CHAPTER ONE: OVERVIEW OF THE NATCHEZ PRESS, 1800 to 1865
"In America there is scarcely a hamlet that has not its newspaper. It may readily be imagined that neither discipline or unity of action can be established among so many combatants, and each one consequently fights under his own standard. All the political journals of the United States are, indeed, arrayed on the side of the administration or against it; but they attack and defend it in a thousand different ways."
— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
Despite a few obscure and unreliable sources that mention newspapers in the Natchez area as early as 1789, journalism in the form of a weekly news periodical really began in Natchez with the first issue of the Mississippi Gazette late in 1799. Why 1799? Why did American dominion over the area attract a newspaper so quickly when the inhabitants had gotten along quite well without one under Spanish and English jurisdiction? The story of how the press came to Natchez, and why it happened in 1799 instead of 1770 or 1804, can not be separated from the political history of the region.
Europeans had traveled through the region as early as De Soto in the 1520s, and European settlement began in 1714 when the French built a trading post on the landing beneath the bluffs where the city of Natchez would later grow. In 1729 the massacre of the French garrison at Fort Rosalie by the Natchez Indians and the subsequent genocidal retaliation by the French over the next two years discouraged further European immigration for several decades. The North American wars of empire and the American Revolution provoked a high stakes game of chance among the many powers, and the Natchez district was passed around like a hot stone in the last half of the 18th century.
At the end of the French and Indian War, France ceded the eastern part of the Louisiana Territory, including the Natchez District, to England. During the American Revolution, Spanish forces captured much of the area, and England relinquished control to the Spanish crown in 1783. In 1798, the United States claimed the area, soon to be called the Mississippi Territory, under the terms of Pinckney’s Treaty.
It would be several years before any of the vast region known as the Mississippi Territory would be admitted to the union, but this did not change the fact that the needs and responsibilities of the citizens in a republic differed greatly from the duties of colonists, as the people of Natchez had been just a few months previously. As a colony of Spain, France or England, the Mississippi Territory existed as a mere appendage of a vast empire. As a territory seeking eventual statehood within the framework of the United States, the Mississippi Territory — with the Natchez district as its political, cultural and economic heart — needed a source of information to encourage and shape political views and activities. As cotton production increased after Eli Whitney’s cotton gin swept the South, the growing need for market information and other potential financial ventures also increased, especially as the population of the region grew. The newspapers that would soon appear in the Natchez region would serve many purposes, but the political and economic factors dominated the motives of the early journalists.
The press would have developed in Natchez eventually even if it had remained a colony, but the political needs of a community that was now largely in control of its own destiny — and the destiny of the population of the vast territory — created a need for a journal (or two). But it was not an immediate need, as starting a newspaper was a risky business. The immediate origins of journalism in the Natchez area did not develop out of an imminent cry for political or economic information from a concerned populace. Enterprising journalists did not rush from New York or Boston or Philadelphia to put down roots in the infant community of Natchez. With a small population — about 1,400 in 1800 — and an economy that was only beginning to experience the benefits of cotton production, there was no rush to start a newspaper. To get started, journalism in Mississippi required a combination of timing, legal necessity and some prescient and optimistic opportunism.
The first governor of the Mississippi Territory, Winthrop Sargent, took office in August 1798. By the end of May 1799, Sargent and the first Territorial General Assembly — based in Natchez, the largest town in the territory — had approved the Territorial Laws for Mississippi. The territorial government wished to publish the laws and ensure the availability of knowledge of the new legal code throughout the territory, a vast area that included most of modern Alabama as well as Mississippi.
Sargent had early realized the advantages of having a permanent printer in the Natchez area to help disseminate the business of the territorial government and, in the fall of 1798, the governor wrote to Andrew Marschalk, an officer at the fort at Walnut Hills, who owned a printing press. In an 1837 issue of the Mississippi Free Trader and Natchez Gazette, Marschalk recalled his role in the early years of Mississippi printing:
The first press in Mississippi was a small mahogany one, brought by me from London in September, 1790. It was out of my possession for six years, when ordered to this (then) territory (I was an officer in the United States army.) In the year ’97 or ’98, I regained possession of it and a small font of type — say 30 lbs., — and while at Walnut Hills, printed a ballad, (the Galley Slave.) Great excitement was caused in Natchez by the knowledge of a press being in the country, and strong inducements were held out for me to remove to that place. Finally I constructed a large press capable of printing a foolscap sheet, and printed the territorial laws. The press was sold by me to Ben M. Stokes, and he commenced in Natchez, and continued some time, the Mississippi Gazette, on a foolscap sheet. This was some time in the summer of 1799; but he soon failed.
About March or April, 1800, a Mr. Green, from Baltimore, brought a press to Natchez. I do not recollect the title of the paper; it ceased while I was at the North, and the press fell into the hands of James Ferrell, who with one Moffatt, published a paper for a short time.
I arrived from Philadelphia the last of July, 1802, and commenced the Mississippi Herald, I think the 26th of July, the same year.
