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The Other Lycurgus Johnson: Exploring History at Lakeport

A version of this article originally appeared in Life In the Delta, August 2016

Amanda Worthington, living at the Willoughby Plantation at Wayside, lamented in her diary in 1862 that her invitation to Linnie Adams’ 15th birthday party had arrived a month late “after the thing was over and nearly forgotten.” With Linnie across the river at Lakeport in Chicot County, Arkansas communication between the two friends was cumbersome. The two did exchange timely letters during the Civil War, but after a visit to Lakeport in August 1865, Amanda confessed “I love Linnie so much – I do wish she lived on this side of the river.”

Amanda and Linnie would have marveled at the convenience of the two bridges that have connected Chicot County with Washington County since 1940. However, the counties have been connected for far longer. Many Washington County couples married in Chicot County at Point Chicot and later Columbia, since Washington County’s first county seats, Mexico and Princeton, were many miles down river from the county’s northern section. The practice ended when old Greenville, not too far from the current city, became the seat in 1846. Amanda Worthington and Linnie Adams’ friendship also testifies to the connection. The Worthingtons and Johnsons (Linnie’s mother was a Johnson) were some of the first planters in the region. They arrived from Kentucky in the 1820s and 1830s and ultimately built huge cotton plantations with hundreds of enslaved laborers at Leota, Lake Washington, Grand Lake, Sunnyside, and Lakeport.

Today the 1859 Lakeport Plantation is an Arkansas State University Heritage Site restored to capture and preserve the house and the history of the people who lived and labored there. Built with a view of the Mississippi River for Lycurgus and Lydia Johnson, guided tours of the house and exhibits explore 19th century life, the lives of enslaved laborers, and the preservation of the structure. While Lakeport is the locus of the history, it is not where the story ends. Lakeport explores the Delta through on-going research, publications, and our “Lakeport Legacies” lecture series.

Our 2016 Lakeport Legacies, which began in March, dug deep into the Delta’s history with presentations on the geology of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, the life and family of African American politician James Worthington Mason, the lives of five Italian-American immigrant sisters, the Arkansas Delta’s Mid-Century Modern architecture, as well as the history of the Mississippi Capitol Building.

By the time this is published, Lakeport will have one presentation left in our 2016 Legacies series: “The Other Lycurgus Johnson: U.S. Colored Troops and Civil War Pension Files in the Delta” to be presented August 25 by Lakeport Director, Dr. Blake Wintory.

Pension files sometimes contain photographs of claimants, like this one of John Gordon who joined the 11th Louisiana Infantry in 1863. Gordon was a slave on George Falls plantation on Deer Creek in Washington County, Mississippi. The rare discovery was made by Linda Barnickel while researching her book on Milliken's Bend.

Pension files sometimes contain photographs of claimants, like this one of John Gordon who joined the 11th Louisiana Infantry in 1863. Gordon was a slave on George Falls plantation on Deer Creek in Washington County, MS. Linda Barnickel highlights this find in her book on Milliken’s Bend.

Beginning in 1863, the Union Army heavily recruited slaves into their ranks. Nearly 200,000 African American men served in the Union Army, with over 47,000 coming from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The U.S. Pension Bureau, created in 1862, provided monthly payments for Union soldiers and their affected families disabled during the war. Later the criteria for a pension were expanded and by the mid-1890s, the Bureau accounted for over forty percent of the Federal budget. Today the National Archives holds about 100,000 pension applications for African Americans who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Challenged to prove their identity, African American pension claimants were often hindered by illiteracy and lack of documentation of important life events like marriages, birth, and even age. To fill the gaps, the Pension Bureau initiated “special examinations,” generating volumes of interviews with family, friends, comrades, and former owners. These examinations are a trove of information on 19th century African American life, sometimes providing complete life histories for former enslaved laborers who toiled on Delta’s plantations.

lycurgus-johnson-pension-index

General index card for Lycurgus Johnson, Company D, 47th US Colored Infantry. General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. T288, 546 rolls (Accessed on Ancestry.com)

One pension that caught my attention is for a one Lycurgus Johnson. This Lycurgus, who happens to share the name of Lakeport’s owner, enlisted at Lake Providence, Louisiana on May 5, 1863 in the 8th Louisiana Regiment Infantry (African Descent), Company D–later  renamed the 47th U.S. Colored Infantry. Sgt. Johnson died just over a year later on July 20, 1864 in Vicksburg of tuberculosis, then called “consumption.”

Lycurgus’ widow, Mary Johnson, remarried in 1880 and filed for a pension under her new name “Covington” with her two sons Rhoom and James Johnson. According to an interview with Mary in 1900, she and Lycurgus were slaves on Edward P. Johnson’s Avon Plantation on Lake Washington. (Edward Johnson and Lakeport’s Lycurgus were first cousins). She arrived on the plantation as a “mere child,” while Lycurgus arrived from Kentucky around 1849, when he was likely in his early 20s. He and Mary were married by “a slave-preacher [Hilliard Holmes] long before the war on the Avon Place & we lived together without separation till Lycurgus Johnson enlisted,” she recalled. Mary was a house servant and Lycurgus worked around the house; he’d “drive the wagon & did things that did not require heavy work” due to his illness.  

