Notes and Links for the
Natchez Courthouse Project

How does a man from the Los Angeles area wind up doing a thesis dealing with World War I and Adams County, Mississippi? It started with an internship at the Historic Natchez Foundation and the Natchez Court House Records Project. What is that? The link below gives the background of the project and the history of my project advisor, Dr. Ron Davis.

The Natchez Court House Records Project [Note: This is an Adobe pdf document which will open or download to your computer or device.] was written by Dr. Ron Davis in 1998 to describe a long-term catalog and preservation project of some of the oldest court records in the nation. Many of his students have gone on to earn Ph.D.s and still work with Dr. Davis to bring the story of the documents to life. Dr. Davis also recounts his boyhood story of life under Jim Crow.

Editorial Note: This is a single person's point of view, the opinions expressed below are that of the author and do not represent those of California State University Northridge History Department, the Natchez Foundation, or any other group. If anyone finds an error in fact or fancy, just let me know.

In the summer of 2003, I was one of a group of graduate history students from California State University Northridge to participate in the Natchez Court House Records Project, soon followed up by speaking at the bi-annual Natchez Historic conference in 2004. Many of my first impressions of Natchez, my fellow students and the founder of the project, Dr. Ron Davis, still linger in my mind, reflecting the comforts and contradictions of the Deep South as seen from my own middle class background.

In theory, the task given to us was very simple: take-up a massive, 30-pound courthouse Chattel Mortgage Contract ledger from the Reconstruction era, scribner the court clerks handwriting on the pages to find the content, and enter that information into a form destined to go into a computer data base. In time, this would give a priceless record of the rise of sharecropping in the Natchez district, with key family and financial data, keeping a new generation of Genealogists and historians busy for decades to come. In the photo below, I am trying to look like I know what I am doing—I did not fool anyone.

Photo of Shane at the Natchez Foundation
Photo of Shane at the Natchez Foundation

Two of the real old hands at reading the old documents in the room at that time were Tony Seybert and Aaron Anderson. Seybert's thesis work was on the Southern Press, before the Civil War. He found that street fights and duels were not unheard of for newspaper men in the deep South. He worked at the CSUN newspaper, the Sundial (and still edits a blog). He also helped teach some of the History Survey Courses as a Teaching Assistant and ran the History Resource room for the department at the time. Oh, and finished his thesis. In his "spare" time, no doubt. Last I heard of Tony, he was working as a newspaper reporter in a small town. To date no one has challenged him to a duel.

Photo of Tony Seybert working at the Natchez Foundation
Photo of Tony Seybert working at the Natchez Foundation

Aaron Anderson's work on the documents make my eyes water just hearing about it. Anderson has logged thousands of records in his own work dealing with the local Post-Bellum Jewish Merchants. In the end, he bought his own place to live in Natchez, and started logging records in nearby Concordia Parrish. Mr. Anderson is now going to the University of Southern Mississippi for his Ph.D. The photo below shows the records room at the Adams County Courthouse, with Mr. Anderson at the table and Dr. Ron Davis in the background.

Photo of Aaron Anderson and Dr. Davis
Photo of Aaron Anderson and Dr. Davis

Not all of the documents were the massive tomes like the Chattel Mortgage books; some of the most compelling files are the court papers dealing with trial charges and outcomes. These were found by preservation advocates in the basement of the Natchez court house, the city being the county seat of Adams County. The files and "the box they came in" were moved nearby to an old school that is now the headquarters for the Historic Natchez Foundation. The Foundation provided the room for the grad students to work in. In a tour of the Foundation, the students often see the old filing system the court records were kept in. In the photo below the color ribbons are used to mark each year of the work done by the on-going project. The records taken out of the steel files and placed in acid-free folders and acid-free boxes.

Photo of 19th and 20th century file cabinets
Photo of 19th and 20th century file cabinets

The records that came out of old court file cabinets had far more drama than the records that dealt with sharecropping, but in may ways were much harder to understand due to both the legal conventions of the documents and the need to train-up my eyes to read the 19th century cursive penmanship of the court clerk. One formula indictment would be to describe someone's motivation, such as Mr./Miss/Mrs. (fill in name of the accused) being under the influence of the Devil did commit (fill in the crime). Another thing to look for was the drawing of the court seal as a kind of curly-cue squiggle. I often wonder at the work of some of the court clerks, you could tell the clear handwriting from the not so clear, and hope that veterans of the Project would put a wreath every year on the grave of the men who did a great job just to say thanks. The odds are that many of the men who worked in the courthouse are buried at the Natchez City Cemetery. It is a nice idea, and I do hope we do it some day, but given the short amount of time each year the project is running, I don't see it happening all that soon. The photo below will give you some idea of what a court case might look like.

Natchez Court House Project: Sample of Court Case File
Natchez Court House Project: Sample of Court Case File

The places we lived in at the time, like the Victorian Bluff Top, were also full of the local history. It was in this setting that my own obsession with the impact of World War I on Natchez took root.

Other stories can be found at: