Rare manuscript survey of land in Bolivar County, Mississippi, recently ceded by the Choctaw

Anonymous, [Plan of Lands in Township 22, Ranges 8 and 9 West, Bolivar County, Mississippi.] [Mississippi, ca. late 1830s?]
Ink and watercolor on coated linen, with some very faint pencil annotations. Sheet slightly irregular but 15 ½”h x 25 1/8”w at greatest extent. Metal clip at upper right. Previously folded. Light scattered foxing, particularly along folds and at upper right corner. Manuscript note at top left corner, “Bolivar County, Miss., U. S. Gov. Survey 1834 1830.”

A remarkable survival depicting land divisions on a peninsula in the Mississippi River in Bolivar County, northwestern Mississippi, near the present-day towns of Eutaw and Scott. These lands had recently been ceded by the Choctaw to the United States in the Treaties of Doak’s Stand (1820) and Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830).

The area depicted is in the Mississippi Delta, the 19th-century condition of which one historian describes as follows: “untamed wildernesses, utterly impassable by a man on horseback or by any form of wheeled vehicle, and very difficult even for a man on foot.” (Grabau, Ninety-Eight Days: A Geographer’s View of the Vicksburg Campaign) The area shown on this map may not have been “utterly impassable,” but at the time of this survey it was certainly not cleared farmland. The location is generally identifiable by the range-township number and the presence of Islands No. 74 & 75 in the Mississippi River. It is not possible, however, to identify the lands definitively, as the geography depicted does not correlate with modern features owing to changes in the course of the Mississippi River.

Despite its location on the Mississippi, Bolivar County was extremely remote prior to the Civil War. According to Campbell’s 1854 Southern Business Directory (p.142), its population in 1837 was 249 free white and 697 slaves. In 1853, the number of free white voters was down to 146, while the population of slaves had swollen to 2607. This same directory describes this region of Mississippi as “until a very few years past … a wilderness.” It also provides this information: “There are no merchants, as the planter generally supplies himself by the year in New Orleans; but there are small boats fitted up as stores, and float from place to place, thus supplying the plantations with smaller articles. There are no lawyers, but simply county officers; Litigation is small and cases unimportant.”

The map’s most significant feature is the dashed “Old Choctaw Boundary Line” running northwest to southeast from the river to the edge of the grid lines. Land south of the line was ceded by the Choctaw to the United States in the 1820 Treaty of Doak’s Stand, while land north of the line was ceded in the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The former was negotiated by Andrew Jackson, the latter on his behalf during his Presidency as a prototype for carrying out the Indian Removal Act.  In all these two cessions amounted to some 16 million acres, in return for which the Choctaw received grants of land in the Arkansas and Indian Territories. Beginning in 1831 they were forcibly removed west of the Mississippi to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), a tragedy known today as the Trail of Tears. The map offered here is thus an early document of government efforts to survey former Choctaw lands and prepare them for exploitation.

The map shows the division of land on the peninsula into well over 100 lots. Most lots bordering the Mississippi are extremely long rectangles, or wedges where the river bends, each with very narrow river frontage. This pattern is characteristic of French land distribution in the New World and was also found, for example, along the St. Lawrence River in New France. These lots were presumably laid out by surveyors from Louisiana operating in the French tradition. By contrast, several upriver lots and those lots not fronting directly on the river are generally square, either 640-acre (one square mile) sections or fractions thereof. This pattern was of course characteristic of the work of the United States General Land Office, which was responsible for surveying, subdividing and selling Federal lands. Several lots bear faint pencil annotations, most illegible or indecipherable, though eight quarter-sections are clearly marked “Wilson.”

The shifting course of the Mississippi River over the years, particularly in the 19th century, makes it particularly difficult to pin down the exact location of the lands depicted. When this map was drawn, probably right around the time that Bolivar County was carved out of Choctaw County in 1836, the levee system which eventually encompassed the entire Mississippi River Valley did not exist. This system was not begun in any organized manner until Congress passed the Swamp Act in 1849 and was not extended as far north as Bolivar County for many, many years. Floods, large and small, were common occurrences. Major floods, such as that of 1874 which according to the New Orleans Picayune at the time “transformed the Yazoo Valley into an inland lake” resulted in significant reconfiguration of the land and relocation of the channel of the river. Even islands in the river are unreliable landmarks as many of these were connected to nearby shorelines over the years as channels which defined the islands were filled.

Bolivar County was established in 1837 and named on the map, making that the earliest possible date.Given that this area was in the domain of the Choctaw until not long before this map is thought to have been drawn, it is almost certain that this is the first detailed map depicting this land and among the first lot line maps in Bolivar County and northwestern Mississippi. While the map is not definitively dated, it is extremely likely that it was executed before the Civil War, probably some time around 1840. A map drawn much later than that would have no reason to show the old line of the Choctaw lands. Also, the word “Mississippi” in the river near the northern and southern edges is written with several instances of the letter “s” resembling the letter “f” as was the style in the 18th century (A third appearance of the word “Mississippi” does not feature this form, suggested the map is the work of at least two different hands.) This spelling protocol became obsolete through the first half of the 19th century. While there is no defined last date for this form, it would be surprising to see it on any manuscript dated later than 1850 or so.

Very few maps such as these would have been executed at the time given the sparse settlement in this swampy, flood-prone area. In addition, much of the antebellum documentary history of this region was lost during the Civil War.

In all, a rare cartographic document of the Antebellum South, particularly poignant for its connection with the Choctaw Cessions.

Owned in partnership with High Ridge Books.