Marschalk’s memory for dates and certain details is not always accurate, but his words reflect an atmosphere of instability and futility that characterized the frontier press of Natchez in the early years. He also neglected to mention his own aspirations for staying in Natchez and starting a newspaper, aspirations possibly thwarted by the political tenor of the time as Governor Sargent was a stubborn and haughty Federalist — appointed by John Adams — and Marschalk was a Jeffersonian Republican who would later be known as a particularly outspoken and fiery editorial writer. A series of letters between Marschalk, still a lieutenant in the army, Sargent and other officers indicate that Marschalk expressed an initial enthusiasm for establishing a printing office, "an object of public as well as private [be]nefit," in Natchez. Nine months later, in the summer of 1799, Marschalk’s letters reveal a growing frustration with the entire project as he asks for permission to finish the printing of the Territorial Laws at Fort McHenry, where he hoped to be promoted to command of the fort after the death of Captain Piercy Smith Pope. Marschalk eventually finished the job and sold the press to Benjamin M. Stokes, who had helped with the printing of the Territorial Laws. Stokes published a newspaper called the Mississippi Gazette, but not as early as the summer of 1799 as remembered by Marschalk. According to a letter from Marschalk to Sargent, dated December 15, 1799, Stokes had just purchased the press and would soon start his newspaper in Natchez, either in late 1799 or early 1800.
Although many Natchez newspapers for the period from 1800 to 1865 are available on microfilm, the records are capricious and incomplete, especially for the earlier part of the period. Mississippi newspapermen from later in the century showed an interest in the history of the state’s periodicals and occasionally printed articles on the subject. These articles certainly provide a consistent general history of instability and short-lived newspapers, but the information that can be verified often reveals some incorrect information. In documenting the very early history of journalism in Mississippi, I have had to make a few educated guesses and I have been forced to rely on some inaccurate sources. Still, the information that can be verified strengthens the idea of a general narrative of a capricious frontier press until about 1812, even if some of the dates are off by a few months.
Most sources say that the Mississippi Gazette lasted only a year or two, and this seems to be a reasonable assumption as available evidence paints Natchez as a newspaper graveyard. A large number of enterprising and ambitious journalists attempted to start newspapers in those early years. Marschalk mentions "a Mr. Green, from Baltimore," who arrived in Natchez with his own press in the spring of 1800. A few issues of Green’s Impartial Observer are available on microfilm and it probably started in the fall of 1800. Green sold the press to James Ferrall and D. Moffatt, who started the Natchez Intelligencer, which passed to John Shaw. Shaw published a paper known as the Natchez Halcyon before he established a partnership with Timothy and Samuel Terrell and renamed the newspaper the Mississippi Messenger. This last incarnation lasted about five years.
Marschalk returned to Natchez in the summer of 1802, and the first issue of the Mississippi Herald appeared in July of that year. He may have acquired his old press from Stokes or he may have brought another from Philadelphia. The Herald lasted until at least 1808, and Marschalk changed the name of the paper several times during this period. In 1803, the banner read the Mississippi Herald and Natchez Repository, which changed to Mississippi Herald and Natchez City Gazette in 1804. The City was soon dropped and the paper was known as the Mississippi Herald and Natchez Gazette until 1808.
A few other short-lived newspapers appeared in this period, including John Wade’s Constitutional Conservator and a paper published by James Bradford mentioned but not named by Marschalk. John Winn published the Weekly Chronicle from 1808 to 1811, and he may have been using the same press used by the Terrells to publish the Messenger.
The relative success of the newspapers that lasted more than two years can largely be attributed to some manner of patronage of the government. Marschalk’s Mississippi Herald lasted for six years when other newspapers came and went with starling regularity. Marschalk printed the laws for the territorial government. As president in early 1801, Thomas Jefferson appointed a new governor of the territory, and the government, formerly controlled by Federalists appointed by Sargent, passed into the hands of the Jeffersonians. A staunch Jeffersonian Republican, Marschalk had secured the contracts for printing the laws and the official business of the territory by 1806, possibly sooner. Every issue of the Mississippi Herald and Natchez Gazette after 1806 identified the publisher as "Andrew Marschalk, Printer of the Laws of the United States." A newspaper publisher who enjoyed the business of the government could absorb some of the losses in the unstable world of frontier journalism.
Why was it so difficult to maintain a newspaper in Natchez in the early 1800s? Newspapers in America at this time usually came out weekly and publishers offered yearly subscriptions. Copies were not sold separately. For example, Green’s Impartial Observer cost four dollars per year and other newspapers cost up to six dollars annually. In a cash-poor economy, however, subscribers might agree to a slightly higher price to be paid later. Many editorials throughout the antebellum period complain of the problems involved in trying to collect these subscription fees.
