I interrupt this promised all-Vicksburg-themed week with an announcement I think is important enough to jump in unexpectedly. Yesterday, Jessica Crawford, the Southeast Regional Director of The Archaeological Conservancy, sent me this press release announcing the Conservancy’s recent purchase of highly significant and highly endangered Prospect Hill. As you might recall if you’ve been around MissPres since the beginning, Prospect Hill has been on my mind since back in March 2009 when a concerned friend of PH contacted me for help getting the word out about the plight of the property. I did a follow-up post last May with more pictures after a visit to the house. Then MHT included it on its 2011 Most Endangered Places list this spring.
I’ll let you read the press release, which does a great job recounting why the old plantation is important in Mississippi’s history and why the Conservancy worked so hard to acquire it. If you want to read more about the complex history of the place, pick up Alan Huffman’s book, Mississippi in Africa. Alan’s blog post yesterday, “Saved! (hopefully)” relates the recent determined effort that finally brought the property into the friendly hands of the Conservancy.
Now they need our help to get the word out that the property is for sale to the right owner–someone who loves history in all its complexity, enjoys the outdoors, and has enough money to take the house from hanging-by-a-thread to a rural showplace again.
If you want to get in touch with Jessica, leave a comment here or contact me through the MissPres contact form and I’ll put you together.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jessica Crawford
Southeast Regional Director
The Archaeological Conservancy
NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION PURCHASES JEFFERSON COUNTY PLANTATION, PROSPECT HILL
A rare Mississippi plantation site whose history spans two centuries and two continents will be preserved as part of a new project by the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Archaeological Conservancy.
Prospect Hill Plantation, in rural Jefferson County, Mississippi, was the launching pad for a freed-slave repatriation effort that sparked turmoil in the state three decades before the American Civil War, and was the point of embarkation for the largest group of immigrants to the West African nation of Liberia, which directly contributed to a bloody conflict there a century and a half later.
“Prospect Hill represents a little-explored facet of American history, and it’s also a unique project for us,” said Jessica Crawford, the Conservancy’s Southeast Regional Director whose office is in the town of Marks, in northwest Mississippi. Due to its volatile mix of slave-owner and slave history, and its broader ramifications regarding the African American diaspora, the site holds clues that likely can be found nowhere else,” Crawford said.
For the Conservancy, whose projects focus on archaeological evidence that typically lies underground, Prospect Hill includes an unusual outcropping: An 1854 plantation house, along with a related cemetery and landscaped grounds that are in dire need of stabilization and restoration.
“Prospect Hill would be an important site if only for its plantation archaeology, which is a growing research field,” Crawford said. “The Conservancy is designed primarily to manage land, not historic structures, but because the site also includes important remnants of the built environment, and considering the reach of its history, it called for a unique approach. Our plan is to preserve the archaeological evidence while making the house available to a buyer who will preserve it, with the goal of keeping the remaining fabric intact.”
Crawford said that despite its complications, Prospect Hill’s powerful history made it too hard to pass up. “I told our president about seeing the foundations of the buildings that housed the slaves who worked in the house, and the building that housed the kitchen in the back yard, and the slave cemetery nearby. Then I gave him a copy of Alan Huffman’s book, Mississippi in Africa, which chronicles the story of Prospect Hill and of the freed slave immigrants who resettled in Liberia. A few days later, he said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
In addition to harboring clues about life on an early 19th century cotton plantation in the American South, Prospect Hill is essentially the “old country” for descendants of the largest group of immigrants to Liberia, which greatly expands its importance, Crawford said. Preserving the house and grounds will provide a visual point of entry to a remarkable archaeological site that may shed light on the repatriation effort and on the lives of slaves under two very different masters, she said.
Due to the site’s historical importance and the advanced disrepair of the surviving house, the Mississippi Heritage Trust included Prospect Hill on its 2011 list of the state’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places, which is when Crawford began exploring the possibilities for saving it. Once she visited the site, Crawford realized it posed both a unique challenge and a unique opportunity for the Conservancy, a nationwide, non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the nation’s most significant archaeological sites for research and educational purposes. Much like The Nature Conservancy, The Archaeological Conservancy preserves archaeological sites by acquiring title to them by purchase or through owner donation. Before its acquisition of Prospect Hill, the Conservancy already owned 15 archaeological sites in Mississippi. All, including two in Jefferson County, near Church Hill, are Native American mound or habitation sites.
Prospect Hill’s past is well known to local historians, but its saga gained national attention only after Huffman, a journalist, published Mississippi in Africa in 2004. The plantation was originally founded by Revolutionary War veteran Isaac Ross, who settled in the wilds of what was then the Mississippi Territory around 1808. Along with his slaves, Ross arrived with a group of African America Revolutionary War veterans who had earned their freedom through their military service, and the plantation itself was a largely autonomous community, which means its slave families remained largely intact. Because Ross was concerned about the future of the slaves after he died, he left instructions in his will that upon his daughter’s death the property was to be sold and the funds used to pay the way for those among them who chose to immigrate to a colony known as Mississippi in Africa, which had been established by the American Colonization Society in what is today the nation of Liberia.
Ross’s grandson subsequently challenged the will, and the estate was tied up in court for a decade, during which a slave uprising occurred that allegedly sought to kill Ross’s grandson and led to the burning of the original house in April 1845. The grandson, who represented the primary obstacle to the slaves’ freedom, survived the conflagration, but a six-year-old girl died. Afterward a group of slaves who were believed to have been responsible for the uprising were hanged from trees in the yard. The majority of the Prospect Hill slaves ultimately made the journey to Africa, where their arrival set in motion a long-running struggle with the region’s indigenous tribes that culminated with the Liberian civil wars of the 1990s and early 2000s. Ross’s grandson, meanwhile, managed to acquire Prospect Hill from the estate, and built the existing house on the site of the original in 1854. The Mississippi Colonization Society, a local chapter of the American group, also erected a monumental obelisk over Ross’s grave in the nearby family cemetery.
The existing house, an elaborate, raised cottage of 10 rooms standing on a secluded knoll amid moss-draped trees, “is more than just a Greek Revival in need of repair,” Crawford said. “It’s the point of entry to an amazing, and important episode in American history. The house, the cemetery and the grounds represent the visible evidence. We’re excited about what can’t be seen – the clues buried underground.”
Even in its current state of disrepair, Prospect Hill is a beautiful place, Crawford noted, but the structure, which has been in disrepair for decades, is running out of time. “We don’t have the resources to restore the house,” Crawford said. “That’s just not what we do, but we can apply for grants and look for funding that will allow us to do some emergency stabilization on the front porch and roof.” Meanwhile, the Conservancy will work with the Mississippi Heritage Trust, the Historic Natchez Foundation and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to find a buyer to take on the restoration of a lovely, secluded home with an incredible past. Once a buyer is found, the Conservancy will retain an archaeological easement on the grounds to ensure that future archaeologists will be able to dig deeper into the past of a place that, as Huffman noted, “represents an extremely important remnant of Mississippi, American – and African — history.”
**And don’t worry, tomorrow we will return to our regularly scheduled Vicksburg concrete block posts, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. One tenet I try to live by is to not tick off the concrete block people!