IN 1841, TWENTY-YEAR-OLD Charles Percy abandoned an Alabama plantation worth a quarter of a million dollars and headed deep into the lush wilderness of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. He loaded furniture, equipment, supplies, mules, overseers, and slaves onto barges and flatboats, traveled down the Tennessee River to the Ohio, stopped briefly near Paducah, Kentucky, before continuing down the Ohio to the Mississippi, then proceeded two hundred more miles down it. Finally, he and his entourage unloaded near what would become the city of Greenville, Mississippi, then cut their way fifteen miles through a jungle of vines and cane twenty feet high to Deer Creek and some of the very finest land in all the Delta. They soon built a house with ceilings so high that even in dead summer its center hall was “a very cave for coolness and emptiness,” and waited for barrels of whiskey, oranges, brandy, and oysters that had already been ordered from New Orleans to arrive.
The Percys were home, home in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta—known throughout America as simply “the Delta.” It is a region that conjures dark things in the mind. It has been called the South’s South, Mississippi’s Mississippi, the most southern place on earth. There, over the next century, the Percys became giants, generations of men who led both the South and the nation. These giants in turn spawned generations of writers, including William Alexander Percy, whose work remains in print half a century after his death, and Walker Percy, an award-winning novelist important enough to be the subject of literary biographies. The family story includes men who lived lives like Faulkner’s Sartoris, only larger, and who were well known to Faulkner. It also contains men with dark secrets, dark enough and complex enough for a Faulkner novel. Some, haunted by death, died young and by their own hand.
T. S. Eliot wrote that the sea is around us, but the river is in us. The Mississippi River ran through everything that the Percys did. And the Percy story was intertwined not only with the river but with race, and power, and money, and evil. These were wild forces, yet the Percys did not simply represent a time and class. They tried to put bridles on these forces and command them. Others ruled much larger personal empires like fiefdoms. Yet the Percys were the most commanding of all the planters and, in their own way, the most ambitious, more ambitious even than Eads or Humphreys.
Eads and Humphreys struggled with each other, and to contain the river. The Percys built upon what Eads and Humphreys had done by transforming the potential that the river had created into an entire society, extending far beyond their own holdings, and by making it conform to their own special vision. This immense task required them to contain both the river and great social forces sweeping through the nation. Yet, for a time at least, they succeeded.
THE DEMESNE the Percys shaped out of the river’s potential was the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Resembling an elongated diamond, this Delta begins just below Memphis, widens to nearly 70 miles near the head of the Yazoo River (which means “river of death”) at Greenwood, Mississippi, and extends south 220 miles to Vicksburg, where the Yazoo empties into the Mississippi. The Mississippi created this land, for thousands of years depositing ineluctably sweet topsoil, dense with nutrients and washed down from the rest of the continent, making a lush saucer of 7,000 square miles, almost twice the size of Connecticut. Then, as if marking its ownership, the river splayed sideways across the Delta; the Sunflower, the Tallahatchie, the Yalobusha, Deer Creek, now all tributaries of the Mississippi, all transverse it and once served as the main channel for either the Mississippi or the Ohio.
The Delta was wild and the river kept it so. In 1837 a European visitor observed the Mississippi as it roiled through this region and was chilled: “It is not like most rivers, beautiful to the sight…not one that the eye loves to dwell upon as it sweeps along, nor can you wander along its bank, or trust yourself without danger to its stream. It is a furious, rapid, desolating torrent, loaded with alluvial soil…. Pouring its impetuous waters through wild tracts, it sweeps down whole forests in its course, which disappear in tumultuous confusion, whirled away by the stream now loaded with the masses of soil which nourished their roots, often blocking up and changing the channel of the river, which, as if in anger at its being opposed, inundates and devastates the whole country round…. It is a river of desolation, and instead of reminding you, like other rivers, of an angel which has descended for the benefit of man, you imagine it a devil.”