The frontier newspapers did not fail because of a lack of interest on the part of area readers. Collecting money owed for subscriptions often proved difficult and many readers borrowed newspapers from their neighbors. One New York editor, echoing his fellow journalists all over the country, estimated that only one tenth of his readers actually paid for a copy of the paper. Natchez, especially in the earliest years of the territorial period, did not have enough newspaper readers committed to supplying their own cash to support a local journal. Nevertheless, the frontier newspapers played an important role in the political, cultural and economic development of the territory.
First, the dissemination of important political news and government announcements fulfilled one of the most important roles in the frontier press of early Natchez. Noteworthy speeches and important proclamations of the government — federal and territorial — fill many of the front pages. Green’s Impartial Observer of February 21, 1801, presents a speech by Georgia’s governor that fills most of the front page. These newspapers also contain dispatches and letters from around the nation and around the world, with news of the latest wars and intrigues. In the period before 1812, examples of well-covered events include the Wars with the Barbary kingdoms of North Africa and, much closer to home, the Burr conspiracy with its resulting trials and political machinations.
Economically, the frontier press played its most important role as a conduit for advertising. Early issues of the Observer and the Mississippi Herald display announcements of various goods and services, including room and board, and agricultural supplies. Some ads offered land for sale or for lease. Farmers and planters announce that prize horses have been lost or stolen. Slavery plays an important role in the notices as traders offer their human cargo for purchase, or owners seek fugitives.
Echoing the hostility of the political press of the settled part of the country, the Natchez press offers examples of political hostility at a very early period. In an 1806 number of the Mississippi Herald, Marschalk responds to an editorial in the Mississippi Messenger, adopting a contemptuous tone of superiority and referring to editor Samuel Terrell as "Sammy." Marschalk supported the Jeffersonians, and then the Jacksonian Democrats throughout his three decades in Mississippi. In the early days, however, the Natchez press could not be neatly divided into two rival papers representing two major national parties. In the example cited above, Terrell’s Messenger supported the Jeffersonians just as Marschalk did. Conflicts did not arise over national issues; the factions within the party of the Jeffersonian Republicans usually developed out of local issues and personalities. A major issue that provoked violence and enmity between the competing groups of Natchez arose out of the controversy on the location of the territorial capital. The dispute between supporters of the town of Washington — a few miles from Natchez — and Greenville generated a bitter and spirited rivalry at a time when the newspapers largely agreed on most national issues. In the most famous manifestation of this contest, George Poindexter — who would later be governor of the state — beat Marschalk in his printing office in Washington after a long series of hostile articles in both Marschalk’s Washington Republican and the rival Mississippi Republican of Natchez. The incident will be covered in more detail in Chapter 3.
In 1812 Natchez journalism entered a period of stability dominated by two main newspapers that competed for readers until 1824. The Mississippi Republican, published anonymously for more than a year, began in 1812. It changes hands several times, operated by Peter Isler, J. McCurdy, William C. Evens & Co., S.W.H. Cissna & Co., and Sylvester Russell. Willam H. Benton acquired the paper early in 1824 and changed the name to the Mississippi Republican and Literary Register for the last few months of its existence.
The most important of the editors, Richard C. Langdon, published the Republican from February 1818 to October 1820. Langdon would later edit the American Standard and the Ariel, the latter being one of the more interesting Natchez newspapers because of an unusual mixture of respectful political news — it was a Whig newspaper founded primarily to support John Quincy Adams — and literary content.
In April 1813 Andrew Marschalk moved to Washington and started a new newspaper, the Washington Republican. As Natchez grew and changed over the next twenty years, Marschalk always served the region as a journalist, even though he moved back to Natchez and changed the name of the paper several times. For a few years, the banner proclaimed the lengthy title of the Mississisppi Republican and Natchez Intelligencer. From 1818 to 1825, Marschalk called it the Mississippi State Gazette, and changed it to simply the Natchez Gazette in 1827. In that year, Marschalk, struggling financially, merged with another struggling Jacksonian newspaper, the Mississippi Statesman, operated by James Burke, and the paper was rechristened the Mississippi Statesman and Natchez Gazette until 1829. Over the next few years, it was known as the Natchez Gazette again, then as the Mississippi Gazette, and finally as Time’s Tablet and Mississippi Gazette for a few months before Marschalk retired in the fall of 1832.
The Mississippi Republican and the Washington Republican continued the political feuding within the party of the Jeffersonians that had started with Marschalk and Terrell. Until early in 1815, the news content of these newspapers largely centered on the War of 1812. Even much of the political abuse shared between these newspapers focused on the actions of Natchez natives during that conflict. The Battle of New Orleans proved to be a special focal point for Natchez press and Natchez politics, for a number of reasons. Jackson’s army had passed through Natchez on the way to the battle, and many volunteers from the region served under Old Hickory. The battle generated an intense feeling of pride and patriotism in all Americans in 1815, partly because it was an overwhelming victory over the British in a war that had gone badly for the country much of the time. The people of Natchez, however, experienced a special feeling, an exuberant reverence for the battle, its veterans and especially its commander because so many Mississippians had participated defending the region where they lived.
