President John Adams appointed Secretary of the Northwest Territory Winthrop Sargent the first Governor of the Mississippi Territory, effective April 7, 1798. Sargent’s last entry as the Northwest Territory’s secretary was on May 31, 1798. Sargent arrived at Natchez on August 6, but due to illness was unable to assume his post until August 16.
Governor Sargent was a Harvard graduate. In 1775 he enlisted in the army and served for eight years, rising during the Revolutionary War from Lieutenant to Brevet-Major. He served as Secretary of the Northwest Territory from 1787 until being appointed Governor of the Mississippi Territory.
The Mississippi Territory was organized in 1798 from land that had been disputed by the U.S. and Spain until Spain ceded its claim with the Treaty of Madrid initially signed between the two countries representatives in 1795. This area covered approximately the southern half of the present states of Alabama and Mississippi.
Being a Federalist, Sargent faced strong political opposition during his tenure as Governor and was generally unpopular with the people. Winthrop Sargent was dismissed from his position as territorial governor in 1801 by incoming president Thomas Jefferson.
William C. C. Claiborne, a lawyer and former Democratic-Republican Congressman from Tennessee became governor and superintendent of Indian affairs in the Mississippi Territory. Although he favored acquiring some land from the Choctaw and Chicasaw, Claiborne was generally sympathetic and conciliatory toward Indians. He worked long and patiently to iron out differences that arose, and to improve the material well-being of the Indians. He was also partly successful in promoting the establishment of law and order, as when his offering of a two thousand dollar reward helped destroy a gang of outlaws headed by Samuel Mason. His position on issues indicated a national rather than regional outlook, though he did not ignore his constituents. Claiborne expressed the philosophy of the Republican Party and helped that party defeat the Federalists. When a smallpox epidemic broke out in the spring of 1802, Claiborne’s actions resulted in the first recorded mass vaccination in the territory and saved Natchez from the disease.
Louisiana territorial period
Claiborne then moved to New Orleans and oversaw the transfer of Louisiana to U.S. control after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He governed what would become the State of Louisiana, then termed the “Territory of Orleans“, during its period as a United States territory from 1804 through 1812.
Relations with Louisiana’s Créole population were initially rather strained: Claiborne was young, inexperienced and unsure of himself, and on his arrival spoke no French. French elite were initially alarmed when Claiborne retained the services of the militia of free people of color, which had served with considerable distinction during the preceding forty-year Spanish rule. Claiborne bestowed a ceremonial flag and ‘colors’ on the battalion, a fact which would enmesh him in a duel held in the Spanish territory, near the current Houmas House plantation, three years later with his arch-enemy Daniel Clark, June 8, 1807, in which the Governor was shot through one thigh with the bullet ending in the other. Claiborne gradually gained the confidence of the French elite, saw the territory take in Francophone refugees from the Haitian Revolution, and was Governor during an event reported as a slave revolt in the area around La Place.
After West Florida secured its independence from Spain in 1810, Claiborne annexed the area on the orders of President Madison, who considered it part of the Louisiana Purchase.
On March 3, 1817, the territory was divided, when the western portion became the state of Mississippi, and the eastern became the Alabama Territory, with St. Stephens, on the Tombigbee River, as the temporary seat of government.
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