Waverly Map, supplied by Jack Elliott
Waverly Town Plat, supplied by Jack Elliott
Ghosts of Waverly Plantation
WAVERLEY ON THE TOMBIGBEE RIVER
by Jack D. Elliott, Jr....October 25, 2007
To many, "Waverley" is merely a large antebellum mansion on the west bank of the Tombigbee River between West Point and Columbus. However, despite the fact that the mansion is an almost legendary landmark, there is more to Waverley than a building. Today Waverley refers to a sparsely populated community that includes the mansion, a church, Masonic lodge, and a Corps of Engineers-operated public access area located at the old ferry site, but 150 years ago it was a thriving center of activity.
I first visited Waverley in the late 1950s with my Uncle Bill Lasley and his sons Greg and Jim. In those days the mansion had been unoccupied for almost half a century. The desolate conditions in many ways made it all the more interesting. The yard was heavily grown up while the ornamental box woods in front were in disarray and partially eaten by cows. I vaguely remember the interior of one room. It seems there was a podium or desk with a gavel on it suggesting a court room. I imagined it to be the scene of trials like that portrayed in the story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" in which Webster called twelve souls of the damned back from hell to testify on his behalf of his client. The mansion at the time was certainly evocative of ghosts and other "haints" especially for an imaginative child.
After touring the house we went down to the ferry; in those days it was still in operation and would continue until the opening of the Hwy 50 bridge in 1962. The ferry was a low barge-like boat with side rails. The ferryman had to pull on a cable to propel it across the slow moving river. However, this was the first ferry that I had ever seen, being a small child as I was, and perhaps I can be forgiven for mistaking the ferry for a low pier. I immediately walked out to the end of the "pier" as a car drove onto it. I stood intently for some time looking at the other bank when I noticed that my cousins Greg and Jim were on the side of the ferry paddling like mad with short planks. I wondered why they would be doing such a thing on a pier. Then I turned and to my horror saw that the "pier" had separated from the bank, and we were in the middle of the river! My first thought was that with their frenzied paddling my cousins had managed to break the "pier" loose from its moorings. A fine mess they've gotten me into, I thought. That was my introduction to ferries and to Waverley.
Waverley is bounded by the Tombigbee River on the east and Tibbee Creek on the south. Tibbee Creek (a corruption of Oktibbeha Creek) served for at least a century as the boundary between the Choctaw Indians on the south and the Chickasaws on the north. The earliest known settler at Waverley was John Pitchlynn (1764-1835), a native of South Carolina, who moved as a youth with his father to the Choctaw territory. There he married in succession two mixed-blood Choctaw women and raised a number of children, one of whom, Peter, later became a Choctaw chief. John was appointed US Interpreter to the Choctaws in 1786, which made him an employee of the federal government, a position he held until the mid-1830s. About 1810 he moved to what was later called Plymouth Bluff on the Tombigbee just below the mouth of Tibbee Creek and lived there until the mid-1820s when he moved a few miles to the southwest.
After the last Choctaw land was ceded to the US in 1830 Pitchlynn observed that his neighborhood had become "a bad country" with white immigrants stealing his livestock. The situation was such that he soon determined to move across Tibbee Creek into the Chickasaw territory which was also in the process of being ceded. Upon obtaining the approval of the Chickasaw chiefs he drove his livestock across the creek in May 1833 and established a farm and home called "Good Hope" at Waverley. There he served as guardian for his orphaned grandsons, Alexander and Ebenezer Pitchlynn, both members of the Chickasaw tribe. Growing old and increasingly subject to depression because many of his family and friends were moving to what is now Oklahoma, he contracted an unidentified disease in April 1835 and died on May 20. He was buried near his home at a site of his own choosing. His grave lay for almost a century in a wooded area marked by only "a few scattered bricks." In 1929 a government military headstone was placed on his grave by the Shuk-ho-ta Tom-a-ha Chapter of the DAR from Columbus.
John's adolescent grandson Alexander was given the Waverley section of land by provision of the 1834 treaty between the US and the Chickasaw Nation. Most such allotments were soon sold as the Chickasaws moved to Oklahoma, so in March 1836 Alexander sold his section of land for $3000 to Colonel George Hampton Young of Georgia and moved west with his family. Young, who would later build the Waverley Mansion, was a figure that dominated the history of the community.
George Young was born on December 28, 1799 into a middle-class family of planters in Oglethorpe County, Georgia. He graduated with honors from the University of Georgia and entered the practice of law in Lexington, Georgia, and at one time represented Oglethorpe County in the Georgia Legislature. He moved to Lowndes County, Mississippi about 1833 and in 1835 attended the sale of Chickasaw lands at the Pontotoc Land Office, where he purchased thousands of acres in the prairies of present Clay and Monroe Counties not to mention the Waverley section on the Tombigbee. Young apparently settled initially, not at Waverley, but on one of his plantations near present day West Point.
Meanwhile Waverly became a well used river crossing after Thomas B. Mullens was licensed in 1834 to operate a ferry at the crossing previously known as "Pitchlynn's Ford." Consequently, Waverley was first known as Mullens Bluff after Mullens's Ferry. It was also sometimes called "Pine Bluff," probably because of the growth of pine trees on the bluff overlooking the river and the ferry. In 1836 Jesse Weaver was licensed to retail spirits there, while John M. Hughes began operating a store in about 1837. Although the place was locally known as Mullens Bluff or Pine Bluff it began to appear on state maps in 1836 as "Waverley," after its owner Colonel Young borrowed the name from the title of Sir Walter Scott's historical novel, Waverley (1814). In 1839 popular usage shifted from Mullens Bluff to Waverley, and the following year the name was institutionalized when the Waverley post office was opened in John Hughes's store.
