Ask Rufus: Newspapers, a window on the past

December 16, 2017 10:04:13 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


When working on my weekly Dispatch column, I often rely on period newspapers for primary source information. That creates a real problem for me, as I almost always get sidetracked. Old newspapers are filled with the story of our past and the everyday lives of those who once lived here. 


The earliest newspaper article I have found that directly relates to Northeast Mississippi was published in 1736. "The Gentleman's Magazine" of London, in its September 1736 issue, published a letter from South Carolina headlined "Indians Beat the French." It was an account of the fighting occurring at what is now Tupelo between the French, with Choctaw assistance, and the Chickasaws with English assistance. It was a battle that determined northeast Mississippi would have an English rather than a French heritage. 


On Dec. 25, 1816, the United States Gazette reported the Choctaws had signed a treaty granting the United States possession of their lands east of the Tombigbee River and allowing navigation of the Tombigbee. This was the land cession that included the present site of Columbus. A copy of the Mobile Gazette and Commercial Advertiser, that had belonged to John Quincy Adams, told on July 21, 1819, of Meshulectubbee (Mashulatubbee of near Brooksville) and Peachland (John Pitchlynn of Plymouth Bluff) consulting with Choctaw chiefs on a possible treaty.  


One of the first news accounts actually mentioning the town of Columbus is in the June 27, 1820, New Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette. It listed a new post road (mail route) in Alabama as running from Tuscaloosa by Marion County Court House to Columbus.  


Here we have a newspaper record that there was mail service to the town of Columbus by June, 1820. 


People commonly refer to obituaries in newspapers when working on genealogy but old newspaper obituaries also provide priceless historical information.  


Newspapers from the 1820s have obituaries of prominent area Indian leaders such as noted Choctaws Pushmataha and Hummingbird. In the mid-1830s, New York newspapers were full of articles about the Columbus Starkville area. That was because the Mississippi agent for the New Yorker was Henry Gibson (son-in-law of John Pitchlynn), whose address was given as Choctaw Agency, a site southeast of Starkville. 


The origins of stories that are thought of as legends can even be examined through period papers. One of the strangest ghost stories connected with the Tombigbee River is that of the steamboat the James T. Staples. The Staples blew up near Bladon Springs, Alabama, on January 9, 1913, under very strange circumstances. Her story became legendary with its inclusion in one of Alabama storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham's books. 


Unlike most ghost stories, the unusual circumstances surrounding the Staples' loss were picked up by news media and the January 13, 1913, Columbus Commercial had a front-page account of the loss of the James T. Staples. The article actually commented on the strange circumstance surrounding the disaster, bringing to life a real ghost story that was not just a legend. 


While working on this column, Birney Imes and I were talking about the history of The Commercial Dispatch. Birney's grandfather V. B. Imes and my grandfather T. C. Billups graduated together from Franklin Academy (old Columbus High School) in 1906. V. B. Imes became a writer, then editor of The Columbus Dispatch (a newspaper that had once raised eyebrows for having a woman editor and publisher, Susan Maer, at a time when that just wasn't done). Imes' venture into writing and publishing began in 1912 when the Columbus Commercial reported on July 11th that First Baptist Church had a monthly newsletter and "Rev J. Benjamin Lawrence, the brilliant pastor" was editor. V. B. Imes was named as business manager. 


By 1920 Imes was writing a local interest column called "Know your own city, do you know that." In his column from October 17, 1920, we learn "Street Commissioner Wilder has washed the paved streets, and they look fine," and "Miss Katherine Donnelly is the first woman to be commissioned a Notary Public in Columbus." 


The column concluded with a request for public response to the question "What about parking cars in the business district?" Imes left the Dispatch, bought the Commercial and then in 1922 he purchased the Dispatch and the papers merged into The Commercial Dispatch. 


The old newspapers tell not just the news -- they tell of people, how times once were and what life was like. 


It is surprising the number of old Columbus newspapers that are available on line. According to the Library of Congress, from 1832 to 1943 there were 21 different newspapers in 41 different versions published in Columbus. The first known Columbus paper was the State Advocate in 1832. Fourteen different Columbus newspapers (1836-1943) and two Starkville papers (1888-1943) have been digitized and may be found online under American Chronicles at the Library of Congress website. They provide a rich history of our communities.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]