APPENDIX 9

THOMAS CALVIT, CALVITSTON, AND AARON BURR

http://users.ju.edu/jclarke/josephcalvitapp9.htm

 

Sadly, best viewed with Microsoft Explorer

 

Letter by Cowles Mead, January 16, 1807

The Executive of the Mississippi Territory, in order to ascertain the views of Col. Burr, on the 15th instant deputed Messrs. Shields & Poindexter, to visit the quarters of that gentlemen near the mouth of Bayou Pierre, and to hold a conversation with him on the subject.  On the 16th an amicable agreement was entered into between the parties in the following words to-wit:

 

“The Hon. Cowles Mead, acting Governor of the Mississippi Territory, with a view to restore public tranquility, proposes to Aaron Burr as follows:”

 

That an interview shall take place between them at the House of Thomas Calvit, on Coles creek at two O'clock tomorrow.  The said Cowles Mead pledges himself to protect the said A. Burr during his stay in the Territory, and that he shall be returned to his present position in a suitable manner as soon after the interview as he may please—that in the mean time there shall be no restraint on his person, no violence or molestation to his boats or people, and that the military of the district shall not until after the return of the said A. Burr approach nearer his present quarters than the mouth of Coles creek.

 

A. Burr on his part engages that in the mean time no violence or injury shall be offered by any of his people to the inhabitants of the M. T. that they shall keep the peace and not infringe any law of the U. S. or of either of its Territories.

 

The parties above named mutually pledge their honor for the performance of this agreement.

 

January 16 1807.

COWLES MEAD, by

W. B. SHIELDS, G. POINDEXTER Aids de Camp. A. BURR.

Signed in presence of Thomas Fitzpatrick.[1]

 

Almost a hundred years later, the Times-Democrat of New Orleans wrote of these events and the plantation on which they happened.

 

The fact that the original house in which that memorable interview took place between Governor Mead and Aaron Burr is still in existence is not generally known.  Much has been written of recent days about points and places of historical interest in Mississippi but this has never been even incidentally referred to.  The information was elicited by means of a correspondence with Judge Jefferson Truly, of Fayette, who joins to his legal requirements an accurate knowledge of the history and traditions of his county.  For the identity of the house with the original Calvit residence he vouches with the utmost confidence; and, it may be added, he is sustained by the traditions of the county which have been handed down with more than usual care.  The record of the structure can be traced back to 1807 with absolute certainty, and no shadow of a reasonable doubt remains on the subject.  That the house should still exist is, when all the circumstances are considered, little short of the marvelous.  ‘The unimaginable touch of Time,’ in spite of its frequent failure to make useful distinctions, has in this case wrought with rare discrimination.  Chance is not usually so kind.  It was built of the ordinary cypress plank instead of the more enduring brick and stone, a material which could hardly afford the builder any particular assurance of permanence.  The stately mansions of its own and a succeeding generation have been dismantled and destroyed with the exception of three or four, which remain to afford an idea of the lordly comfort in which the old landed proprietors of the country were once wont to take their pleasure; but this simple pioneer home, discarded by its owner, has survived them all by a happy chance, to be accepted but not explained.  All of the substantial buildings of the old territorial capital in the adjoining county, have vanished utterly away, and this frail structure has escaped, an object of curious interest to one who has a care for the history of his country and a relic of no small importance, as such things go.  For it possesses a more than State interest; much larger areas are involved when that short but effective conference, nearly a century ago, resulted in the surrender of Burr and the undoing of the plans on whose airy base he had builded so confidently.  It has known a variety of tenantry in its character of renter’s house on a large plantation, and most of its occupants have doubtless been in dense darkness as to the history of their abode; but notwithstanding its later baser uses, it is hallowed by one incident of national importance.

