Located in Jefferson County, about 32 miles northeast of Natchez, Mississippi, Rodney was once such an important city that it very nearly became the capitol of Mississippi. Today, it is a ghost town with only a handful of area residents.
Long before a settlement was ever formed here, the location was a popular Mississippi River crossing for many Native Americans. It was also an early crossing place for travelers along the El Camino Real, the old Spanish “Royal Road.” Today, the old townsite isn’t on the Mississippi River anymore; but, rather, about two miles inland.
Though the area was controlled by Great Britain as a result of the French and Indian War, it was first settled by the French in January 1763 and called Petit Gulf, to distinguish it from the larger port of Grand Gulf.
In 1774, General Phineus Lyman from New England, led an expedition through the area to organize a settlement on the Big Black River. Captain Matthew Phelps, a member of the expedition, described the area — Firm rock lies on the east side of the Mississippi River for about a mile. The land near the river is high, very broken, very rich, and several plantations have been established.
The Spanish took control of West Florida from the British in 1781. Spain would hold the site until 1791 when a Spanish land grant deeded the site to Thomas Calvit, a prominent territorial Mississippi landholder. As settlements along the Mississippi River grew, so did the importance of the port of Petit Gulf. In 1814, the name of the town was changed to honor Judge Thomas Rodney, the territorial magistrate who presided at the Aaron Burr hearing.
One of the earliest and most influential settlers of the area was Dr. Rush Nutt, a physician, planter, scientist, and author of a multi-volume diary of travels on the Natchez Trace. A native of Virginia, Nutt grew up to earn a medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating, he set out on horseback to tour the “Southwest” in 1905. Settling in Petit Gulf, he married, set up a medical practice and bought a large plantation. Calling his plantation Laurel Hill, he built a large mansion in about 1815.
The two-story frame structure, designed along simple lines with overhanging eaves protecting double galleries, was located about a mile southwest of Rodney. Becoming a planter, Dr. Nutt began experiments to develop a better cotton strain by crossing Mexican cotton with a local variety. Easy to pick and immune from rot, the successful strain became known as Petit Gulf or Nutt cotton and soon spread across the South as well as overseas. Nutt also improved the Whitney Cotton Gin and was the first in Mississippi to use a steam engine to drive the cotton gins.
He also encouraged his neighbors to use field peas as fertilizer, plow under cotton and corn stalks rather than burning them, and popularized contour plowing to prevent hillside erosion. In addition to his agricultural success, he was active in the civic affairs of early Mississippi, the town of Rodney, and was one of three founders of the nearby Oakland College. His son, Haller Nutt, shared his enthusiasm. Haller would later build the famous unfinished mansion of Longwood in Natchez, Mississippi. Dr. Nutt died in 1837 and is thought to be buried in the overgrown family cemetery located near the old Laurel Hill Plantation House. The mansion served as a private home until it burned down in 1982, leaving behind only the brick foundation and chimney.
When Mississippi was admitted as a state in 1817, Petit Gulf very nearly became the state’s first capitol, missing out to old Washington, near Natchez, by only three votes. In 1818, the Mississippi Legislature granted a charter of incorporation to the Presbyterian Church. In the beginning, the congregation would meet wherever they could, including at a local barroom.
A sketch of Rodney, in 1828, by French naturalist and painter, Charles Lesueur, revealed about 20 buildings leading from the river to the prominent bluff behind the town. That same year, the Town of Rodney was incorporated. By 1830, as river transportation continued to increase, Rodney had grown to a population of about 200, plus numerous area residents in the outlying area. It then sported some 20 stores, a church, a newspaper, and the state’s first opera house.. That same year, nearby Oakland College was established by Dr. Jeremiah Chamberlain. The Presbyterians also began to build their church in Rodney, which still stands today, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The two-story red brick building was dedicated on January 1, 1832. The dedication sermon was preached by Reverend Dr. Jerimiah Chamberlain, founder and president of Oakland College (now Alcorn University). The two-story red brick church was constructed in a Federal architectural style, with stepped-parapets on the gable ends. The church bell was said to have been partially cast with 1,000 Silver dollars that had been donated by church members. Before long, the city was known for its county fairs, a jockey club, a lecture hall, thespian groups, and its own quality schools. On a number of occasions, traveling actors and musicians on the passing steamboats provided entertainment for Rodney residents at the Masonic Hall.
Rodney gained its first newspaper called The Southern Telegraph in 1834. The four-page weekly was printed every Tuesday. Over the years, the newspaper changed editors and names, becoming the Rodney Standard and the Rodney Telegraph. One editor named Thomas Palmer strongly opposed duels and whiskey and quite often editorialized on these topics. Another editor — Thomas Brown — was an unyielding Whig and strongly promoted the Whig political position. Though it changed hands several times, it kept the same headline motto: “He that will not reason is a bigot; he that cannot, is a fool; and he that dares not, is a slave.”
In the late 1830s, General Zachary Taylor, on a visit to Rodney, was so taken by the small town, its rich land, and the opportunity to profit from a cotton plantation, that he decided to purchase land in the area. In late 1841, he sold his Louisiana and other Mississippi properties, and in early 1842, purchased the 1,923 acre Cypress Grove Plantation just a few miles south of Rodney, which he renamed the Buena Vista Plantation The plantation, along with its 81 slaves, cost Taylor $60,000 in cash, the bulk of which represented the proceeds from the sale of his cotton crops, and $35,000 in notes. Though the land lay in one of the richest cotton-producing regions in the South, it would take a number of years to become profitable due to the mortgage debt. One visitor described the plantation house as an unpretentious wooden building with a large library and a colonnaded veranda. It was during this time, that Taylor’s daughter, Sarah, eloped with Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, much to her father’s dismay.
Due to his military duties, he was seldom in residence at the plantation, which was run by an overseer. In 1846 he was off to fight in the Mexican-American War and returned a hero. He then retired to Buena Vista, but, was soon nominated for President. After winning the election, he left for the last time in January 1849, never to return. While in office, he became ill and died on July 9, 1850. Afterward, the Buena Vista Plantation, which was appraised at $20,000 and its 131 slaves at $56,650, was sold. The plantation house and outbuildings were destroyed in the Great Flood of 1927.
In 1843, Rodney was to suffer through a severe epidemic of yellow fever. It was so devastating that the outbreak was reported in national newspapers. The Philadelphia Inquirer and National Gazette, reported on October 26, 1843:
“The Fever at Rodney – The last New Orleans papers say that at Rodney, Miss., the yellow fever continued to rage in its most fatal form. All the physicians, without exception, have been taken down with the disease. The death of Dr. J. H. Savage is reported, and Dr. Hulser, Dr. Pickett, Dr. Williams, Dr. Todd, and Dr. Andrews were all down sick.”
More locally, the The Mississippi Free Trader and Natchez Gazette reported on October 7, 1843:
“Rodney, Miss – This village, about 40 miles above Natchez, has been visited by the yellow fever. A number of deaths and a still greater number of well-marked cases have occurred – in consequence of which, we are informed by a Natchez physician and another Natchez gentleman who visited Rodney two days ago, the village is almost depopulated. Even the only Apothecary’s shop in the place is closed, as are all the stores. Of course, there will be no need of quarantining against a village having no business and no inhabitants.”
Four years later, in 1847, the town was again visited by yellow fever, but, this time the duration was much briefer and far less destructive.