Pension records like that of Lycurgus Johnson can provide important details about African American communities on the plantation. For example, the file also includes interviews with two other slaves on the Avon Plantation, Matt Harris and Downing Williams, and an affidavit signed by the slave preacher, Hilliard Holmes, that married the couple in 1850.

Mary also revealed Lycurgus has always been sick: “it was just the consumption that ailed him. He was just up & down all the time for several years

Page from deposition of Mary (Johnson) Covington, Febuary 6 1900.

Page from deposition of Mary (Johnson) Covington, February 6 1900.

before he enlisted.” Questioned why the army enlisted a sick man she replied, “he wanted to go so bad because all the other colored people were going in the army.” The pension was eventually denied because Lycurgus’ illness was preexisting and his two surviving sons were both over sixteen. By 1900, James Johnson, appears to be the only surviving child of twelve. According to the census that year, he and his wife Eujean and two children were farming near Wayside.

Unfortunately, the pension file for Lycurgus Johnson leaves the basic questions about the origin and meaning of the name “Lycurgus,” unanswered. Pension files have their limitations, often focusing on a specific issue. In this case, Lycurgus Johnson’s  pre-existing illness.  When asked about Lycurgus’ parents’ health, she stated “I never knew Lycurgus Johnson’s father & mother or brothers or sisters & never heard what caused their deaths.” But perhaps she did know more about who they were. She must have been aware that her husband’s father was white. In 1864, when the couple had their marriage legalized by a military chaplain in Vicksburg, Lycurgus was recorded as a “quadroon”  with a “white father.”

“Lycurgus” was a common name in the white Johnson family. Lakeport’s Lycurgus Johnson was born in 1818, the same year as Edward’s brother, Leonidas Lycurgus Johnson. Both men had grandsons that were there namesake. It was not uncommon for a house servant like Lycurgus (born around 1827) to be bestowed with an honorary family name.  

The Delta certainly has a rich and intriguing history to be explored. History at the  Lakeport Plantation opens up many topics, whether it is relationships with Washington County planters or a former slave named Lycurgus.

The Delta certainly has a rich and intriguing history to be explored. History at the  Lakeport Plantation opens up many topics, whether it is relationships with Washington County planters or a former slave named Lycurgus. You can learn more at our next Lakeport Legacies, August 25 at 5:30 p.m or by touring Lakeport. Lakeport is open year around with tours scheduled at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday or by appointment, 870-265-6031.

 

Dr. Blake Wintory has been the on-site director at the 1859 Lakeport Plantation since 2008. He is the recent author of Chicot County (2015) in Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series. His wife, Debra, is Greenville’s Chamber Director. They have a five year-old daughter, Janey.



Lakeport Legacies · The Other Lycurgus Johnson: U.S. Colored Troops and Civil War Pension Files in the Delta

The Other Lycurgus Johnson: U.S. Colored Troops and Civil War Pension Files in the Delta

presented by

Dr. Blake Wintory (Lakeport Plantation) 

Thursday, August 25

Refreshments & Conversation @ 5:30 pm
Program @ 6:00 pm

Pension files sometimes contain photographs of claimants, like this one of John Gordon who joined the 11th Louisiana Infantry in 1863. Gordon was a slave on George Falls plantation on Deer Creek in Washington County, Mississippi. The rare discovery was made by Linda Barnickel while researching her book on Milliken's Bend.

Pension files sometimes contain photographs of claimants, like this one of John Gordon who joined the 11th Louisiana Infantry in 1863. Gordon was a slave on George Falls plantation on Deer Creek in Washington County, Mississippi. The rare discovery is highlighted by Linda Barnickel for her book on Milliken’s Bend.

 

 

Lakeport Plantation director, Dr. Blake Wintory, will present “The Other Lycurgus Johnson: U.S. Colored Troops and Civil War Pension Files in the Delta” on August 25, 2016. Wintory, will discuss on-going research at Lakeport to learn more about the life stories of slaves and their lives during the post-war Reconstruction era in Chicot and Washington Counties through pension files held at the National Archives.

During the Civil War, nearly 200,000 African American men served in the Union Army, with over 47,000 coming from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Many of these men and their families filed for pensions from the Federal Government. Those files, often filled with interviews with family, friends, comrades, and former owners, can be a trove of information on 19th century African American life, sometimes providing complete life histories for former enslaved laborers.

Among the pensions examined by Wintory is one for a Lycurgus Johnson. This Lycurgus, a contemporary who happened to share the name of Lakeport’s owner, enlisted at Lake Providence, Louisiana on May 5, 1863 in the 8th Louisiana Regiment Infantry (African Descent), Company D– later renamed the 47th U.S. Colored Infantry. Sgt. Johnson died just over a year later on July 20, 1864 in Vicksburg of tuberculosis, then called “consumption.”

