(Editor’s note: This is a story written by Karen Adams which appeared in the Simpson County News. The lady in the interview is my cousin. A granddaughter of Alethia McLaurin Little)
Time spanning portraits of seven generation hung side-by-side in the home of Mrs. J.D. Dumas in Braxton. The oldest – made before photography came to Mississippi – is of her great grandfather Turner Wilson and the first of his four wives. Portraits of the next six generations each document an era, down to the living color snapshots of Mrs. Dumas’ great grandchildren.
Like these portraits, tales of Mrs. Dumas’ ancestors wait to be passed on to still more generations – if they are remembered.
These tales comprise the early history of Simpson County’s forefathers. Her great grandfather turner Wilson is called “One of the most unusual characters that ever lived in Simpson County” by the late Bee King of Mendenhall, author of the folk history column “This and That” for the Simpson County News during the 1930s and 1940s.
The eccentric Wilson was, by all accounts, a wealthy land owner who somehow made a great success of his cotton plantation, even though he spent most of his time between race horses and drinking.
Wilson was one of the first to settle in the western portion of Simpson County, establishing his plantation across the Pearl River from the town of Rockport in the early 1830s. He is said to have owned thousands of acres of land, over 100 slaves, and so much gold that he had to bury it periodically around his property.
Bee King relates several tales about Wilson in her columns, which are still reprinted in the News. Mrs. Dumas, while admitting that she doesn’t know much more about him, still has a few to add.
“Great grandpa Wilson,” she says, “married Eleanor Steen in 1837, and she bore him three daughters. Some say there was also a son who died young, but since Grandpa never did go in for grave markers, we don’t know for sure. But his oldest daughter, Cora, was my grandmother.
“When Eleanor died he didn’t look far for another wife – he just married her sister Cynthia. Before long, Cynthia too died, so Grandpa went to a neighbor woman’s house and proposed to her. That was Grandma Jane.”
“Finally Jane died too, and Grandpa Wilson got on a horse and rode up to the gate of another neighbor woman’s house. He didn’t get off his horse – just told the servant to tell Lizzie to on out.”
“He said, ‘Lizzie, I want you to marry me.’ She said, ‘Well, I haven’t thought much about it.’ He said, ‘Well, you don’t have to give me an answer today, you can send it tomorrow.’”
“That’s how he did his courting.”
Wilson’s plantation was almost a town sufficient to itself, complete with store, school, a labor force of slaves, a race-track for entertainment, and a 17 barrel supply of whisky that he took in payment instead of cash from a New Orleans cotton buyer.
The teacher at the school was Hugh McLaurin, who married Wilson’s daughter Cora, and whose photograph hangs among Mrs. Dumas’ seven generations of portraits.
“Grandpa McLaurin had wanted to be a doctor,” Mrs. Dumas says, “but he was crippled in the War Between the States like most young men. He married Cora, and Grandpa Wilson gave as her dowry a plantation, $1,000 in gold, cows, chickens, horses, everything.
Of course Wilson’s plantation also included a church. He is said to have spent each Sunday morning lying in the front pew dead asleep – probably from Saturday night’s whisky.
“The preacher didn’t seem to mind, “ Mrs. Dumas says. “After all, Grandpa Wilson was probably paid his salary.”
Wilson and his third wife Jane moved to the old county seat of Westville towards the end of the century. People are said to have dug around his old plantation of years trying to find gold he’d stashed away.
“They never did, to our knowledge, “ Mrs. Dumas says, “although someone did find gold that he buried at Westville, or so the story goes.”
Mrs. Dumas remembers Wilson’s daughter Cora as a woman typical of the antebellum era.
“She was never know to get a meal together in all her life.” Mrs. Dumas says. “She never learned to work, waited on as she was by slaves while she was growing up. But I do have a quilt that she pieced – ladies did that kind of work. The backing is made from cotton grown on Turner Wilson’s plantation.”
Mrs. Dumas, who worked as a school teacher for 40 years, has little else that belonged to the Wilson clan besides the quilt, the old tales and a marble top wash stand made of mahogany.
Yet she’s take on a desire to collect old things and her house now boasts even a “country kitchen” that may not resemble the one on her great grandfather’s plantation, but displays old pieces of furniture that once served the kitchens of earlier times.
Mrs. Dumas says she looks forward to passing her antiques on to the younger generations of her family. Therese sturdy chests, delicate vases, and of course, the portraits, may in the end be more valued than the tales of the people they belonged to.
But it would be a shame to lose these stories from an age the South is so proud of, for they remind us of its realities and of how far we have come.