Adams County among state leaders in signs

Published 12:03 am Sunday, September 28, 2008

NATCHEZ — Dotting the state since 1949, historical markers have become almost as indigenous to Mississippi’s landscape as the magnolia.

The distinctive large green signs with gold lettering can be seen statewide.

And they’re hard to miss throughout Natchez and Adams County.

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In fact, Adams County has the third highest concentration of signs in the state with 41. Hinds County has 51.

Since those signs began popping up close to 60 years ago, nearly 850 have been erected to catalogue Mississippi’s history.

Former Director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History Elbert Hilliard said the societal desire to log the past is quite natural.

“It’s just an ongoing evolutionary process as society matures,” he said.

The MDAH regulates the markers, and their content, and if a marker was put up between 1973 to 2004, Hilliard had a hand in it.

While the MDAH is currently monitoring the marker program, it was actually first placed under the direction of the State Historical Commission from 1949 until 1968, when the MDAH took over.

But long before then, history buffs were marking the state’s historic landmarks.

Hilliard said as early as 1911 the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society of Colonial Dames were marking significant sights along the Natchez Trace.

Oddly enough, while the state’s markers are meant to log the history of the state MDAH’s special project officer, William Thompson, said he is unaware of anyone who knows where the first marker was placed.

“It’s a bit strange,” he said.

Thompson said after a private party submits a request for a marker the MDAH board reviews it.

The individual or group that makes the initial request then submits the text for the sign, which is submitted for the board’s approval once again.

Thompson said the text evaluation process is a lengthy one.

“Historical accuracy is critical,” Thompson said. “We do extensive research on each one,”

That includes checking old newspapers, referencing textbooks and even talking to locals.

But even with fact-checking mistakes, both big and small, do happen.

“Nobody’s perfect,” Hilliard said.

In Natchez there are at least two markers with incorrect dates.

Mimi Miller, Historic Natchez Foundation’s director of programs, said the markers at King’s Tavern and the Commercial Bank building both have the wrong date listed as the year of construction.

Miller said in reviewing old land transactions and construction records, the correct dates were ultimately found.

But both Miller and Thompson said finding an error on a sign is not necessarily detrimental — it means research is still being done.

“With anything historical there’s always more information sought and uncovered,” Thompson said.

However not all mistakes are as benign as an incorrect date.

MDAH’s historical archeologist Jack Elliott said sometimes bad factual information can create quite a stir.

A marker placed in Pontotoc County, to commemorate the battle of the Chickasaw Indians against French officer Pierre D’Artagutte, was incorrectly located.

Elliott said when the mistake was realized several years later, county officials did not want the sign relocated.

“They virtually fought a war over it,” he said.

One Pontotoc legislator even proposed legislation that would not permit the sign to be moved since it had been in place for approximately 25 years.

The MDAH eventually examined the evidence proving the marker was initially incorrectly located and determined it should be moved.

Elliott was sent to retrieve the sign, when he arrived it was gone.

Elliott said he did not see the marker for years until he made a chance trip back to Pontotoc.

“There was the darn marker (at the courthouse,)” he said. “As far as I know it’s still there.”

Locally the signs tell the well known, and lesser known, history of the area.

On East Woodlawn, a marker notes the child home of author Richard Wright.

And Wright actually has two markers in Natchez.

There’s also one on the bluff.

In Washington, near Historic Jefferson College, there’s a marker that brings attention to the life of Dr. John Monette.

Clark Burkett, MDAH’s historian at Jefferson College, said Monette was one of the first people to realize that quarantining was one of the best ways to slow the progression of yellow fever.

But Monette’s most important contribution was his book on the history of the settlement of the Mississippi Valley.

“That’s still being used by historians today,” he said. “