 

“Calvitston” [Calviton] is a name applied indifferently to the plantation on which the structure is situated and to the later more imposing residence which superseded the original pioneer home.  The plantation now embraces about a thousand acres and is situated twelve miles west of Fayette, the county seat of Jefferson, and eight miles in direct line from the Mississippi river.  The property has frequently changed hands in the course of events, but the designation, doubtless adopted in the early part of the last century, when it was owned by Thomas Calvit himself, has clung to it.  About 1825 [actually May 21, 1821] he died and the place passed from his widow and heirs to David Hunt, an old citizen whose descendants are still numbered among the most substantial people of the county.  He was noted as the richest man in that section of the State in his day, and the Chamberlain-Hunt Academy at Port Gibson still perpetuates his name in memory of three donations amounting to $120,000.  Abijah Hunt (Jr.), his son, fell heir to it on his father’s death.  His widow was married to Colonel E. G. Wood, who is still remembered as a fine representative of the gentleman of the old school with a passion for boundless hospitality and race horses, this latter passion, by the way, being responsible, as will be seen later, for the removal of the original house from its site to another part of the plantation.  After this couple passed away the plantation—history, memories, tradition and all—became the property of a number of heirs, and through marriage with one of these and purchase from the rest, W. D. Torrey, a member of the Fayette bar, became possessed of the estate.  But while the history of the plantation is clear in all regards, little is known about Thomas Calvit, the original owner.  He was one of the pioneers of Mississippi Territory, a man of extensive property and his name is a familiar one in the early records of Jefferson Co., which it is worth remarking, extended back as far as 1799, when the county was called “Pickering”.  He is said to have come to Mississippi Territory from Maryland towards the close of the 18th century and to have settled at the place which still bears his name.  No reference is made to him in Goodspeed’s Memoirs of Mississippi, but this is not evidence of his obscurity, for that discriminating author compiled his book on a very business-like basis and the deceased citizen whose heirs did not care to contribute to the cost of publication found himself relegated to oblivion.

 

On receiving an intimation of a desire to visit Calvitston for the purpose of photographing the house in which the interview between Mead and Burr took place, Mr. Torrey, the present owner, kindly volunteered to drive a Times-Democrat reporter out to the place. Such a relic, which, in the nature of things, can hardly be expected to endure much longer, was certainly well worth the trouble.  Judge Truly of that circuit district and James Ramsey, a member of the local bar, both of whom are versed in the traditions of the country, were also of the party.  The start was made one morning at 10 o’clock, and the road led by a place of more than historical interest.  The site of Greenville, the old county seat of Jefferson, was passed to the left at a distance of six miles from Fayette.  It will be remembered that this place figures to a certain extent in the story of Burr’s adventures in Mississippi; the ammunition was ordered to be sent, there the Jefferson Co. regiment was ordered to muster, and there Governor Mead went to meet the troops assembled.  At this point also he issued commands for the Jefferson and Claiborne county regiments to rendezvous at the mouth of Cole’s Creek, where it had been decided that it would be best to attempt to stop the expedition coming down the river.  A few chimneys, blackened in ruins, faintly mark the spot where there was a town of some size in territorial times.  With the founding of Fayette, the present county seat, in 1820, Greenville dwindled away.  It was located on Cole’s Creek, but the stream was not wide and deep enough to afford the advantage of navigation.  It is true that the legislature at one time declared by a special act that it was a navigable stream, but strange to say, this had no appreciable effect in improving the channel or increasing the volume of water, and it remained useless as a highway for transportation.

 

