We had two fun signings over the weekend — one at Barnes & Noble on Mississippi State’s campus, and one at the Barnes & Noble in Ridgeland, Miss. Our Friday signing was visited by Mississippi State fans preparing to attend that evening’s baseball game against LSU — oh, the optimism… Sadly the weekend did not go well for Mississippi State baseball. On Friday we met a descendant of the Spanish rulers of New Orleans. On Saturday we met one of the men who maintains the actual Natchez Trace Parkway today. Fun to get out and meet everyone. Thank you to everyone who came to show their support —
Ryan and I had to cancel a lot of events back in March 2020. But we are happy that our calendars are beginning to fill up again. Much thanks to Copiah-Lincoln Community College for inviting us to speak at the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration last month. We got to eat some delicious fried chicken at the Carriage House in Natchez, and talk about the life of one of the least known but most impressive figures in Mississippi history: John Blommart. We got to meet other writers — Susan Cushman and R.J. Lee — and were honored to share a signing table with Maurice Carlos Ruffin. It was a fun time and a wonderful reintroduction to public events.
Our Lemuria signing will be followed by two signings at Barnes and Noble in Ridgeland, and Barnes and Noble at Mississippi State University. We will sign at Barnes and Noble at Mississippi State on Friday, April 8 at 3 p.m., and the next day, April 9, at Barnes and Noble in Ridgeland at 1 p.m.
We look forward to doing a lot more of these in the coming months — thank you to everyone who has supported us by attending these events in the past.
Ryan and I have been working hard on our next narrative history project for the History Press. We are happy to announce that Death Along the Natchez Trace will be coming sometime next year. Over the summer we published Hidden History of Natchez, and told some forgotten stories from one of the South’s oldest and most important cities. Naturally, the Natchez Trace, that ancient road that begins in Natchez and stretches to Nashville, pulled our attention north.
Death Along the Natchez Trace will tell stories from Natchez, Port Gibson, Clinton, Kosciusko, Mathiston, Tupelo, and Nashville, and from the quiet, secluded sections of the road that connected those early southern towns. And although the title of the book is rather grim-sounding, the characters in the book do plenty of living as well as dying. This is not a dismal book, but rather a book that tells the story of a road that offered immense danger — but also opportunity — to its travelers.
The photo collage on the cover of Death Along the Natchez Trace hints at some of the content the book will contain. In the upper left is Tecumseh, the powerful Indian leader, who visited the Choctaw and Chickasaw and predicted the New Madrid earthquakes. The middle photo shows the American alligator, covered in so much natural armor that it defied predation by Indians. In the upper right is a visitor to the National Museum admiring Andrew Jackson’s personal dueling pistols. And the large dramatic scene in the lower part of the cover is the midnight burial of Hernando de Soto on the Mississippi — to prevent his body falling into the hands of Indians, his ragged men nailed him into a green oak log and sunk him in the river.
We don’t have a release date yet and are still early in the editing process. But we thought you might like to see the cover of our next book (and in my opinion, one of the most fun we have worked on).
Working on the book has taught me that travel on the early Trace was unbelievably dangerous, but also must have been one of the most exhilarating and immersive experiences an early American could have. I’m sorry I will never get to see and experience what those early travelers did — and thankful that I don’t have to.
Ryan and I will be signing our newest book, Hidden History of Natchez, at Lemuria bookstore in Jackson this Saturday, July 24, at 2 p.m. Lemuria has been our constant supporter since 2018, when we released Hidden History of Jackson. We are happy to be returning to the bookstore for our first signing in a year and a half.
Every time we do a signing or event, we always leave with stories of the interesting people we met and talked to. We look forward to reconnecting with the public this Saturday. Thank you for your support!
Ryan and I are happy to announce the publication of Hidden History of Natchez, our fifth book of narrative history with the History Press. The book will be published July 19, 2021. After spending the last few years researching and writing books about Texas and Louisiana history, it’s great to be back writing about our home state: Mississippi.
I grew up thinking of Natchez as a small town in Mississippi, kind of out of the way, with lots of beautiful old buildings and a strong connection to the culture of the “Old South.” In 2008, I took a trip to the city with my two grandmothers and mom. We ate fried catfish on the Mississippi River, toured a mansion full of antebellum furniture, and tasted muscadine wine at the Old South Winery. It was my first time visiting Natchez, and I’ll never forget the Mississippi River vista from Under-the-Hill.
Now, after spending the last couple years reading about the city, I have a whole new appreciation for it. Natchez is not only one of the oldest cities in the country, it was also one of the most important for many decades. Ryan and I have found a whole lot of unbelievable stories from the city’s past, going all the way back to when the inheritors of the Mississippian Culture, the Natchez Indians, gambled that they could best the French settlers in armed conflict. Check out the back cover of our book to get a taste of some of the stories we tell:
We hope you will look for Hidden History of Natchez on Amazon or at some of the great local booksellers who carry our books (shout out to Lemuria in Jackson and Pass Christian Books on the Coast). Thank you for your support!
When Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville arrived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1699, he was happy to discover that an abundant and unusual game animal was everywhere: beoufs sauvages. The giant, woolly cows roamed all over the Gulf Coast, and Iberville and his fellow Frenchmen immediately added them to their diets. A hunting party killed 23 in two days at Lake Pontchartrain in the early 1700s. Iberville recorded seeing them along the Mississippi River, at Biloxi, and near Pascagoula. Indians hunted the animals too, and used their bones and horns for utensils, and fur for blankets. (Read more in Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound).
Iberville had encountered an iconic animal: the American bison. Many Mississippians do not realize that the bison is a native animal. They used to live here in abundance, but were hunted out within a short time of Europeans arriving. Now when you think bison, you think Montana, some 1,300 miles away. But really, bison should be living here too.
Restoring a local population of such an iconic large mammal would have massive benefits for Mississippi. Yellowstone National Park draws more than four million visitors annually, and the park’s 5,000 bison are a big attraction. Of course, Mississippi lacks the kind of vast space (more than two million acres) that Yellowstone possesses to support its thousands of bison.
A better model for Mississippi might be the National Bison Range in western Montana. The National Bison Range is much smaller than Yellowstone, at only 18,000 acres. It supports fewer bison, but is still home to a herd of a few hundred of the animals. The 300-500 that live there now all descend from a group of 40 that were moved there from Texas, New Hampshire, and Montana in 1909.
But where could a herd of a few hundred bison roam freely in Mississippi? It happens we have the perfect spot. It overlays the coastal land that Iberville once traveled 300 years ago: Stennis Space Center. Stennis is known as NASA’s largest rocket testing facility and is a tourist attraction in its own right. But what many people don’t realize is that a massive ring of land around the facility was set aside as a Buffer Zone for rocket testing — 125,442 acres to be exact. The federal government owns thousands of acres within the buffer zone outright, and owns easements over the entire area restricting habitation and construction.
The Stennis Buffer Zone is precisely where Iberville would have hunted Mississippi bison in the 1700s. Arranging for 35 or 40 bison to be transported to the zone and allowing them to roam and multiply is not a far-fetched idea — it’s actually perfectly natural. The bison would be an instant tourist attraction, and an opportunity for Mississippi to do something forward-thinking and bold. We would be the only bison state east of the Mississippi. The magnolia and mockingbird would no longer be our only animal mascots. And maybe down the road, we could even open a regulated bison hunting season.
It wouldn’t be that hard to restore a population of a majestic Mississippi animal, and the benefits would be immense. So ask yourself — how can we get some bison down here?
Ryan and I received word today that our next book, “Dallas Tough: Historic Tales of Grit, Audacity, and Defiance,” will be published Feb. 1, 2021. Ryan and I are happy with the date, because hopefully by the Spring of 2021 the COVID-19 pandemic will have eased, and we will actually get to do some signings and speaking engagements! We have really missed connecting with our readers at great bookstores and events around the South.
This might be our most exciting and readable book. Once we began researching Dallas history, we realized the city was built by some of the toughest and most tenacious people we’d ever heard of. This book is packed with their stories, written in a narrative style.
The History Press was kind enough to share the cover design for “Dallas Tough,” and we both agree it’s our favorite cover yet. See for yourself:
The History Press also shared the awesome description that will appear on the back cover of the book:
Our venture into Texas history was a real pleasure, and we hope you are as excited about our new book as we are!
Though Covid-19 wiped a whole slate of great events off our calendar this spring and summer, more free time has allowed us to work on other projects. I’m delighted to announce our first book, Hidden History of Jackson, is now available for purchase as an audiobook! Ryan and I signed an exclusive contract with ACX earlier this year to distribute the audio version of Hidden History of Jackson. As of this month, we are happy to announce that Hidden History of Jackson is available for sale on Amazon and Audible, and will be soon on iTunes.
When we began producing the audiobook version of Hidden History of Jackson, we were faced with a choice: contract with a professional reader, or read the book ourselves. We decided to try our hand at recording and built a small studio in Starkville, Mississippi. The Hidden History of Jackson audiobook you can find for sale on Audible was recorded by yours truly.
We are working now on recording and editing the audiobook versions of Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound and Hidden History of New Orleans. If you’re interested in listening to Hidden History of Jackson, please click here.
Thank you for the support, and we hope to see you face-to-face again soon!
Kate Cumming woke each morning and read the news. She scrolled the list of names, eagerly looking for loved ones. There were so many sick. So many dying. So many dead.
And then Kate went to work. Her family was well enough off that she could have stayed home. But, she didn’t. She was an essential worker. Kate Cumming was a nurse, and now her country was facing its severest test yet. She was living in truly unprecedented times.
When she got to work, she couldn’t help but be frustrated. Her country wasn’t prepared for the present catastrophe. Its medical system was in shambles. There wasn’t enough equipment to care for the sick. And they kept on flooding the hospital. At first it was a stream, and then a river, and if action wasn’t taken soon, it would become a deluge. The doctors had already been forced to make agonizing decisions—who would get the needed supplies? Who would be left to die?