Lycurgus’ widow, Mary, in an interview with a government official in 1900, revealed she and Lycurgus were slaves on Edward P. Johnson’s Avon Plantation on Lake Washington. Edward Johnson and Lakeport’s Lycurgus were first cousins. She arrived on the plantation as a “mere child,” while Lycurgus arrived from Kentucky around 1849, when he was likely in his early 20s. He and Mary were married by “a slave-preacher long before the war on the Avon Place & we lived together without separation till Lycurgus Johnson enlisted,” she recalled. Mary was a house servant and Lycurgus worked around the house; he’d “drive the wagon & did things that did not require heavy work” due to the illness that eventually took his life. The record also provides important details about plantation communities. For example, the file also includes interviews with two other slaves on the Avon Plantation, Matt Harris and Downing Williams, and an affidavit signed by the slave preacher, Hilliard Holmes, that married the couple in 1850.

 

Click to RSVP to this FREE Event
(by phone, email or online)
870.265.6031 · lakeport.ar@gmail.com

601 Hwy 142 · Lake Village, AR 71653

Lakeport Legacies (LL) meets in the Dining Room of the Lakeport Plantation house. LL, held on one of the last Thursdays of the month at the Lakeport Plantation, features a history topic from the Delta. For more information, call 870.265.6031.



Lakeport Explores the Delta: Hollywood Plantation, Benoit, MS


Last Tuesday my wife and I made a trip up to Benoit, Mississippi to see restoration work on Bolivar County’s last antebellum plantation home–The Hollywood Plantation (Burrus Home or “Baby Doll House”) .

Overseeing the restoration of the ca. 1858 home is Eustace Winn, a descendant of the original owner. Eustace has visited Lakeport on several occasions to check on our progress and compare notes.
John C. Burrus began construction on the Hollywood Plantation around 1858. According to the 1860 Census, nine Burrus family members lived in the house–the 45 year old J. C. Burrus, his 39 year old wife, Louisa, and seven younger Burruses ranging from 20 to 2. The two-story Greek Revival, was likely unfinished as the Civil War began in 1861. Most notably, the second story door lacks a balcony. This is a familiar theme for a home built so late in the antebellum period. We tell a similar story about Lakeport and how its interior was likely unfinished–unpainted, bare plaster walls, a missing medallion, and an unfinished ceiling medallion.
As far as I could tell in my limited search, there is not a lot of academic history written about the home or the Burrus family. James Cobb in The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992) mentions John and Louisa three times, citing the John C. Burrus Papers at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History, as well as a family account of the Civil War published in the Journal of the Bolivar County History Society in 1978. Citations of the Burrus Papers also appear in Harold Woodman’s King Cotton & His Retainers: Financing & Marketing the Cotton Crops of the South, 1800-1925 (1968).
The Historic American Buildings Survey documented the home in 1936 as the “Burris House.” In 1936 the house was likely vacant, but, from exterior photos, in decent condition.
Hollywood is most famous as the setting of the 1956 film Baby Doll. However, by 1956, Richard Sylbert, set director for Baby Doll, described the house as “a dilapidated, ramshackle, and hollow wreck.” Four of the columns were laying on the ground and the building “listed to the left about five or six degrees.” The interior was worse: “the entire stair railing, balusters, and curved handrail were gone”; “parts of floors burned away”; and “the walls had huge areas where the plaster had come free of the lathe.” According to Sylbert, the house was straitened, walls and ceiling were repaired “to exactly the state the story required.” (That last phrase definitely sticks out to me.) The stairway was also reconstructed. Sylbert claims to have found an original spindle sticking out of the yard; it was used to reproduce all the spindles you see in the film.

Until just a few years ago, Hollywood was again a shell, as evidence from this 2005 photo in Flickr. Even the Corinthian columns added by the set designers were gone. (Correction– The Baby Doll movie seems to show original columns, so Corinthian columns were likely added later by the Bolivar Historical Society by whom, then? .)

This image from the 1956 film Baby Doll seems to show the original Doric columns. It is not clear when the Corinthian order columns were added.

This image from the 1956 film Baby Doll seems to show the original Doric columns. It is not clear when the Corinthian order columns were added.

 

Eustace is making great progress since he began working on the family project three years ago. The new front columns, made of solid redwood from Washington state, replicate the originals and the interior is coming back to life again with new plaster, new woodwork that compliments what was left of the original, and, most recently, new stairs. When the restoration is finished, Hollywood will be open for tours and available for events.

After our tour, we headed up the road to Rosedale for some great food at the Blue Levee.

If the history and restoration of the Burrus House interests you, then you should visit the Lakeport Plantation across the river in Chicot County, Arkansas.  Lakeport is the last antebellum home in Arkansas along the Mississippi River.  Click here to learn about visiting Lakeport. 

Update (12/17/2012):  The Hollywood Plantation opened to the public in June 2012.  It is available for rentals and tours by appointment. We’ve had several groups schedule tours at Hollywood & Lakeport the same day. Visit their website — http://www.hollywoodplantation.com

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Bibliography
Cobb, James C. The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sylbert, Richard and Sylivia Townsend, Designing Movies: Portrait of a Hollywood Artist. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.
 
United State Census, Manuscript Returns, Schedule of Population, 1860.
Woodman, Harold D. King Cotton & His Retainers: Financing & marketing the Cotton Crop of the South, 1800-1925. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.


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