Samuel Forman's Journey

Princetonians settled the area that would later become Mississippi before the land was even a United States territory, let alone a state. The story of Samuel Forman, a New Jersey man who drove his slaves down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to his uncle’s plantation in Natchez in 1789-90, demonstrates the early connections to and influence of Princeton students in the region.

In his book, Narrative of a Journey Down the Ohio and Mississippi in 1789-90, Samuel Forman describes his journey with dozens of slaves from Freehold, New Jersey, to his Uncle David’s land near Natchez, then under Spanish rule. Although Samuel did not attend the College of New Jersey, several of his relatives did. Samuel Forman’s brother Jonathan entered with the class of 1774 but did not graduate, and his cousin William Gordon Forman graduated in 1786.[1]

Samuel Forman notes that Princeton was one of his first stops on the journey to his uncle’s Mississippi lands. As Forman recalls:

There were sixty men, women and children, and they were the best set of blacks I ever saw together… we had, I believe, four teams of four horses each, and one two horse wagon, all covered with tow cloth, while [the overseer] Captain Osmund and I rode on horseback… we drove to Princeton, where we tarried a while, and all were made comfortable.[2]

When Samuel Forman arrived in Natchez, he found that he had been preceded by a Princetonian. He writes that “the Fort Major, Stephen Minor, was a Jerseyman from Princeton.”[3] Minor may have attended the College of New Jersey as well—although if he did, he never graduated.[4] Forman also met Colonel Anthony Hutchins, whose nephew Thomas Hutchins Jr. graduated from the college in 1789, shortly before Forman passed through Princeton with his slave coffle.[5] Although it would be nearly thirty years before Mississippi became a state, Princetonians and their relations had already begun to make their mark.

Halting At Noon

Illustration of a coffle of slaves in antebellum Virginia.

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Early Students

The College of New Jersey soon established a name for itself among the early elites in Natchez, Mississippi. Even before statehood, it became fashionable for the wealthy citizens of Natchez to send their children to Princeton for their education.

From its earliest occupation by European colonists, Natchez possessed a cosmopolitan character. First settled in 1716 as a trading post by the French, Natchez changed hands many times in its first century of European occupation. The British acquired the area in 1763 as a result of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War, but the Spanish took possession of the territory in 1779 during the American Revolution.[6] In 1795, with many citizens of the new United States residing in the area and Spain’s ability to control the territory waning, Spain ceded its claims to the land.  The United States incorporated Mississippi as a federal territory in 1798.  And in 1817, Mississippi finally became a state.[7]

Almost every Princeton student from Mississippi before 1820 came from a plantation family in early pioneer William Dunbar’s social circle.  Born to a wealthy family in Scotland, Dunbar emigrated to Philadelphia in 1771 and almost immediately ventured west in order to work in the fur trapping trade.[8] He moved to west Florida in 1773, attracted by the liberal land distribution policies of the British, and established a plantation in Manchac, an important trading spot along the Mississippi River. In 1788—after years of false starts, and frustrated by the international conflicts raging around him in the contested territory—Dunbar acquired over 5,000 acres of land in Spanish-controlled Natchez and built another plantation he called ‘The Forest.’[9] When Dunbar came to Natchez, he was already familiar with the fort major and former Princeton resident Stephen Minor; the two were old surveying partners from an expedition personally commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson.[10] Perhaps it was Dunbar who, at the behest of the Spanish governor, so kindly surveyed 800 acres of “the best and most valuable” land near Natchez for Samuel S. Forman when the young Jerseyman arrived.[11]

Dunbar enjoyed the assistance and association of several other Princetonians as he built up his plantation enterprise in Natchez.  Samuel Forman’s cousin William Gordon Forman ('1786) introduced Eli Whitney’s cotton gin into Mississippi in the mid 1790s.[12] Cotton production exploded in the region.  In 1794, cotton production in and around Natchez had only amounted to 36,351 pounds; by 1798, the district produced 1.2 million pounds.[13] As Dunbar put it, cotton would be “by far the most profitable crop we have ever undertaken in this country.”[14] The fertile lands along the Mississippi provided prime opportunities for economic prosperity and settlers came to the region in the early 1800s to seek their fortunes. Soon after, many would send their sons to the College of New Jersey.