By 1825, party spirit had again developed in the nation. Many Jackson supporters, angry over the "corrupt bargain" allegations after the election of 1824 that put John Quincy Adams into the White House, began to campaign actively for their hero’s next run for the White House. In response, the Natchez supporters of John Quincy Adams organized several newspapers to counter the strength of Jackson in the area, represented by two Jackson newspapers, Marschalk’s Gazette and the Mississippi Statesman.
The Ariel, already mentioned, ran from 1825 to 1829. In its short life, a number of Natchez figures worked on it at one time or another as editor or publisher, including E.B. Baker, William Foster [check this]. Richard C. Langdon, James K. Cook and Phineas F. Merrick. Another Whig paper, the Southern Galaxy, started in the summer of 1828. At first the banner listed the publisher as William C. Grissam and Co. For much of the two-year life of the paper, Grissam published the Galaxy anonymously, but for most of 1830 he published it under his own name. Cyrus Griffin edited the paper for at least part of the time because several 1829 letters to the editor are addressed to him, but the Galaxy never listed him, or any other ambitious journalist, as editor. Griffin suffered from various ailments and the rest of the staff often ran the paper in his absence, frequently prompting humorous notes, signed by "The Printer’s Devil," apologizing for the quality of the paper. The Southern Galaxy ceased publication in the summer of 1830.
Natchez lawyer William P. Mellen purchased the Ariel in 1829 and transformed it into the Natchez. Editor James K. Cook of the Ariel continued to work for publisher Mellen on the Natchez for several years, and the paper retained its Whig orientation. In 1833, Mellen changed the name again, to the Natchez Courier & Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin Advertiser. This unwieldy name only lasted until the fall of 1833.
In the fall of 1832, publisher Nelson Wooster started the Mississippi Journal and Natchez Advertiser, with the help of James K. Cook as editor. Wooster died, age 23, in March 1833, and his brother Charles published the Journal until his own death in June the same year at the age of 21. James K. Cook and several others tried to continue the paper, but Natchez could not support two Whig papers unless the owner could handle financial losses. Mellen took over the Journal and merged it with his own paper, which was known as the Natchez Courier and Journal for awhile. The Courier would be the longest-lived of the antebellum newspapers of the Natchez region. Except for a few months in late 1863 and early 1864 when the War Between the States caused publication to be erratic, the Courier lasted until 1871.
For most of the period, the Courier enjoyed a spirited rivalry with the Democratic Mississippi Free Trader and Natchez Gazette. For several reasons, it is highly likely that the first publishers of the Free Trader — De Rush, Stanton and Besançon — purchased the press and equipment from Andrew Marschalk or his creditors. The use of the Natchez Gazette as part of the title, the continuation of the paper’s Democratic party affiliation, and Besançon’s admiration of Marschalk: these factors all support the idea that Marschalk’s old press still produced newspapers even if the "Father of Mississippi Printing" had retired. Besançon encouraged Marschalk to write for the Free Trader several times, and Marschalk provided several remembrances of his earlier life in New York during the American Revolution. Besançon’s interest in the early history of printing in Mississippi also got an article from Marschalk that — despite a few inaccuracies — provided invaluable information for later historians.
The long rivalry between the Whig Courier and the Democratic Free Trader would be the liveliest newspaper "war" in the history of antebellum Natchez. The Free Trader, like the Courier, persevered through the final decades of growing North-South strife, through the election of 1860 and the early days of the Civil War, finally ceasing publication in 1861.
Only one other newspaper appeared in Natchez between 1835 and 1865. John Lavins and James Edwards, operating at the landing at Natchez-Under-the Hill, published the Natchez Cutter in 1841. The Cutter concentrated on the affairs of the Mississippi River, its culture and economy, and largely ignored politics. Focusing on river news, the Cutter published the comings and goings of steamboats, events at Natchez-Under-the-Hill, and social news from New Orleans and other river cities. Lavins and Edwards published the Cutter six days a week from March to May in 1841 before the paper folded.
Both the Free Trader and the Courier passed through the hands of a dozen or more proprietors from the 1830s to the 1860s. Lorenzo Besançon edited the Free Trader for four years. In 1837, he was sole owner and proprietor, but before and after that year, Besançon operated the paper in partnership with several Natchez entrepreneurs. Many of the later Free Trader editors lasted for two years or less before moving on. Some of the more durable journalists included merchant T.A.S. Doniphan (August 1840 to October 1848), Richard Elward (May 1849 to September 1852), Edward Pickett Jr. (September 1852 to December 1855) and James W. McDonald (January 1856 to January 1858).
The Courier also went through editors quickly. After five years in the business, founder William P. Mellen sold the Courier to Samuel H.B. Black, who operated the paper for four years (1836 to 1839). After several short-lived publishers gave up the hectic business of Natchez journalism, Milford N. Prewett operated the paper from 1843 to 1847. In later years, Prewett’s wife Harriet operated the paper in her husband’s name because of a persistent illness. The Prewetts moved to Yazoo City in the west central part of the state and purchased another newspaper, the Yazoo City Whig, which Harriet published under her own name for over a decade after Milford died.
