Jones County

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In Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, vol. VIII, 1904, pages 13-22.

By Goode Montgomery 1

 Historic old Jones county began its career in 1826, when it was formed out of parts of Wayne and Covington counties. It was named for that intrepid seaman, John Paul Jones. This county developed very rapidly during the first four or five years immediately following its formation. Its prosperity then received a check from which it did not recover until after the War between the States. When the Choctaw lands in the central and northern parts of Mississippi were opened for settlement, a wholesale emigration set out from the older parts of the State for this newly opened country. As a result, Jones County, in common with many other counties of South Mississippi, was well-nigh depopulated. Col. J. F. H. Claiborne, who visited Jones county in 1841, wrote in his “Trip through the Piney Woods,” that there was not a doctor in all the County and that lawlessness was so rare that circuit Court rarely lasted more than one day.

About this time, the County officers, who were chosen at the regular election, failed to qualify, as the offices paid almost nothing, owing to the scattered population and the absence of litigation. When the terms of the retiring officers had expired, they left without ceremony, and the county was left for a considerable length of time without legal administration. Finally one of their number became interested enough to ride to Jackson on horse- back to take the oath of office. He then returned and administered the oath of office to the other officers-elect.

From this period, according to the majority of the old citizens, though some put it at a later time, dates the rise of the title, “Free State of Jones,” which has been sounded far and wide in the subsequent stories told of her. Another version of the origin of this title is that it was given to the county by the citizens of neighboring counties who lived near the Gulf coast and along the line of what is now the Mobile and Ohio railroad, because of the entire freedom of the citizens of Jones county from the arbitrary rules of society and the restraints of fashion recognized elsewhere. They went to church barefooted, dressed in any way they saw fit, and carrying their guns to use in case any game might cross their path.

After the “exodus,” referred to above, Jones county slowly grew in population until the War between the States, though at the opening of this great struggle it was but sparsely populated. In politics, Anti-Bond Democrats were in the majority. It was said by the Natchez Daily Free-Trader that there was not a Bond Democrat in Jones county in 1841. When the question of secession came up, they were almost a unit against it and elected J. D. Powell, the Anti-Secessionist candidate to the Secession Convention by a large majority, there being only twenty-four votes cast for J. M. Baylis, the Secessionist candidate. But when the test came, Powell voted for secession. This act created great excitement in Jones county. Powell was hanged in effigy and abused so much that he did not dare return to the county for some time.

Notwithstanding all this demonstration, Jones county readily responded to the call of the Confederacy for troops, furnishing from her scanty population, three full companies and a great part of four more which were formed on her borders. One of these was formed just over the line in Covington, one in Wayne, and two in Jasper. The greater part of these troops served throughout the war.

A few deserted and came home, most of them after the “Twenty Negro Law,” as they called it, was passed. Among these was Jasper Collins, who said that he did not propose to fight for the rich men while they were at home having a good time. In the latter part of 1862, the famous “Newt Knight Company” was formed, with Newt Knight as captain, Jasper Collins First Lieutenant, and W. W. Sumrall Second Lieutenant. Several of those who deserted from the Confederate army joined this company, which numbered when it was organized about sixty men, but later was increased to about one hundred and twenty- five. Its members came from various parts of the country. Knight was from Jasper county, while others were from other counties and even from other States. They had their headquarters on an island in Leaf river near the present town of Soso. From this place they made their raids, which greatly annoyed the local Confederate authorities, and to it they retreated when pursued by an enemy. They captured a wagon train belonging to the Confederate forces, but the greater part of their exploits was among the civilians of Jones and Jasper counties. They had some communications with the Union officers at Memphis and Vicksburg. Jasper Collins was detailed by Captain Knight for this mission. He reported at Memphis but was referred to Vicksburg, where he went and reported to an officer by the name of General Hudson, or Huddleston (he does not remember which). From this general, he received some orders and instructions which Collins carried back to Captain Knight. These were of a military character and related to having Knight's company sworn into the regular Union army. This Company fought several battles with the Confderate forces, one, on Tallahala Creek, near where Laurel now is; another, in Ellisville; and a third near their head- quarters on Leaf river.

The county government was never interrupted, but went from the Union to the Confederacy and back to the Union without a hitch. The officers scarcely knew the difference. E. M. Devall, whole wife still lives in Ellisville, served as sheriff from just be- fore the outbreak of the war until near its close, when he was succeeded by Henry Dossett, who served till the regular election after the close of the war. At that time Dave Pridgeon was elected sheriff together with a full ticket of county officers, all of whom resigned, leaving the county for the second time without a legally organized government. Soon, however, other officers were appointed to fill their places, but not carpetbaggers, as was the case in most of the other counties of the State at that time. The fact that Jones county was never bothered with the pest of alien rule was due mainly to the fact that few negroes were in the county. According to the view of a few persons, the name, “Free State of Jones,” arose at that time.

