“Ye Oldest Native” speaks: Jasper J. Collins, 1913

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.

Jasper J. Collins, Civil War Unionist, New South Populist and Universalist. Photo courtesy of Constance Bradley.

Jasper J. Collins, Civil War Unionist, New South Populist and Universalist. Photo courtesy of Constance Bradley.

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.

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9 replies »

  1. Ethel Boykin Knight wrote “Echo of the Black Horn” about the Knight Band. It was published in 1951. Newt’s son Tom Knight, who had written his own self-published account of this father’s activities in the 1930s, gave her access to his materials. Whereas Tom Knight’s book was generally laudatory, Ethel wrote far more critically about Newt’s character, his war time activities, and his mixed race relationships.

    Although her maiden name was Boykin, my research indicates that Ethel’s paternal great grandfather was James West Knight, a brother of Newt’s who served in the Confederacy and died in 1865.

  2. As always interesting reading about history of my Collins ancestors and or kinsmen! Jasper of course was brother to Simeon father of my grandmother France’s Collins Loftin! Seems about all of Stacy And Sarah Collins sons was not easily swayed choosing to march to a different drummer! Of course history shows Jasper in Jones, Ms & Warren in Harden Co , Texas by taking a stand against the Confederacy sealed their place in history as devoted followers of the Union ! I had little background regarding my Collins ancestors while growing up in the shadows of the Big Thicket ! My father nor any of his brothers (5) provide any information about their mother’s lineage except paw & maw & our two older sisters came from Mississippi with some other Loftins & Collins on nine oxen drawn wagons . The Loftins settled in the Thicket! The Collins moved on up to Trinity County to live ! My father after marriage to my mother left thecThicket moving first to Batson the Sour Lake where he worked for Gulf Oil ! We often drove up to visit I uncles & aunts & their children often during the 1930’s -40’s . Some never left the thicket but all of the twelve children of Leonard Lee France’s Collins Loftin including there parents are buried in Felps ! All but one James Millard buried in Norteast Tx ! I found it odd that the Loftins & Collins seemingly didn’t visit although France’s Grandparents Stacey & Sarah & sons lived within the same general area! This caused me much later in life to wonder if there was disappointment over marriage of France’s (17) to LL Loftin circa 19 in Jasper Co ! For certain it is obvious the Collins especially descendants of Warren Collins ( Vinson) Carr Sr , Carr Jr then James Collins U S Congress! In 1982 my family resurrected the Loftin Reunion which my father & his brothers began the year following the death of their mother in 1935! Nearly 170 descendants of Leonard Lee & France’s Collins met at Honey Island July 12-3 the first reunion of the family since circa 1950! I invited sent USCongressman James Collins a copy of a history I had written on the Loftin family & I vitiated him to be principal speaker but he graciously declined due to demands of office ! I inserted this bit regarding my observation of relationships of my Loftin grandparents & the Collins kins Men who settled in close proximity to each other in 1872 ! Thanks for the article on Jasper Collins !

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Thank you for the very interesting post on Jasper Collins. He is a brother to my great grandfather Warren Collins who along with his father, Stacy, and four brothers moved from Jones County to Hardin County in the Big Thicket of East Texas. Edwin Collins, one of Warren’s sons, was my grandfather. The Unionist philosophy from Jones County followed the Collins’ to the Big Thicket where Warren was one of a band of folks who refused to serve in the Confederate military. Consequently the band used the Big Thicket’s natural features to avoid conscription. At one time the confederates thought they had the band encircled in a big patch of the Thicket and decided to set fire to the forest and burn them out. This failed and the band escaped. To this day the event is known as the Kaiser Burnout and is documented in several historical accounts.

    The Holland Cemetery located just South of Village Mills is where many of these early Texas Collins are buried. However, Stacy Collins and his wife are not buried there. My wife and I were searching for their burial site and, with the assistance of a historical account and the directions from some locals, found it 2 years ago in the middle of a field located in the Big Thicket National Preserve East of the Preserve Headquarters and East of the Holland Cemetery.

    Thank you for writing “The Free State of Jones”. It is an excellent and sourced account of this important part of our nation’s history and the families involved. At least partially as a result of the information you published, my wife and I just returned from a visit to Jones County Mississippi. Your account was helpful in discovering the genealogy of both our families – Collins, Sumrall, Welch, and Valentine. The territory from the Jasper Collins grave site near Union and North to Ellisville and further North along the Leaf River reminded us very much of the Big Thicket. The Collins Family impact in Jones County and the associated Family impact in Texas continues today.

    The Sumralls of Jones County were part of my wife’s ancestors. As we researched we discovered that Will Sumrall was her first cousin, four times removed. Will Sumrall’s grandfather (Moses S. Sumrall) is my wife’s 3g Grandfather. Some of the Sumrall Family also migrated to the Big Thicket. There is at least a mild concern that we are cousins.

    • Hello Bob and Claude Ann,

      It is great to hear from you, and thank you for your kind words about The Free State of Jones.

      I have researched and published a good deal about your great-grandfather, Warren J. Collins, as well as about the Jones County folks. I included quite a lot about Warren in my 2010 book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War, and I just recently expanded on that work in an essay that is contained in the recent anthology, Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance, edited by Jesus F. De La Teja. In fact, if you search further on this blog, you will find posts about both those books, and about Warren and Jasper as well.

      The Collinses are a fascinating family of great historical importance. They and the Sumralls (another historically important family) did indeed intermarry along the way.

      Vikki

    • Hello Jasper,
      What a wonderful name–you’re also named after Jasper’s brother, Warren! Hope you’ve caught the posts about Warren Jacob Collins as the leader of his own anti-Confederate band: the Jayhawkers of the East Texas Big Thicket.

      Vikki

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