The summer of 1858 was a very wet and turbulent time for northwestern Mississippi. In fact much of Tunica and Coahoma counties almost washed away when the levees broke. We must understand that the levees of those days were very different from today. There was no levee board or corp of engineers. Each county had commissioners who were responsible for their upkeep. Some were better than others, but events could impact more than just individual counties. Greed out of certain persons could endanger everyone protected by the levee. That’s what happened in the summer of 1858.
Information took time to get out of the delta then and the first inkling that something was wrong reached the outside world on April 7, 1858. The “Vicksburg Whig” reported that the river at Coahoma County was rising at the rate of six inches in twenty four hours at Delta. A few days later the newspaper published an article written by a citizen of the small town of Delta in northern Coahoma County. ” The main levee that protects the back country is just in the rear of town, and the Mississippi is coursing her way through our streets. Land craft, such as buggies, carts etc., are of little use. Now and then a bold navigator, ventures to cross the flood upon the hurricane of a mule. Water craft like the ferry flat, canoes, skiffs and boat gunnels are all the go. Some of our houses are non comparable, except by water craft.”
As the river and water behind rose, the levees began to strain in order to hold back the mighty Mississippi. Finally the levee broke at John D. Trotter’s place in Tunica County. The river swept through the country and passed into Moon Lake by Phillips Bayou. Several nearby plantations were flooded and a number of buildings were washed away. Locals rushed to fix the break and somehow managed to slow the devastating flood.
That’s when the second disaster occurred. The levee at Lewis’s Swamp below Friar’s Point in the southern end of Coahoma County suddenly failed and water began to rush through. As officials rushed to the scene they quickly discovered that this break was no accident. A group of men cutting timber around Lewis’s Swamp had opened a spot in the levee to get their rafts in to help. Through this act of vandalism many people in the area would suffer. Papers blamed a man by the name of Simpson S. McWaters who was caught in the act, but escaped from officers. Another culprit, Martin Peterson, was arrested and locked up. Such anger was caused by these men that one writer to a newspaper suggested consequences should be had by all involved in cutting the levee. “it would be well enough to make an example of the gent if caught by hanging him. It would then be no longer necessary to keep a guard day and night, upon our levees. Damage to the levee by this cutting is from $25,000 to $40,000.
After the levees were repaired at both places, people in Tunica and Coahoma counties began to feel better about their position. Although they had suffered from these two floods, most of the levee had held. People began to feel more secure and land values began rising. Crops turned out well that year. Taxes were increased to make the levees even better and the flood of 1858 actually made people come together. Politicians and state leaders realized that building a strong levee system was important. The foundation for the future levee system had been built and the Delta would be secured. This was the legacy of the Flood of 1858.
“Vicksburg Whig” Vicksburg, MS. Wednesday, April 7, 1858 – Page 2
“Vicksburg Daily Whig” Vicksburg, MS. Friday, April 9, 1858 – Page 3
“Vicksburg Whig” Vicksburg, MS. Wednesday, May 26, 1858 – Page 2
“The Weekly Mississippian” Jackson, MS. Wednesday, July 7, 1858 – Page 3