The first Princeton student hailing from Mississippi, Thomas George Percy ('1806), grew up very close to William Dunbar, and those who followed in subsequent years came largely from families both socially and financially linked to Dunbar.[15] Although  no sources definitively prove that Dunbar promoted the college, he knew Minor and the Formans and thought highly enough of the school and its graduates to send his own sons there. William and Robert Dunbar joined the College of New Jersey’s class of 1813, as the sixth and seventh students to come from the Mississippi area.[16]

Half Length Portrait Of William Dunbar

Portrait of William Dunbar, wealthy Natchez planter.

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The Rise of Mississippi

The first Mississippi natives graduated from the College of New Jersey with the class of 1806. However, Mississippians did not come to Princeton en masse until mid-century.  Broadly speaking, the increase in students from Mississippi coincides with the rise of slavery-based cotton capitalism in the South.

After the arrival of the cotton gin in the late 1790s, planters began to see cotton production as a route to massive profits, and increasingly relied on slave labor to cultivate this new cash crop.  In a 1797 petition to Congress, Natchez elites claimed that “the farms in this District would be but of little more value to the present occupiers than equal quantity of waste land” if slavery were abolished in the territory.[17]

With the rise of cotton farming, demand for slaves in Mississippi and surrounding areas skyrocketed.[18] Natchez, with its prime location at the intersection of an overland trade route and the Mississippi river, was at the center of the interstate slave trade. As the cotton empire expanded throughout the southwest, Natchez was one of the busiest slave markets in the entire South: in only “part of the year 1833,” thirty-two non-resident merchants sold more than $230,000 worth of slaves in the city.[19] With Mississippians paying top dollar, slaves were bought and sold from all over the country. John Hutchins (cousin of Thomas Hutchins Jr., class of 1789, and grandfather of John Hutchins, class of 1863) journeyed as far as New York to purchase slaves for his father’s plantation.[20]

As the state became wealthy on the backs of slaves, Mississippi planters also sent more and more students to the College of New Jersey. The families who sent students to the College almost always came from the Natchez elite, better known as the 'Nabobs.' Thomas George Percy’s family members were prominent plantation holders in Natchez by the 1790s, raising indigo, corn, cattle, swine, and dabbling in cotton with the labor of at least 47 slaves.[21] Families such as the Ellises, Dunbars, Hutchinses, Farrars, Bislands, and Brandons held the most land, slaves, and social capital in Natchez.[22] With the exception of  ‘Farrar,’ each surname would have been recognized at Nassau Hall at some point in the mid 1800s, with some families contributing generations of students to the school.  Of the seven Mississippians who matriculated with the class of 1860 alone, each of their families held an average of over 68 slaves.[23]

Map Showing The Distribution Of The Slave Population Of The Southern States Of The United States

"Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States. Compiled from the Census of 1860."

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Mississippi Cotton Production And Princeton Students

Graph comparing the increase of cotton production in Mississippi and the number of Princeton students from Mississippi.

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The Mississippi Colonization Society

Mississippians made up a significant proportion of the College of New Jersey’s student body by the mid 1800s. In turn, the college and its alumni's opinions about race shaped Mississippi in surprising ways.

Founded in the late 1810s with the involvement of several Princetonians, the American Colonization Society (ACS) sought to colonize free blacks in Africa.[24] The motivation for colonization had little to do with abolition, although it was occasionally labeled as such due to the society's association with vaguely abolitionist public figures. In the minds of many of the ACS's founders, free blacks—who supposedly posed a threat to social order and private property—had no proper place in American society.[25]

By the mid 1820s, the colonization movement had caught on nationwide and prominent citizens throughout the country began considering the creation of their own ACS chapters. In June 1831, a gathering of elite citizens in Natchez did just that, believing that “if the free people were removed, the slaves could safely be treated with more indulgence… it would make better masters and better slaves.”[26] The Mississippi Colonization Society filled its ranks with men from the highest levels of society—and many of them were Princetonians.[27] Stephen Duncan (a non-graduate who entered with the class of 1807) served as the society's president; other officers included Gerard C. Brandon ('1809, a non-graduate), Zebulon Butler ('1820), Jeremiah Chamberlain (Princeton Theological Seminary, '1817), Robert Dunbar ('1813, non-graduate), William Dunbar ('1813), and John Henderson (‘1812).[28] James G. Birney ('1810) helped to fundraise, and once collected $1,400 for the Society on a single Sunday. James Green ('1809, non-graduate) left more than $32,000 to the Liberian colonization movement in his will.[29]