William R. Adams, who bought the Courier from the Prewetts, sold it after three years to Giles M. Hillyer. A native of Connecticut, Hillyer had lived in Natchez for a few years when he bought the Courier and he would be a journalistic and Whig fixture in Natchez for almost twenty years. From the summer of 1850 to May 1862, Hillyer edited the Courier, bought land and slaves to become a small planter himself, and pursued a political career, even running unsuccessfully against John Quitman for Congress in 1855. Hillyer left the Courier in 1862 to offer his services to the Confederacy but he returned to Natchez after the war and resumed the editorial direction of the paper from December 1865 to February 1867. The Courier changed hands several times in the last few years of its existence and finally closed its doors forever in 1871.
The rivalry between the Free Trader and the Courier reflected the fierceness of the period’s political climate and some of the harsh words led to physical harassment, dueling, and fighting. In a mere four years as editor of the Free Trader, Besançon experienced every imaginable type of conflict with angry Whigs. In 1835 Mellen sued Besançon and his business partners for commenting on a labor dispute, calling the Courier management "Rats!" for their treatment of journeymen printers. Later that same year, a group of angry Whigs confronted Besançon, bodily removed him the Free Trader office, and forced him to publicly apologize for an editorial. (Besançon later retracted his apology.) In 1837 Besançon was involved in four affairs of honor, one of which ended in death for his opponent. In the fall of that year, Besançon and John Quitman got into a fight on election day, a conflict which is described in William Johnson’s diary as well as in the Free Trader.
In 1843, Milford N. Prewett of the Courier challenged the Free Trader’s T.A.S. Doniphan to a duel. Prewett was arrested, found not guilty, and the duel never happened. The latter period of the rivalry lacks any incident as dramatic as these experiences, but the verbal fencing continued until the start of the Civil War. By the late 1850s, the Free Trader editorialized on the rights of the South and the case for secession, and attacked the Courier for its more cautious Unionist approach. Editor Giles Hillyer — who supported the American party, also known as the Know Nothings, after the collapse of the Whigs — endorsed the Unionist candidate John Bell in 1860 [check the JMH article on MS press and 1860] and published scathing articles on the radical and questionable nature of secession. When Mississippi seceded early in 1861, Hillyer, like so many other Southern Unionists, enlisted in the Confederate army and rose to the rank of colonel and head quartermaster for Braxton Bragg in Tennessee.
One other area newspaper should be mentioned and discussed briefly even though it was not published in Adams County or, truth be told, it was not even published in the state of Mississippi. The Concordia Intelligencer served the citizens of the town of Vidalia in Louisiana, on the other side of the Mississippi River directly across from Natchez. C.S. Smith started the Intelligencer in 1841 and it changed hands frequently, with at least ten different owners before it closed in 1858. A failed Natchez doctor and businessman, Robert Patterson bought the paper in 1843, seeking a new profession after the Panic of 1837 ruined him and he had failed at several business ventures. He succumbed to a long illness in 1846 and his wife Mary published the paper for a few months before she sold it to James Edwards, an editor on the Intelligencer for several years when it was owned by Patterson. Edwards, no stranger to Natchez journalism, had previously been involved in running both the Courier and the Cutter. Edwards owned the Intelligencer for about three years.
Up to 1852, several short-time publishers ran the paper, including G.B.N. Wailes, the brother of Benjamin Wailes, a prominent Natchez man of letters. Two other publishers ran the Intelligencer for longer periods of time, W.F. Eisley (of Port Gibson) from 1852 to 1856, and John McDowell, who ran it from 1854 to 1858.
The Concordia Intelligencer, named for the Louisiana parish where Vidalia was located, played a slightly different role for the region than the Natchez papers. It contained the most important national and international news, market reports, advertising and the usual curiosities. In comparison to the Natchez newspapers — the Courier and the Free Trader — the Intelligencer lacked intensely partisan election coverage and violent political attacks. Vidalia, a much smaller town than Natchez, desired its own forum for vital news items and for the relevant business-related notices and reports. The Intelligencer’s readers must have also enjoyed the cultural items that analyzed Northern and European culture and comfortingly found Southern culture to be superior. But the Intelligencer did little more than print the names of the candidates and the results of the elections. The residents of Vidalia had little interest in Mississippi state politics. (Those that did could easily subscribe to the Natchez papers.) And it is probably reasonable to assume that Vidalia avoided the excesses of the exuberant politics of its own state because of Vidalia’s small size and the distance from New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The Intelligencer ceased publication in 1858.