After the close of the war, when the loyal Confederates came home, they were ashamed of the reputation which Jones county had acquired in being the rendezvous of Knight's men, and also the scene of the demonstration against Powell for voting against secession. They wished to change the name, and, as far as possible, blot out this record. They, therefore, petitioned the State Legislature, in 1865, to change the name of Jones county to Davis county, in honor of the President of the late Confederacy. They also wished the name of the county site changed from Ellisville to Leesburg for General Robert E. Lee. The petition was granted. But later the government changed hands and V. A. Collins, a native of Jones county who joined the Union army, represented her in the State Legislature. Under his influence, the name was changed back to Jones and the county site to Ellisville. 2

The foregoing account is a brief general outline of the history of Jones county to about 1870. It has been gathered from the older citizens of the county and from such records as could be found by the writer. The story of the secession of this county dates from 1886, when an article from the pen of G. Norton Ga1loway, Historian Sixth Army Corps, was published in the November number of the Magazine of American History, under the title “A Confederacy within a Confederacy.” There was no sketch of the author nor anything except his signature by which he might be located. He gave no sources nor authorities for his statements. But for the fact that it was published in a magazine devoted to history, one would naturally place it, where it belongs, along side the sensational stories that appear in magazines devoted to such writings.

He says among other things:

"It is not generally known, that in the latter part of the year 1862, a convention assembled in Ellisville, Jones county, Mississippi, and passed an ordinance seceding from the State of Mississippi and from the Confederate States of America.”

He even went so far as to give the exact words of the ordinance, which are as follows:

“WHEREAS, The State of Mississippi has seen fit to withdraw from the Federal Union, for reasons which appear justifiable, and whereas, we, the citizens of Jones county, claim the same right, thinking our grievances are sufficient by reason of an unjust law passed by the Congress of the Confederate States of America, forcing us to go to distant parts, etc., etc., therefore, be it

Resolved, That we sever the union heretofore existing between Jones county and the State of Mississippi, and proclaim our independence of said State, and of the Confederate States of America-and we call upon Al- mighty God to witness and bless the act.”

The only source which the writer gave and which I have been able to find, is his own fertile imagination. It would have been no more than just to his readers, to history, and to himself, for him to have told us where such rare and interesting documents could be found. This convention must have been very quiet and uninteresting to the inhabitants of Ellisville at the time; for Mrs. Devall, wife of the sheriff, never heard of it. According to the testimony of Henry Parker, postmaster under the Confederate Government, no rumor of it ever reached the post office, the place in a small village where the news is usually gathered and disseminated.

Again, he names as president of this new government, one Nathan or Nate Knight, a man unheard of in Jones county. He, perhaps in his ignorance, got the name from Newt Knight, captain of the company mentioned in a preceding paragraph. There is some resemblance between the character he describes and Newt Knight, but if he intends for his statements to apply to Newt Knight, it is full of inaccuracies. He calls him a citizen of Jones county. This is not correct. He is not a citizen of that county, nor has he ever been unless he could have been called a citizen when he commanded the company with headquarters in Jones couty. He now lives where he has lived about all his life, in Jasper county, Mississippi. The writer of the magazine article also states that Knight is never seen outside his home without his “trusty”rifle and revolver. Here he errs again; for Knight goes wherever his business calls him, and lives peaceably with his neighbors just like any other ordinary farmer.

Mr. Galloway also makes the absurd statement that the population of Jones county increased at the beginning of the war, in little more than a year, from about three thousand to over twenty thousand. It is impossible to conjecture where he got his data for this statement. There was certainly no census taken at that time, and the people who were then living in the county say there was no perceptible increase in population during the first two years of the war. They say, to the contrary, that there was a decided decrease immediately after the beginning of the conflict, due to the great number of citizens who enlisted in the Confedrate armies; and that after the organization of Knight's only a slight increase was noticeable.

