Historic Mississippi Crossroads Town

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 Church Hill Crossroads | Jefferson County, MS | c. late 1700s

Riding through Church Hill today, you wouldn’t know that much was there until you arrive at the crossroads where a magnificent church adorns a dramatic hill. Like something out of an English medieval setting, this church is surprising in its rural Mississippi setting. The oldest in the state, it was at the center of a community of prosperous cotton planters who amassed great wealth from slavery. 

Pre-European Settlement

The Natchez District along the east bank of the Mississippi River contains some of the oldest European settlements in the state. Here at the river bluffs and along the trade routes, Europeans first encountered the natives of current-day Mississippi, many of whom were members of the Choctaw. The Choctaw tribe were hunters, farmers, and traders who had lived in this region since at least 1200 CE. Their earthen Mounds provide the earliest remaining historical relics in this area.

Agriculture was important to the Choctaw people. The Choctaw often grew great surpluses of corn and other crops to trade with other American Indian nations, and later Europeans and Americans, throughout their homeland and along the Natchez Trace.

Emerald Mounds on the Natchez Trace. Image courtesy of Natchez Trace Travel.

Europeans Arrive

Spanish explorers reached the Gulf of Mexico in the 1500s and began to move inland, where they encountered tribes living along the banks of the Mississippi River. In 1540, records show that Hernando DeSoto made it to the Natchez District, named after the Natchez Indian tribe. The Kingdom of Spain laid claim to the “new land” they thought they had discovered and during this period, settlements began to spring up in the Natchez District of Spanish West Florida.

The Choctaw who they encountered were fierce warriors, and during the early 1700s, they became allies with European forces, often aiding in battles against other American Indian groups. This was not uncommon for tribes during the 1700s and 1800s. Alliances provided a measure of security to the tribes and established powerful trade connections. The French were one of the first European groups to ally with the Choctaw, and in the early 1700s, their combined forces decimated the Natchez Indians, killing most of them, and forcing the rest to flee their homelands and join other tribes.

From the time Europeans arrived, this territory was controlled by France, Britain, and Spain until 1798. But throughout this period, the sections inland were undeveloped and mostly inaccessible, meaning only the most intrepid white settlers would have ventured into the Mississippi territory from the more settled colonies to the east. Of the settlers who arrived before Mississippi was granted statehood, some were fur traders, some were involved in the river trade, and at least a few of them were preachers. The only problem was that Spain didn’t allow anything but Catholicism to be practiced in its territories.

The Reverend Adam Cloud, Charged With Heresy

But that didn’t seem to stop Adam Cloud, a young Episcopal reverend who migrated to the Mississippi territory in 1792 from Delaware and settled on St. Catherine’s Creek in Adams County. During his time in the territory, the Reverend Cloud spent his time with the locals until he was charged with preaching, baptizing babies, and ministering to the needs of the non-Catholic people in his area. He was arrested and put in irons, then sent to New Orleans to be tried for heresy. He was given the choice to leave the territory instead and fled to Georgia and then South Carolina.

He would have to wait 20 years until Spain ceded the Mississippi territory to return. And return he did.

In 1816, Cloud shows back up in Mississippi and headed to Jefferson County where, in 1820, he established the first Episcopal church in Mississippi on Fairchild’s Creek. Called Christ Church, it is regarded as the ‘Cradle of Episcopacy in Mississippi.’ Inspired by Cloud, Reverends James Fox, and James Pilmore establish Episcopal churches in the district and by 1826, there are 4 congregations in the area.

A New Settlement

In 1816, when Adam Cloud returned to Mississippi, he would’ve found a few other settlers here who began to trickle into the territory following the Revolutionary War. Many of them had migrated here from the Virginia and Maryland Tidewater looking for farmland. Settling along Cole’s Creek in Jefferson County, they named their new community the Old Mary Settlement after their home back east.

