Editing Hidden History of the Mississippi Delta

Our draft of Hidden History of the Mississippi Delta is finished and being reviewed by the discerning Hilary Parrish, our production editor. We received good news this week — a cover for the book has been designed. The cover will feature Greenville, Miss., during the Great Flood of 1927.

The back cover features an image from inside a juke joint in Clarksdale, Miss. It’s one of many particularly striking images we found from legendary photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Marion Post Wolcott.

The back cover copy will give you a taste of what’s inside the book. Of course we had to revisit the De Soto expedition. De Soto led several hundred conquistadors through Mississippi in 1542, spending part of the spring in the Delta near Walls, Miss.

This was a fun book to work on, and looking more closely at the Delta was a real pleasure. Melissa, the kids and I spent a few days in Cleveland, Indianola, and Shaw last winter and had a good time at “The Guad” in Indianola and “Hey Joe’s” in Cleveland. I got to tour another part of the Delta a few months later when I visited Anne Martin in Rosedale. There’s no place like the Delta, that’s for dang sure.

A run-in with Swaney

Ryan and I met Dorsey Carson at the Mississippi Book Festival recently. Dorsey is an attorney in Jackson who has also acted in a good number of movies. We were chatting about Death Along the Natchez Trace, and Dorsey said he had acted in a movie about the Natchez Trace, the Wilderness Road, by Travis Mills.

Dorsey said he had played a character named John Swaney, a real historical figure who carried mail between Natchez and Nashville around the year 1800. I said, “Hot dang, we wrote the story of John Swaney in this book.” Swaney is the reason we know details about Samuel Mason’s banditry along the Trace — Swaney knew the man, and sometimes found his victims, robbed of all their possessions.

We had to get a picture with Dorsey. It was such a funny coincidence. So here’s to John Swaney, a tough man who lived a tough life and did his job well over 200 years ago.

Come see us at the mississippi book festival

Ryan and I will be at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, Aug. 20. It’s our favorite event of the year, and a great time to hear from the smartest and most influential writers in Mississippi and the nation. The last time we were there in person, in 2019, we got to hear Salman Rushdie and Jesmyn Ward speak, just to name a couple.

I will be a panelist on “Decidedly Southern” in State Capitol room 204 from 2:45-3:45 PM. We have a great panel that includes these authors:

Patrick Dean – A Window to Heaven: The Daring First Ascent of Denali: America’s Wildest Peak (Moderator)

Chris McLaughlin – Mississippi Barking: Hurricane Katrina and a Life that Went to the Dogs

Julie Hines Mabus – Confessions of a Southern Beauty Queen

Ty Pinkins – 23 Miles and Running

David Crews – Mississippi Book of Quotations

Afterward, at 4:15 PM, Ryan and I will be signing copies of Death Along the Natchez Trace in the signing tent. We look forward to seeing you there!

Thanks to Barnes & Noble

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 —

emerging from the pandemic

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.

In a couple weeks we will celebrate the release of our latest book, Death Along the Natchez Trace, at Lemuria in Jackson (as is tradition). The signing will take place on March 26 at 12 p.m.

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.

Announcing our next project: Death Along the Natchez Trace

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.

Join us at Lemuria

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!

Back to Mississippi

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!

BBB: Bring Back Bison

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. 

Bison at Yellowstone National Park. Library of Congress

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. 

Library of Congress

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? 

“Dallas Tough” is on the calendar!

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!