Again the “Historian of the Sixth Army Corps” gives the number in Knight's army as ten thousand. This assertion is in keeping with the preceding exaggerations, but according to Lieutenants Collins and Sumrall, of this company, it never numbered over one hundred twenty-five men, and the greater part of the time there were not over eighty men in service. He was correct in saying that this band gave the Confederate authorities a great deal of trouble. But this was not on account of their great numbers; it was rather due to the character of the country in which they fought and to the accurate knowledge which Knight's men had of it. The thickets and the heavy timber throughout the country where they carried on their operations greatly aided the small band in opposing the superior forces of General Robert Lowry, who was sent by the Confederate Government to capture them. When they were in Jones county, Collins and Sumrall knew every path, and when they crossed into Jasper county, Knight was on home soil. General Lowry, after considerable marching and some fighting, succeeded in capturing a few of Knight's men, but the main body with their leader escaped. General Lowry never heard of the establishment of an independent government in Jones county, and yet he was in all parts of the county and conversed not only with the loyal Confederates but with those of Knight's men whom he captured.  Mr. Galloway's account of Jones county in 1886 is badly warped. Although there was not the best of feeling between some of Knight's men and some of the other citizens, there was nothing like the vendetta system of which he tells us. He says that he withheld many of the names of members who were prominent in the Knight Confederacy for prudential reasons. This is a remarkable statement in the light of the fact that no one of  Knight's men with whom the writer of this article has talked, was numbered in a military company which was openly hostile to their own county and State, they certainly would not object to its being known that they had a government of their own and served it. Again, the people of Jones county know who of their number belonged to this company and do not hesitate to tell who they are. Their names appearing in a magazine published in a distant part of the United States would hardly have brought forth any direful results. Very few of them know to this day that Mr. Galloway's article was ever written. It would certainly have enriched our knowledge and enhanced the historica1 value of his own production, if Mr. Galloway had stepped a little farther over the bounds of what he terms prudence and given us a few names of the prominent officers and men in this interesting government. The investigator is inclined to think that it was from a lack of names rather than from a sense of prudence that the gentleman stopped at this point.

Another inaccuracy shows Mr. Galloway's recklessness in dealing with facts. He says:

“The county building in Ellisville is an unpretentious barn-like structure seemingly perfectly unconscious of ever having played the part of a capitol, in an affair that now reads like a chapter of the imagination.”

The “barn-like structure” to which he refers had been burned ten years before he wrote and the town had been moved to another site, where a new brick courthouse had been built.

In the New England Magazine, December, 1891, appeared an essay by Prof. Albert Bushnell Hart, of Harvard University, in which he makes assertions similar to those made by Mr. Galloway. and gives Mr. Galloway's article as his authority. This fact, taken with Dr. Hart's answer to an enquiry, which has been recently addressed to him, is sufficient to satisfy anyone that he should no longer be quoted as an authority on the subject. In a letter of February 8, 1904, addressed to the writer of this article, be makes the following statement:

“The article on Jones county about which you ask, was printed in the New England Magazine for December, 1891. But I feel doubtful now whether the evidence is sufficiently weighty to be so stated.”

Another publication that has been found taking the affirmative view of this question has more semblance of authority than either of the others. It was written from Jones county by H. W. Harper and was published January 10th, 1896, in the Raymond (Miss.) Gazette, of which he was editor. The following letter from Mr. Harper is self-explanatory:


"Raymond, Miss., Jan. 30th, 1904.

“Mr. Goode Montgomery, Ellisville, Miss.:

"Dear Sir: I have been very much interested for some time in the matter of the "Alleged Secession of Jones County" and had hoped to get some information upon the subject that could be relied upon when your article, read before the State Historical Society, should appear in print. Now Judge my surprise and disappointment that I should be applied to for information on the subject.

“The article to which you allude, that appeared in my paper in 1896, was not by a resident of Jones county. I wrote it myself after a sojourn of a few weeks in Ellisville. I would gladly clip my file to send you a copy of it, could it be of any use to you, but 1 am sure it cannot for it gives no information at all.

“I will watch for your article when it shall be published as I have a great desire to know the facts.

“I wrote a story some time ago on the subject (that I have never yet printed) which pretends to tell all about it; but it is entirely fictitious with no more foundation than the report which is familiar to almost everyone, that Jones county did secede.

“Yours truly,

“H. W. Harper.”


Only one article has been written denying the secession of Jones county. In Volume I. of the Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Professor A. L. Bondurant, of the University of Mississippi, published a contribution on this subject. He dealt with it from an external standpoint, and brought out some valuable external evidence, but failed to cover the whole ground, and thereby to satisfy some people who still insist that Mr. Galloway and Prof. Hart were right. It is barely possible that such a convention as that reported by Mr. Galloway could have been held in Jones county without the knowledge of those men whom Professor Bondurant quotes as authority.

There were in Jones county three distinct groups of men who might have felt inclined to pass an ordinance of secession while the war was in progress. The first of these were the citizens who were there before the opening of the war, took part in the election of Powell to the Secession Convention, and afterward enlisted in the Confederate army. The second were the old men and officers who controlled civil affairs under the Confederate Government. The third were those men who were not satisfied with the Con federacy and were collected in Jones county under the leadership of Newt Knight.

The writer has seen a large number of men who belong to the first of these groups. Although some of them say they were dissatisfied with secession, all deny that they ever had any intention of seceding and say that they never heard such an intention expressed by anyone else. They enlisted early in the war and served until they were mustered out in 1865, as faithful to the Confederacy as any troops in the Southern army.