Most of the former Princeton students attended the college before the American Colonization Society first took off in Princeton, and the initial impetus for a state ACS chapter likely came from a different source. Natchez planter John Ker, an active Presbyterian, had taken quite an interest in the ACS in the late 1820s and had been in communication with Ralph Randolph Gurley, the agent and secretary of the national organization. By 1831, Ker wrote to Gurley that he and other “friends of the cause” thought it proper to “organize a State Society auxiliary to the A.C.S.”[30] However, as can be seen from the impressive list of Princeton graduates involved in the society, there may have been some affinity for a society so closely associated with Nassau Hall. Indeed, Robert S. Finley Jr. ('1821)—son of the Robert S. Finley so important to the creation of the society—seemed “to have been liked better than any of the out-of-the-state agents who worked in Mississippi and when the Mississippi society separated for a time from the mother society, Finley was employed as agent of the Mississippi society.”[31] For years, Mississippi had given her sons to the College of New Jersey. Now, Princeton had given Mississippi something of its own.

Map Of Liberia

Map of Liberia, published in 1845. The town of Greenville, named after James Green (class of 1809, Non Graduate) can be seen south of the “R” in Liberia.

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Secession

When interstate conflict began to grow in the lead-up to the Civil War, former Princeton students played a critical role in shaping Mississippi’s future. After South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, leaders in Mississippi convened in Jackson on January 21, 1861, to discuss the fate of their own state. According to the official record, three delegates at the convention had attended Princeton: Jehu Amaziah Orr ('1849), William J. Eckland (‘1852), and Henry Ellett (attendance uncertain).[32] When the vote occurred to approve or reject the motion to secede, all three men voted in favor of leaving the Union.[33]

Students at the College of New Jersey had their own choices to make, and on April 23, 1861, the faculty of the college noted in their minutes that, “in consequence of the state of the country,” fifty-six students from southern states “returned home with the consent of the faculty.”[34] Among them were nine Mississippians, fully half of the students from the state enrolled at the college at the time.[35]

Young men from Mississippi had long been welcome at the College of New Jersey. They made up a significant portion of the student body in the 1840s and 1850s, they forged friendships with other students from all parts of the country, and even brought classmates and their ideas back to their home state. However, when the Civil War challenged dual loyalties to home and alma mater, Mississippi’s Princetonians most often chose their home state.

The Mississippi Convention Viewed By A Tribune Correspondent

Illustration of the Mississippi secession convention.

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About the AuthorPanel Toggle

Sven “Trip” Henningson graduated from Princeton University in 2016. While at Princeton, he majored in history and completed certificates in German Language and Culture as well as Humanistic Studies. Henningson wrote his senior thesis on the Cold War foreign relations of U.S. labor unions under Professor Robert A. Karl. He was also active as the varsity coxswain for Princeton’s lightweight rowing team and served as the vice president of Cloister Inn. Since graduation, Henningson has been living in DC where he works as a strategy consultant and moonlights as a weekend historian.

View all stories by Trip Henningson »

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[1]

Ruth L. Woodward, Princetonians, 1784-1790: A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 113.  Forman, W.J.; Undated; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box Non-graduate card file; Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library (hereafter PUA.RBSC.PUL).

[2]

Samuel S. Forman, Narrative of a Journey Down the Ohio and Mississippi in 1789-90. (Cincinnati, OH: Robert Clarke & Co., 1888), 19–20.

[3]

Ibid., 56.

[4]

Minor, Stephen; Undated; Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box Non-graduate card file; PUA.RBSC.PUL.

[5]

Forman, Narrative of a Journey Down the Ohio and Mississippi, 56.

[6]

D. Clayton James, Antebellum Natchez (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), 5, 15.

[7]

Ibid., 73–75.