A journey of only twelve miles over fairly good roads, cut in many places so deep by the constant travel of years, that the walls rise on either side to the height of twelve feet, was only a matter of two hours.  The plantation, which occupies a high, rolling stretch of land, was soon reached.  An open gate was passed and the house, fronting east and not more than a hundred yards removed from the public road, came immediately into view.  At first sight, to an eye not made clear by a knowledge of what it was, a mind not prejudiced in its favor by sentiment, the old Calvit residence bears a general resemblance to a negro shanty.  It must be remembered that at the beginning of the last century many gentlemen of the pioneer type found themselves too busily engaged in other affairs to waste their energies in the erection of handsome residences, which had to wait the settlement of matters more pressing.  The house which Thomas Calvit occupied in 1807 appears now as a weatherboarded structure of two rooms, such a dwelling after all as a man of fair means might have been glad to have in the early days of the Territory.  The gallery extends the whole length and its roof is formed by the projection of the roof of the house proper.  The floor of the gallery has been removed on the left end and the bare ground serves in its stead.  Three doors open on the gallery and there are two more in the rear.  In the south end is a large window, closed with a wooden shutter, without any pretensions to a sash or glass, and it is probable that was the case when it was occupied by the Calvits; in the north end is a little window closed in the same manner.  It is built exclusively of cypress plank, and joists and timbers seen on the interior are still sound and well braced. All of the lumber used was sawed by hand. It must be admitted, however, that the building was very rudely and incompletely finished; there is no semblance of a ceiling, the rafters above being visible and a single plank used in the weatherboarding constituting the sole thickness of the wall. It has never even been necessary to renew the roof of cypress shingles, it is said.  But the idea will naturally suggest itself that two rooms alone were hardly large enough for the dwelling of a white family, and here tradition blandly comes forward with her ever ready explanation and admits that only the main part of the house was moved from the original site.  There are said to have been two smaller rooms in the rear which have not been preserved, the front being all that was necessary to make a comfortable tenant house.  The chimney rising from the center of the roof is of much later construction than the building itself, as is also the partition which divides it into two larger rooms.  The fact that three doors open on the gallery would seem to argue that it was originally divided into three smaller rooms, or one larger and two smaller ones. There is no way of finding out how it really was and it is not a matter of much importance to clear up the point.  If there was ever a fence around the place it has long since gone for fuel. The house is now tenanted by a family of negroes, renters on the plantation, who take small thought of the sentimentally august character of the humble roof that shelters them—a roof that, unlike many men, finds present utility not in the least inconsistent with past importance.  A swarm of little negroes of all ages—a human gamut—appeared at the door and on the gallery, curiously intent on the movements of the visitors.  There was an assortment of dogs of low degree that manifested at first hostility and then a languid interest in the proceedings.

 

An intimation has been given that the house, although it has been preserved so many years, no longer occupies the same spot as in 1807.  For half a century it stood on the original site, but in 1857 it was moved to its present position, about four hundred yards to the north.  It was so unfortunate as to come into a sort of opposition to the great American sport of horse racing, and then it had to give way and change its quarters.  Colonel E. G. Woods to whom reference has been made, then lived on the plantation in the newer and more commodious house built by Thomas Calvit.  He found the old residence in the way of a private track that he had ordered laid off for the purpose of exercising some horses that he owned. He gave orders for its removal, and they were at once executed.  It has been undisturbed in its second position since that time.  The former site is still pointed out with certainty. A few cedars along the edge of the buff shows where it once stood, on the borders of Cole’s Creek, which flows through the plantation.  The spot is now in cultivation even to the edge of the bluff, at whose base the waters of the creek flow toward the Mississippi.  This is a shallow little stream, now and probably then, impassable for anything of heavier draft than a very light rowboat.  At this point the banks of both sides are high, and the stream is fringed with cane and other small growth. It is a clear and pretty stream, but it is evident that something more than a legislative enactment is needed to make it navigable.  There is left no trace of the path which led down from the house to the stream and cool springs on the side just at the base of the bluff, which furnished the water for household use.  The bank is sheer and the springs abandoned.  Here, then, was the identical spot where the conference, so important in its consequences to Burr, and of such interest to the nation, generally, took place.  The influence of a local association is not to be disregarded.  If the boy feels himself thrilled with deeper meaning

 

“When pointing down, his father whispers, here,

Here where we stand stood he, the truly great,

Whose soul no siren passion could unsphere,”

 

