Few houses in Natchez can claim a more intriguing history than the residence once owned by the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce. To many Natchezians it seemed most fitting that this important organization should restore and occupy a valuable site. The exact age of this building is still unknown but old records prove that the Spanish government granted this lot to Donna Sarah Lewis in 1796.
French, British and Spanish Influence
As most historians know, the first town of Natchez was founded by the French in 1716, and virtually annihilated by the Natchez Indians in 1729. Shortly afterward, the French and Indian War of Colonial days broke out and France, as the losing nation, was forced to cede this region to the British. Lands in this area were then granted to many of their outstanding soldiers as a reward for outstanding service. The incoming British evidently had no desire to restore the early French town so most of them settled in rural areas along creek banks or Under-the-Hill.
When the American Revolution broke out, the British evidently believed this region was too remote to be involved. Suddenly, however, the Spaniards, claiming to be allies of the American Colonies, declared war against Great Britain, came up the valley and seized the entire Natchez region in the name of “His Most Catholic Majesty”. This took place in 1779, and a short time later they decided to lay out a new town partially over the ruins of the last one. A French engineer, named Collell, planned it as a village with seven streets running parallel with the river and six cross streets at right angles. Since then every street but Main has had its name changed. This makes the Spanish land records very difficult to decipher.
The Donna Sarah Lewis, to whom lot 3 in square 19 was granted, married Captain Isaac Guion, as the first deed to this site indicates. It was made out to John Linton, and signed by Isaac Guion and Sarah Lewis Guion on May 20, 1810 as recorded in Book H, Page 49 of the deed records of Adams County.
As many know, Isaac Guion was one of the most noted military characters. Following the American Revolution, Spain signed a treaty with the United States agreeing on parallel 31 North as the international boundary but they made no attempt to keep that treaty, and adopted an evasive policy. As months passed, much bitterness developed and most U.S. Army men advocated war.
Finally, troops commanded by Captain Guion were sent in to see that Spain fulfilled her part of the treaty. According to several historians, the arrival of Captain Guion and his men brought peace. He has been described as a prudent, patriotic and honest man who came down the river with his soldiers in 1797. They landed not far from the site now known as Ellicott Hill, and in the night they crawled up the bluffs, raised the American flag, and took possession of the small fort Ellicott had erected thereon.
After exchanging many stern messages with the Spaniards, the Spanish Dons finally withdrew in the night and next morning at daybreak Captain Guion ordered the flag moved from Ellicott Hill to the Fort, then reported it as follows: “By that official act Sir, the United States of America took her first step in expansion and the Mississippi Territory cane into our Union”.
Since the Guions sold their Natchez home in 1810, many other personalities have owned and occupied this property. Perhaps the most important of these early owners was J. C. Wilkins who purchased this site in 1825. Legal evidence points to Wilkins as the builder of the present dwelling in 1826 or 1827. About that time an architectural firm known as Neibert and Gemmell had introduced a semi-classical type of town house in Natchez, several of which still stand. These were usually raised brick structures with wide halls, side lighted doors and front porticos with square frame pillars. Since Neibert lived near Wilkins and was associated with him in several ways, it seems probable that Neibert and Gemmell designed and erected this house in 1826 or 1827. In after years this firm also built some of our leading mansions, such as Choctaw.
Another important early owner of this historic home was Andrew Brown, founder and owner of the noted Magnolia Vale estate and founder of Learned’s Sawmill of antebellum days. On May 30, 1854 Mr. Brown and his wife, Louisa C. M. Brown, signed a mortgage with Stephen Duncan, administrator of the goods and chattels of the late Anna M. Linton. According to the custom of that age, most of the big land holders Under-the-Hill also maintained property in the upper town as a resort in case of high waters. Brown was a Scotchman and a devout Presbyterian who purchased the Peter Little mill and converted it into one of the most important lumber establishments ever in our state. He was also an ardent gardener and his Magnolia Vale mansion and garden was famous throughout the nation.
Of course the mortgage was paid off in due time and years later this property passed to his heirs, Mr. and Mrs. Rufus E. Learned. The deed describes it as, “All that certain land with buildings thereon, conveyed by Rufus E. Learned, widower, to his daughter, Mrs. Louise Learned Metcalfe by a deed dated December 14, 1923”.
Eventually this place was sold to a firm known as Goldberger and Fry and in time they, according to the records, did sell it to J. Clay White, “With all the buildings thereon”. Almost immediately Mr. White seemed to begin questioning the legality of his title. For some reason it had not been properly registered so he engaged one of our best-known legal firms to make an abstract. Much careful research was done by Attorney James Brandon who searched all available records, then finally reported: “You may safely assume that the title to the land, now owned and occupied by you and covered by this abstract, is now properly ‘out of the Government’ and that the United States makes no claim thereto”.
What no one seemed to know, however, is that James C. Wilkins of Adams County had deposited a certificate in the General Land Office of the United States as early as April 20, 1820. But the most amazing fact of all is that John Quincy Adams, President of the United Stated had “ordered the letters to be made patent and the seal of the General Land Office to be affixed”. He then signed it in the Year of our Lord 1825. As far as known, this is the first town lot ever legalized in this part of the world by a President of the United States.