Nation’s first president had Vicksburg ties

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2009

Today is the birthday of George Washington, and though he died before Vicksburg was established, some of his kin left their marks here — including land and marriage records, a sash and a house.

“The most important thing we know about Joseph Ball is that he died,” Betty Bullard said.

She wasn’t being flippant, for without the probate of his estate here in 1832 the name of his wife, Rachael, might be lost from history. It was in the dusty old papers in the basement of the Warren County Court House that Betty established that their son was named George Washington Ball. The probate tells what little is known about one of the city’s earliest lodging spots, the original Vicksburg Hotel, operated by the father and then by his son, and located about where the Vicksburg Auditorium stands.

Joseph Ball was one of several connections Vicksburg had with the nation’s first president. Joseph Ball was kin through Washington’s mother, Mary Ball from Pope’s Creek in Virginia. She had a brother and a nephew named Joseph, and it is through one of these lines that the local Joseph Ball is purported to be descended.

Betty, who bought and restored the house at 921 Main St. several years ago, thinks maybe it was in the cards dealt her in life, for as a student she went to Mary Washington College and lived in Ball Hall. She has spent untold hours in the last few years researching the house, the hotel and the family. The house was built in 1822, three years after the city was established, and is one of the oldest in Vicksburg.

When the elder Ball died, the son ran an ad in a Vicksburg newspaper stating he would continue to operate the hotel in the same manner as his father. Among amenities offered was stabling horses at a reasonable rate, and the ad said that raftsmen — men who worked on the river — were welcome. An inventory also revealed a number of kegs of gin.

“Not exactly the Ritz,” Betty thinks, which may be the reason he built a nice house across the street.

For a frontier town, which wasn’t incorporated until 1825, “this was a grand house, a huge structure of post and beam construction. In other words, the frame was put together with pegs and very few nails.”

The house was also in one of the finest locations in town, a block north of Court Square and east of the original Presbyterian Church, of which G.W. Ball was a trustee. A block in the other direction Christ Episcopal Church would be built. G.W. Ball was a land speculator and from an aristocratic Virginia family, and he needed a nice home for entertaining clients and friends. He owned land here, at Eagle Bend, and in Washington County — always along the river.

In 1836, the hotel was sold to Miles C. Folkes, who later served as mayor of Vicksburg, and Ball moved to Covington, Ky., where he married Mary Jane McNichols, the daughter of a wealthy foundry owner. The couple moved to Vicksburg for a while, and their first child, Mary Phelan Ball, was christened at Christ Church. When Mary Jane’s father died, they moved back to Kentucky where G.W. helped his brother-in-law operate the family business. No record of Ball ever returning to Vicksburg has been found.

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There’s another local connection to George Washington — it’s a deep maroon sash he is said to have worn at his first inauguration in New York City. The sash is displayed in the Jefferson Davis Memorial Room at the Old Court House Museum, for the Confederate president is also said to have worn it at one of his inaugurations, either Montgomery or Richmond.

The sash belonged to the Van Rensselaers, a Dutch family who had lived in New York since it was New Amsterdam, had considerable political influence and were close friends of Washington. Some of the descendants moved to Mississippi, and the sash was passed down through the heirs to Mrs. Averina Wright Allen, who gave it to the museum many years ago.

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Members of the Washington family who moved to Vicksburg and vicinity had a knack for missing the census counts, but their names show up in land transactions, marriage lists and tax records.

One of the early property owners here was Fairfax Washington. Warner Washington, a first cousin of the first president, had three children here — Mary H., Hamilton and Herbert Washington.

Mary H. Washington wed Dr. Abner A.G. Beazley at the home of her brother, Hamilton, on Feb. 20, 1837, at Society Ridge, according to an announcement in the Mississippi Free Trader, published in Natchez. Beazley, from Orange County, Va., was thought to have been president of Planter’s Bank, which was only a block from his kinsman’s house.

In 1836, Fairfax Washington bought land at a tax sale; Sheriff Stephen Howard’s name is on the deeds. The next year he sold land to Dr. Beazley and to Hamilton Washington, who had formed a partnership. In one tract was 650 acres, and in another 160. They paid $145,000 in gold for the land, all appurtenances, and 46 slaves. When an economic depression swept the nation in late 1837, Beazley and Hamilton Washington and their families moved to Harris and Polk counties in the Republic of Texas.

Fairfax Washington moved to Hinds County, and after his wife, Emily, died he married Jane Richards in 1838 and moved to Harrison County.

Herbert Washington also moved from Vicksburg to Hinds. In 1860, Mary A. Washington married Dr. J.B. Perkins at the Washington home near Utica. Her mother was Mrs. H. Washington, probably the widow of Herbert. Elder C.W. McLeod of Utica Baptist Church performed the ceremony.

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Our family has an unusual connection to the Washingtons: our ancestor Thomas Highlender of Dumphries, Va., was sued by George Washington’s brother, Augustine, in 1755. I don’t know what the squabble was about, but Washington won and was awarded 625 pounds of Highlender’s tobacco. Maybe that was the first of the big tobacco lawsuits.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.