It is not strange that the seeker after history should feel awakened to added interest when standing on an historic spot, although the central figure in its history lacked much of being the calibre of the one suggested in the lines just quoted.  The spot was unrecognizable by any external proof, but there was all assurance that it was the very place itself, and that was all that was necessary to give a mental vividness to things that were before mere items in a dry catalogue of events.  Under such influence it was comparatively easy to imagine the scene.  The low room; Governor Mead, who had arrived the afternoon before to be present at the conference; Burr himself, slight of figure, yet impressing all with his dignity and fascinating with his affability, unable to realize that fortune had finally deserted him; his companions, the territorial commissioners, Shields and Poindexter; without Captain Davidson’s dragoons, to what number is not known, their horses tethered, waiting for the result of the conference; the argumentative, insinuating style of Burr, protesting innocence of any designs treasonable, opposed to the firmness and decision of Mead, convinced that his opponent was merely playing a game for delay, and resolved to bring things to a point at once; the result, when the considerate agreement for Burr’s safe return in case he and Mend did not agree, entered in at Bayou Pierre, was annulled by mutual consent, and he submitted himself to the disposition of the territorial authorities.

 

The statement was made in the beginning of this article that Calvitston was situated eight miles in a direct line east of the Mississippi river and a question must have already occurred to the reader of Claiborne, who says that the conference took place at the residence of Thomas Calvit near the mouth of Cole’s Creek, where the militia was stationed.  The impetuous current of the Mississippi is responsible for this as well as more remarkable changes in the boundaries of contiguous States.  At the time of Burr’s expedition the residence of Thomas Calvit was only about four miles from the mouth of Cole’s Creek, where it discharged into the Mississippi; now it is at least eight miles inland and a greater distance if the winding of the creek be followed.  The river once made an unusually long and narrow bend in this part of Jefferson Co., and at the easternmost point of the curve was the mouth of Cole’s Creek.  It afterward cut across the narrow neck of land and left the minor stream to shift for its own outlet.  The old bed of the river, dry because of the cut-off, served its purpose for a part of the way and it found its own channel for the remainder. A large lake was formed in the abandoned southern channel of the bend and it is now a favorite resort for the fishermen and sportsmen of that and adjourning counties.  But while there has been such a startling change in its relative distance to the Mississippi river the old landing is still readily pointed out, four miles inland, by any inhabitant of the neighborhood.  The very tree to which boats were tied can also be identified by the same authority.

 

The time came when Thomas Calvit desired a more pretentious home than the little dwelling on the bank of the creek.  He therefore selected a site on his plantation half mile to the east of his then residence and built him a house which also survives, a typical and interesting specimen of the residence of a well-to-do Southern planter of taste and refinement, before the war.  It fronted a beautiful grove of oak trees, culled to proper intervals.  The original approach was by means of a carriage way, leading through the grove and curving gracefully in front of the house. The drive was shaded between rows of cedars to a point within seventy-five yards of the house where an open space was left, doubtless formerly occupied by croquet grounds and flower beds.

 

The party approached through a gate in the rear. Without effort one might have imagined himself transported back to the times of which the building itself was a visible relic.  In the yard was a crowd of grinning little negroes, who gazed with naive wonderment, and some men who were resting through the noon heat on the gallery of a servants’ house.  The latter sprang obsequiously forward to take charge of the horses.  The front view reveals a square, box-like, two story edifice with a gallery in the center, also of two stories, half as long as the house, and with a kitchen room projecting to the left in the rear.  Semi-circular stone steps led up to the gallery.  The unlocked door turned on its infrequent hinge and in a moment the party had walked completely into the past.  The house had been tenantless for many years, and dust and confusion was everywhere; but the spell of the past was thick upon it, the suggestion of something pleasing and splendid that was and is not.  The evidence of elegance within was somewhat in contrast to the mere comfort and room suggested by an exterior view.  The wide hall extended, as was the fashion with many houses of old time, from the front door to the rear of the house.  Over three quarters of a century old that floor must have been, smooth, and polished as if by art.  It had evidently been used for the dances which had done their part to make the youth of former generations merry, and was worn smooth by rhythmic hurrying feet “haply of lovers one never shall know”.  Midway and marking the bounds but not separating the front from the rear hall was a bit of ornamentation in the shape of a high arch reaching the ceiling and supported at each side by two small columns.  To the right, in the rear part of the hall, a stair with walnut handrail worn by numberless hands curved out of sight and led to the second story.  The four rooms on the lower floor are spacious and the plastering on the walls, which in most of them is covered with paper put on at a more recent date, is in good condition and shows few cracks.  The ceilings are of oak, handsawed and planed, fitted together with consummate care and skillful workmanship.  The rooms are dismantled of furniture, but few pieces of the original furnishing of the house remain to attest the taste and wealth of former occupants.  In one room is a massive old mahogany bedstead, seemingly capable of accommodating several generations at the same time, and which even now serves as a couch for hunters who go out from Fayette and other places at the owner’s invitation.  Several of the mantles in the lower rooms are massive affairs of marble.  In the rear of the house is a long back gallery extending the whole length of the building, open to the right, but enclosed on the left side, where two folding doors now open into space that once, before the two-story ell, containing six rooms, was removed, opened into a large dining room, which is said to have boasted more decoration than the remainder of the house.  This part of the building was torn down to supply material for tenant houses on the plantation.