The Civil War understandably created an unstable and precarious situation for journalists in Natchez. The Free Trader ceased publication in May of 1861 (and it is highly likely that the Natchez Democrat — which began late in 1865 and continues to be the main Natchez newspaper as of the summer of 2004 — used the press and equipment that had been used for the Free Trader). After Hillyer left, the Courier continued under other management, often anonymously, and publication became sporadic during the disastrous summer of 1863 after the fall of Vicksburg and subsequent Union domination of the Mississippi River. When the Courier resumed regular publication in the fall of 1863, no regular editor was named and the military orders of the occupying Union forces figured prominently. The Natchez press played a role it had never dreamed — as a mouthpiece for a victorious army of invasion. The military used the paper to ensure that general orders for a relatively peaceful and orderly occupation could be distributed and known to the residents of the area. It also offered carefully selected news of the war and a few other items of general interest, but very little advertising.
What encouraged Natchez newspapermen to participate in this unstable and often dangerous profession?
First, it should be pointed out that many journalists found it a marginally profitable venture, particularly if a government printing contract supplemented the profits derived from running a newspaper — collecting subscriptions, advertising — and from printing jobs for customers, such as handbills, pamphlets, business and announcements. In the later part of the antebellum period, the publishers did not find the newspaper business to be particularly risky, certainly no more risky than any other business venture in a cash-poor agricultural economy susceptible to financial reversals and booms, based on droughts, financial panics, bad harvests, epidemics and many other unpredictable factors.
Natchez evolved from a muddy frontier village to a major, though small, economic and cultural center between 1800 and 1860, so examining the purposes of the newspapers and the manner by which a newspaper operated must be supplemented with the many changes that transformed the city ... and the nation.
Natchez, a small and isolated frontier town in 1800, grew into a thriving economic center by 1860. Though surpassed by Vicksburg and especially New Orleans, Natchez remained an important town on the Lower Mississippi throughout the antebellum period. With the addition of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, the annexation of Texas in 1845, and the cession of most of northern Mexico in 1848, Natchez lost its frontier status and became a growing and settled city in the center of a communication and transportation revolution. The steamboat and the railroad encouraged population and economic growth. In addition to the changes prompted by these general improvements, advances in printing technology also affected the newspapers, increasing circulation and transforming the way they looked, although circulation in Natchez, like most other Southern cities, remained too small to take advantage of the most advanced steam presses that enabled New York and Philadelphia to print more than 20,000 copies every day by the 1830s.
One of the most important changes in this period involved the growing emphasis on slavery. Abolitionists also took advantage of the new printing technology to flood the South with antislavery pamphlets and other printed material as early as the 1830s. Before this time, the Natchez press had not ignored slavery. Slave traders advertised their merchandise and owners placed notices for runaways. A few general interest articles on slave antics crept in, such as an unusual story about two female slaves who decided their differences with a mock duel, encouraged by their amused owner.
The onslaught of the abolitionists put Southern society on the defensive. The Jacksonian press became the slavery press. On a regular basis, the Natchez newspapers reported news stories that supported and strengthened planter beliefs in white supremacy and the moral inadequacies of the Negro. Editors printed lectures and opinions that supported the view that slavery, no longer a necessary evil as it had been viewed from the 1790s to the first few decades of the 19th century, was a actually a positive good, an institution that benefited owners and slaves alike. The authors of these articles praised enlightened Southern society, denigrated the industrial North, and rationalized their views from every angle, with the support of every perspective imaginable: the Bible, economics, morality, ancient and modern history, pseudoscience and others. Southern journalists demonized the abolitionists and other Northern opponents, misrepresenting their views and blaming the North for slave resistance and economic downturns.
With these changes in mind, we can examine the purposes and methods of the Natchez newspapers from 1800 to 1865.
New publishers and editors often included a mission statement or a note to subscribers, explaining the circumstances that had generated a new periodical or precipitated a change in ownership. Marschalk’s statement for the first issue of the Washington Republican, April 13, 1813, is worth publishing in full:
IT has been customary, (time immemorial) at the commencement of a Newspaper, for the Editor to make an exposition to the public, whose patronage he solicits, of his motives for the undertaking — his political opinions — and, also, to make many promises of the very great superiority his work is to possess over all his compatriots
In complying with this custom, the Editor of the WASHINGTON REPUBLICAN will occupy as little space in the columns of his paper, as the nature of the case will admit.
First, as to his motives — they are the same, he believes, which actuates the generality of mankind, (if they will be as candid in the confession as he is), viz. SELF INTEREST: — this leads him, in the present instance, to hope, that the industrious pursuits of his profession, will not only be rewarded by the approbation and patronage of a generous public — but will do more — enable him to rear, with becoming propriety, a little family, whose only (terrestrial) hope is in him.
As to his political opinions, he claims the right of a free born American — to have them — and to express them (with decency) — but he claims for himself, no greater privilege in the columns of his paper, than he is ready and willing to grant to every individual of the community. — He conceives it very immaterial to enter into a particular detail of his sentiments on the present state of public affairs: — As to the war, in which we are now unfortunately engaged, (for all wars ought to be so considered) — he does most fervently believe, that if ever a nation had JUST CAUSE to wage one, the United States, in the present case, is that nation. To record with care and diligence, the events of the war, as they arise, and as opportunity and resources will permit, will be his principle study; and in every other particular, as it will be his interest, so will it become a duty, to use his every exertion to render the Washington Republican a useful, instructive and interesting journal.
