Back to top
A VACANT commercial building and the Mt. Zion Baptist Church are pictured in Rodney almost four decades ago. (Credit: Mississippi Department of Archives & History, May 1980)
May 15, 2019

Delaware native Thomas Rodney didn’t arrive in Natchez until the fall of 1803, but four years later he was well entrenched in local affairs. When Vice-President Aaron Burr was arrested in Jefferson County in 1807 on suspicion of treason, Rodney convened the territorial court and did his best to convince a local grand jury to indict Burr.
But the grand jury refused and Burr skipped town. Afterward, the vice-president was apprehended in Alabama and then tried for treason in federal court in Richmond, VA. However, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall found Burr not guilty.
Many of Burr’s followers were arrested and also cleared of all charges.
In Mississippi Territory since his arrival in 1803, Rodney had become a somewhat eccentric, but well-liked resident. In 1811, four years after the Burr Affair, Rodney died at age 66.
But his name would live on and a history of Natchez during that long ago era was preserved in Rodney’s journal and letters.
Early in the 19th century, what became Rodney, Miss., was originally known as Petit Gulf. A member of a French party traveling the Mississippi River noted that his vessel passed a landmark in a big bend of the river known as “Dog Island.” To the right they saw “Little Gulf,” where the voyagers “encountered for a quarter of a league extremely violent currents.”
The location was settled in 1800 with the establishment of a landing. The community of Petit Gulf was incorporated as “Rodney” in 1828, named in honor of Judge Rodney, who had passed away 17 years earlier. He had been appointed a land commissioner and territorial judge by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803. (Jefferson County is named after the president.)
The Village of Rodney was built on the river bottom at the foot of the hills, which rise in the rear. Consequently, the community is subject to flooding.
Its greatest decade for growth and commerce was in the 1850s when at one point it claimed more than three-dozen stores, two banks, two newspapers and a vibrant port. Fires in 1852 and 1869 caused widespread damage.
In the 19th century, a sandbar developed in the Mississippi resulting in the river taking a new course. That left Rodney approximately five miles from the main channel.
In January 1807, President Jefferson appointed Ceasar A. Rodney -- Judge Rodney’s son -- as U.S. Attorney General. While busily involved in the Burr investigation in addition to his other duties, the AG was always interested in hearing from his father about the happenings in Natchez country.
The judge often wrote his son about those things and about his own personal life -- from growing a garden, to his social affairs to his frequent bouts with fever and chills. Rodney, said to be a hypochondriac, was also a prolific writer. He left behind a vivid record of his travels down the Ohio and Mississippi in 1803, a great source of life on the rivers during the era.
In the summer of 1807 in Washington City, the attorney general occasionally found in his mail a letter from his father, who lived in the territorial capital of Washington, six miles east of Natchez. During the latter half of 1807 – from June to November – the judge wrote numerous letters to his son.
"My dear son," the 63-year-old judge wrote on June 29, 1807, "I was taken very unwell on Wednesday evening. Had as violent a bilious attack as ever I had in my life and a high fever all night. Two to three of the young gentlemen sat up with me all night in the course of which so much bile went off that my fever left me next morning. But my puking and purging continued moderately for a day or two.
"All of the gentlemen and ladies of town and from the country (when they heard I was ill) came to visit me and offered anything they could do for me.” Soon he felt "quite easy but took nothing to eat till Saturday when a small degree of appetite returned and yesterday (Sunday) I left my room and went down stairs."
That evening he united in marriage Sarah Frieland and B. R. Grayson, a Supreme Court clerk and secretary.
Later, Rodney felt "quite restored and clear of any complaint," trusting that he would "remain clear for the remainder of the hot summer" (considered the sickly season). But he said "reputable families are flocking to this country and many of them incline to settle in this town as a place of health till they get use to the climate."
