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The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt


“Watah so shallah dat de eel taint swim
    ’Dout kickin’ up de dus’ in de middle ob de stream.
Sunshine hot, an’ de catfish say,
    We’s gittin’ right freckle-faced down ouh way.
          Oh, you gellahnippah
          Down on de Mississippah,

When William was about six years old, his father purchased a plantation in Mississippi. The idea of leaving old Virginia and commencing a new life among strangers was not very attractive to his mother. However, with all the grit of the pioneer stock from whence she came, the young woman bravely faced the obstacles, and in April, 1832, all the family left their native home.

The children with their father and mother led the way in a much-treasured family coach drawn by two prancing horses. Forty-six slaves, with horses and wagons carrying necessary equipment, followed in the rear. In this manner they traveled for ninety days, and at intervals camped by the roadside, where game and wood were plentiful. Amongst the men there were several good shots, therefore the family enjoyed excellent meals of turkey and deer.

It was the most beautiful season of the year, when nature bursts forth in her spring robes, and the scenery became more tropical the farther South they traveled. As they wended their way through this fascinating country, the children occasionally walked and played, feasting at intervals on berries and early wild fruits. The beautiful foliage, semi-tropical trees, hills, rivers, and rippling streams basking in the sunshine made a vivid and lasting impression upon the mind of William.

One glorious morning in July the little caravan halted outside a large log-house, rather crude compared to “Taliaferro Court.” This was “Taladago,” the new home, which was still occupied by the former owner, an Indian Chief, who was gathering his effects together. The house was quite good inside and contained four large rooms with an open fireplace at each end, in addition to a spacious hall for the convenience of hunting equipment. Near the house was a large orchard filled with ripening fruits, a river and a clear spring. For the children the greatest attraction was a huge mulberry tree, which, on their arrival, was covered with delicious berries. Doubtless, this home looked particularly good to the Howard family after their three months’ sojourning on the roads and trails.

Two hours after their arrival, Louis Lucas, the Choctaw Indian Chief, while collecting his fishing tackle, fell and broke his ankle. One of the servants carried him to a newly erected bed, where he was confined for several weeks. During his illness Mr. and Mrs. Howard took the greatest care of him; he became extremely fond of William and taught him the rudiments of the Indian language. In the last week of August, the Chief was well enough to leave for his new home. Before taking his departure he presented the family with valuable gifts, and bestowed a blessing upon his apt pupil, who was celebrating his sixth birthday.

The new home, with its vast cotton plantation, was situated one-and-a-half miles from the nearest white residence. Major Howard immediately erected a school-house and negro quarters, engaged a special tutor, and brought in fifteen young boys to join William in his first studies. Fortunately, William was quick at learning, had a good memory, and made rapid progress.

Later, on account of business matters and the children’s education, Taliaferro Howard had a hotel built in Macon, Mississippi, where the family resided for general convenience. William, having reached his eighth birthday, was sent to the grade school; here he had his first taste of Latin, archery, and politics, for his father became interested in the political fight which decided Macon as the county-seat of Noxubec County. In about one year the hotel was sold and the family returned to “Taladago” plantation.

While William grew in wisdom and strength amidst the sunshine and subtropical trees of Mississippi, the greatest social events of his childhood were the Christmas parties, one of which celebrated the marriage of John Adair and Miss Rebecca McCascal. William’s father and the renowned General Adair had served together in the army at New Orleans, and shortly after the Howard family arrived at “Taladago,” the General’s eldest son, John, had come to live with them.

William Howard’s parents carried their Virginian ideals and customs with them wherever they went, and so the Christmas party was the greatest event of the year. It was the slaves’ annual holiday season, and preparations for this festivity were made weeks ahead. William took an active part in unpacking boxes and decorating the church and home. He also watched with eager eyes the killing of the turkeys and hogs, the gathering of the corn, and the cutting of the great Yule logs.

By Christmas Eve the excitement was at its height. The hall became crowded with immaculately dressed young women and men, all anxious to meet their relatives and friends. Hickory wood blazed in the open fire-places, and the kitchen was filled with cooks in action. As the carriages arrived with eager occupants who could scarcely restrain themselves, the servants led the way to host and hostess, who greeted them with friendly handclasps, followed by a hearty meal and cheerful talks around the old fireside.

The hanging of stockings was another exciting event, and on Christmas morning white-clad figures with bulging stockings moved joyously from room to room. At the breakfast-table young hopefuls confessed the tricks they had played in the name of Santa Claus, and every one was happy until dinner time.

Dinner was the great meal of the day. The old mahogany table, its snow-white cloth decorated with brilliantly colored candles and flowers—and bearing on its ample surface a large turkey, a ham and a roast of beef, with numerous other dishes that had tested the cook’s skill— was surrounded with people, old and young, who feasted amid lively jests and repartee. Faithful old servants moved around in a somewhat uncertain manner on account of frequent visits to the toddie-bowl. Nevertheless, the dinner always ended well, and after a luxurious repast, the genial host selected the prettiest girl, and led his guests into the ballroom, where to the strains of violin music they danced the “Virginia reel.”

According to custom, the plantation hands were allowed to celebrate at this time of the year; all through their quarters they were giving thanks to “dey mahsah” for his generosity and for respite from work. They entered into and enjoyed the spirit of Christmas as much as the children of pleasure.

At the close of the dancing on Christmas Day, 1838, Major Howard, hearing the dogs bark, sensed that the disturbance might be the outcome of indulgence, and planned to take advantage of the superstitions of the negroes. He invited William to go with him, and, adorning themselves with two white sheets, they left the house unnoticed. Appearing like two ghosts, they crossed the stream which led to the negro quarters, and this caused the dogs to bark louder. On account of the barking, Mangrum, the overseer, crossed the stream, where he found three negroes attempting to cut down a tree, singing to themselves, “Coon up de Tree.” Suddenly the negroes spotted the white figures holding lanterns, and moved as fast as their legs could carry them. One poor old fellow, who was very deaf, said “Mah God! Why yo’ all runnin’?” Then, seeing the ghosts, he also ran like a deer. Major Taliaferro Howard and his son were successful in reaching the house before the frightened runners reappeared there, and it was with much inward amusement that they listened to the negroes’ ghost story.

The following day two of the colored men who had been so badly frightened ran away from the old home. In the days of 1832-1840 slaves were valued at $600 to $1,200 each, therefore the planter immediately set out to recover them. One was caught in the act of stealing a chicken when only twelve miles away. The other, Daniel, a little stout fellow, stayed away several months, returning one day quite unexpectedly. When Taliaferro Howard asked him why he came back, he replied, “Well, Mahsah, I thought yo’ all be ez glad ter see me as I am ter see you.”

The family lived for seven years in Noxubec County, Mississippi, and before starting out on another venture, Major Howard, in collaboration with a man named Reuben Grant, purchased more slaves, and the original agreement for that purchase is here reproduced as a document of historical interest. It reads:

Received of Reuben H. Grant and T. S. Howard ten thousand dollars in full payment for the following negroes (to wit): Tom, aged thirty-three; Bob, aged 24 years; Reuben, aged twenty-three; Richmond, aged 44 years; Coatney, aged 23 years, and child about nine months; Mealy, fourteen years old; Ann, thirteen years old; Eveline, eleven years old; Albert, nine years old; John, eight years old; Julier, five years old; James, five years old; Emily, four

Agreement for Purchase of Slaves

years old; Fillis, three years old; Sarah, three years old. I bind myself to warrant the title of said negroes, and that they are all slaves for life as witness my hand and seal this 15th day of January, 1839.

Robert F. Coleman.     (Seal)

Attest, R. A. Howard.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management