I found a story about what the journey was like for many of these early settlers who came from Maryland and Virginia. They would follow the path that most settlers to Mississippi did that day: through Tennessee. After loading all of their belongings onto pack horses, they left Maryland, hoping to make it by Summer to Tennessee. Staying in Tennessee for the Summer allowed them to build flatboats to prepare to head South in the Winter when the waters were high and easier to navigate. Leaving from Tennessee, they would load everything onto their boat, stopping at primitive riverboat landings at night to rest. Some of these early settlers reported violent attacks from natives, while countless others succumbed to smallpox along the way.

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When the boats arrived at Cole’s Creek, about 20 miles north of Natchez, the women and children would stay on the boats while the men headed inland to scope out home sites.

Map of the “Old Southwest” showing former Choctaw and Chickasaw lands in Mississippi.

Native Relations and Removal

While early relations between Natives and Europeans oscillated between alliances and opposition, by the start of the 1800s, it was clear that tensions had escalated to an untenable point.

In 1801, in the Treaty of Fort Adams, the Choctaw were deceived into ceding 2,641,920 acres of land to the United States before being relocated to Oklahoma. Their forced removal from their ancestral home marked the beginning of the Trail of Tears. After removal, former tribal lands became available, opening the area up to more white settlements.

Planters came by wagon train and flatboats, claiming huge tracts of land. They established plantations based on cotton farming that used chattel slavery to amass great fortunes for their families.

Christ Church c. 1940s. Photo courtesy of HABS.

A Church Is Built

Establishing a church quickly was crucial to the development of the American frontier. These institutions served as a sign of investment in the future development of an area but more importantly, acted as a court, an educational center, a meeting place, and a spiritual sanctuary that would assuage the anxieties of settlers who were understandably nervous about living in such an unsettled place. 

So in 1820, Reverend Cloud built a church out of logs on Fairchild’s Creek on land donated by Isaac and Peggy Noble. Some of the earliest members were David Hunt, Samuel Cavit, William Green, Colonel Wood, Alexander Green, and Joseph E. Davis, brother of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In 1826, the congregation had outgrown the small cabin and voted to replace it with a larger building. According to church records, 48 members pledged $3,175 for the new church. One of the earliest settlers to the area, Colonel James Gilliam Wood, donated 1 acre for a new sanctuary to be built on. Later in 1857, his daughter, Mrs. Jane Wood Payne would donate another half-acre from the family estate to expand the graveyard.

Just a few miles from the original log cabin, the new church was situated atop the highest hill in the area to overlook the community that was growing around it, and so the name was changed from Maryland Settlement to Church Hill in the 1820s.

Christ Church c. 1940s. Photo courtesy of HABS.

As the following decades passed, the planters of this area grow wealthier from the life and labor of the enslaved persons who work on their expansive plantations. The community continues to grow and by 1856, the congregation feels that a new, more appropriate sanctuary ought to be built that reflects their affluence, wealth, and success. A building committee is formed and they hire an architect from Natchez, J. Edward Smith, and a carpenter from Natchez, N.L. Carpenter, and a plasterer, Robert Scudamore, to oversee the project. Over the next 2 years, a grand Gothic Revival style church, built of brick, then stuccoed and scored to imitate ashlar masonry was erected atop the hill to rival the country churches of England. The fine craftsmanship and ornate decorative details reflect the affluence of the area planters at the time it was built.

The Hidden History of Christ Chapel

There are many beautiful and fascinating pieces to the story of this chapel, including the stained glass, but some of these pieces might be overlooked if you didn’t know their significance. An interesting piece of the story remains today in the hammer-beamed roof where workmen signed their names on a beam with feather quill pens. The hammer-beam roof is one of few that exist in the state of Mississippi.

The manual pipe organ that adorns the sanctuary was made in 1857, and according to one story, was specially designed in Scotland for the church. It would play an interesting part in the story when war came to the church’s doorstep.

While today the building is grey, lab analysis was completed on extant paint samples to reveal that the original color of the building was salmon. Small pieces of the building’s original paint still exist in protected areas.