Eventually, so many corpses left the hospital in which Kate worked, that they ran out of coffins. Her government, with all its wealth, power, and prestige, was forced to bury its citizens in mass graves.
Kate Cumming’s first exposure to Civil War hospitals came in the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh. She wrote: “But alas! nothing that I had ever heard or read had given me the faintest idea of the horrors witnessed here. I do not think that words are in our vocabulary expressive enough to present to the mind the realities of that sad scene. Certainly none of the glories of the war were presented here.” There weren’t enough medics, nor was there enough space or food. (A typical dinner was bread, butter, and coffee.)
Kate spent her first 24 hours like she would spend her next six weeks. Though utterly exhausted after staying up all night bathing wounds, she found time to record that first evening in her diary: “The men are lying all over the house, on their blankets, just as they were brought from the battlefield. They are in the hall, on the gallery, and crowded into very small rooms. The foul air from this mass of human beings at first made me giddy and sick, but I soon got over it. We have to walk, and when we give the men anything kneel, in the blood and water.”
While her government was woefully unprepared to deal with so many wounded and dying, private citizens began to chip in. Kate noted that a number of volunteers arrived from Natchez to relieve the labor shortage. In addition, citizens of Natchez began collecting supplies and sending them to the overcrowded hospitals in north Mississippi. In fact, Kate became friends with a handful of these Natchez volunteer-nurses. Inevitably, tragedy and national disaster brought out the best in many. Private individuals attempted to provide what their government could not.
After three years of hell—and surely the Civil War hospitals were as horrific as the battlefields themselves (for every soldier killed on the battlefield, two died in the hospitals)—the war mercifully came to an end.
Kate Cumming had taken care of the wounded and dying, without a respite, for three long years.
For more on Kate Cumming, check out Mississippi Bishop William Henry Elder and the Civil War.
Or, better yet, read her journal yourself.
For an empathetic look at Civil War hospitals, read Howard Bahr’s excellent novel The Black Flower.
A reporter once asked Eudora Welty on a Sunday morning why the streets were so empty. She simply looked at him, and said, matter-of-factly, that it was Sunday.
It is eerie to drive by the churches of the most religious state in the nation on a Sunday morning, and see empty parking lots. Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, it will be a hundredfold more eerie. Empty churches? In Mississippi?
It won’t be the first time Mississippi’s citizens have had to worship from home. It will not be the first Easter a church has no congregation. Disease, epidemics, and wars have periodically forced Mississippians to worship distantly.
Americans, and specifically Mississippians, have grown spoiled over the past three generations in terms of variety of and opportunities for worship. We take for granted that we can go to church any Sunday (or Wednesday) we wish. Just half a mile from my house stand six different churches—all of which have full parking lots Sunday mornings. And yet, the ability to worship, hear a sermon, and break bread together with a church family has not always been so accessible.
One particularly powerful example for Mississippi was the Civil War. For instance, at the onset of war, Catholic Bishop William Henry Elder had twelve priests to serve the entire state. During the course of the war, he lost five of those priests. Of the remaining seven, the Bishop was forced to perform a spiritual triage. He sacrificed Sunday services to send many of his priests to the battlefield where he believed his priests would be of more value and comfort to a dying soldier. Inevitably, his decision left Sunday worshippers without the comfort of a service.
And then there were the times of panic and chaos and social disruption in which Elder would have to say a Sunday Mass with a limited or no congregation at all. On such Sundays, the Bishop would set up a makeshift altar and celebrate the Mass alone, sometimes in a church, sometimes, at home, sometimes in prison.
Finally, there were the slaves themselves who all too often lived spiritually isolated when their masters denied them the comforts of Sunday services. Bishop Elder met one such black man in a Federal concentration camp. The recently freed black man explained to Elder that he had been a devout Catholic in Kentucky and attended Mass and received the sacraments. But then he was sold down south, and his new master refused to allow him to attend Catholic church. Nor would he allow a priest on his land. The black man was relieved that Elder had visited his camp. The Bishop explained to him that he was still a Catholic and that he would be welcomed at Elder’s home anytime he felt he needed the sacraments or instruction.
Elder also believed that the third commandment was always being honored, whether there is a crowded church or a solitary pastor saying the Mass. Furthermore, that service was being celebrated on behalf of the slave denied the opportunity to attend. Or the wounded on the battlefield. Or, today, the homebound, forced to miss the service. He believed that the Church was much, much larger than the slave could imagine, full of good men on earth, those climbing toward heaven in purgatory, and the saints themselves in heaven. And they all celebrated each Mass on behalf of the universal Church, those physically present and those unable to attend.
In Elder’s worldview, because the Mass was universal in nature, no Church service was ever ill-attended. It was being celebrated by countless hosts of angels and saints.
And so, tomorrow, 155 years—eight bishops and six generations—removed from the war that devastated Elder’s adopted state, priests all over Mississippi will be celebrating Mass in Elder’s Natchez Basilica, at the twice-burned St. Peter’s in Jackson, and in churches all over the state.
The pews will be empty. But the service will be well attended.
And the next Easter.
And the next.
And the next.