With one positive promise he concludes — viz. that as his press has not been purchased by any party or set of men — no control, except his own shall be exercised over it.
Marschalk’s mission statement begins sarcastically as he assures readers that he will, of course, provide a newspaper superior to all others. With his next point, that he was working in his own interests, Marschalk exhibited a very important motive that Natchez newspapers seldom acknowledged. No one got rich running a frontier newspaper, but a publisher could seek printing contracts and take on other publishing jobs. Apart from the financial rewards, however, a Natchez publisher might be able to gain influence and clout in the political world of Adams County and Mississippi.
The reference to the War of 1812 in the Washington Republican’s mission statement emphasizes that every time period generated its own unique purposes for the newspapers. The War of 1812 seems to have rejuvenated journalism in Natchez. From 1808 to 1812, I can find only a single newspaper in Natchez. The Weekly Chronicle served Natchez from 1808 to 1811, and its news sections relied heavily on international reports that emphasized the exploits of Napoleon. Two newspapers appeared in Natchez after the start of the War of 1812, and both newspapers reported heavily on the struggle with Britain.
Marschalk forcefully asserted his independence with his final remark. Throughout his career, Marschalk prided himself on his independence, but it was not always so important to Natchez journalists. Although Marschalk and Besançon bristled when they had to work under the direction of others, many editors quietly did the work for sometimes anonymous publishers. At times, the identity of an author or publisher became a heated issue in the early newspaper rivalries, particularly in the period before 1820 when Marschalk accused the editor of the Mississippi Republican of being the paid creature of Poindexter.
How did an editor get the news that appeared in the newspaper? How did the publishers get the product to the customers? How did these processes change between 1800 and 1865?
For most of this period, newspapers were four pages long and appeared weekly. From the 1830s, some newspapers experimented with publishing more often, and the banners reflect these experiments as the Natchez Courier became the Semi-Weekly Courier or the Daily Courier for a time. The Free Trader also exhibits this trait. Newspapers that published several times a week or daily usually had a weekly edition that published the most important news from the whole week for subscribers who did not feel it necessary to read the paper as often. Newspaper frequency changed, going from weekly to semi-weekly to daily, and back to weekly again, based on the economy.
A comprehensive account of how these newspapers operated would be difficult, probably impossible, to compile, but the editors offered some glimpses into this process through items in the newspapers. Other sources, particularly court documents, also offer a few insights into newsgathering, distribution and the mechanical processes of printing.
The size of the newspapers varied widely through the period. The Free Trader and the Courier of the 1850s were usually large, much larger than the standard newspaper size of today, close to 24” x 28”. On the other hand, the publisher of the relatively modest Ariel provided a newspaper with smaller dimensions than an 8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper. The size of newspapers reflected a number of considerations, including availability, prevailing style and the amount of news. In the first issue of the Washington Republican, Marschalk apologized for the small size of the paper: "The contemplated size of our paper is a royal or (at least) a medium sheet: - when our readers are informed, that no paper of either of those dimensions, can now be had, we trust, further apology for its present form is unnecessary. We confidently expect a supply of large paper, in a short time."
Printing press technology improved during this time as well, and editors followed the latest developments. A front-page 1815 article described the speed and output of a new steam-powered press purchased by the London Times. The new press "performs every part of what Printers understand by the term 'press work' without human labor: except that the sheets of paper are required to be placed on a cylinder & taken off when they have the impression." Noting the cost of the steam press, the article stated that the amount "will be speedily refunded by the savings that will arise from the invention as it allows the discharge of several Pressmen." This steam press scarcely resembles the machinery it replaces, printing 1,100 sheets an hour "with an astonishing clearness and beauty of printing," at a rate five times faster than the old hand-worked press.
Natchez, with circulations way under 1,000, did not need such a press in 1815. Publishers certainly followed the latest developments, however, and the changing look of the newspapers as well as rising circulation through the period indicates that Natchez journalists updated their printing presses when they could.
Editors filled their pages from a number of sources. They used local talent for editorials and some general interest pieces. Some local reporting brought in a few pieces of information. Marschalk mentions in one issue that he will not be in the office on a certain day because he will be covering the court session. The newspapers, as noted earlier, published laws and speeches.
One important method of newsgathering for the entire period involved reprinting articles from other newspapers. Every newspaper in the nation subscribed to a number of other newspapers and simply lifted the most interesting articles. Editors exchanged subscriptions with each other, and the agreement allowed editors to use stories from the publications they received. A randomly chosen issue of the Courier features articles from the National Gazette, the Port Gibson Southerner, the U.S. Gazette, the Louisville Journal, the Columbia Argos (Mississippi), the New York Herald, the Boston Times, the Mobile Advertiser, the New Orleans Bulletin, the New Orleans Bee, the Pittsburgh Advocate, the Cincinnati Post, the Ebensburg, Cambria County Spy (Pennsylvania) and others.
