Early deeds of Hancock County, MS
A Near Loss
Until very recently, it was virtually unanimously accepted that Hurricane Katrina could be blamed for yet again another major loss, that being to the oldest deed book of the county.
Some months after the storm when things were getting settled again, we at the historical society were entrusted with the loan of Deed Books B and C. We have made good use of them, and have successfully made summaries of all those entries of Book B and placed them on line for all to see. By simply using one’s computer to “find” a certain name, any and all documents with that name can be brought up for study. If a researcher desires more information, he may come into the Lobrano House and secure a copy of the original.
This was hard work and we are pleased that it is now available. However, there remained a frustration: where was Book A? After several years had passed, it was getting easier to accept that it may have either been destroyed or lost in the clean-up after Katrina.
But a question remained. How could it be that Books B and C were saved, but somehow the very earliest - in a way, the most important one - had disappeared? Once more, the office of the county clerk was implored to help in the search, and once more, as they have so many times before, they came through.
Book A has been found, and the preparation of summaries of all its 700-plus pages is nearing completion. Shortly, I hope to report its posting on line. Meanwhile, a study of those pages already complete provides an overview of early history and at the same time raises some interesting questions. For that purpose, the following analysis is offered.
A Tragic Loss
When Gainesville was county seat of Hancock, the Court house was destroyed by fire on the morning of April 1, 1853, thereby destroying the official written history of the county.
The seriousness of the loss was recognized promptly, and a special act of the legislature was passed on January 21, 1854. This allowed re-registration of important papers held by owners and sellers. Many citizens undertook almost immediately to have their documents copied and formally registered, thus preserving hundreds of documents. These included principally deeds, but also sales of slaves, leases, wills, and more.
It was to this end that Deed Book A was created many years ago. We are fortunate that it has survived the years in great condition, every page written beautifully and legibly written in cursive script. Indeed, until recently it was thought to have been lost forever..
It is apparent that many buyers and sellers cooperated with each other, as related transactions often were recorded together or in close order. Thus, histories of sales of the same parcel can be observed, even though done in different years, sometimes with long separations. It is difficult to believe that this could have been accomplished without communication and cooperation among buyers and sellers.
“Re-recordings,” as they were called by the county clerk when copies were done, had to be an enormous task, and for the most part, they fill the better part of Deed Books A and B. This is not to say, however, that all documents were copied. Many must not have been available, some lost over time. Recognizing that there was limited literacy in many of the early settlers, as well as relatively great distances between them and Shieldsborough, they may not have been aware of the opportunity to have another permanent copy made.
One example that stands out by its near total absence involves sales of federal lands after Indian removal. It was common in the 1830s for those with limited funds to be able to buy substantial land, due to the offering of 160 acres at the price of $1.25 per acre. In this way, if a man had $100 he could buy a quarter section of land. Unfortunately, only one such deed is apparent on these terms, and yet many such must have been made.
Moreover, there are no re-recordings of lands purchased from Indians; we know from other sources that some were made, referred to as assignments, but there are no entries in Book A.
Most deeds of this period are beach properties, the reason being that there was by this time very little development beyond such frontage. Lots typically ran back 40 arpents, or 7,680 feet. This was almost 1 and ½ miles of depth, or in modern times, from the beach at De Montluzin back past Highway 90. Sometimes this was stated as going “back to the woods,” or more commonly “west to Bouquie.” It was Francois Bouquie who owned the land on the other side of the 40th arpent.
The 40-arpent depth was carried over from an early system designed in 18th century French Louisiana to give land owners adequate land area but also with access to waterways, even though frontage was limited. It was used in other French areas, including Quebec, and here in the south, by Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and was continued through the Spanish period and by the United States after the Louisiana Purchase.
The important consideration here is that the period studied in Book A shows an emerging city, often called “the village of Shieldsborough,” one which had little development beyond the area that fronted on the beaches. These were the people who began the streets, who gave land to build a court house, and marked off a cemetery. Even then, however, where a street was listed in a deed it was first described by what it bounded and how wide it was, and only then said to be “a street named and called by the name Main Street,” as though the writer was not sure the name would stick.
But they did make streets, and as one reads he begins to find not only Main, but also Apothecary, Goodchildren, Washington and more. And the pages identify places, like the Louisiana Hotel, and the Bay of St. Louis Hotel, as well as the market house, a general store, a drug store, and a store belonging to John Parker.
It becomes evident that the towns grew and the people prospered, and they record that they paid taxes - city, county and state.