The old men and officers were in general loyal to the Confederacy, as was shown by their fierce opposition to the Federal troops when they attempted to pass through Jones county. A detachment of Federal troops had been sent across the country from near Brookhaven for the purpose of destroying the Mobile and Ohio railroad about Waynesboro. Lieutenant W. M. Wilson, of the 43rd Tennessee infantry, was sent to intercept this force. In his report, Lieut. Wilson wrote that he had to start with two men from the infantry company and a few of Terrill's cavalry; also that he was joined along the route by a number of men from Covington and Jones counties. On June 25, 1863, at Rocky Creek, near Ellisville, Jones county, he succeeded in get- ting in front of the Federals and by strategy was able to capture the whole band, after killing one and wounding several. Messrs. Collins and Parker stated that the county officers and some of the old men and boys from Ellisville joined this lieutenant and fought in this battle. Lieutenant Wilson afterwards turned the wounded and the dead over to the these citizens, who cared for the one and buried the other. Their loyalty was further shown when General Lowry was sent to Jones county, he and his men were shown every kindness by the majority of the citizens and all the officers.

The last named group, according to the testimony of Jasper Collins and W. W. Sumrall, made no movement toward taking charge of the county affairs or of carrying on any civil functions at all further than offering their services to Sheriff Devall in case he should need them to put down lawlessness.

There could not, therefore, have been any secession movement in Jones county, unless it had been by such a group as the one described to the writer of this paper by Mr. W. T. Lewis, Jr. He said he had heard that eight men met in Tallahala swamp, a few miles above Ellisville, and passed an ordinance of secession.  He gave the names of some of these men, one of whom was promptly interrogated on the subject. This gentleman seemed very much surprised when asked about it, and replied that he had never heard of the occurrence. Even granting that such a company had played such a game of “make believe,” its action could not be called an action of Jones county.

There seems to be only one person who really contends that Jones county did secede, and if he could be found, perhaps, he would do as the others have done who have written on the subject, tell us that he knew nothing about it, or that he wrote from unsafe premises. On the other hand, every one whom the writer of this paper saw of those who were living in Jones county at the time or knew anything of affairs there during the war, stated emphatically that such proceedings were not heard of until many years after the close of the war.



Files of The Daily Free-Trader, 1841-2.

Proceedings of State Legislature, 1865-1870.

Magazine of American History, Nov. 1886

Practical Essays on American Government, Prof. A. B. Hart.

Vol. I. Publications of Mississippi Historical Society.

Vol. XXIV, II. Records and Reports of War of Rebellion.

Rev. Hector Smith, Laurel, Miss., native of Jones county, Confederate soldier, Presbyterian minister.

Henry Parker, Laurel, Miss., postmaster at Ellisville, Miss., during the entire existence of the Confederacy.

M. P. Bush, Laurel, Miss., moved to Jones county 1850, Confederate soldier, now on Board of Aldermen of Laurel, Miss.

A. B. Jordan, Ellisville, Miss., native of Jones county, Confederate soldier, petitioner to have Jones changed to Davis county.

John Bynum, Ellisville, Miss., native of the county, county clerk for several terms, Confederate soldier, petitioner to have county's name changed.

Mrs. E. M. Deva1l, Ellisville, Miss., who lived at Ellisville during the war and was wife of the sheriff of Jones county at that time.

Ex-Gov. Robert Lowry, Jackson, Miss., who commanded the troops sent to capture Knight.

Jasper Collins, Fellowship, Miss., native of Jones county, 1st. Lieut. in Knight's company, special commissioner to the Federal officers at Vicksburg.

W. W. Sumrall, Ellisville, Miss., 2nd. Lieut. in Knight's company. Madison Herrington, J. T. Herrington, Jesse M. Bush, John W. Quick, J. F. Parker, T. J. Hardy, W. H. McGowan, Dr. D. R. Pool and others, all of Ellisville, Miss.



1. Goode Montgomery was born on a farm in Pontotoc county, Miss., Oct. 7, 1877. He is of English, Scotch and Irish descent. His ancestors removed to Mississippi from Georgia and South Carolina. In 1903 he was graduated from the University of Mississippi with the degree of B. A. Since that time he has successfully prosecuted a course of graduate work in History and Economics in the same institution. He is now teacher of History and English in the Ellisville Graded School. -EDITOR.

2.  V. A. Collins also represented the county in the Black and Tan Convention, but soon becoming disgusted, returned home.  That, however, did not stop his pay.  He drew his salary, and used it in paying the State taxes for Jones county for that year, saying that his county should not suffer for the extravagance of a convention of which he was a member.


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