1913 Newspaper profile of Knight Band member Jasper Collins
Since the release of the movie, The Free State of Jones (STX Entertainment) on June 24, 2016, interest in the real-life histories of characters such as Newt Knight, Rachel Knight, Jasper Collins, and William Wesley Sumrall (all featured in the movie) has grown. Just recently, independent historian Ed Payne pointed out to me that the following interview with 86-year-old Jasper Collins, during which he candidly discusses his objections to fighting a war to save slavery, has never appeared on Renegade South. —vb
“Ye Oldest Native,” Introduced and transcribed by Ed Payne
Several articles have been posted on Renegade South concerning the Civil War Unionist activities of various member of the Collins family of Mississippi and Texas. All were sons of early Piney Woods settler Stacy Collins (1786-1854). One of the sons, Jasper J. Collins (1827-1913), helped organize the Knight Band of renegades in which he was listed as “1st Lieutenant.”* The following is a profile of Jasper Collins as published in the Jones County News in April 1913. The editor of the newspaper felt Jasper made a suitable subject based on his venerable age (86 when the article appeared) and his staunch character. Jasper would died just four months later in August 1913.
As the account makes clear, Jasper Collins was a thoughtful man of firm convictions. Although he had a minimal backwoods education, he read on the topics of the day and formed his own opinions. Over his lifetime, this led him to side with the Unionists of the Knight Band, to establish a newspaper in 1895 promoting the Populist Party (“Jasper Collins and the ‘Ellisville Patriot’“), and to help found a Universalist Church near his farm in Moselle. In her 1951 book Echo of the Black Horn, author Ethel Knight had little complimentary to say about the Knight Band in general and much less about its leader Newt Knight. But she described Jasper Collins as a “gentleman of the ‘first water'” and stated that his motives were those of a true Unionist. Further evidence, if necessary, comes from the fact that Jasper named his first son born after the Civil War general, Ulysses Sherman Collins (“Unionist naming of Mississippi children: 1861-1880”).
During and after Reconstruction, the activities of the Knight Band fell into the shadows as Confederate veterans and their families in Jones County, as elsewhere throughout the South, embraced the Lost Cause defense of the Confederacy. Jasper himself had enlisted in the 7th Battalion Mississippi Infantry under pressure from the Conscription Act in the Spring of 1862, but—as he explains in the article—deserted in disgust when the Confederate Congress passed a law allowing one male military exemption for every 20 slaves owned. He assisted Newt Knight in the formation of the Knight Band one year later. As the article indicates, he never sought to disavow or minimize his actions because he felt they were correct. Whether they agreed or not, his neighbors elected him to the Jones County Board of Supervisors for several terms and later elected his son Ulysses as Chancery Clerk. — Ed Payne
Jones County News, April 10, 1913, page 5
YE OLDEST NATIVE
Interesting Interview with Mr. J. J. Collins, including:
How our Ancestors lived. The Woods Filled With Deer, Bears and Wolves, and Bear. People Held Land by Squatter Sovereignty, Jones County Did Not Secede from the Southern Confederacy.
We met last Saturday one of the most remarkable men Jones County ever produced, Mr. J. J. Collins, of Moselle, who was on a visit to his son Postmaster Collins. Mr. Collins is in his 86th year, but his mind is as bright as if in the prime of his life, and his conversational powers are unimpaired. He has recently had a severe spell, but has recovered, although still complaining of being somewhat under the weather.
The Jones County New Editor had a most interesting chat with Mr. Collins and gleaned from him some important information about the earlier history of our county. Mr. Collins says there is not truth in the story that Jones County seceded from the Southern Confederacy, during our Civil War; but a large preponderance of its people were Union men, like Alex H. Stephens, of Georgia and opposed the war. And when the Confederate Congress enacted a law that every man who owned twenty slaves might return home, while the poor man must remain at the front and face bullets to keep the blacks in slavery, a number deserted from the army and refused to sacrifice their lives for what they believed to be a hopeless cause. They did valiant service until this law was passed, when they raised the flag of rebellion and many quit and came home. Mr. Collins says he can remember old Ellisville, when our county town consisted of a rude wooden court house, a whiskey shop and a house where travelers could find bed and board, but of the crudest kind.
Mr. Collins says he can remember when the county was filled with game, and the woods alive, with deer. He would split 150 rails a day and then kill a deer before going home at sundown, and on some days he has killed two deer. There were also plenty of bears, and which preyed on hogs. One of his sisters, Sallie, shot and killed a large bear. She heard an old sow grunting near the house, with a litter of young pigs, and suspecting something wrong, she took up her gun and rushed to the scene of the noise. She found that a large bear had grabbed a pig and was making off with it, when she fired into the beast, which got away badly wounded. Her father, on his return home, trailed the animal by blood stains, and found it dead not far off, the load of buckshot having penetrated its shoulder. Mr. Collins says both of his sisters were fine markswomen, and did not hesitate to handle a gun when occasion demanded.
