J. F. H.
J. F. H. Claiborne
J. F. H. Claiborne, the
uncontested father of Mississippi history, was a planter,
politician, and popular journalist who wrote in the style of the
Southwestern Humorists, but his most notable achievement may stem
from his interest in his native states history, a passion
that led him to amass an important collection of historical papers,
documents, and memorabilia upon which he largely based the first
significant historical account of Mississippi.
He was born John Francis Hamtranck
Claiborne near Natchez, Mississippi, on April 24, 1807, when Mississippi
was still a territory. He received a classical education in Mississippi
and Virginia. He studied law and was admitted to the bar, but he
did not stay long in the legal profession. In 1828, he married Martha
Dunbar of Dunbarton Plantation east of Natchez, their intermittent
home for a number of years. That same year, he became active in
politics, first as an editor of the Natchez Statesman and Gazette,
then as a Mississippi legislator and then, from 1835 to 1837, as
a member of Congress.
In 1835 he established a plantation
near plantation using borrowed money, but he lost everything in
the Panic of 1837. The following year, he lost his congressional
seat in a disputed election. For the next few years, he struggled
to overcome his political defeat and financial ruin, as well as
consumption, which would plague his health throughout his life.
In 1841 he became editor of the
Natchez Mississippi Free Trader, and from 1842 to 1844, he
was appointed by President John Tyler to serve as Chairman of the
Board of Choctaw Commissioners, in which he was to investigate claims
under the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830) and to make recommendations
about the legitimacy of claims. He returned to journalism in 1844,
editing the Jeffersonian 1844-46, the Statesman 1849-51,
and the Louisiana Courier 1850-53, all of them near New Orleans.
Also during this time he made money speculating in cotton, earning
enough to purchase in 1849 a seashore plantation in Shieldsboro,
Hancock COunty, where he lived until it burned in 1870.
An ardent Jacksonian Democrat,
Claiborne was popular as a newspaper editor, partly because he wrote
clearly and forcefully and partly because of the political views
he espoused. During this era of sectional conflict, he contended
that security for Southern institutions and values required two
major achievements: economic independence, to be gained by agricultural
diversification, territorial expansion, and foreign trade; and cultural
independence, which would begin with a public school system that
taught Southern authors. A white supremacist, he defended slavery
as morally right, and he upheld the right of states to secede
from the union, though he consistently opposed secession.
His most important journalistic
contributions were two series of essays on the piney woods of Mississippi
and Louisiana, written after he had traveled through the pine belts
of each state. The first appeared in the Mississippi Free Trader
and the second in the Louisiana Courier. The essays represent
a detailed description of the people he met, their homes, dress,
habits, and economic activity, in a prose style reminiscent of the
Southwestern Humorists, both humorous and informative; the essays
would serve as an important resource for future historians on the
rural plain folk, the largest social class in the state. Two of
the best are Rough Riding Down South, which was later
published in An Anthology
of Mississippi Writers, and A Trip through the Piney
Woods, which the Purdy Press reprinted in 1927.
Indeed, it is as historian that
Claiborne is most remembered. Though he wrote two second-rate biographies
that were published in 1860, his interest in history would be the
driving force that led to his accumulation of numerous historical
documents and artifacts which would become the principal source
for his major work: Mississippi as a Province, Territory, and
State, with Biographical Notices of Eminent Citizens (1880).
As early as the late 1850s he wrote letters requesting historical
data on Mississippi, but he received a poor response to his inquiries.
It was not until after the Civil War and numerous advertisements
in Mississippi and out-of-state newspapers that he began to accumulate
a number of papers and documents. His collection is now located
in three repositories: the Department of Archives and History in
Jackson, Mississippi; the Library of Congress; and the Library of
the University of North Carolina. The collection remains today an
indispensable source for historians of the Old Southwest.
The history he published was volume one of a proposed two-volume
set. The study falls into three main parts. The first is a twenty-eight-chapter
history of Mississippi from the earliest Spanish explorations in
the 1540s to the end of the Creek War. The second part consists
of thirteen chapters of biographical sketches of eminent citizens,
and the last is two chapters, one on jurisprudence, the other on
Indians. Overall, the work suffers from the authors political
and personal prejudices, as well as several failures to edit or
correct his source materials, some of which were simply included
in their original form. Despite its shortcomings, however, the volume
is a splendid accomplishment, well organized, clearly written, exciting
in places, and rich in information. As late as 1964, when the Mississippi
Historical Society published a reprint edition of the volume, historian
John K. Bettersworth, while acknowledging its faults, praised Claiborne
as the author of the best history of the state ever written.
Volume two was never published.
The manuscript, which probably carried the history through Reconstruction,
was completed in 1884 but was lost in a fire that destroyed his
home in March 1884. His shock and grief over his loss no doubt contributed
to his death two months later on May 17, 1884.
—John B. Padgett
Related Links & Info
Natchez Convention And Visitors
Claiborne Collection Links:
- Nonfiction Books:
- Life and Correspondence of John A. Quitman, Major-General
U.S.A., and Governor of the State of Mississippi. 2 vols.
New York: Harper and Brothers, 1860.
- Life and Times of Gen. Sam. Dale, the Mississippi Partisan.
New York: Harper and Brothers, 1860.
- Mississippi, as a Province, Territory and State: With Biographical
Notices by Eminent Citizens. Jackson, Mississippi: Power
and Barksdale, 1880.
- Other Nonfiction:
- Speech, on the Bill “For the Relief of Jefferson College,”
Delivered in the House of Representatives, of the State of Mississippi,
December, 1830, by ... a Representative from the County
of Adams. Washington, Mississippi: Cadet Office, 1830.
- Mississippi Slave Sales. 1836.
- Argument Submitted by Messrs. Claiborne and Gholson, Representatives
from the State of Mississippi, to the Committee of Elections.
City of Washington: Blair & Rives, 1837.
- Proceedings of the Board of Choctaw Commissioners. Col.
Claiborne’s Statement. 1843.
- Historical Account of Hancock County and the Sea Board of
Mississippi. An Address delivered ... at the Request
of the Citizens, and in Compliance with a Resolution of Congress
... July 4th, 1876. New Orleans: Hopkins Printing
- A Sketch of Harvey’s Scouts, Formerly of Jackson’s Cavalry
Division, Army of Tennessee ... Being a Part of the
Second Volume of Claiborne’s History of Mississippi. Published
for private distribution. Starkville, Mississippi: Southern Livestock
Journal Print, 1885.
- A Trip Through the Piney Woods. New York: Purdy
- Articles and Books:
- Lagrone, C. M. An Index to J.F.H. Claiborne’s Mississippi
as a Province, Territory and State. Thesis. University of Mississippi,
- Lang, Herbert Howard. Nineteenth Century Historians of the
Gulf States. Thesis. University of Texas, 1954.
- Riley, Franklin Lafayette. Life of Col. J.F.H. Claiborne: Reprinted
from Publications of Mississippi Historical Society, Vol. 7.
Oxford, Mississippi: The Society[?], 1903.
- Williams, Frederick DeForrest. The Career of J.F.H. Claiborne,
States’ Rights Unionist. Thesis. Indiana University, 1953.
- Williams, Frederick D. “Claiborne, J. F. H.” Lives
of Mississippi Writers, 1817-1967. Ed. James B. Lloyd. Jackson:
University Press of Mississippi, 1979. 88-91.
- Internet Resources
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