Editors relied on every new batch of newspapers to fill the paper. One earnest notice, from the first issue of the Weekly Chronicle, reflects the apologetic tone of the editor because the latest mails had not arrived in time for inclusion:
We have delayed our publication this day, for the arrival of the mail, under the expectation that it would furnish us something new; but to out great disappointment and mortification, no papers of a recent date were received — We are therefore constrained to give our paper to the world, with less interesting matter than we contemplated. To pledge ourselves to make amends in future, is what might be expected, and what we could promise — But until we command punctuality in the whole line of post offices and mail carriers, and assure our friends that irregularities will no more occur, our promises, like so many others that are made, would never be fulfilled.
In April of the following year, the Weekly Chronicle changed its day of publication from Wednesday to Saturday to accommodate "an alteration in the arrival and departure of the Eastern and Southern Mails."
Later, dispatches arrived by steamboat, and the most interesting items might be placed in the newspaper under a heading like "The Latest from the 'Niagara,'" and, after 1850, Natchez newspapers often contained timely news items headed by "The Latest by Telegraph."
A news-hungry citizen could get his hands on a newspaper in several different ways. Most readers subscribed (and prices varied widely through the antebellum period, from four dollars a year to ten dollars a year, for a four-page weekly newspaper) and the papers were distributed every week by employees of the publisher. Many newspapers available on microfilm have hand-written names above the banner on the first page; these are the names of the subscribers, written from a list that enabled the publisher (or, often, a separate business manager) to keep track of several hundred (or several thousand) subscribers. Citizens who did not subscribe for home delivery had other options. They could subscribe to a reading room — Marschalk operated a reading room in Washinghton and several reading rooms are advertised in the Natchez newspapers — where the customer paid a fee to have access to all the newspapers and books provided by the establishment. Alternately a customer could have access to all the reading material just by paying for coffee or tea during every visit.
Some patrons avoided paying for the newspaper by borrowing or stealing from a neighbor, and many subscribers simply refused to pay the bill at the end of the year. Publishers found several ways to deal with the huge but often necessary loss of revenue from stealing, borrowing, and delinquent subscribers, and these will be described in Chapter Two.
In the early days of the republic, newspapers provided political information to a growing electorate dispersed across the nation from the Atlantic coast across the Appalachians to the Mississippi River. The press of early 19th-cenutry America contained national and foreign events, advertisements for local business concerns and, most importantly, the newspapers functioned as a political forum. As the franchise embraced a greater number of adult white males, the political press became a major conduit for news from the capital, important speeches and opinions on the controversial issues of the day.
The situation of the press in Natchez, a cultural center of Mississippi and the Old Southwest, clearly illustrates the precarious situation of the frontier press between 1800 and about 1835. After 1835 the press stabilized in Natchez as the city lost its frontier character and became a settled community of reputable, if eccentric, planters. New loyalties and pressures changed the views of the people, the role of the press and the character of the region. The transportation and communication revolution certainly played a major role in transforming the area as Natchez took advantage of new technology such as the cotton gin, the steamboat, the railroad, the telegraph and many others. Political factions in Natchez fought over candidates and policies that affected national life. The Democrats dominated the Natchez press, but the Whigs and the Know-Nothings also had their time in the sun.
Most significantly, Cotton became King between 1800 and 1865, but it was really Slavery that took over as the new Master of the Natchez District, just as it dominated the rest of the South. Every aspect of life, including the press, had to be reshaped to promote and flatter Slavery in order to retain its relevancy. From the North, a growing abolitionist movement, taking advantage of some of this advancing technology, made itself heard below the Mason-Dixon line. The South was surprised and hurt by the abolitionist onslaught. And Southerners knew that Slavery was the right thing and that if a fight to the death developed over the issue, they would win merely because they were Southerners.
As Americans noted the middle of the 19th century, the battle over slavery intensified and, within a decade, it would antagonize and unite the South as no other issue ever could. The press and the journalists of Natchez, and of the South as a whole, assumed an important role in shaping the arguments that would eventually sway most Southerners in the spring of 1861. War seemed preferable to peace, by then. After so many decades of propaganda that offered up a version of slavery that benefited black and white alike, and a comforting white superiority complex that exalted the Southern way of life above all others morally, militarily, economically, socially, it is perhaps not surprising that the people of the South could rush into war so blissfully mindless of their own true best interests.
Who were these editors, publishers and journalists who so faithfully filled the role of slave propagandists? What processes changed the nature of Natchez and the nature of the Natchez press in this period? What incidents and personalities can illuminate the forces that led so tragically, and perhaps so inevitably, to a bloody War Between the States? How did the press portray and manipulate politics, economics and culture to support and glorify the "covenant with death," to ignore the reality of its brutishness, and to dress it up as an institution blessed by God?
With the background provided in this chapter, we can begin to examine the journalists, their newspapers and these themes, and perhaps we can take a stab at answering these complex questions.