A number of early leaders had come from Europe, and presumably were better educated than most. However, even a cursory observation of signatures reveals a low incidence of literacy among the early inhabitants of Hancock. This is seen in the number of people, some of whom owned substantial properties, who could not write their names. Many of the wives signed “with their marks,” unlike the wives of New Orleans buyers. One administrator of a large estate signed with his x, as did two witnesses to a deed.
This is not a condemnation of the education level of the people; it is instead an endorsement of how far they have come. Those who could not sign their names were not the speculators from Louisiana; I thought initially that they were farmers and cotton planters who had failed in the Carolinas and Georgia, who had come here poor. However, an examination of the Census of 1850 does not bear this out.
The Russes came here with their gold and their slaves; they certainly were not only literate, but educated as well. Indeed, some of the Russ women kept a written diary of their travels to Hancock County. Surely Wm. J. Poitevent and Benjamin Sones were literate, as well as James and Elenore Johnston, Noel Jourdan, Rebecca Nixon, the Seals, Wingates, and Martins - all from the Carolinas.
Who then were those who needed to place an X on even important documents, such as deeds and estate administrations? A further study might well be suggested here, but my guess is that they may have been the children of the early settlers, those born or brought into a community which did not yet have an educational system. They may well have been offspring of those who came in the 1830s, during the first years after Indian removal, and of those who could trace their lineage to the beginnings of the County.
One example which stands out is Victoria Toulme, whose father was Phillipe Saucier, a member of a distinguished family. As the wife of John B. Toulme, she signed many deeds with her mark. This was also the case with Justine Nicaise, wife of Elihu Carver, as well as other in the Nicaise family: Mary, Zine, Charles, and Euphrosene. Back in 1825, Jean Baptiste Nicaise signed a deed to John Lafiteaux with an X. It was Francois Ladner who signed his administration papers of the Louise Nicaise estate with his mark.
Whoever they were, those who came for cheap land, or children born into a culture with few schools, a culture which saw little need to educate their daughters, they settled and prospered and in spite of little formal education, they thrived and grew a community of people. They built churches and schools like St. Stanislaus, which dates back to a time when there were few named streets in Bay St. Louis.
The Status of a Wife
Wives were not totally left out of real estate transfers, but in most cases of a sale by a married vendor, the wife had to be interviewed separately and to agree before an official. Typically, it read as follows: “And the said Mistress Gustine Pickerell did moreover on a private examination made of her by me, apart from her husband, acknowledged that she signed, sealed and delivered the same as her voluntary act and deed freely without any fear, threat, or compulsion of her said husband…” This type of statement was then signed by an official other than the county clerk, such as a justice of the peace.
Often, the wife had to assure the buyer of her release, as in the case of a sale by Auguste Laffite to Virginia Toulme, in which Marie Lafitte “…for and in consideration of the sum of one dollar to me paid by the said Virginia Toulme the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged have by these presents released and relinquished and by these presents do release and relinquish unto the said Virginia Toulme her heirs and assigns all my right in dower to the foregoing….”
In most such examples, the seller’s wife is paid one dollar. In one case, it was for only ten cents.
New Orleans Folk
It does not seem to be that New Orleans people were buying land with improvements. They bought, for the most part, raw land, probably already anticipating that the Gulf Coast could be a welcome respite from the heat and activity of the city, and in so doing, they helped to populate the county. To a great degree they were the buyers of what became Waveland, but then again there is one description that makes clear that Shieldsborough was being occupied at least partly as an escape from the cities. That is found in a mention of a “public road with width of 37 feet extending through the Bay for summer houses.”
These were relatively wealthy folk, with names like Samuel J. Peters and Felix Grima. Others were named Fortier, Tureaud, Poincy, Petit, Lafon, Ogden, and Prudhomme. At least in a few cases, it is evident that they paid premium prices, jacking up the real estate market for local developers like Monet and others.
There was, for example, the 1847 deal in which Alibert of New Orleans paid $125 for a parcel in the Guex development, and sold the same for $1,000 to Mrs. Ramsey of New Orleans the next year.
The most noteworthy surveyors of the day were Julius Monet and Elihu Carver. They did jobs which must have been difficult when practiced in primitive, uncharted areas.
There is, however, no evidence of argument or disagreement as we have found in a study of West Florida under the Spanish. Maybe that was because there was so much land in Hancock. But there was plenty of land in West Florida too, where there were many feuds and complaints about surveying, sometimes evidencing jealousy and distrust among neighbors.
What is fun to read, in a way, are those early surveys which do not mention such ordinary descriptions like Section, Township and Range. Instead, they speak of chains and links, of hickory trees and pine, and NNW of a certain post. An example is as follows: “…on the East by the Bay aforesaid measuring on the front 64 half chains and 24 links extending North 45 degrees west on the line bounding Fremond’s land….” That one was signed by Elihu Carver, who bought and sold many parcels and was surveyor for many more. As a seller, he signed his name; his wife signed with her mark.