The land, wrote another traveler, was “a jungle equal to any in Africa,” with dense forests of cane and “giant trees” from which hung “great clinging vines of wild grape and muscadine.” The density of growth suffocated, choked off air, held in moisture and a pulsing heat, was so thick a horse and rider could not penetrate; even on foot one needed to cut one’s way through. Only the trees, some one hundred feet high, burst above the choking vines and cane into the sunshine. Stinging flies, gnats, and mosquitoes swarmed around any visitors. One pioneer reported killing fourteen bears in eight days. Another warned of wolves and “the fetid alligator, while the panther basks at [the river’s] edge in the cane-brakes, almost impervious to man…nearly as large as a young calf. They are the most savage looking animal I ever saw. Their strong sinewy legs with large hooked claws like a cat could tear a man to pieces in a trice if they chose to.”
The wild animals, the rattlesnakes and water moccasins, the yellow fever and malaria, made it, worried one settler, “almost worth a man’s life to cast his lot in the Swamp.”
Yet the river had made it worth the risk. The river left gold in the Delta. It was gold the color of chocolate, gold that was not in the earth but was the earth. Elsewhere one measures the thickness of good topsoil in inches. Here good lush soil measures tens of feet thick. A 1901 report published by the American Economic Association said, “Nature knows not how to compound a richer soil.” A 1906 scientific assessment concluded that the nutrients in the soil were unexcelled by those of any other soil in the world.
The Delta, however, overwhelmed individual farmers. To take the land from the river, to clear it, drain it, and protect it, required an enormous outlay of capital and labor. From the first the Delta demanded organization, capital, entrepreneurship, and gambling instincts. It was a place for empire, and the Percys intended to transform what the river had created into empire.
At first, they and a few others only clung to narrow strips of the highest ground, the natural levees, usually within half a mile of the Mississippi and its tributaries. They carved fields out of jungle, built levees—rarely more than two or three feet high—and planted cotton. The vast and impenetrable interior remained an untouched offering.
By 1858, 310 miles of levees protected the Delta from the Mississippi. They protected adequately, largely because the Arkansas bank had weaker levees, or none at all. In floods the river simply overflowed the Arkansas side. So Delta planters began to thrive. After levee improvements, assessed values in five Delta counties leaped from $7,792,869 in 1853 to $23,473,115 in 1857.
Yet the region remained almost entirely wild. Even its settled parts resembled the frontier more than the plantation society of older parts of the South. It boasted few if any estates like those of Natchez, built on cotton wealth downriver, nor was it favored by the elegant sprawling oaks that shaded the mansions on the vast sugar plantations of Louisiana. In 1861 an area that later became three large Delta counties had not a single school, not a single church. That same year Humphreys’ report referred to the entire Delta simply as “that great Swamp.” The Delta was still, warned a man who perhaps saw too deeply into it, “a seething lush hell.”
AT AGE THIRTY, ten years after coming to the Delta, Charles Percy died. His younger brother W. A. Percy took charge of family affairs. Like his father a Princeton graduate with a law degree from the University of Virginia, this Percy understood power and had few illusions. He had opposed secession but immediately after Mississippi seceded raised a regiment of Confederate volunteers, became its colonel, and during the war earned the nickname “the Gray Eagle.” It fitted him. At twenty-eight he came home from the war deep-voiced, white-haired, aloof, and steely-eyed, but also charming. A cold efficiency lay beneath that charm.
He came home to desolation. Federal troops had flattened virtually every town in the Delta. Grant in his efforts to conquer Vicksburg had destroyed numerous levees. Others had disintegrated without maintenance. In the spring of 1865 the Mississippi flooded and miles of additional levees were breached. Much of what had survived Union troops was washed away. In all of Bolivar County not a single town remained; its most populous town, Prentiss on the river, left no trace of having ever existed. Wilderness was rapidly reclaiming cleared land. Blue cane fifteen and sometimes twenty feet high, vines, even willow trees grew where cotton had once risen taller than a man’s head. Returning soldiers found “a wilderness and a waste…. Our lands had grown up in bushes…. A desolate scene presented itself.”
