journey in March, 1541, he demanded two hundred warriors to serve as bearers for his entourage.  The outraged tribe responded with a night attack, killing forty of de Soto’s men and fifty horses as well as a goodly portion of their swine.

The legend goes that the Chickasaws kicked his butt and sent him packing, and that he discovered the Mississippi on the run.

In the 1930s, a Congressional commission explored Hernando de Soto’s path through the Southeast.  The commission was led by Dr. John R. Swanson of the Smithsonian.  The Swanson commission came through Monroe County attempting to place de Soto’s route and mark the conquistador’s crossing of the Tombigbee River.  The final report identified Cotton Gin Port as one of three probable locations.  For many reasons, few necessarily geographical, the commission decided that de Soto probably crossed the Tombigbee close to Aberdeen, the county seat.  This was a very controversial thing in the 30s, with people taking sides vehemently. 

(Final Report of the United States DeSoto Expedition Commisson. (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1939), 84, 223-225, referenced in Statement of significance, nomination form for National Register of Historic Places.) 

Florida historical web site on the de Soto expedition. http://floridahistory.com/inset99.html

 

The Legend of the Old French Fort and the Cannon Hole

In the spring of 1736, the French governor Bienville came up the river from Mobile to attack the Chickasaws and their English allies at Ackia (near Tupelo).  The Tombigbee River was navigable to this point.  Here, Bienville and his men disembarked, set up a makeshift palisades-type fort, and left extra cannon before heading up to Ackia. They were soundly beaten, retreated hastily to the river and headed back to Mobile.  In fact, the French made the same disastrous excursion along the same route twice.  

This is how the legend of the Old French Fort began.  Some placed the location of the French “fortified house” on top of the temple mound in a field west and slightly north of the port site.  Some placed it closer to the river bank.  An enduring legend says that the French left in such a hurry that they dumped cannon and cannon balls into a hole by the river, forever to be known as “The Cannon Hole.”

Captain Bernard Romans, a surveyor for the British, wrote in A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida that on December 13, 1771, he and his party passed the bluff “where the French formerly had a fortified trading house, about one mile below the mouth of the creek [Town Creek], on the west bank…”

Dr. W. A. Evans wrote, “A correspondent of the New Orleans Time Democrat … wrote in June 16, 1881, ‘An old iron six-pounder cannon was found in gun hole near old French Fort in 1835.  It exploded when being shot at Cotton Gin. Nine hundred pounds of lead ounce balls and a silver cross buried near the bank of the river was also found.’  The writer has found no evidence that this cannon exploded in Cotton Gin.” 

But the legend of the buried cannon continues.

Read "The Buried City: A Meditation on Place" from Jack Elliott here: http://www.newpantagruel.com/issues/1.4/the_buried_city_a_meditation_o.php?page=5

 

The Legend of the Cotton Gin

In about 1801 or so, the United States government built a cotton gin on the west side of the river  for the Chickasaw who lived on the bluff above the crossing. The Americans hoped to improve relations with the Chickasaw who had been allies of the English, and to encourage the growing of cotton.  According to one legend, the cotton gin was a gift from George Washington himself to one of the Colbert Chickasaw chiefs.

This in the National Register of Historical Places application, Statement of significance. Prepared by Elbert Hilliard, Director, Division of Historic Sites and Archaeology, Mississippi Department of Archives and History on Nov. 18, 1971, and submitted to the United States Department of the Interior National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places: “After the passage of the Indian Civilization Act in 1801, the United States government established a gin on the west side of the river, in an attempt to convert the Chickasaws into peaceful farmers and to win the support of the tribe, which had long been allied with the English.”

The exact location of the cotton gin is unknown, but it was probably built on the high bluffs southwest of the Old French Fort where a number of Indian trails converged, near where Chickasaw chief Levi Colbert had a home in a sizeable Indian village.  Some legends say that the cotton gin was constructed within the old fort itself, however, anthropologists have discounted that legend.

