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B.L.C. Wailes

B. L. C. Wailes portrait, date unknown. Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, PI_1988_0007_2.

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Old Natchez Trace

A section of the old Natchez Trace. In the early 1850s, Wailes traveled the state by horse and carriage collecting geological and agricultural information for the recently founded University of Mississippi. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, MS-15-69.

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Sketch of Wailes

Sketch of B. L. C. Wailes by John James Audubon, date unknown. Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, PI_STA_W_35_8.

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B.L.C. Wailes Fonsylvania

The house (altered) at Fonsylvania in southern Warren County. A 1972 photograph. Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History, PI_STA_W_35_3.

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Wailes gravesite

The Wailes obelisk located at the family gravesite in Adams County near Washington, Mississippi. Photograph by Jim Barnett; used with permission.

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Feature Story

B. L. C. Wailes, the Natchez District, and the Mississippi Historical Society

Benjamin Leonard Covington Wailes – usually known as B. L. C. Wailes – personifies the Old Natchez District, one of the most historic regions of Mississippi. No other Mississippian who lived during the half century between the creation of the state in 1817 and the beginning of the American Civil War better demonstrates the economic, intellectual, and social life of the Natchez District. 

The eldest son of land surveyor Levin Wailes, B. L. C. Wailes was born in Georgia in 1797, the year before the United States Congress created the Mississippi Territory. In 1807, Levin Wailes moved his family from Georgia to the village of Washington, then the seat of the territorial government some six miles east of Natchez. For a boy of ten, Washington offered considerable excitement. With Fort Dearborn and the Natchez Trace nearby, in addition to the territorial governmental activities, there was much to see and hear as he entered his teen years.

Wailes as frontiersman

Though his education probably began under one of the tutors typically employed by the gentry to shape the minds of their children, Wailes continued his formal training at Jefferson College, which had recently opened in Washington. The college offered a classical course of study, including Latin and Greek. In 1814, Wailes took a position as a clerk with the U.S. surveyor of public lands south of Tennessee. But because of budgetary constraints, the job was short-lived. In the spring of 1816 he received an appointment as a second lieutenant in the territorial militia and performed clerical duties in the land office of Concordia Parish across the Mississippi River. His next employment took him to the Choctaw Indian Agency as assistant paymaster. At that time, the agency was on the Natchez Trace about seven miles north of present-day Jackson. Wailes was assigned many tasks, and his experiences in this role took him to Indian treaty negotiations at Fort Confederation on the Tombigbee River and Doak’s Stand on the Trace. Through these responsibilities he became acquainted with such chiefs as Pushmataha and Mushulatubbee as well as important American negotiators. His life in early manhood, up until 1820, was that of a frontiersman. 

In March 1820, the twenty-two-year-old Wailes married his distant cousin Rebecca Susanna Magruder Covington. The bride was not quite seventeen. Though they resided for a few years on her mother’s plantation, Propinquity, near Washington, the couple soon had a home of their own, Cabin Lodge, about a mile beyond Propinquity. The farm would be their home for the next three decades. Ten children were born into the family, though two died at birth and three before the age of four. In addition to the main house and the usual service buildings, the farm included flower, vegetable, and herb gardens as well as cultivated fields, pastures, and a wide range of domestic animals, all tended by eighteen slaves. In addition to several properties in the vicinity of Washington, Wailes owned two distant plantations. The plantation that received most of his attention was Fonsylvania in southern Warren County that his wife inherited along with an adjoining property, Kensington.

Wailes as intellectual

Wailes quickly acquired the respect and admiration of his neighbors. He became a lieutenant colonel in the militia and, by 1824, a trustee of Jefferson College. The Adams Atheneum, a literary society, named him president. During the legislative sessions of 1825 and 1826, he served in the Mississippi House of Representatives. But the relocation of the capital to Jackson in 1821 had symbolized the relocation of political power from the Natchez District to the central region of the state, and Wailes’s experiences during his two years in the legislature drove this reality home. He concluded that Natchez was not a strong base from which to exert political influence. However, in every other respect, the Natchez region offered considerable opportunity for a rewarding life economically, socially, and intellectually. He turned his energies from politics to these new directions.

For a small settlement on the extreme western fringe of America’s frontier, the Natchez area developed an amazingly active community of intellectuals. Several men belonged to the prestigious American Philosophical Society founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Some were correspondents with Thomas Jefferson. In 1803 they founded The Mississippi Society for the Acquirement and Dissemination of Knowledge. Some of them had promoted the chartering of Jefferson College, and after it opened in 1811, a succession of well-educated men headed that academy and taught there. Indicative of this intellectual environment was the formation of the Jefferson College and Washington Lyceum that remained quite active during the 1830s when similar movements thrived across the nation. Wailes was an active participant.

Even though he was not one of the larger planters, Wailes was among those pressing for improved agricultural practices. The Jefferson College Lyceum in 1839 reorganized as the Agricultural, Horticultural, and Botanical Society of Jefferson College. Its initial membership consisted of the trustees and faculty of the college, but was also open to others chosen by that group, and it came to include most of the gentry of Adams County. Wailes served as president through 1843. The society sponsored well-attended fairs with exhibitions of livestock, agricultural implements, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Committees visited plantations to gather and publish information on crop production. Though the society eventually became defunct, it resulted in the formation of county agricultural societies throughout the state, including the Mississippi State Agricultural Society. Wailes was a promoter of this movement.

