Located in the northwest corner of Claiborne County, Mississippi, Grand Gulf was once a bustling river port town in the first half of the 19th Century. Between the years of 1680 and 1803, the land which would become Mississippi Territory was controlled by the French and Spanish governments. During that time, land grants were issued to settlers, including several by the Spanish in the late 1700’s in the area where Grand Gulf would later be established. Some of these early grants were made to the White, Marble, and Smith families, who would eventually form a town.
Two of these early settlers were Colonel Thomas Lilly White and his oldest son, Captain Thomas White, Jr., who had served in the Revolutionary War from North Carolina. In 1792, Thomas White, Sr. received one of the Spanish land grants and the family moved to the Natchez District in present-day Claiborne County.
Other family members, including his son, would also acquire land in the area. Thomas White, Sr. would later be appointed serve on the first panel of jurors in Claiborne County in 1802. He also was one of three commissioners appointed to buy land for the first courthouse in nearby Port Gibson. He died in 1804 at an advanced age. The Whites, along with other early settlers, not only had Indians to contend with but also, the notorious outlaws who roamed the Natchez Trace. However, they stayed and carved civilization from the wilderness.
Located very near the Mississippi River, about eight miles northwest of Port Gibson, the Big Black River flowed into the Mississippi at this point offering easy access to river trade. As the area began to flourish, three men — Ezra Marble, Turpin White, and Amos Whiting decided to lay out a new town on their property in 1828. A man named William Davis surveyed the land, laying out 80 city blocks. It was named for a large whirlpool which formed as the Mississippi River struck a great rock formation just north of the townsite.
By the next year, the new village boasted three stores, a post office, a tavern, and several houses. Soon, a stage line began operating between Grand Gulf and Port Gibson, and numerous steamboats were stopping at Grand Gulf’s port. In 1830, a visiting writer documented his impressions of the fledgling community:
“Towns usually arise from the location of a county seat or a shipping port. In these towns are the banks, the merchants, the post offices and the several places of resort for business or pleasure that draw the planter and his family from his estate. Each town is a center of a circle which extends many miles around it into the country and daily attracts all within its influence. The ladies come in carriages to shop; the gentlemen, on horseback, to do business with their commission merchants, visit the banks, hear the news, dine together at hotels, and ride back in the evening. Showy carriages and saddle horses are the peculiar characteristics of the moving spectacle in the streets of the southwestern town.”
“The society, like most new towns in the state is composed of young men, merchants, lawyers, and physicians, the majority of whom are bachelors. There is something striking to the eye of the northerner on entering one of these southwestern villages. He will find every third building occupied by a lawyer or a doctor, around whose open doors will be congregated knots of young men in deshabille (carelessly dressed), smoking and conversing, sometimes with animation, but more commonly, with an air of indifference. He will pass by stores and see them cluster around him, fashionably dressed, with sword canes dangling from their fingers. Whenever he turns his eyes, he sees nothing but young fellows. He sees few women. If he remains a season he may attend several public balls in the hotel where he will meet with beautiful females from plantations twenty miles around.”
Although this area was then considered the western frontier, early settlers were generally well educated and brought with them a cultured lifestyle from the old south. Many of these early settlements along the Mississippi River were islands of relatively cultured civilization surrounded by primeval swamps and forests, as well as roaming Indians, wolves, bears, and alligators.
Yet in the middle of this wilderness, the Port Gibson-Grand Gulf area offered the finest in amenities to the traveler. When Captain Edmund Winston of Fredericksburg, Virginia stayed a week at the Planter’s Hotel in Port Gibson, he wrote a letter to his sister on November 3, 1828, stating:
The town has improved wonderfully in the last few years and the slave trade is on the ‘boom’ here. The courthouse is not a giant office building of justice yet, but it is clean and the officials are the wisest and most polished kind. “I resided at the Tavern my entire time, though I was invited by many to partake of their hospitality and invited so sincerely. The menu at the Tavern is something rare. I am sending it. The steward, named McMakin, comes to the parlor door at the dining hour with carving knife and fork crossed before his broad breast, face glowing with smiles, clad in snowy stiffly starched apron, and says “Good evening, ladies fair, Generals and Captains; walk in and partake of barbecued venison, pork, beef, roast turkey, stuffed duck, geese, fish from the biggest river on earth; chicken salad, shrimp and crabs killed in duels for the approval of beautiful ladies appetites, cake and jellies for the married, cold potato custard for those in love, gin from Holland; wines from France and Spain. Come one and all. Eat and drink all that you can contain.” I felt, as I saw the merriment this speech created and as I enjoyed the feast, that I was in the Land of Promise. Your brother, E.W.”