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Town Settlement and Forest Fragmentation in Mississippi

Little Mound Bayou

Bolivar County, Mississippi

“There was, originally, on all the rich hill and bottom lands a heavy growth of cane, growing fifteen to twenty feet high, and so dense that nothing could pass through it. The settler would cut this down with cane-knives or hatchets, let it lay a month or two to dry, and then, on a windy day apply the torch. The flames would burn limbs and even the bark from the largest trees, and effectually killing them, leaving the ground covered with ashes and ready for a crop. Little cultivation was required the first year. A burning cane-brake, with its flames and smoke, and continuous roar, presents all the sounds and aspect of a great battle.”–J.F.H. Claiborne, 1880[i]

Little Mound Bayou, Bolivar County, Mississippi

In 1886 when the Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas Railroad completed its line between Memphis and Vicksburg, it was looking for folks to settle along the line. In the fall of 1886 Isaiah T. Montgomery, a former slave, submitted a plan to railway to establish an all-African-American settlement in the forested wilderness in Bolivar County half way between Memphis and Vicksburg. He chose a site at the confluence of two bayous, Mound Bayou and Little Mound Bayou, near five Indian mounds, and isolated from the racial strife that raged in the south after Reconstruction. He named the town Mound Bayou.

When the railroad approved the plan in the summer of 1887, Montgomery, his cousin, Benjamin T. Green, and twenty of more settlers traveled to their site, where they cleared eighty to ninety acres of trees, brush, and wild cane. They slept on the night train to Memphis and returned on the morning train to Vicksburg. Green built a sawmill for lumber for houses and opened a store, where he sold building supplies and train tickets. The settlers completed their first house in October.

In December Montgomery and Green purchased 840 acres from the railroad a seven dollars per acre. Montgomery, acting as an agent for the railroad, went on to sell forty-acre tracts at eight or nine dollars an acre to carefully screened farmers and business people, willing to work hard and to pay a forty-dollar entrance fee to his town. Thirty families bought tracts. The women and children arrived the following February.

The settlers harvested their first crop of corn and cotton in the fall of 1888. Benjamin Green erected the first cotton gin. Montgomery’s sister opened the first school. Montgomery set up the post office in his house, and persuaded the railroad to donate a thousand acres of land for Campbell College, an agricultural-science school.

Forest Fragment and Rice Field, Yazoo Basin, Mississippi

The settlers who cleared the forest around Little Mound Bayou followed a pattern that would play itself out over the next half-century. To begin with Montgomery and his followers made small clearings in the forest for their fields and their town. As their farms expanded, they cleared more and more land until half the forest was gone. The clearing continued. The contiguous forest disappeared, leaving only fragmented patches between expanses cotton, rice, and soybeans.[i]

The fragmentation process followed the same scenario Sunflower County. In 1888 the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroads came to Sunflower County and sold land to all comers at five dollars an acre in a region of dense forest. The loggers followed, stripping the hickory and oak forest that dominated the drier ridges along the bayous, the sweet gums that anchored their natural levees, and the cypress that took root in the swales between the ridges.

And along with the forests went habitat for the Florida panther, the Ivory-billed Woodpeck, and the Louisiana black bear.

[i] Smith, Archon Robert J., “I.T. Montgomery, “ Journal of the National Medical Association, Vol. 95, No.1, January 2003, 84-85, http://www.nmanet.org/Managed_Health_Care.pdf; Crowe, Milburn J., “The History of Mound Bayou: A Cradle of African American Self-Government in America,” http://www.moundbayou.org; Chesapeake Bay and Mid-Atlantic from Space, “What is Habitat Fragmentation: The Process of Fragmentation,” http://chesapeake.towson.edu/landscape/forestfrag/process.asp.


2 Responses

  1. Love this post – this is territory I’ve traveled and have so much more to learn about. When I went over to Clarksdale to the Juke Joint Festival I went up 61 and came south on Hwy 1 – getting the “lay of the land”, as it were.

    One of my most interesting conversations was with a fellow who lives on 61 just south of Choctaw. He’s a descendent of those settlers you mention, and his mama’s still living. He told me some tales of the levee break in 1927 – his people were over by Bolivar at the time.

    When I go back, I’m taking him a bush for his rose garden and I’ll be in a much better position to ask him some questions. Didn’t have the context, this time around. Here we are, in the driveway of his home.

  2. Thank you Vanishgal. It is good to hear from you.

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