Wailes as geologist

Though he took a great interest in advancements in farming, Wailes is best known for his fascination with geology and paleontology. He displayed a particular interest in fossils and American Indian relics. His private museum in Washington drew many visitors. Reptiles, especially turtles, particularly interested him. He traveled widely over several states collecting fossils and studying geological formations. Few men of his time explored as many Indian mounds as did Wailes.

In 1838 the Jefferson College and Washington Lyceum petitioned the Mississippi Legislature to fund a geological survey of the state, but the required legislation was not passed until spring of 1850, and even then the bill included agriculture as well as geology in the survey. The funds went to the recently founded University of Mississippi at Oxford. Wailes applied for the job of conducting the research and writing the report, but that responsibility was given to a professor of chemistry, geology, and agriculture, Dr. John Millington. When it became obvious that Millington could not teach and do the survey, the university employed Wailes to do the field work for $1,000, plus $250 per year for the use of two horses, a carriage, and a servant.

In a truly remarkable fashion, Wailes traveled the length and breadth of the state collecting specimens and taking notes. When Millington resigned his post in May 1853, the university asked Wailes to write the report that had earlier been assigned to the professor. Even without secretarial assistance, Wailes submitted the report of nearly 400 pages, including maps and drawings, on January 9, 1854. When the responsibility of contracting a printer fell to him, he traveled to New York City in early August, and by mid-August he had a signed contract. Before year’s end, the printer delivered the volume. It was a monumental accomplishment.

Wailes was keenly aware that early residents of the Natchez District neglected the preservation of their history. Consequently, he devoted the first 116 pages of his Report on the Agriculture and Geology of Mississippi to a “Historical Outline” that concluded with the establishment of the Mississippi Territory in 1798. The remainder of his volume contained observations on agricultural developments that, of course, revealed considerable historical information. His preparation for this book included interviews of early settlers and data from Spanish records as well as material from early Louisiana histories.

Wailes as historian 

As he approached the end of his career, Wailes became increasingly fascinated not only with his region’s history but also aware of the importance of preserving historical materials in general. This conviction led him to draft the “Constitution and Act of Incorporation of the Historical Society of Mississippi.”

In August 1858 the state librarian, Benjamin W. Sanders, requested Wailes’s assistance in writing the history of Mississippi from 1798 to 1850. Sensing an opportunity, Wailes took along his draft of the constitution for the historical society when he traveled to Jackson that fall. His timing was auspicious. Not only was the legislature in session, but leaders of the Mississippi Agricultural Society were in town preparing for their annual fair. Wailes soon realized, however, that the legislators were distracted by the construction of levees along the Mississippi River and that the state fair diverted the attention of the Agricultural Society members. Despite these obstacles, the inaugural meeting of the Mississippi Historical Society took place on November 9, 1858. The poor turnout disappointed Wailes. The sparse crowd played into the hands of a group of Baptist ministers who sought to “capture” the newly formed society by having one of their fellow ministers, the Reverend William Carey Crane, named president. Thanks to the late arrival of a handful of Wailes’s friends, this maneuver failed, and the society elected Wailes its first president.

The historical society’s constitution called for an annual meeting the second Monday of each November and for the president to deliver an annual address. Wailes requested that the Reverend Crane also prepare an address for the 1859 meeting. The act of incorporation designated that a small “apartment” adjacent to the state library house the manuscript collection proposed by the new society. Since the group elected state librarian Sanders as its librarian and corresponding secretary, this was a practical arrangement. Indeed, this newly founded library soon included the letter books containing the correspondence of the territorial governors. In his diary Wailes noted that these files constituted a “perfect treasure of early history.”

Wailes now turned his attention to the search for manuscript materials of all kinds in the Natchez District. Indeed, Wailes devoted much time in the next twelve months to collecting historical documents, and few descendants of early families escaped a personal solicitation for contributions of correspondence, diaries, journals, plantation records, and copies of early newspapers. He also personally underwrote the printing and distribution of an “address to the public,” soliciting support of the newly founded historical society. 

The demise of the first Mississippi Historical Society is reminiscent of a Greek tragedy. Wailes arrived in Jackson on November 12, 1859, to find that the Reverend Crane had convened the meeting the previous day and had delivered a lengthy address. Not even sufficient members remained assembled for Wailes to read his meticulously crafted address. Only a handful had paid their dues. Having witnessed the demise of the first Mississippi Historical Society that November day, Wailes made no effort to resuscitate the organization, but his commitment to Mississippi history did not waver. He provided assistance for J. F. H. Claiborne in writing his oft-cited Mississippi as a Province, Territory and State (1880) plus other important works. And he himself left important manuscripts as well as his voluminous diaries.

In his remaining years, Wailes was increasingly distressed by the national discord. As the American Civil War (1861-1865) clouds gathered, he remained a strong Unionist. Though he opposed secession, he did not try to prevent his sons from taking up arms. By the fall of 1861, Wailes recorded in his diary that he was beginning to feel the infirmities of age. The stresses of the war that he had hoped would not be fought adversely affected his health. During the fall of 1862 his health continued to decline, and B. L. C. Wailes’s life ended on November 16, 1862, almost exactly three years after the demise of the Mississippi Historical Society.

Postscript: Reorganization efforts of the Mississippi Historical Society, beginning in 1890, bore fruit eight years later at the University of Mississippi when the Society issued the first of fourteen volumes of the Mississippi Historical Society Publications.

John D. W. Guice, is professor of history emeritus, University of Southern Mississippi.

Posted December 2010

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Sydnor, Charles Sackett. A Gentleman of the Old Natchez Region, Benjamin L. C. Wailes. Greenwood Press Reprint of 1938 edition, October 1970.

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