Descendants say Beulah marker belonged to landowner

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Descendents of William Warren Williamson say he was a prominent Vicksburg landowner with an interest in fighting roosters.

His home, which stood near where the Louisiana Monument is now located in the Vicksburg National Military Park, was sacrificed during the Civil War to build fortifications as the Confederate army prepared to defend the city.

The discovery of Williamson’s grave at Vicksburg’s Beulah Cemetery — reported in Sunday’s edition — has his family members mining their genealogical files and recalling stories passed down through five generations.

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W.W. Williamson was nicknamed “Shanghai,” said his great-great-great-grandson, Chris Williamson, a Crystal Springs resident who contacted The Vicksburg Post after reading about his ancestor’s grave marker, discovered in what later became primarily an African-American cemetery.

Willliamson died in 1859, before the Civil War came to town in 1862 and before the creation of what’s known as Beulah Cemetery, which was a private, fraternal burial ground for black Vicksburg residents from 1884 through the 1940s. There have been many efforts to restore and maintain Beulah in recent years, with a major effort coming this summer and assisted by AmeriCorps NCCC volunteers. It was two AmeriCorps workers who found Williamson’s gravestone — creating something of a mystery, but not to Williamson’s kin who say he was something of a character.

“The roosters came back from China boxed up and packed in cane,” said Chris Williamson. So much cane was thrown away on the grounds of the Williamson farm that it began growing, Chris Williamson said, and that same can now be found in the wooded areas between Beulah Cemetery and the military park.

“He was quite into traveling on the steamboats on the river,” said Lawson T. Williamson, Chris’ father and a Madison resident, who said he once visited W.W.’s grave but had lost track of its exact location. “The fighting roosters were a big deal on the river, and accepted in those days. Gambling was a big thing and the roosters were popular.”

Lawson Williamson said William Warren Williamson moved to Yazoo County from his birthplace, Amelia County, Va., in 1832, when he was 17 years old. There he met Mary Jane Cobb, whom the family believes was part Choctaw Indian. They married in 1840 and settled in Warren County. The couple lost three children born early in their marriage — twin boys Harper and MacGruder and daughter Della — but five others grew to adulthood.

The Williamsons had a 225-acre farm which encompassed the area where Beulah Cemetery and part of the national park now stand. In addition to the farm, W.W. Williamson was involved in land transactions, Lawson Williamson said, adding, “He was a man of means.”

County records from 1854 show Williamson owning one pleasure carriage, six slaves and the land off Jackson Road, said Jeff Coleman, assistant director of the Old Court House Museum, who pored through records in the museum’s McCardle Library.

Williamson died after a year-long struggle with pneumonia, Coleman said.

Mary Jane had the grave marker made and the burial performed on the family’s land, the family said. Based on information found in funeral home records, the actual purchase of the stone and other expenses were arranged for by an H.P. Hunt.

“We suspect that the graves of the children that died might be near his,” Lawson Williamson said.

During the Civil War, when the Union army began its march toward Vicksburg, the Williamson home was burned on May 17, 1863, by the Confederates, along with a number of others along the perimeter where the city defenses were being fortified. “They burned all the houses except the Shirley House,” Lawson Williamson said. “She was in such a state of rebellion, they just left her house alone.” The Shirley House still stands in the park as the only home from that period.

Mary Jane Williamson took the five children and fled into hillside caves with many other Vicksburg families during the siege. She died just 26 days after Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton surrendered and was buried with others in a mass grave, said Chris Williamson. The children were orphaned.

“There was a Capt. James in the Federal army,” Lawson Williamson said. “Somehow he heard about the situation with the five kids. He got permission to come through the area and escort them to a family the Williamsons knew out at Oak Ridge,” the Bowie family. They took the children in and raised them.

The farm was eventually sold to pay taxes, Chris Williamson said.

It was common for landowners to be buried on their property.

“We knew he was there but couldn’t find his grave marker,” said Chris Williamson, who said the find was exciting. He’d been out at Beulah searching for the grave just two weeks ago, he said. “My father had been there, but I don’t know that he could have found it again.”

A number of other descendants of W.W. Williamson made their homes in Vicksburg over the years, including Samuel Williamson, a former linotype operator for The Vicksburg Post who died in the 1917-1918 worldwide influenza epidemic.

The restoration of Beulah is ongoing, with plans to have students compile and inventory and research the lives of the people buried there.


Contact Pamela Hitchins at