He wrote his son on August 13, 1807, however, that he had another bout of sickness, though brief. He said that having "gone out of town the evening before last to marry Judge Matthews of the Orleans territory to a young lady in our neighborhood I had to return in the night when the air was very damp so that I got cold and was very unwell yesterday. Yet I had to sit with a smart fever on in an assembly of the people at this town where the most respectable people in the territory were assembled to consider the late outrages of the British."
War between Great Britain and the U.S. seemed imminent and New Orleans appeared vulnerable to attack. It was feared that at worse a British victory there would open up the Mississippi River and that Natchez could soon witness a British naval fleet, the best in the world, docked under-the-hill. But a more immediate fear was that a British blockade would halt U.S. trade, leaving those boats loaded with produce and other goods stranded at the Natchez landing.
On August 24 – just as Burr’s trial in Virginia was getting underway -- the judge wrote his son that William C.C. Claiborne, governor of the Orleans Territory of Louisiana and former governor of the Mississippi Territory, was in Natchez.
"He (Claiborne) intended to set off for Orleans this morning, probably to prepare the quota of troops required ... He thinks Orleans a very defensible place against the British but as he is not much acquainted with tactics I told him I was induced, though I had never seen the city, to think otherwise as it is accessible on many points and the ground all low."
Rodney said British possession of New Orleans would have a devastating effect on commerce throughout the west with the "Mississippi being the only outlet for all their produce."
On September 1, a hot, dry day, Rodney wrote Ceasar that it "has been more sickly in this town and its neighborhood this season than I have ever known it before, owing probably to a severe drought which has continued for four months."
Rainfall had been so rare that Rodney doubted two inches had fallen for weeks.
"The crops of cotton ... therefore will be very small here," he wrote.
To avoid sickness, Rodney had been "avoiding the sun in the day and the dews at night, but cannot keep quite well for this is the season of the year that always is most likely to affect me. I had a severe headache Sunday night but it has got better and by care I hope I shall avoid being laid up."
On September 15, Rodney wrote that thanks to pleasant weather he had "recovered" his health, and on October 18 he wrote that former Mississippi Territory Judge Seth Lewis, now a judge in Orleans Territory, was riding the circuit recently when someone killed his horse and threatened to kill him.
Later in October, Rodney dined with Gov. Claiborne and his wife in the home of Col. John Ellis, speaker in the Mississippi Territory Assembly, whose plantation was located near Natchez not far from the Mississippi River. When the topic of Aaron Burr came up, Rodney said Claiborne didn't hold his tongue.
"The governor declared he was so fully convinced of the treason of Burr and his party that every man of them ought to be hung."
Claiborne planned to depart town the next day with his wife to visit her family and announced that he would be visiting "the Federal City" (Washington) later in the fall with intentions of resigning his position.
"His situation seems to have become very disagreeable to him by the great abuse and opposition he has met with," Rodney wrote Ceasar. "I some time ago ... observed to you that these Western Governments required men of military character and experience in state affairs to govern them. Such would command respect and traitors would not consider it so easy to stir up mischief in the western country."
In November of 1807, Rodney was mad at the post office.
"I write frequently," he wrote Ceasar, "but whether my letters reach you or not I cannot tell because I have not heard from you for a long time."
Rodney said that a man named Winston, who was brother-in-law to Gov. Robert Williams, had been named postmaster but seemed indifferent to his duties and some suspected him of "mismanagement."
The judge said once letters arrived at the post office, Winston would sometimes take one to two weeks before giving them to the recipient. Rodney said one letter "was lately noticed from Mr. Branhem to have the seal broken before sent away." (A letter in those days was folded sheet of parchment sealed with hot wax with the address written on the back.)
"I do not know what occasions this alteration of conduct for Winston used to be very attentive," said the judge.
Rodney then complained that he wasn't receiving his newspaper from back east: "I wrote ... a long time ago to direct it to this town or not send it at all. I get only one in three or four weeks so that it is useless."
By November 25, the mail had begun to arrive on a more reliable basis. He wrote his son: “I was very glad on receiving it for I had not heard from you so long that I began to be anxious and apprehensive something was the matter, therefore was rejoiced to find you and family were well."