Benjamin Leonard Covington Wailes was born in Columbia County, Georgia, on 1 August 1797, the oldest of nine children of Levin and Eleanor Wailes, who had come to Georgia from Maryland. In 1807 the Wailes family moved to the Mississippi Territory, where young Benjamin received his education at Jefferson College near Washington. He went on to serve as a trustee of the school for forty years, including a stint as president of the board.
Wailes learned the trade of surveying from his father and served as an assistant to the Choctaw agent, taking part in treaty negotiations with the Choctaw. In 1820 Wailes married a distant cousin, Rebecca Susanna Magruder Covington, the daughter of Brig. Gen. Leonard Covington. They made their home near Washington, where he was a cotton planter and served as registrar of the local land office, and they ultimately had ten children, only five of whom survived past the age of four. Wailes served in the state legislature in 1825–26, although he generally avoided politics. He was allied with the Whigs at a time when the Democrats dominated most of Mississippi.
Wailes traveled extensively and became known for his knowledge of the region’s geography, geology, and natural history. He began accumulating natural history objects, establishing collections at Jefferson College, the University of Mississippi, and the State Capitol. He also contributed specimens to scientists and museums elsewhere, including the Smithsonian Institution.
In late 1851 Wailes was appointed assistant professor of geology and agriculture at the University of Mississippi. He was to assist Dr. John Millington, professor of geology and agriculture, whom the legislature had charged with conducting an agricultural and geological survey of the state. Millington had barely begun work on the survey when he resigned, and the entire task fell to Wailes, who received the title of state geologist. Wailes traveled seventy-three hundred miles around the state and collected thousands of specimens. By special act of the legislature, the specimens received a room in the State House in Jackson. These efforts culminated in his 1854 Report on the Agriculture and Geology of Mississippi. Although it included 356 pages plus appendixes, Wailes was dissatisfied with the effort and declared that it had been “untowardly postponed” and “hurriedly executed.” Though he considered his effort just a beginning, the report provided the first lists of Mississippi’s plants and animals as well as information on the state’s geological and agricultural resources, monthly weather data for Jackson for 1852–53, and an outline of the state’s history.
As his understanding of Mississippi grew, Wailes became increasingly interested in the history of the region. In 1858 he was instrumental in founding the Mississippi Historical Society and served as its president. Though the organization existed for little more than a year, under its auspices Wailes accumulated significant historical documents from throughout North America and preserved them. Wailes generously shared his collections with other historians and scientists. He had come to know many of the top scientists of his time and had been of assistance to many of them. British geologist Sir Charles Lyell visited Wailes in Mississippi, and among those who received specimens from him and/or contributed comments for his survey work were Louis Agassiz, John James Audubon, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and John Cassin. Wailes died on 16 November 1862.
The Mississippi Historical Society was reborn in 1898, and today, the highest honor it bestows is the B. L. C. Wailes Award for national distinction in the field of history.
- Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- Charles S. Sydnor, A Gentleman of the Old Natchez Region: Benjamin L. C. Wailes (1938)
- Charles S. Sydnor, Journal of Southern History 1 (1935)
- Benjamin C. Wailes, Memoir of Leonard Covington (1928)
- Benjamin C. Wailes, Report on the Agriculture and Geology of Mississippi (1854)