The first priority was to rebuild the levees. In December 1865, W. A. Percy reorganized the levee system, convincing the governor and the state legislature to create a new levee board, legally unencumbered by old levee board debts or bonds. (The state simultaneously created a “Liquidating Levee Board” that built no levees, only raised money to pay off old debts at pennies on the dollar.) It was an effort to bring order out of the chaos left by the war. Percy naturally controlled the active levee board; this gave him power. The board spent more money than any other enterprise in the area on everything from attorney fees, bond commissions, and printing contracts, which guaranteed that certain newspapers would support a board while others would oppose it, and it kept its deposits in favored banks—especially the one on whose board Percy sat.
Never forgetting the levees, Percy then began to address other needs as well, helping to organize a railroad that crossed the state from east to west. Almost immediately it became the most profitable of Mississippi’s sixteen railroads, largely because Percy also helped get public bond issues to pay for its expansion. Ultimately, J. P. Morgan’s Southern Railroad bought it.
The levee boards and the railroads would soon link W. A. Percy and, largely through him, all the Delta’s interests and complexities to the financial markets of New York and London, and the political market of Washington. Meanwhile, his influence inside Mississippi spread, particularly over the nexus of race, money, and power. In 1879, when Eads was finishing the jetties, Percy had relatively little to show for his influence. Only a fraction—less than 10 percent—of the Delta was developed. But the flow of events was moving Percy’s way.
IT WAS THE GILDED AGE, the age of robber barons and great Wall Street manipulators, of vast fortunes and dominating eastern capital. The spirit of the age spread south and infected southern crusaders who now hoped to use commerce to do what the Confederate armies could not—defeat the North—creating a “New South.” Led by people like James De Bow in New Orleans, editor of De Bow’s Review, and Henry Grady of the Atlanta Constitution, southerners made economic development a sacred call.
The weapon was cotton still, both growing it and, now, bringing great textile factories to the South. The Memphis Daily Appeal called cotton “more a king today…than ever before.” Grady declared that cotton had put the South “on the threshold of a prosperity more brilliant than any in the past,” and the masthead of his newspaper proclaimed, “The foremost branch of American industry is the culture and manufacture of cotton.”
In 1880, Grady estimated that if the twenty counties bordering the Mississippi River between Memphis and Baton Rouge were fully developed—the undeveloped land lay largely in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta—they could produce more cotton than the entire American crop of that year, a record harvest that exceeded the prewar peak by over a million bales.
Eads’ success allowed Grady to make that prediction, for the establishment of the Mississippi River Commission promised protection from floods. The commission would set standards, oversee construction, supply funds to nearly bankrupt states and local levee boards. As a result, northern and foreign capital, which was building textile mills in the Carolinas, steel mills in Alabama, and rail junctions in Georgia, suddenly saw profits in Delta cotton fields.
Eads’ influence extended further. As he began work on the jetties, he noted, “To facilitate trade, two great agencies are absolutely requisite…Transportation and Finance, and they are so inseparable…that the first may be not inaptly termed the bone and sinew and the last the nerve and brain of Commerce.”
Indeed, in the nineteenth century transportation and finance were virtually identical. Railroads were capital, the physical incarnation and representation of Wall Street. And by making New Orleans into a great port, the Eads jetties compelled this capital to bend toward it, to build a web of track paralleling the rivers that flowed south. Where track was laid, development followed.
The single railway most important to the lands along the Mississippi River was the Illinois Central, headquartered in New York, where its executives were major Wall Street figures. It was a symbiotic relationship. In the mid-1870s, the company fell into desperate financial straits; its directors, gambling everything on the success of the jetties, invested the company’s scarce resources in a line to New Orleans. With Eads’ triumph, the Illinois Central’s traffic jumped 500 percent in three years, and profits gushed forth. The road’s president, Stuyvesant Fish, called the extension to New Orleans “the salvation” of the company and committed the railroad to the region. (Years later, Chauncey Depew of the New York Central Railroad demanded to know why Fish was “stealing” business from New York for New Orleans. Fish replied, “I [am] only trying to get for New Orleans what New York and other northern ports had stolen from it during and immediately after the Civil War.”)