The Community of Church Hill

The community of Church Hill, originally known as Forty Hills, has been historically significant for many reasons, namely, its location at a crossroads along the Natchez Trace. The Natchez Trace follows an ancient travel path that herds, tribes, settlers, and now cars have traveled on for centuries and during this era was a critical travel route that help to keep trade, cotton, and slavery in business.

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Church Hill is situated along Cole’s Creek, a tributary of the Mississippi River. As the river has shifted over the years, its proximity to Cole’s Creek has changed, but in the early years of settlement, one Church Hill resident, James Payne, ran a riverboat landing and store along the Mississippi River until it burned down in the 1830s.

A page from the ledger of the James Payne’s store at Payne’s Landing on the Mississippi River near Church Hill. Dating from 1829 to 30, the page was found in the attic of his home, Oak Grove. Some of his customers were early settlers of Jefferson County, including Donoho, Young, Wood, Baker, Noble, Shields, and Hinds. Image and information courtesy of Charles F. Dawkins.

Wagner’s Store

Soon after the loss of Payne’s Store, a commissary was open across the road from Christ’s Church. The site of Church Hill’s Post Office, it was operated by Max and Moses but came to be known as Wagner’s. Operating from as early as 1837, the present structure is thought to date to the 1850-1880s period; one of the oldest in existence in the state.

Locals recall fondly their visits to Wagner’s for groceries, but where they got so much more. One story recounts that locals didn’t need a newspaper; all you had to do was visit Wagner’s and Adolf would come out and tell you all the happenings around Church Hill. While researching this crossroads, more than one person told me how important Wagner’s was to the community. Functioning like an informal courthouse, this is where everyone would meet to visit and catch up with their neighbors.

The Antebellum Era

The growth in population in Mississippi could be attributed to new lands being opened for settlement and farming, but another catalyst was the invention of the cotton gin. In 1793, Eli Whitney introduced his machine that would help to process cotton faster. Soon, cotton was the most lucrative crop and planters wanted to expand their wealth. Of the planter class that arrived in the area of Mississippi, many arrived with their families, livestock, household goods, and people they enslaved with them. But as they set up massive plantations here, their need for farming and household labor grew. Thousands (if not millions) of enslaved people were brought into the Natchez area slave markets to keep these plantations going.

As a result of the forced labor at these plantations, many families began to amass wealth and in the years leading up to the Civil War, Church Hill saw the height of its prosperity.

Slavery at Church Hill

(*If you are researching the history of enslaved persons in Church Hill, MS, please reach out to me at kelly@theforgottensouth.com as I have much more information than I could include in one post)

Throughout the county’s antebellum history, most people living in Jefferson County were enslaved. By 1830, the number of enslaved persons increased to 69 percent of the population, and ten years later, 9,146 of Jefferson’s 11,650 people were enslaved. On the eve of the Civil War, only 19 percent of the county’s 15,000 residents were free people.

And while records for the people who were enslaved are rare, I was able to track down some information about a handful of the people who were forced to live and work on the area plantations. Christ Episcopal Church carefully recorded the participation of black members who were enslaved, which helps to give us some insight into who they were. 

For example, in 1843, church records noted that there were slaves, designated as ‘Coloured’ and recorded by their first names: Henry, Harriett, Peggy, and Jeremiah. There were 37 white members at that point. By 1848, the church records also included the name of the slaveholder, mentioning a “Margaret Cosby– servant of Mrs. Julia Green- now belonging to Robert Cox.”

The records suggest that the church also took disciplinary action against enslaved people, noting in 1848 that Henry Johnson, the servant of Mrs. Olivia Dunbar, had been suspended. Church Hill records also mark the dates of the first communions and funerals of enslaved persons.