One must wonder whether in years to come, those wooden posts would still be above ground, and locatable, or whether the persimmon tree might have been chopped down.
There was one mark of distinction that repeats in several deeds. It stayed with us until Katrina. It was related to land in “Shieldsborough beginning at a post on S side of Washington St. where a live oak is marked XXX and stands near the edge of the Bay running 820 feet south and 6853 feet along Washington to W boundary of Nicaise, bounded by Bouquie on west….”
Probably all of us who were familiar with the Bay before K knew that tree. It was the one on the east side of Front Street, just by the ramp which led to the beach and the pier. One tree expert who spoke to the society years ago wondered how it could have stood that long, having little but cement on all sides.
I wish I could inspect it now, and find the three letters, XXX.
Dates Earlier Than Statehood
Although it may be that deeds and other transactions had not been entered officially by the county before statehood in 1817, earlier dates sometimes are revealed in the history of a property. For example, a decree is mentioned involving the heirs who were to present to the “syndic of their teratory [sic].” It was signed at Pensacola on 2-20-1810 by Francisco Max. de la Maxent, Spanish governor of Louisiana. Andrew Lopez of the government of Louisiana and West Florida certified that Louis Alexis Lesassier was an inhabitant who had lost, in a shipwreck of 1794, the principal part of his papers, showing that the above was granted to him by Baron Carondelet on 1-29-1794. This was by order of Gayosa de Lemos, brigadier of the Royal army and governor general of these provinces. It was signed at New Orleans by Lopez on 12-12-1798.
Three charts are included, showing Lesassier as being the original settler of a parcel since 1803, and confirming to him 640 acres.
On pages 298 to 303 is a notice to the Commissioners of Land Claims East of Pearl River. This is a series of important and very old documents regarding land of Melite Lesassier, beginning with a document signed by his agent Noel Jourdan indicating laying claim to Point Chocoapoulou, the Indian name for the Bay of St. Louis area, containing 15 arpents front by 40 arpents, by virtue of certificate of Auditor of War given to Louis Alexis Lesassier, and by a decree in favor of heirs Hypolite and Louis Macarty, establishing them as being on said plantation. This is dated July 20, 1814.
Other Early Dates
In a few places are found reference to two arpents front conveyed by Canna to Dimitry in October 1819.
On p. 490 is a Warrant by US to Joor, Certificate No. 711 - The United States of America. It reads that John Joor of Hancock County deposited in the General Land Office a certificate of the land office at Augusta whereby it appears full payment has been made by Joor in accord with Act of Congress on 4-24-1820, for part section 25, T7 R14, having 79 acres. He was awarded the tract as shown on plat of General Land Office.
[This was area of Rotten Bayou Road.]
On p. 74 is found the Certificate no. 6483, stating that David Guex, assignee of John Howze, deposited in General Land Office at Augusta the certificate showing that full payment had been made by Howze according to the act of Congress April 24,1820, an act for sale of public lands, for lots 1-7 of part section 35, T8 R14 of 482 ½ acres. Certificate signed at Washington for James Polk, Pres., by J. Knox Walker, Secty., on Sept. 26, 1846.
[This seems to be an interior area, with no beach connection, of what is now Bay St. Louis, including part of Washington St. and spanning Hwy. 90. This is evidence of interior development prior to 1850.]
On p. 368 is found a donation confirmed to Stephen Jerrell by virtue of habitation and cultivation, identifying 640 acres on Pearl River. Signed 9-28-1830 by William Howze, registrar.
Odd and Ends
There are also to be found mysterious places and intriguing names. Among waterways new to me are Grand Plain Bayou, Benasha River, Bayou Chincokin, Irishman Branch, and Bayou Beneswa.
Common places known to those of the day but not today were the Big House, the Meeting House, Turtle Skin and the town of Providence. We are told that Koutcha on Orico was a place on the Pearl River. There were in addition Ravine Clear, and the Nackasticka tract.
A few businesses are mentioned more than once, one such being the Pearlington Co. A couple of others appear with less frequency, like the Swanborough Turpentine Farm, and the Sea Shore Journal.
More familiar are the many mentions of the lands of the three ladies, the Widow Morin, Madame Charlo, and Mary Parish. These important early land masses have been highlighted in bold so that they may be easily found.
Many may not agree, but after a while, reading these deeds has become for me as reading a novel might be for someone else. The pages and people do connect. There are sequences and narratives, in a way. A county is born and enters middle age. There may even be a beginning and a middle, and hopefully, no end.
Article by Russell Guerin