Simultaneously, Percy was helping craft tax and land policies to tie railroads, especially the Illinois Central, directly to the rich land the river had created. During the economic chaos accompanying Reconstruction, 2,365,214 Delta acres—nearly all of it undeveloped, totaling more than half the entire Delta—had been forfeited to the state for back taxes. In 1881, with the river commission generating new confidence, with cotton prices rising, and with Percy pushing from backstage, the state made two huge land deals.
First, it sold 774,000 acres of the Delta to a railroad that had laid not a single mile of track and owned not a single locomotive. But this road did have a franchise and state tax exemptions worth millions of dollars, and it ultimately became the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, the Y&MV, later called “the yellow dog” in blues songs after the color of its trains. The Y&MV was wholly owned by the Illinois Central and shared the same directors.
A few weeks after the first sale, the state sold 706,000 acres of Delta land for $2,500 in cash plus nearly worthless old levee board bonds that had a face value of only $45,954.22. Title to this land went through several hands before ending up with the Southern Railroad, controlled by J. P. Morgan.
Now large capitalists owned the land, men who had created vast fortunes and who intended to use the Delta to make more. And the Delta began to explode into flower.
Town after town sprang into existence around a tiny depot. The History of Bolivar County reads like a litany to the Y&MV railroad: “The coming of the railroad in 1884 marks the beginning of the Boyle community.” “Gunnison first saw the light in a cotton field, Nov. 18, 1889, when the foundations of the…depot was [sic] laid at…the plantation owned by Arvin Gunnison.” “The life of Benoit began in the year 1889 with the coming of the Y.&M.V. Railroad.” If a town could not attract a railroad or grow up around a depot, it might simply relocate: “The entire town [of Concordia] moved south three miles to greet the welcome railroad.”
DEVELOPMENT PAID. The veins of chocolate-colored gold the river had deposited meant money, not simply the kind of bare living that poor whites scratched out of the land elsewhere in the South—a living so poor that they were losing their lands and being forced to work in mills—but serious money, money for the railroads, money for the planters, money for the suppliers, money for the cotton factors, money even for blacks. Even through a depression in the 1880s, the Y&MV Railroad poured forth profits. And it grew. In 1890, 235 miles of its track traversed the delta. In 1903, 816 miles crisscrossed it, and the expansion continued. One stretch of road was known as “the Pea-vine” because its circuitous route zigzagged from plantation to plantation, each having its own station; when there were dances, a locomotive pulling one or two cars would run through the night, stopping to pick up belles or their young men at their plantations and waiting if they were not ready, delivering them to the party, delivering them home at dawn. If this seemed inefficient, profits were enormous. The Y&MV soon became more profitable, Fish confided, “than the Illinois Central taken as a whole.”
Two-thirds of the world’s cotton supply came from the American South. The river had made Delta soil so lush that without fertilizer it produced far more than other land did with fertilizer, even the black loam of Alabama. Often Delta yields doubled and tripled that of other soils. Delta cotton, for reasons of climate and soil, even had some resistance to the boll weevil, which had entered Texas from Mexico in 1892, spread east at 40 to 70 miles a year, and was devastating the rest of the southern crop.
In the early 1900s, world textile manufacturers began to fear a cotton famine. British and northern investors poured ever more cash into the Delta. Development required three things: protection from the river, transportation into the interior, and labor. Increasingly, labor shortages were limiting the Delta’s growth. No area of the South was more short of labor than it.
In the South, of course, the issue of labor was inextricably bound up with race. It was also inextricably linked with the society the Percys intended to create. On the issue of labor, the Percy family would play more of a role than on any other.
THE DELTA had always been too wild for one man or one family to subdue, and from the first, settlers had brought slaves and organization with them. Immediately after the Civil War, Mississippi and other southern states tried to resolve labor and racial questions by passing a “Black Code” that effectively reestablished slavery. One Mississippi provision required blacks to sign annual labor contracts or be arrested for vagrancy; the local government would then sell their services to contractors. Congress reacted to such laws with anger and instituted “Radical Reconstruction,” setting up new state governments that threw out those laws and putting a buffer of federal power between southern whites and blacks.
