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General Taylor's Plantation
Date: 1846, 1847, 1848
Creator: Lewis, Henry
Image Source: Lewis, Henry. The Valley of the Mississippi, Illustrated. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1967.
Permission: Minnesota Historical Society

Webmaster's note: looking up river, you can see Cypress Grove, Spithead and Pecan Grove

General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), on a visit to Rodney, Mississippi, was so taken by the area and the potential profits to be made from growing cotton here that he determined to purchase land. On December 15 and 17, 1841, in a series of transactions, he sold his three contiguous Louisiana and Mississippi properties. Taylor then authorized his agent Maunsel White in New Orleans in early 1842 to purchase the 1,923-acre Cypress Grove Plantation on the Mississippi River south of Rodney, from John Hagan, Sr. From January 12 to February 13 he took a leave of absence from the army to finalize the details of his purchase. For this plantation, along with its 81 slaves, Taylor paid $60,000 in cash, the bulk of which represented the proceeds from the sale of his cotton crops, and $35,000 in notes. The boundaries of Cypress Grove were not settled until March 1848, and Taylor complained of the long process as ruining him. Although the property lay in one of the richest cotton producing regions in the South, the plantation took several years to become profitable, do to its large mortgage debt.

James Thornton served as overseer at Cypress Grove until he resigned in 1845. Taylor took leave from the army from May 16 until late May to return to his plantation to straighten out problems caused by the resignation. Thomas W. Ringgold was hired as the new overseer. The initial actions of Ringgold irritated Taylor since the overseer, contrary to his orders, planted a full crop of cotton. But when the price of cotton in 1845 rose higher that it had been in five years, Taylor concluded that the decision had been wise. The two men developed a strong relationship and Ringgold remained in charge so long as Taylor owned the plantation. At intervals while her husband was in Texas and Mexico, Margaret Taylor lived at Cypress Grove. One English visitor described the plantation house as an unpretentious wooden building with a large library and a colonnaded veranda.

Even though he was seldom in residence due to his military duties, Taylor kept a close watch on the activities of his plantations. He worried about he conditions of his slaves, or "servants" as he referred to them in the more common antebellum euphemism. If the relatively few comments on his slaves which have survived are correct, Taylor's may well have been as well treated and their welfare as carefully considered as any in the South. The reports of visitors to the Taylor plantation described happy, healthy, and well-cared-for slaves who lived in clean, well-furnished cabins. They also benefited from his unheard-of policy of distributing cash Christmas gifts to his slaves in amounts of as much as $5.00.

Taylor enjoyed the life of a planter. In 1848 he wrote, "The subject of farming is one to which I have devoted much of my life, and in which I yet continue to take the deepest interest." He was an advocate of both crop rotation and of soil conservation, and he experimented with different crops and various strains of cotton. At various times the plantation raised sheep, cattle, hogs, poultry, potatoes, tobacco, corn, wheat, peas, and hay alongside its normal crop of cotton. Taylor in directing the planting might, as he did in 1845, order one to two hundred acres be kept in pasturage and then next year instructed his overseer to plant 600 acres in cotton, 200 in corn, and 30 to 40 in oats, as well as maintaining a 10-acre vegetable garden. At Cypress Grove he also put his slaves to work logging. This was started as an experiment in 1845 in the hope that it would produce enough income to pay for the rope and bagging needed to bale his cotton. The effort coincided with a shortage of locally grown cypress timber and was so successful that three years later the plantation invested in its own sawmill. Taylor also instructed Ringgold to join with neighboring planters in building a levee along Black Creek and the Mississippi River to control the springtime flooding, which devastated the area in 1844, 1847, and 1849.

The cotton output of Taylor's plantation rose after 1845. Nevertheless, he continued to complain about disaster which assailed his fields. His letters constantly note floods, droughts, cutworms, low prices, and mistaken choice of crops. Cyprus Grove proved to be less successful, at least in his mind, as he had expected. Yet the disasters were no worse than those faced by neighboring planters.

In 1846 Mexico went to war with the United States over the annexation of Texas. General Zachary Taylor was ordered to the Rio Grande with 4,000 troops, and in May he invaded Mexico. On February 22-23, 1847 he was attacked by General Santa Anna's army of close to 20,000 men. Despite odds of 4 to 1 he met the enemy in a small pass at Buena Vista. Here he coolly directed his men, not flinching even when a bullet cut his coat sleeve. And when he saw a small cannonball coming directly at him, instead of jumping from his horse, he raised himself on his extremely short stirrups and let the cannon ball amazing fly safely under him and above his saddle. When the Mexicans charged he called out to his artillery officer, "Give'm a little more grape, Captain Bragg!" He won the battle but President Poke disliked him and refused to let him participate in any other battles. Still Taylor became a hero of the war. When he returned by way of New Orleans he was given a banquet and gold sword. On December 5, 1847 he left for Cyprus Grove in retirement, never expecting to leave there.

But the Whig Party nominated him for President and, partly to spite President Polk, he accepted. In between campaigning he returned to Cyprus Grove. Taylor only received 47% of the popular vote but was elected with 163 to 127 electoral votes. The president-elect left Cypress Grove for the last time on the packet steamer Saladin in January 1849 for Vicksburg and then on to Washington. Margaret did not favor her husband's presidency and took little part in Washington social life, spending much of the time knitting in her bedroom.

Prior to his moving to Washington, D. C. to assume the presidency, Taylor had an inventory made of his property. It showed he owned slaves probably worth $50,000; Cypress Grove Plantation worth $8,000, and farm machinery, horses, cattle, and mules assessed at over $7,000.

President Taylor became ill and died on July 9, 1850, after only being in office for 16 months. He was buried, and his wife two years later, in the family cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. Following his death Cypress Grove was sold and appraised at $20,000 and its 131 slaves at $56,650. The plantation continued in operation and the entire low land area around it became know as Buena Vista Island after his victory in Mexico. In the Great Flood of 1927 the Mississippi River spread out for 100 miles south of Memphis and over 1,000 people in Mississippi lost there lives. The Cypress Grove plantation house caved in and fell into the Mississippi River.

Contributed by: Ken Berry

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