[8]

Arthur H. DeRosier, William Dunbar: Scientific Pioneer of the Old Southwest (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 8, 26–27.

[9]

Ibid., 53–54.

[10]

Trey Berry, “The Expedition of William Dunbar and George Hunter along the Ouachita River, 1804-1805,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 62, no. 4 (2003), 388.

[11]

 Forman, Narrative of a Journey Down the Ohio and Mississippi, 55.

[12]

Untitled Biographical Notes in “Forman, William Gordon; 1786;” Undergraduate Alumni Records, Series I, Box 44; PUA.RBSC.PUL.

[13]

James, Antebellum Natchez, 52.

[14]

Ibid., 51-52.

[15]

Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The House of Percy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 25. “Biographical Notes” in “Percy, Thomas George; 1806;” Undergraduate Alumni Records, Series I, Box 67; PUA.RBSC.PUL.

[16]

Database of Princeton Student Origins, Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed 16 October 2017, slavery.princeton.edu/sources/database-of-princeton-student-origins. “Dunbar, William; 1813;” Undergraduate Alumni Records, Series I, Box 73; PUA.RBSC.PUL.

[17]

Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 49.

[18]

Ibid., 50.

[19]

James, Antebellum Natchez, 196–197.

[20]

Biographical Notes in “Hutchins, Thomas Jr.; 1789;” Undergraduate Alumni Records, Series I, Box 50; PUA.RBSC.PUL. Rothman, Slave Country, 51.

[21]

Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The House of Percy, 34.

[22]

James, Antebellum Natchez, 149.

[23]

Database of Princeton Student Origins, Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed 16 October 2017, slavery.princeton.edu/sources/database-of-princeton-student-origins.

Charles Sydnor places the average slaveholder’s number of slaves at 14.1 but notes that how census counting techniques dealt with slaveholders across county lines “slightly exaggerate the number of slaveholders and minimize the size of their holdings” (Sydnor, Slavery in Mississippi, 193). Nevertheless, not only did families such as the Dunbars and Hutchinses own slaves, they owned far more than the average, already very wealthy, slaveholder.

[24]

Douglas R. Egerton, “‘Its Origin Is Not a Little Curious’: A New Look at the American Colonization Society,” Journal of the Early Republic 5, no. 4 (1985), 474.

[25]

Ibid., 479–480.

[26]

James, Antebellum Natchez, 175.

[27]

Charles S. Sydnor, Slavery in Mississippi, Southern Classics Series (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2013), 207.

[28]

Database of Princeton Student Origins, Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed 16 October 2017, slavery.princeton.edu/sources/database-of-princeton-student-origins. "Jeremiah Chamberlain (1794-1851) Dickinson College,” accessed 6 May 2016, http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/jeremiah-chamberlain-1794-1851.

[29]

Sydnor, Slavery in Mississippi, 212; Database of Princeton Student Origins, Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed 16 October 2017, slavery.princeton.edu/sources/database-of-princeton-student-origins. See also Alan Huffman’s book Mississippi in Africa (New York: Gotham, 2005) to further explore the Mississippi Colonization Society.

[30]

Franklin L. Riley, “A Contribution to the History of the Colonization Movement In Mississippi,” in Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, ed. Franklin L. Riley, (Oxford, MS: The Mississippi Historical Society, 1906), Volume IX, 343.

[31]

Ibid., 214; Database of Princeton Student Origins, Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed 16 October 2017, slavery.princeton.edu/sources/database-of-princeton-student-origins.

[32]

Ellett’s congressional biography states that he attended Princeton but the University has no record of his enrollment. He also sat on the Committee of Fifteen that prepared the secession ordinance, but did not draft it himself.

[33]

J. L. Power, Proceedings of the Mississippi State Convention (Jackson, MS: Power and Cadwallader, 1861), 13.

[34]

“Meeting of the Faculty, April 23, 1861,” in Volume 6 Subseries 1A: Complete and Final Minutes of Faculty Meetings, Series 1: Faculty Meetings and Minutes; 1781-2010; Office of Dean of the Faculty Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, 401-402.

[35]

Ibid.; Database of Princeton Student Origins, Princeton & Slavery Project, accessed 16 October 2017, slavery.princeton.edu/sources/database-of-princeton-student-origins.

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