Percy recognized both the economic problems and the need to accept a new order, and advocated a solution. Planters had land but no cash. Blacks had labor but no land; they also resisted working in gangs under a foreman, which smacked of slavery and overseers. So Percy, who understood both the capital shortage and the importance of making labor content in order to maximize efficiency, advocated sharecropping. One man even credited Percy with inventing the system, and contemporaneous reports in other southern states did attribute the system’s beginnings to Mississippi. Planters supplied land; blacks supplied labor and gained some independence. Profits were theoretically split fifty-fifty (the cropper got more if he had his own mules), making blacks and whites partners and by implication comparable if not equal. However abusive sharecropping later became, because of the system’s implied partnership of white and black, initially whites resisted it while blacks welcomed it.
Sharecropping may have helped alleviate the Delta’s desperate shortage of labor in another way. Planters and their labor agents were scouring the rest of the state and the South recruiting former slaves, promising—and delivering—better pay and treatment than elsewhere. The new system may have helped attract blacks, for in a steady stream they came. From one Mississippi county outside the Delta, a single Delta plantation recruited 500 workers. From Columbus, Mississippi, near the Alabama line, 100 black workers left for the Delta in a single week. From Uniontown, Alabama, 250 blacks boarded a single train, heading for the Delta. From Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia as well, thousands of blacks came.
The advocacy of sharecropping was not the only reflection of Percy’s sensitivity to the inefficiencies of racial animosity. As Reconstruction dragged on, as the federal government became less and less willing to support black rights with Army bayonets, Percy, like most southern white leaders, became increasingly aggressive in his efforts to seize power back from Republicans and Negroes. But he did not want to frighten away either labor or northern investors. Elsewhere across the South, Democrats took power by murdering hundreds of blacks—including dozens in the Delta—intimidating thousands away from the polls, and perpetrating massive vote fraud. But Percy prevented the Ku Klux Klan from operating in his own Washington County and no murders were reported there; on one occasion, Percy waded into a crowd to stop the lynching of a black man accused of murdering a white. He also offered blacks minor county offices on a “fusion” ticket, and enlisted Cassius Clay, a Kentucky newspaperman and prewar abolitionist, to urge Negroes to vote for his slate. Then he formed a Taxpayer’s League that spread rapidly across the state and demanded a rollback of taxes. Though not above vote fraud, he considered violence counterproductive; it disturbed unnecessarily. More smoothly than elsewhere, Democrats “redeemed” Washington County.
Percy, now a power statewide, prepared the trumped-up articles of impeachment which forced Adelbert Ames, the last Reconstruction governor, to leave the state. Yet after serving one term as speaker of the state legislature, Percy never again ran for office and even declined appointment as a U.S. senator (although only after arranging for a close ally to be named). He preferred to exercise power backstage while concentrating on transforming the river’s land into a New South empire.
In the Delta in general, and particularly in Percy’s Washington County, blacks continued to be relatively well treated, at least compared to most of the South. When a former Percy slave killed a white man, he was not lynched; instead, he was tried and acquitted. In 1877, when a white man boasted of murdering a black, a mob of whites lynched him, while the Times of Greenville, the county seat, announced, “Public sentiment excuses the lynching.”
A more important test of sentiment came in 1879 with the first great migration of blacks out of the South, the “Exodus” to the “promised land” of Kansas. Outside the Delta, Mississippi whites cheered the departure; one paper hoped “that thousands [of Negroes] will follow…till the whites have a numerical superiority in every county in Mississippi.” But in the Delta, planters threatened to seize boats and barges to keep labor from crossing the Mississippi River; a former governor called for creating local committees to protect black rights “with unceasing vigilance”; and a convention of planters warned blacks that they would “be subjected [to prejudice] in a greater degree at any other place on the American Continent” than in the Delta.
Kansas turned out not to be the promised land. In the end, more blacks entered the Delta from elsewhere in the South than left in the exodus. The crisis ended and growth continued.
Then in 1888, at the age of fifty-three, Colonel W. A. Percy, the Gray Eagle, died. Through his fingers had run nearly every thread of power or investment in the region. His son LeRoy stepped forward to replace him. He would do more than merely that.
