Nitta Yuma is never far from the past ‘Fo’ now living the plantation life of history

Published 1:00 am Sunday, October 23, 2011

NITTA YUMA — He says he lives in two worlds. One is a Delta plantation thoroughly immersed in history and folklore; the other is geared to the modern world of technology at the touch of a fingertip.

He also goes by either of two names. He’s Vick to most of his family, but to others he’s “Fo,” Southern vernacular for anyone who is the fourth in a succession in a family using the same name.

Henry Vick Phelps IV, who was 23 just a few weeks ago, grew up on the family plantation, Nitta Yuma, just a few miles north of Anguilla. After earning a degree in business at Mississippi State he came back home.

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“I take one step here, one step there — and I’m back into the past,” he said. The steps he takes are usually on a souped-up four-wheeler, but it’s on the same land, down the same trails, that his ancestors saw over 200 years ago from horseback.

He could have majored in history, and he loves it, but he didn’t need to because, “You absorb so much around here.” He learned most of the family and plantation lore from his grandmother, the late Dorothy Cole Phelps, who researched and wrote about the area’s past.

Nitta Yuma was settled by Major Burwell Vick who came to the wilderness area possibly in the late 1700s from Isle of Wight County, Va. He traveled from Cook’s landing on the Mississippi River, into the Yazoo, then the Sunflower and then into Deer Creek.

Major Vick told his Indian guide he was looking for the highest point in the area, one that wouldn’t flood.

The guide knew the spot (and he was right — in the flood of 1927 it was one of the few places in the Delta that didn’t go under water).

There are several variations of the story of how Nitta Yuma got its name, but they all come to the same conclusion. The guide saw bear tracks in the mud as he was getting out of the boat on the banks of Deer Creek, and he shouted “Nitta yuma, nitta yuma,” which in Choctaw means bear tracks or “trail of the bear.”

Vick and his son, Henry W. Vick, cleared land, built a house and other structures, and laid claims to additional lands for other plantations in the vicinity. A few years later, the Major’s brother, Newit Vick, moved north from Jefferson County, Miss., secured land in Warren County, and in 1819 founded the town of Vicksburg.

Nitta Yuma remained a Vick plantation through several generations, was inherited by Henry W. Vick, and then after the deaths of his sons, went to his daughter, Mary Bullock Vick. It was through her marriage that it became Phelps’ property.

The deaths of her father and two brothers had been traumatic for the young lady and she became very ill. Her aunt, who was her guardian, feared for the girl’s life. It was wartime, and there were no doctors in the area except one, an Ohio physician who was chief of Gen. U.S. Grant’s medical staff. He was camped on one of the Vick plantations, Pokeberry, when by chance he met Mary’s aunt. She told him her plight, and he came to the rescue. Mary recovered, they married, and started a tradition: their first child was named Henry Vick Phelps.

It would be in the tradition of Southern lore to claim she saved the plantation by marrying the Yankee doctor, Vick said, but his grandmother insisted they fell in love — and there are extant letters to prove it “though all could have been lost if they hadn’t married.”

Dr. Phelps sold his Ohio holdings and moved to Nitta Yuma where he became a leader, rebuilding the place from the ravages of war and military occupation. He became the first president of the Mississippi Levee Board, and the plantation became a beacon in more ways than one — in 1886 it had electric lights, and that’s before they even had them in Washington, D.C.

Nothing remains the same, and the plantation is a good example. Nitta Yuma once had a population of several thousand (mostly plantation workers) but today, Vick said, he’s “definitely the youngest of about 20, though my dad fudges and says there are about 30.” There was once a railroad station, a working dock, two sawmills, a blacksmith shop, stores and a post office “but now we just have mailboxes.” Old photos and records show it as a thriving place.

Vick first started learning about the family’s history when he was 5. His grandmother was a treasure trove of information who “told me how everybody met, what the wedding arrangements were, and so on. I could spend all day telling about it.”

Of the many fascinating stories — none is more intriguing or documented than that of Henry Gray Vick, a brother of Mary Bullock Vick Phelps, who was killed in a duel not long before the War Between the States.

It’s an oft-told tragic tale of how Henry Gray Vick and his friend James Stith had a falling out over a trivial matter which escalated to a duel they fought in Mobile. Henry, an excellent marksman, fired into the air, but Stith didn’t. Henry Gray Vick’s body was brought to Vicksburg, then taken to the Chapel of the Cross in Madison County for burial. During the ceremony, which was to have been his wedding day, his fiancé stood in her wedding dress beside the grave.

In later years the fiancé, Helen Johnstone, married an Episcopal minister, the Rev. George Carrol Harris, who understood and accepted her eternal love for Henry. Near Rolling Fork, where Harris was rector of the Episcopal Church, the couple built their home on top of an Indian mound and named it Mount Helena. This is where Helen lived until she was almost 80.

Two years ago the story with all the numerous details was told in the form of a play, “A Dream Revisited,” with the setting being Mount Helena. Local residents portray the various characters, and it’s only appropriate that the role of Henry Gray Vick is played by Vick because they share the same name and they also have the same interests — hunting, fishing and marksmanship. Vick said that, “In a way I become Henry Gray Vick.”

“I don’t consider it acting. I’m just being myself. Their ages are also close: Henry was 25, Vick is 23.

Mount Helena was abandoned for a long time but was restored a few years ago. The first year the play was staged, Vick said, something eerie happened: Helen Johnstone Harris’ portrait fell off the wall, and it was on the anniversary of the death of Henry Gray Vick.

Vick is the seventh generation of the family to live at Nitta Yuma, and he laughs that there would be more if the men of the family had married younger and started their families sooner, “So I have absolutely a while to just play around” though he does plan some day to have a family and a son who will be the fifth.

Nitta Yuma is still a partly working plantation, though today there’s no need for lumber mills, blacksmith shops and a lot of barns. Many of the old buildings have been preserved including an 1820s cabin, an 1840 plantation house and numerous other structures. Some are on their original sites, others have been moved. The old Vick home still stands. It started as a dogtrot and, as has often been the case, was added to and veneered, many of the additions coming from family homes and other historic structures.

He hopes for the eventual restoration of some of the buildings, Vick said, but it won’t be done in a hurry. “It might not take long to paint, but you don’t get the weathered look instantly.”

Amidst the old buildings and antique furnishings Vick has started his own business venture, Crux Industries, which will be a clothing line. He’s working with a North Carolina cousin, a designer. The name, he explained, is Latin and comes from a family crest that dates to the second holy war.

What brought him back home after college? Could the family keep him down on the farm, “after I’d seen Stark-Vegas? All my grandfathers before me came back. It’s more than just a tradition. It’s home.”

“Nitta Yuma never leaves you,” he said. “It stays with you. There’s only one Delta.”

And only one Nitta Yuma.

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