Sunday, May 27, 2007

Van Buren: Itawamba County's Old River Port Town Revisited

The secluded place is silent now. The only noise is that of a snake sliding into the peaceful Tombigbee River from an old cypress stump, the constant buzzing of summer locusts and the calling caw of a nearby crow perched on a willow tree limb surveying the scene. The only visitor is the occasional hunter.

It is like an oasis, far away from the Twenty First Century. A peaceful oasis where only the sounds of nature are heard.

More than 170 years ago, the place was quite different. It was a bustling little river port on the Tombigbee with more than a dozen stores, a boat landing to haul the cotton from the fertile Itawamba County bottomlands, and a town cemetery where the pioneer citizens of the town were laid to rest. It was the largest village in Itawamba County during 1840.

More than 400 settlers of the Itawamba frontier called this lively village home. The people had named their town in honor of the leader of the United States at the time – Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the young country.

For many years, Van Buren village has been forgotten. About 1850, the village turned into a ghost town almost overnight. Some people say the railroad built some miles west of the village caused the old river town to decay. People moved west to be near the new Mobile and Ohio Railroad. Others went to the bustling village of Richmond, several miles southwest.

The first owner of the land on record was a Chickasaw by the name of Ish-twi-ah-bah-ka. He sold the land in 1836 to D. Saffrens, a land speculator in the newly opened Chickasaw country. The first person to open a store there was Winfield Scott Chippewa Walker, a nephew of the famous general Winfield Scott. Walker, a colorful merchant, had moved up from old Cotton Gin Port in neighboring Monroe County during 1838 when he opened his store on the banks of the Tombigbee at Van Buren.

The following year W.C. Thomas and Brother also began business there. Soon the place began to prosper because of its location on the Tombigbee River. A Mr. Dines from New York, John W. Lindsey, J.C. Ritchie, H.W. Bates, Elijah B. Harber, Mr. Weaks, E. Moore and R.F. Shannon also began businesss in the village.

Some of the founders of the town were Boling Clark Burnett and his wife Ellen, John R. Wren and his wife Mary, and Thomas G. Wren. These people served as commissioners of the town in 1843.

In an 1843 edition of the Aberdeen Weekly Whig, the following notice appeared: “Boling C. Burnett of Aberdeen acting as secretary, called a meeting of the stockholders of Van Buren at the town of Van Buren.”

An old deed dated October of 1843 found in the county courthouse in Fulton shows that the town was sold in lots. So many lots, in fact, that only one deed was entered in the Chancery Clerk’s office for all the lots.

The 1850 Federal census of Itawamba County shows that Van Buren had around 450 citizens in the town and immediate surrounding community. There was one mechanic, two teachers, seven carpenters, one physician, one shoe maker, four merchants, two blacksmiths, one tanner and eighty-six farm families.

By 1860 there was only one merchant left in the town. The village had practically become extinct.

Today, the only thing left of the old river port village is an old cut out place in the bank of the river where the landing once stood, outlines in the topography of the land where buildings once lined the streets, an old road bed with scattered brick and the occasional old broken chards of glass, glistening in the rich bottomland soil. One solitary marble monument on the river bluff is the only remaining monument of the village cemetery. The monument reads: “Sacred to the memory of Aaron Dutton, son of Samuel and Margaret Dutton, Died 1843.”

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