Once a prosperous town of more than 2,500 people, Rocky Springs is home to only a single church and a cemetery today. Located in Claiborne County, Mississippi, between the Old Port Gibson Road and the Natchez Trace Parkway at milepost 54.8, the old townsite and the surrounding area are maintained as a historic site by the National Park Service.
The first documentation of anyone but Native Americans having visited the area was when a Spanish lieutenant stood beside the spring and called it La Fuente del Pedregal. Loosely translated to Rocky Springs, the townsite would later take the name of the spring that no longer flows today. In the 1780s, a young man from South Carolina, the Reverend Tobias Gibson, the founder of Methodism in Mississippi, preached on the spot.
In 1796, Mayburn Cooper was the first to settle in the area. Later, Isaac Powers, a planter and large slave-holder, built the famous Red House Inn, one of four stops on the Natchez Trace in Claiborne County. He took in all manner of travelers, including the good and the bad. One of these was General Andrew Jackson when he was returning home from the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.
During the late 18th Century, the Natchez Trace was not always a safe place to travel, as highwaymen and killers frequented it. One of these men, who had a hideout near Rocky Springs, was none other than the infamous Samuel “Wolfman” Mason, who not only robbed and killed along the Trace but was also a river pirate. On one occasion, a witness for the state against the notorious outlaw would provide the following testimony:
“I was living a short distance this side of Rocky Springs, and as most of those persons did who lived on the public road. I furnished entertainment for travelers. Mason was my neighbor, living two miles back from the road. One day three men stopped and asked to have their dinner, which I immediately set about preparing. While thus engaged, Mason rode up, came in, and walked back and forth on the gallery, which was in full view of the kitchen where I was cooking. I noticed as he passed the bags of the travelers, which were placed on the gallery, he managed to give each of them a push with his foot as if to feel their weight. After having apparently satisfied himself that the saddlebags were well filled with specie, he bade me a good day and rode off. The next day the three travelers were met at Baker’s Creek by a party with their faces blacked and robbed.”– J.F.H. Claiborne
This was but one instance of Mason’s treachery along the Trace. Finally, Mississippi Governor William C. C. Claiborne offered a reward of $2,000 for Samuel Mason’s capture. Though dozens of men searched for the Mason Gang, the outlaws continued with their evil deeds along the Natchez Trace, striking one caravan with horrific brutality. In response, a posse of residents and a few bounty hunters was raised to go after them. The posse quickly pursued, learning that Mason and his men were hiding out less than a mile west of the Trace near Rocky Springs. When they came upon the camp, they found it had been hastily abandoned. Though the outlaws’ trail was fresh, most of the posse chose not to follow, instead remaining at the camp searching for any hidden loot that the outlaws may have left. However, a few men continued the pursuit, but when they lost the trail, they abandoned the search. He was later killed by one of his own gang for the reward.
Despite the danger along the Natchez Trace, Rocky Springs continued to grow, and in 1829, its election precinct received 90 votes. A Methodist church was erected in 1837, and two years later, the first private school — the Rocky Springs Academy, was built by wealthy planters for their sons. Operated under the direction of a Mr. Holmes, it was built next to the church and opened on January 1, 1838. At this time, Isaac Powers, who also owned the Red House Inn, served as postmaster. Postriders carrying letters, dispatches, and newspapers from the north and south met three times a week at his tavern. There were also several stores in the small community.
By 1860, the town and the area were prospering from wealthy plantations, surpassing even Grand Gulf. The population of Rocky Springs peaked at 2,616 inhabitants, plus approximately 2,000 slaves, all living in a 25-square-mile area. At this time, the town also boasted three merchants, four physicians, four teachers, three ministers, and 13 artisans, while the surrounding farming community included 54 planters, 28 overseers who were thriving on planting cotton.
In the spring of 1863, the Civil War came to Rocky Springs, and for ten days in May, General Ulysses S. Grant made his headquarters at the Rocky Springs Church as his massive army made their way through the region on their way to Jackson and Vicksburg. Moving the pews out of the church, Grant set up his desk where the pulpit now stands. As the Yankees arrived in Rocky Springs private named Osborn Oldroyd would write:
“They encountered no resistance beyond the icy stares of the people who gathered at the side of the road to watch as the soldiers marched through town. Here we have good, cold spring water, fresh from the bosom of the hills.”
Though Grant was determined for Vicksburg, his officers were concerned with supplying their 50,000 troops with food, equipment, arms, and medical supplies along the narrow Natchez Trace. To this, Grant had a solution. For the first time in the Civil War, the army would “live off the land.” Grant had observed that the Mississippi countryside was filled with livestock, plenty of forage for the army’s horses, and mills to grind corn. For two weeks, 50,000 men foraged in the area, stripping Claiborne County to the bare bones. As the Army pulled out of Rocky Springs, Private Oldroyd would record:
“O, what a grand army this is, and what a sight to fire the heart of a spectator with a speck of patriotism in his bosom. I shall never forget the scene of today, while looking back upon a mile of solid columns, marching with their old tattered flags streaming in the summer breeze, and hearkening to the firm tramp of their broad brogans keeping step to the pealing fife and drum, of the regimental bands discoursing ‘Yankee Doodle’ or ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.’ I say it was a grand spectacle.”
Left without their livestock, foodstuffs, and many supplies, the area’s residents were, no doubt, not nearly as enthralled with the Yankees. One letter written in 1863 stated: “My slaves, horses, and mules are carried off, my fences torn down, and my crops destroyed.” Making matters worse, it was during this period that a slow decline descended upon the town. In 1878, the town was struck by Yellow Fever, which killed many of its residents. The Fever struck again ten years later in 1888. The remaining area residents were devastated in 1905 by a boll weevil epidemic that destroyed the valuable cotton crops. At the same time, many of the farmers were struggling with severe erosion caused by many years of poor land management. These many issues continually reduced the population, and in 1930 the post office and the last store closed. Before long, the natural spring, from which the town took its name, dried up. By 1940, every last resident was gone.
Today, the 1837 Methodist church and cemetery are all that is left of the once prosperous settlement. Some remnants of the town, including the post office safe and a cistern, and interpretive signs can be viewed along a short loop trail.
Also located here are a campground and access to several hiking trails.
The old townsite is located at mile marker 54.8 on the Natchez Trace.