Other names of enslaved persons that I found mentioned in the church records:

  • Lafayette Loffman and Serena Rummels [December 26, 1844]
  • Harrison, slave of William Cox [September 21, 1851]
  • George Fitzgerald, servant of J.S. and R. Johnson, and Emily, servant of Mrs. Payne [December 13, 1856]
  • Martin Atkins and Frances Johnson [November 3, 1866]
  • Fielding Johnson and Agga Greyman [November 17, 1866]
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While transcribing the will of James G. Wood (b. 1770 d. 1843), owner of Auburn Hall Plantation, I found the names of the following individuals that he enslaved and was passing on to his heirs:

  • Jane Octavia and her son, John
  • Frank and Susan and their children, Edy, Maria, Martha, Aquilla, and Lafayette
  • George and Mary and their children, Tanica, Peter, David, Thomas, and Olivia
  • Henrietta and her son, George Washington
  • Spencer and Priscilla and their children, Mary Ann and Aaron
Springfield Plantation in Church Hill, built c. 1790. Home of the Green Family.

The Plantations of Church Hill

The prosperity of the planters in Jefferson County relied upon the work of the enslaved laborers on their plantations; of which they had many. In fact, most Church Hill families owned more than one plantation. For example, David Hunt, one of Mississippi’s largest landowners and slaveholders, owned 25 plantations, 12 of which were in Jefferson County.

Architecturally, many of the plantation homes reflected the influence of the Spanish in the area, and most were placed at the end of long, tree-lined drives, giving them distance and privacy from the road.

Woodlands Plantation at Church Hill. Home of the Robert Wood & Virginia Smith Wood.

As I researched each of the families, I made a list of the plantations in Church Hill that I came across.

  • Mount Ararat
  • Springfield Plantation
  • Lochiel Plantation
  • Rokeby Plantation
  • The Cedars Plantation
  • Lagonia Plantation
  • Oak Grove Plantation
  • Pecan Grove Plantation (aka The Bluffs)
  • Gayosa Plantation: outpost for the Spanish Government
  • Woodbourn(e) Plantation
  • Wyolah Plantation
  • Richland Plantation
  • Auburn Hall Plantation
  • Calviton Plantation
Oak Grove Plantation at Church Hill. Home of the Payne Family.

The War Years

The years leading up to the Civil War were the most prosperous for Church Hill but that would change dramatically as the country became engulfed in war. As the South began to lose its grip, Federal troops moved into the area after the fall of Vicksburg. As they traveled south from the Battle of Bruinsburg, soldiers from an Illinois regiment arrived at Church Hill in 1864. According to reports, “they danced and had a banquet in the chancel, played inappropriate music on the organ, and ended up stealing the silver used in communion services.” This was a common story that was also reported at Bethel Presbyterian Church near Windsor.

The Reconstruction Era

Not unlike the rest of the region and country, Church Hill felt the changes that the end of the war and slavery brought. The economy that was so dependent upon chattel slavery collapsed overnight. Plantations were abandoned and thousands of newly freed people had to find their place within a brand new and complicated social structure.

The planter class lost much of their holdings and by 1880, only 36% of the county’s farmers owned their own land. The formerly large plantations were divided up into small units and used for sharecropping.

Wagner’s Grocery as it looked in the 1970s.

The 1900s

The following decades brought soil erosion that impacted crops, followed by boll weevil that came in the 1920s, wiping out what remained of the cotton industry for good. By this time, most of its residents had left Church Hill to look for jobs and better opportunities elsewhere.

The community dwindled over the following decades and in 1992, the post office was discontinued. A few years later, Wagner’s Grocery, the heart of Church Hill, sold its last cold soda and shut its doors forever. In September 2000, the crossroads was added to the National Register of Historic Places and in February of 2020, the church held a 200th Anniversary Celebration.

Learn More About The Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez Tribes

Learn More About The People Who Were Enslaved In Jefferson County, MS

If you’d like to learn more about what life was like for people enslaved on the plantations of Jefferson County, Mississippi, linked below are 4 examples from the WPA Slave Narrative Project.

Learn More About Church Hill

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