November 24, 2020

Group worried power work endangers early French, slave site

NATCHEZ — A national archaeology group has raised concerns that recent dirt and construction work on county-owned land endangers historical artifacts connected to what could be the birthplace of slavery in the region.

Jessica Crawford, a regional director of The Archaeological Conservancy, wrote to Adams County Board of Supervisors attorney Scott Slover last week expressing her concerns that work associated with the construction of a power substation and switching station for the former International Paper Company property is destroying what remains of a 1720s French plantation referred to as the Terre Blanc concession.

The Archaeological Conservancy is a national non-profit that identifies, acquires and preserves archaeological sites in the United States. Currently the group has obtained more than 500 properties across the country. The group currently owns Prospect Hill in Jefferson County.

Crawford had previously requested that Adams County donate the 4-acre tract of land that she said is considered historically important. The land which borders St. Catherine Creek, Crawford said, was part of a farm inhabited by French settlers and their slaves.

“It is part of a plantation where the first African slaves were brought to the region,” Crawford said. “It is a really important French Colonial site.”

Called Terre Blanc (or White Earth in French) the plantation was one of two early French concessions — or settlements — in the area.

Slover said the county cannot legally donate property according to state law.

“The board would have to be paid a fair market value for the land,” Slover said.

Even if the county decided to sell the property, Slover said the board is skeptical of the specific archaeological significance of the site saying that most every property in Adams County probably could be deemed historically significant.

Crawford said even though it looks like a tract of industrial land, the site is ‘ground zero’ for the slave economy in the Natchez area.

Crawford said archaeological investigations that identified the French Colonial site in 1974, were retested in 2016.

“There are still archaeological remains there,” Crawford said. “But it is not very deep. It doesn’t take much to disturb it.”

In recent weeks, heavy equipment has been seen clearing the land, Crawford said.

“I’m concerned that even minimal soil disturbance there can be destructive,” Crawford said.

Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said Southwest Mississippi Electric Power Association and Cooperative Energy has been constructing an electric transmission substation and a switching station in the area.

The transmission substation is being built outside of the property north of St. Catherine Creek, Russ said. The switching station is being built south of St. Catherine Creek on the former IP property by Cooperative Energy.

Russ said a utility right-of-way is being used to connect the substation and switching station with power lines. The utility easement, Russ said, was in place when the property was used by International Paper.

“(The Archaeological Conservancy) believes there is something in that utility easement, in between the creek and the (former) IP property,” Russ said.

Work being done on the property in question, Russ said, involves clearing the property for installation of power poles and power lines.

“(Workers) have cleared and grubbed the site so they can hang the utility line,” Russ said. “Once they hang the wire, they will not be back in there once every couple of years to keep the debris down.”

Russ said the work being done on the site is no different than what had been done when IP previously owned the property.

“We are literally doing nothing (on the property) that wasn’t done in the last 60 years,” Russ said.

Russ said he believes the group is trying to put the brakes on a project that has great economic potential.

“The substation work is vital to the long-term development of the property,” Russ said. “Honestly they are attempting to slow the progress down.”

“We can’t afford to slow down,” Russ said.

As an identified archeological site on public property, the site, by law, is a Mississippi landmark, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Jim Woodrick said.

As such, any work on the property would need a permit from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

“I have contacted the Board of Supervisors a couple of times and expressed our concern about work (at the site),” Woodrick said. “They have said they are not doing any work.”

Woodrick said he has arranged a trip to the site next month.

“We are going to go down to Natchez in January, go to the site and discuss what is happening there.”

“We are certainly interested in protecting this very important site,” Woodrick said.

As to the purchase of the property, Crawford said her organization is still interested in purchasing the property.

Crawford said other pieces of the property have been sold for $34,000 per acre.

“We are open to buying it, but not at $34,000 per acre, Crawford said.

Given that the site is limited by what MDAH will allow, Crawford said that particular piece of the property is not worth $34,000 an acre.

“I am hoping after Christmas, (the supervisors) will consider selling it an appraised value that considers the fact that the land cannot be developed,” Crawford said.

“Our main objective is to get this last portion of the birthplace of the slave economy and one of two French concessions preserved,” Crawford wrote in her letter to Slover.