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Historical Note on "Epico Bayou"
In the fall of 1779 Spain, ally of Britain’s rebellious American colonies, moved forces north from New Orleans into British West Florida, capturing first Baton Rouge, then Natchez. Mobile fell to Spain in 1780, and the British provincial capital at Pensacola succumbed in the spring of 1781, ending British hegemony in the Gulf Coast region.
The area south of the Natchez District to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi River east to the Perdido River, Spain named Feliciance County, and before the ink dried on the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution (1783), Spain began seducing Protestant Anglo-Saxons into the territory. Spain correctly perceived that the young United States, no longer restrained by London’s carefully manipulated approach to foreign policy, would prove a dangerous enemy. Spanish strategy was to create a buffer of disgruntled expatriates between the United States and Spain’s lucrative holdings in the southwest and Mexico.
Americans, many seeking opportunity, others disillusioned with the revolution and separation from the motherland, were on the move. Spain’s offers of fertile land, clemency for honest debtors, exemption from taxes and military service, and free access to trade in New Orleans brought them to the area in droves. It was during this period that English and Scots-Irish pioneers settled the Buena Vista community (now Handsboro, Mississippi) on Bayou Bernard, the latter named for a free-Negro blacksmith and sheepherder, who lived on the north shore of the bayou.
In 1800, Spain returned to Napoleonic France New Orleans and the land west of the Mississippi, which France had ceded to Spain in 1762 as French prospects in the French and Indian War dimmed. Twenty days later, Napoleon sold the territory to the United States, and the capitol of Spanish West Florida moved from New Orleans to Pensacola. The United States claimed the rest of West Florida, from the Pearl River east to the Perdido River, to be part of that “ancient” territory of Louisiana and was, therefore, included in the sale. Madrid countered that France had not ceded that land to Spain in 1762, but Spain won the territory through military conquest during the American Revolution. Spain continued to maintain strong military forces in Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola.
During the first decade of the nineteenth century, cotton planting, sugar processing, and the timber industry, along with black market trade, piracy, and trafficking in stolen slaves, flourished in Spain’s Feliciance County. At home, the Napoleonic Wars impaired Madrid’s ability to control West Florida. Misfits, malcontents, seditionists, traitors, pirates, and thieves came and went at will in what are now Mississippi’s six southernmost counties. Lawlessness spilled into the Mississippi Territory, thus the United States, where self-proclaimed patriots sought refuge after wreaking havoc inside Spanish territory. Madrid discouraged further settlement of the Mississippi Territory to the north by placing unpopular duties on American trade with Mobile. Within Feliciance County, Spain had set the stage for revolt.
In the fall of 1810, rebels overthrew Spanish authority. For seventy-four days prior to its annexation by the United States, the Republic of West Florida reigned over what are now the southeastern-most parishes of Louisiana and Mississippi’s six southern counties as well as the southern parts of Lamar, Forrest, Perry, and Wayne counties. In April of 1812, Congress created the State of Louisiana, which included the area west of the Pearl River to New Orleans. It designated the area east of the Pearl to the Perdido River part of the Mississippi Territory—an action Spain protested. Spanish claims to the territory ended in 1814 with Spain’s withdrawal from Mobile following the British defeat at the Battle of New Orleans. Mississippi became a state in 1817. At that time, Hancock County extended from the Pearl River to Biloxi Bay and north to the 31st parallel.
In 1837, the Mississippi legislature issued a charter to James McLauren for the express purpose of laying out a port city to be named Mississippi City. The city was incorporated that same year—the first on the Coast. Biloxi and Pass Christian, also in Hancock County, and Pascagoula in Jackson County followed in 1838. McLauren and two other Scots-Irish entrepreneurs, John J. McCaughan and Colin J. McRae, received a charter for a railroad line to extend from Jackson to the Gulf. The railroad right-of-way was drawn and partially cleared, but a nationwide financial crisis shortly after stifled the sale of 46 lots comprising Mississippi City and compelled the legislature to cancel plans for the railroad.
McLauren, McCaughan, and McRae took the setbacks in stride. By 1841, conflicts of interests between the political center of power in western Hancock County’s Pearl River communities and the growing towns east of the Bay of St. Louis compelled the state legislature to grant a peoples’ petition for separation. Harrison County, named in honor of William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States, was established February 5, 1841. The new county appropriated eastern Hancock County from a north-south line running through the middle of the Bay of St. Louis and east to Biloxi Bay. The communities of Wolftown (Delisle), Pass Christian, Buena Vista (Handsboro), Mississippi City, and Biloxi became part of Harrison County.
Those Scots-Irish visionaries, McLauren, McCaughan, and McRae immediately strong-armed the county’s new Board of Police (County Board of Supervisors) into selecting Mississippi City as the county seat and built a courthouse at the end of Railroad Road (now Courthouse Road), along with the county jail. That particular courthouse came replete with political debates and shootouts—no doubt, one leading directly to the other. Here Jefferson Davis, only president of the Confederacy, made his last public speech in 1888: “The past is dead; let it bury its dead, its hopes and aspirations. Before you lies the future, a future full of golden promise, a future of expanding national glory, before which all the world shall stand amazed. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and to take your place in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished—a reunited country.”