A plat for a town of Waverley was drafted during the 1830s, probably by its owner Colonel George H. Young who presumably had visions of making money selling lots in a booming river town. However he apparently changed his mind, perhaps after observing the fate of nearby river towns such as Colbert, Plymouth, and West Port which, despite the high expectations of their founders, were little more than minimal successes. So Young held on to his Waverley property and eventually moved from his prairie plantation to reside there about 1841. The reason for the move is not certain. Perhaps it was a combination of wanting to escape from the prairie mud and a desire to be near his port facilities on the Tombigbee. At Waverley he initially resided, not in an opulent mansion, but in a log dogtrot house located on the site of the present Waverley mansion. Such log houses were actually far more typical of rural antebellum planters than were mansions.
Residing at Waverley allowed Young to oversee a number of business activities that were closely related to the river. Perhaps most important was his work as a commission merchant whereby he represented firms based in Mobile and Columbus. Commission merchants took care of the business of farmers and planters in distant cities arranging the sale of their cotton and the purchase of their merchandise, which involved shipping cotton downriver to Mobile and merchandise back upriver. To carry on this type of business it was essential to have storage facilities, so Young constructed a large brick warehouse on the river bank near the ferry. Here he could store not only his own cotton but also the cotton of other planters who paid about $.25 a bale for the privilege. To further promote his cotton business he established a steam engine near the ferry that operated a cotton gin along with a grist mill and saw mill.
Young also gained control of the Waverley ferry by the 1840s and operated it for years. Tolls from ferriage could be quite lucrative on a well-traveled road. Furthermore, he became Waverley postmaster in 1845 and served in the Mississippi Legislature during the 1840s. During the 1850s he was a director of the Mobile and Ohio railroad which was being constructed northward from Mobile to the Ohio River. Furthermore, he also served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Mississippi.
At the peak of his career during the 1850s he built his dream house, the palatial mansion that came to be synonymous with Waverley. To do this he had to move the log house in which he resided, hauling it back a short distance so the mansion could be built on its site. The log house was later used as an outdoor kitchen. The mansion was two-storied and of frame construction. Its most impressive feature was an octagonal rotunda that opened from the ground floor to the top of the surmounting cupola -- four stories up.
During the 1840s and 1850s Waverley was more than Young's base of operations. It was also a loose cluster of homes of plantation owners, most of whom were related to Young. They included his nephew George Henderson Lee, his son-in-law Alexander Hamilton, and his own sons, James and Thomas, who all owned homes at Waverley and farmed various outlying plantations. Additionally Dr. William Burt, who was of no known relationship to Young, resided there and farmed a plantation that stretched southward to Tibbee Creek. There were also a number of African-American slaves living in and around Waverley.
The completion of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad to West Point in late 1857 had long term consequences. Although river commerce did not end immediately, it would have its life sucked away by the railroads and with it died Waverley's potential for trade. The Civil War also had a long term impact. Although there was little local devastation because no Union troops ever reached there, the effect of the war was felt through its drastic impact on the economy and society.
After the war Waverley began its long decline. Having lost its commercial potential, it became little more than a place of residence for planters. Over the years the white landowners began to die, depriving the community of leadership, while their children moved away to Columbus and further. Thomas E. Young died in 1869, George Lee in 1870, Wm. Burt in 1873, and Alexander Hamilton in 1879. In 1880 Colonel Young, the pillar of Waverley, died bringing an era to an end. Four of his sons remained; however in 1913 the last son "Captain Billy" died after which there were no longer any resident landlords at Waverley. Virtually all of the land was by then owned by absentee owners, many being relatives of the late residents. The old houses eventually were demolished or burned except for Colonel Young's mansion which sat deserted for decades, occasionally visited by family members from Columbus. During these years in its awesome desolation it became a local attraction.
Several black families continued to reside at Waverley. Many had been slaves on local plantations before the Civil War. After the war the ones that remained became sharecroppers or farm renters. A few were able to purchase small farms in the nearby prairies as early as 1900. During the 19th century these people established Mt. Pisgah church and a Masonic lodge, both of which are still active.
By the mid-20th century, if not earlier, the Waverley ferry saw only local usage because most traffic crossed the Tombigbee by bridge at either Aberdeen or Columbus. As noted the ferry was discontinued in 1962 with the opening of Highway 50. In that same year Robert and Donna Snow of Neshoba County purchased the mansion from the Banks family of Columbus, descendants of George Young, and transformed the old home into the showplace that it has become.
Even today the area is still sparsely populated which, along with the presence of the river, has been a big attraction for teenagers on weekends. I can recall many occasions in the 1970s when we would have parties at the old C&G Railroad bridge across the Tombigbee. There the eerie silence accompanied by the moonlight on the surface of the river was memorable if not captivating. Not far from the mansion Colonel George Young sleeps in his grave kept company by family and other community members: Burts, Hamiltons, and Lees. A distance to the south in a cemetery inaccessible to the public sleeps an older resident, the Choctaw Interpreter, John Pitchlynn.