EVEN BEFORE his father’s death, LeRoy had emerged as a young man to watch. Like his father, he was not a sentimentalist. Like his father, he…understood things. After graduating from the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, he, like his father and grandfather, attended the University of Virginia Law School—and finished a three-year program in one year, in time to be admitted to the bar on his twenty-first birthday. Fittingly, his first significant client was the state’s second levee board (the first was headquartered in Greenville), which was organized in the northern Delta and hired him as its attorney although he was only twenty-four years old and did not live in the area this board controlled. By the early 1900s he was a prominent attorney whose plantations exceeded 20,000 acres, on the verge of eclipsing anything his father had done.
He had a thick chest, a handlebar mustache, and, though only in his early forties, a full head of silvery hair. Handsome in only a general sort of way and of average height, still he had a remarkable presence. His eyes pierced and chilled and, when he was in good humor, sparkled. He had grown up used to people deferring first to his father and then to himself, and his bearing assumed precedence and deference. When he spoke, he expected that others would give his words weight. If they failed to, this was their failure, not his.
In all his dealings he sought every advantage, including small ones, and gave no quarter. When his sister-in-law left her purse on a train, he demanded the $8 it had contained from the president of the Pullman Company. A monogram on goods purchased in Venice was a “disappointment” and required compensation. A resort in North Carolina must “quote a lower rate,” in return for which he promised “much more patronage from this section…if I am pleased.” When he brought the first concrete road to Washington County, he saw to it that it ran directly past his plantation. He also had expectations. His brother committed suicide, and when his brother’s boy entered Stanford, LeRoy wrote him a long paternal letter that concluded, “While, if you should ever need help, if I am in a position to extend it and thought you deserved it, I will probably do so, I have never felt the obligation to take care of any able-bodied grown man.”
Yet if he focused on small things, he also saw the world in wide-angle. Occasionally, he fell into a deep moodiness, sometimes exploded in inexplicable rages. He had passion; he also had the coldness both to see what some might call “the greater good” and to sacrifice whatever or whoever was necessary to achieve it. He had a sense of irony, and with it came the ability to step back and see himself and his class as if from a distance. He opposed requiring lawyers to attend law school because “it has a tendency to build up snobbishness in the profession and to keep poor men out of it.” And he advised another nephew about to leave for Europe: “I think the 3rd class travelling is absolutely all right. I have been on many big ships where the 3rd class passengers, composed largely of school teachers and young students, were much more interesting people than the other classes. There is a feeling of comradeship and also an amount of intelligence which does not prevail upstairs.”
LeRoy’s father had represented the Illinois Central and helped found a small railroad. The Illinois Central would pay LeRoy more than it paid any outside attorney in the country, except one Wall Street lawyer who worked nearly full-time for it, and he would serve on the board of J. P. Morgan’s Southern. His father had been speaker of the Mississippi legislature and declined a U.S. Senate seat. LeRoy would hunt with President Teddy Roosevelt, be a friend of three justices of the United States Supreme Court (two of them chief justices), become a U.S. senator, a director of a Federal Reserve bank, a director of the Rockefeller Foundation, a trustee of the Carnegie Foundation.
In 1885, LeRoy had his first child, a son, and named him William Alexander Percy after his own father. Young Will was never close to his father but idolized him and recalled, “He read Ivanhoe once a year…. He was kin to Hotspur and blood brother to Richard Coeur de Lion, and he looked the part…. [T]o the day of his death he was beautiful, a cross between Phoebus Apollo and the Archangel Michael. He could do everything well except drive a nail or a car; he was the best pistol-shot and the best bird-shot, he was the fairest thinker and the wisest, he could laugh like the Elizabethans, he could brood and pity till sweat covered his brow and you could feel him bleed inside. He loved life, and never forgot it was unbearably tragic.”
His son also recalled, “No one ever made the mistake of thinking he wasn’t dangerous.”
Young Will had reason to know. His father lay at the center of a great web of power he had woven that stretched from its center in Greenville not only to Jackson and New Orleans but outward, to Washington, New York, even London. In the Delta, the web hung heavily from the bluffs of Memphis to the bluffs of Vicksburg, glistening with moisture from the Mississippi River. Young Will would lie in this web as well. He would lie trapped and poisoned in it.