Evans wrote, “It is the general belief that the United States built a cotton gin on the site of the Old French Fort somewhere about 1801 and, because of that fact, the bluff on the opposite side of the river, a good boat landing place, was named Cotton Gin Port by someone unknown.  The writer has delved but so far without success to find confirmation of this tradition for such it verily is.”

He also quoted a report by George J. Schultz, acting Director Legislative Reference Service, Library of Congress, “Although all these documents indicate clearly that a cotton gin was constructed by the Federal Government for the Chickasaws at Cotton Gin Port, a careful search has failed to reveal the legislative procedure under which this gin was established.”

About the existence of the cotton gin, Jack Elliott wrote in "The Buried City:"

The gin was constructed in 1801 under the supervision of Indian agent John McKee as a part of the federal government’s policy of encouraging the Indians to adopt commercial agriculture as an alternative to their traditional combination of horticulture, hunting, and gathering. Gin components were purchased in Natchez and hauled for hundreds of miles to the river crossing, which was accessible to the Chickasaw settlements and provided a means of shipping the ginned fiber downstream to Mobile. A gin house was built, and the gin began its operation. The Chickasaws were not able to use it for long, however. Possibly angered at not receiving a gin themselves, a group of Choctaws set fire to the gin house, reducing it to ashes within minutes and retarding plans for encouraging cotton culture among the Chickasaws.
Read "The Buried City: A Meditation on Place" from Jack Elliott here: http://www.newpantagruel.com/issues/1.4/the_buried_city_a_meditation_o.php?page=5

The cotton gin saw little use, however, since it was burned in a few months time.  Some say a raiding band of Choctaw burned it in jealousy because they didn’t get one; some say the Chickasaw in a fit of “ungratitude” burned it themselves; others say it was a regrettable accident.

When the Creeks were fighting the Americans, legend has it that Tecumseh came to this place to speak to the Chickasaws and enlist their support in 1811, beneath a large tree referred to as the Council Tree on the bluff near Colbert’s home.  There is a concrete marker beside the road up the hill.  The council tree was also destroyed by fire, some say it was struck by lightning in the late 1800s and others say careless boys camping under the long dead tree burned it accidentally in the early 1900s.

Gaines Trace was laid out as an early road along the Chickasaw trail that crossed the Tombigbee at the cotton gin. In 1816, the Chickasaws ceded their territory East of the Tombigbee and south of Gaines Trace to America, so on the U. S. township and range survey maps you can see exactly where Cotton Gin Port was located.

  Levi Colbert

The Colbert family was legendary in North Mississippi.  James Logan Colbert was a Scottish trader who immigrated to America in the late 1700s.  He became familiar with the Chickasaws through trade and married Chickasaw women.  He had five sons who took leadership roles in the Chickasaw Nation, as well as owning quite a bit of property as the Chickasaws reckoned it.  Many of the place names reflect this family, in fact, there were so many “Colbert” place names that the community of Trebloc in Chickasaw County chose to use “Colbert” spelled backwards.

Levi Colbert was one of his younger sons.  His knickname “Itawamba Mingo” meant “Bench Chief,” and the legend of how he received that name is that as a young man, he led the village in defending against a Cherokee raid while most of the warriors were gone, according to Cecil Sumner.  He was awarded the honor of sitting on a bench in council, rather than on the ground.

The Colberts signed the treaties as leaders of the Chickasaw, but in the 1830s when they realized what was really happening, they led the protests against losing their land and being pushed out.  Levi died in his Tennessee home on the way to Washington with his brothers and other Chickasaw representatives. 

  Bell Indian Mission

Bell Mission School, an agricultural and industrial mission school for the Chickasaws, was located just south of the Port in 1820.  According to Evans, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church sent Reverend Robert Bell to Cotton Gin Port to start a mission for the Chickasaw Indians. Also known as Charity Hall, the school was located on the west side of the Tombigbee River about three miles south of Cotton Gin Port. 

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