Mississippi – Jackson: The Capital and Writing Life

Land-hungry is not a term we think of much these days, but back in the early 1800s in an agrarian society it was a common characteristic.  The land in this case is now Mississippi and it had previously been part of the Choctaw Nation, but after the signing of the Treaty of Doak’s Stand in 1820 the Native Americans began to be removed from the area and settlers poured into the new state of Mississippi to claim their stake, especially seeking the rich bottom lands along the rivers. 

French trappers had operated In the Jackson area earlier and established a trading post on the bank of the Pearl River in 1699.  LeFleur’s Bluff, as it was named after its founder, was an excellent site since it was situated above the river’s spring flooding.  It was one of the trading posts on the Natchez Trace, the 444-mile route that ran from Natchez to Nashville and was used by Indian tribes, trappers, settlers, traders and raiders. 

Natchez, with its prime location on the Mississippi River at the head of the Trace, was the largest city in Mississippi when it was declared the 20th state on December 10, 1817, but the early planners wanted the state capital in a more central location.  LeFleur’s Bluff was chosen as the new site and its name was changed to honor Andrew Jackson, an understandable choice after he had so recently beat the British in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. 

The Old Capitol Museum is Jackson’s oldest building.  Thankfully this distinguished structure with its Greek Revival architecture and six-column portico was one of a few spared by General Sherman as he and his troops set blaze to so many towns during the Civil War.  This building served as the capitol from 1839 to 1903.  [Interesting note for those of you who have been following our blog: the architect was English-born William Nichol, Sr. who also designed the Alabama State Capitol that was featured recently in the Montgomery post…you may remember a similar sweeping staircase.]

An essential post was the Keeper of the Capitol who held the keys to open and close the doors as well as responsibility for maintaining the building, its furnishings, and everything down to the stationery supplies and getting legislative bills to the printer… and of course there was the closing of the gates and keeping cattle off the lawn and out of the gardens.  In return, the Keeper had the privilege of living in his office…but with that workload, he probably had little time enjoy his quarters much less to leave the building.  In 1844, as a cost-saving measure, the job description was expanded to include the duties of Librarian…all for a salary of $500 a year (when the governor was earning $3,000 and occupying a much more luxurious office). 

It probably comes as no surprise that in 1872 the Keeper hired help to do the library job for him.  Mary Morancy became the first Librarian and carried out her “duties of the post [that] included purchasing books, maintaining a catalog, running the library, loaning books to state officials, and collecting overdue fines” (Interpretive Marker: “The State Librarian”).   Women continued in this role until 1890 the legislature deemed that the Librarian was to be a woman and the Keeper was to be the Secretary of State.  (Interpretive Marker: “Keeper of the Capitol”)

The library is on the second floor of the Old Capital as are the Mississippi State House and Senate chambers, which were restored to reflect their initial appearance after the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina.  The restoration of the building’s original gas light fixtures with their reflective surrounding surfaces and the recessed rosettes in the photo are two examples of the extraordinary work that took place when the entire building was repaired and restored after the hurricane.

The hiring of Librarian Mary Morancy was not the first pro-female act carried out in this building.  The “Married Women’s Property Act” in 1839 guaranteed women the right to own property and stated that their property could not be seized by their husband or their husband’s creditors.  This was also where the Ordinance of Secession was signed on January 9, 1861, making Mississippi the second state to secede from the Union (South Carolina being the first on December 20, 1860).

The third floor houses the High Court of Error and Appeals (so named from1832 to 1868 when it was renamed the Mississippi Supreme Court).  There are also Visitors’ Galleries for viewing debates in the House and Senate chambers below.  The sense of active debate is heightened by plaster figures that give the appearance of debating representatives standing before the stately columns in the House Chamber.

Also on this level is a gallery with portraits of famous Mississippians, including Pulitzer-Prize winning writers Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) and Eudora Welty (1909-2001).

Another building that was spared in the burning is the Governor’s Mansion (1841), which is another lovely Greek revival design.  We didn’t have time, but on Tuesday through Thursday there are free guided tours of the mansion.

The third significant building that was spared is the Jackson City Hall (1847)…possibly because it had been pressed into use as a hospital at that time.   

After the Union Army’s siege of Jackson ended, the damage from the fighting as well as the torching was so extensive that the city’s nickname is “Chimneyville” because that was almost all that was left standing when the troops marched on. 

By the turn of the century state government had grown to the point where more space was needed so a new State Capitol, was built 1901-03.  The building is massive, grand and elegant both outside and throughout its ornately detailed interior. 

Rather than even attempting to describe the interior, Don is waiting at the elevator with a self-guided walking tour of the Capitol in hand so I’ll let him lead us on a photo tour of the building beginning in the rotunda.

Stained glass windows throughout the building bring history, light and color into play.  The figures in this triptych represent the American Indian, Mother Mississippi and the early pioneer settlers.

The House Chamber with its gorgeous stained glass dome and Corinthian columns:

The Senate Chamber with yet more elegant stained glass and gilded scroll brackets:

The Supreme Court entrance is under the cameo of “Justice:”

Electric lighting was a new technology in 1903 and architect Theodore C. Link used it to create dazzling and dramatic effects throughout the building.  While we were in the Senate Chamber, we watched and talked with the man who is responsible for keeping the 4,750 light bulbs brightly burning.  That is a full-time job. 

As an English major, there was one more stop I couldn’t miss while we were in Jackson and that was a visit to Eudora Welty’s House and Garden in the Belhaven District.  Welty (1909-2001) lived in this house that her parents built in 1925 until death.  It is furnished with Welty’s own furnishings and personal items as it was in the 1980s when she was still actively writing every day.    

Welty’s mother, Chestina, created the three-tiered garden in the home’s sloping back yard.  The garden has been restored to reflect the 1925-45 period when mother and daughter were tending the plantings.  Storyboards with quotes from some of Eudora’s novels help visitors share Welty’s vision of her surroundings and the significance of nature in her writings. 

Although she traveled and enjoyed an active social life, this is the place where she always returned.  In her autobiography, Welty describes her life:  “As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life.  A sheltered life can be a daring life as well.  For all serious daring starts from within.”  (One Writers Beginning, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984, p. 104).

Our visit to Jackson, Mississippi, had turned out to be much more than we expected…but the time had come for us to get back on the highway and Baton Rogue, Louisiana, was our next stop.

2 thoughts on “Mississippi – Jackson: The Capital and Writing Life

  1. My phone says “there’s nothing at this address” when I select Read more.

    Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone


  2. Hi Toni, For some reason, nothing there. I tried on 2 different days but no. I hope all is good with you two, what with corona and tornados! Alice

    Sent from my iPad



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