Mr. Collins says that in the earlier settlement of Jones county, there were not many sheep raised, on account of the flocks of wolves that ranged the woods and fed on mutton. Often at night a pack of wolves would collect around their home with the most dismal howlings. The woods were stocked with all manner of game, and which furnished meat for the settlers. Whenever a family wanted fresh meat, some male member would shoulder his gun and soon return with a fat buck on his shoulder.
We asked Mr. Collins what the people did for money in those days? He said they had but little and did not need much. They raised their own provisions at home, and the women folks spun and wove the clothes. He has sat up nights and picked the seed from cotton with his fingers for spinning. They thus made all the cloth needed by the family. He has often driven a team of four or six ox or oxen to Mobile, a distance of 120 miles from his home, and brought back a load of five thousand pounds, consisting of the necessaries of life, such articles as could not be produced at home. When the roads were bad it has taken him twenty days to make the round trip. They carried down hides and a drove of cattle which were bartered for salt, iron and like goods. They did not much use many articles now considered necessities. They got a little money to pay taxes and for other purposes, where they could not use barter in making deals. But a dollar in those days went a long ways, and people learned to do with but little cash.
Taxes were nominal, and he remembers one year the entire money collected by Jones County did not pay the officers their salaries, and so they all resigned, and the county was without local government.
Land was free to any one who would clear it. A man would pick out his farm and begin clearing without a shadow of title. Squatters sovereignty was all the title needed, for one never questioned a person’s right to a farm he had opened. They did not use fertilizers in those days, and when a man wore out one place, he would move to another spot. The houses were made of pine poles with the bark left on, and most of them had dirt floors. The chimneys were built of sticks and mortar. For many years there were no saw mills, and when floors were put in they were made of hewed puncheons or logs split open and hewed smooth. So scarce was lumber that Mr. Collins says he has often assisted in hewing out boards with a broad-ax to make a coffin for the dead.
But the people were independent and happy, and debt was unknown. The young folks would meet at a neighbor home and have their frolics and enjoyed life to its greatest extent. It required but little work to live, for the woods were filled with game, the streams alive with fish, and all a farmer needed was a patch of corn and a herd of cattle ranging the woods. You could travel for miles through a forest of the finest pine timber without passing a human habitation.
We asked Mr. Collins about that little fight in a swamp near Soso, between a Confederate command and men they wanted to force to the front. He said he was in it, and one man in the Confederate command was killed, being shot square in the forehead. This was the only casualty. There was a good deal of firing, but the shooting was wild. Mr. Collins says he served six months in the army, when he was glad to get out, being strongly opposed to the war, and when a bill was passed by the Confederate Congress letting every man with 20 Negroes go home, a number of them decided to fight no longer to keep the blacks as slaves. They decided it was a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight, and thought that those who wanted slaves should remain at the front, and not come home and make the fellow who never owned Negroes battle to keep them slaves.
Mr. Collins owns one of the finest farms in our county, near Union, and says he has never missed making a good corn crop but one year, when there was a prolonged drought. He has raised nine children, all of whom are now living. He is on a visit to them and will take in each before returning home. While in Ellisville he was all the while surrounded by a crowd of congratulating friends on his hale and hearty appearance. He is the oldest native of Jones county, having been born about five miles from Ellisville and has always lived in this county.
Mr. Collins is a man of great firmness of character, and when he makes up his mind you had as well try and move a mountain as change him. He is honest in his convictions, and no one ever knew him to make a statement but was absolutely true. He hides no act he ever committed, and says he is not ashamed for any one to know his beliefs and record. He is a great believer in Tom Watson**, of Georgia, and whom he says is one of the greatest men the South has ever produced. He spoke highly of Ellisville and its people, and says our business men are friends to the farmers and join with them in any movement to better their condition. He says you can profitably grow any crop in Jones County, and there is a bright future ahead for our people. He has seen this section develop from a wilderness into the leading county in Mississippi.
*Although Ethel Knight identified Jasper Collins as Newt Knight’s 1st Lieutenant, Newt’s 1870 roster identifies him as 1st Sergeant.
**Tom Watson was a major Populist leader from Georgia. He served as vice-presidential running mate for William Jennings Bryant’s failed Democratic presidential run in 1896.