 

Up the curved stairway to the second story, a duplicate of the first except that the space occupied by the wide rear gallery is here utilized by two additional rooms, and then one climbs on into the attic, such an attic as makes a child forget the rain outside, with its freedom of space and attraction of the litter of generations.  It had some attraction for maturer years, too, for there were boxes of books and papers extending back as far as 1803, all in a tolerable state of preservation.  Books, papers, accounts, and letters, but of a business character; not a shred to reward a dilligent search for something that bore upon the early life of the State.  “This indenture witnesseth” and “on or before the blank date,” etc., were the words most frequently employed.  “All trebly barred by the statute of limitations,” said the judge sadly, as he picked up a bundle of notes whose lordly promises to pay were clearly unavailing, as shown by their retention in the hands of the payee.  In one corner from a mass of litter a piece of canvas was partly disclosed.  It was pulled out, unrolled and taken to the light, when, lo! the titular divinity of the place itself—Thomas Calvit, in oils, somewhat cracked and faded but still doubtless recognizable, were anyone alive who knew him.  On the back of the canvas was an inscription to the effect that the painting had been done in 1859 from a picture taken in 1814, when Thomas Calvit was sixty-five years old.  He lies buried in the family burial place a slight distance from the Mansion House.  His soul ascended to heaven and his picture to the attic.  Peace to thee, Thomas Calvit! and if such things can pleasure celestial minds, know that thy picture has been rescued from its darksome place, unknown to the sun, boon companion of dust and decay!  In that attic one got a glimpse of such joinings and bracings as one does not often see nowadays.  The house is good for many generations yet, for the works of those early men were as steady as their faith, Every bit of timber in the building, it is said, was sawed by hand by the slaves of Thomas Calvit, and when this is considered one gets an idea of the labor necessary in those days to make a dwelling of this sort.

 

On the return trip a detour of two miles was made in order to visit a house which is notable as being the first brick residence ever erected in Mississippi Territory.  Tradition has it that Andrew Jackson several times visited Colonel Thomas M. Green, who owned it during the first quarter of the last century.  It is about seven miles from Fayette.  The (late of its erection is not known, but its claim of precedency over all brick houses of the Territory is fully ascertained and admitted over the State.

 

(signed) J. R. Taylor”[2]



[1] Mississippi Messenger, Jan. 20, 1807; reprinted in Dunbar Rowland, Third Annual Report of the Director of the Department of Archives and History of the State of Mississippi, From October 1, 1903, To October 1, 1904, With Accompanying Historical Documents Concerning The Aaron Burr Conspiracy (Nashville: Brandon Printing Co., 1905): 98-99.

[2] J. R. Taylor, “Aaron Burr: An Interesting Account of his Stay in the Territory of Mississippi,” Times-Democrat (New Orleans), Feb. 24, 1901.  (In Two Parts—Part II—Conclusion); Stafford, Wells Family, 277-83; Stanfill, Colvett Family Chronicles, 276; Robert Lowry and William H. McCardle, A History of Mississippi: From the Discovery of the Great River by Hernando Desoto Including the Earliest Settlement Made by the French, Under Iberville to the Death of Jefferson Davis (Jackson, MS: R. H. Henry & Co., 1891), 503.