It would take more than Jeff Davis’ words to lay aside all that rancor and bitter sectional feeling, at least in the South. It would take a war with Spain. At the time Jeff Davis made that speech, the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy still flew over the Harrison County Courthouse, on the steps of which he stood. It was not until July 4, 1898, shortly after the people of Harrison County learned of the U.S. victory at Santiago, Cuba, with Yank and Reb fighting side by side, that Old Glory once again took its place over the seat of Harrison County Justice.
Meanwhile, the Spanish-era community of Buena Vista on Bayou Bernard had grown from a lumber center to a thriving manufacturing town. In 1840, New York brothers Miles and Shelton Hand arrived and built a foundry that in a short few years was supplying the Coast’s growing timber and fishing industries with the machines needed to saw logs and can oysters and shrimp. They built identical homes on either side of Lorraine Road, linked to Buena Vista and Gulf Street (Cowan Road) by ferry. The house on the east side stands today. In honor of the Hand brothers, Buena Vista changed its name in 1856 to Handsborough, now Handsboro.
For a short stretch, the Pass Christian-Biloxi Road served as Handsboro’s Main Street. One mile south, along north-south Old Cowan, Tegarden, and Railroad Roads was (and is) Mississippi City and the Gulf of Mexico. The blue-collar community of Epico lay north of Mississippi City and west of Railroad Road. Today it is the middle-class neighborhood of Bayou View.
If the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy’s flying over the Harrison County Courthouse for 33 years following the War Between the States hasn’t already clued the reader, suffice it to say, the Mississippi Gulf Coast gave its sons to the Confederacy, and its citizens knew the deprivations of siege and Federal raids. Union forces took Ship Island early in the War and established a prisoner of war camp there. Federal raiding parties against the mainland were common. Despite that, the mill at Red Bluff on the north shore of Bayou Bernard continued to supply gunpowder to the Confederacy until the closing days of the War.
In 1866, a group of ex-slaves received Federal grants for eight forty-acre plots along Turkey Creek west of the Epico community. The sheltered bayou enclave remained relatively isolated well into the twentieth century. Today, descendents of the original owners still occupy a number of those plots, and the community is a registered historic landmark.
Early in the 1880s, William Hardy, founder of Hattiesburg, revived that old dream of a railroad from Jackson, through the lumber towns of the Piney Woods, to a deepwater port on the Mississippi Sound. Rather than battle for old land titles and already developed land, Hardy chose a new location for the port on mostly undeveloped land, three miles west of Mississippi City. Dubbed “Cinderella City” at the time, it was officially named Gulfport. Financial depression and a squabbling legislature forced Hardy out of the plan, but the land was there, as was the charter; the missing money was later provided by Spenser S. Bullis, a New York promoter, and Joseph T. Jones, a financier from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was Jones, an adopted favorite son, who brought to fruition a deepwater port for Mississippi at the newly laid out city of Gulfport, terminus of the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad (G&SI).
The visionaries who created Gulfport met with their own set of obstacles, dealing not only with construction of the railroad but with federal engineers, who insisted that dredging a deep-water port would be most easily accomplished at Biloxi. Maybe so, but dredging a channel to Biloxi defeated the purpose if the G&SI was already laid and the fresh-water timber boom was under construction in Gulfport. Jones dismissed the potential of a Biloxi port, and forsaking federal support, financed the dredging of Gulfport’s channel with his own money.
Gulfport was incorporated on July 28, 1898. It has since grown to be the second largest city in the state, swallowing up Handsboro and Mississippi City in the process.
Epico Bayou opens with Gulfport under construction and the then sovereign cities of Handsboro and Mississippi City basking in flush times with no concept that the dream that was Mississippi City’s sixty years earlier would, in roughly that same period of time, annex them both. The impact of Gulfport, however, they felt much sooner, for in 1902, the voters of Harrison County chose Gulfport as their new county seat.
Brickyard Bayou, Turkey Creek, and myriad brackish, freshwater streams empty into Bayou Bernard on the Mississippi Coast. Epico Bayou is not among them. Epico Bayou is fictional, on the surface a mostly peaceful, shimmering body of water, but beneath, a dark, twisting, silt-choked stream, not unlike the mystery confronting the hero and heroine in this tale bearing its name. Epico Bayou is both a clear-cut murder mystery and a charade. But the mystery of the here and now disguises a darker one that began in the long-ago past and threatens not only the lives of two young lovers, reluctantly thrown together, but ultimately their hopes of a future together. More a mystery than my previous novels, Epico Bayou still has its share of suspense. Romance, of course, is non-negotiable.
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