Born about 1750 in Fairfax County, Virginia, Col. Cato Charles West played a major role in politics, serving as acting governor of the Mississippi Territory from 1803 to 1805. He and his wife, Martha Green West, daughter of Thomas Green, reportedly had at least ten children. West spent time in Georgia prior to his arrival in Natchez.
Because of congressional oversight of the Mississippi Territory, national party politics dominated territorial politics in Mississippi. Federalist Winthrop Sargent served as Mississippi’s first territorial governor. During Sargent’s administration, West served as de facto opposition leader for Mississippi’s Republicans. In 1799 West and a “general committee” of the Mississippi Territory petitioned the US Congress to address the “arbitrary” and “oppressive” measures taken by the Sargent government. Congress passed a number of reform measures for the territorial government, with most Republicans supporting West’s desire to limit Sargent’s power and Federalists generally voting to protect the governor’s executive authority. The reforms led Sargent to hold the territory’s first legislative elections, and many of those selected for the territorial assembly opposed Sargent. West was among them.
In 1800 West, a slaveholder, petitioned Congress to reverse the ban on the importation of slaves into the Mississippi Territory. The 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo (Pinckney’s Treaty) had resolved boundary issues between Spain and the United States at the thirty-first parallel, leaving the southern portion of modern-day Mississippi under Spanish control. The 1798 act that established the Mississippi Territory prohibited the importation of slaves from foreign “ports or places,” posing problems for Mississippi slaveholders who wanted to transport slaves across the border with Spanish territory. In response to West’s petition, the US House of Representatives crafted a bill that would have allowed the territory’s governor to issue “special licenses” permitting the transportation of slaves across the Spanish border. However, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to kill the bill, denying West’s petition.
The election of Pres. Thomas Jefferson shifted political power in the Mississippi Territory away from the Federalists and to the Republicans. Jefferson dismissed Sargent as governor in 1801 and appointed Republican William C. C. Claiborne to the post. The following year Jefferson selected West to serve as secretary of the Mississippi Territory. In the wake of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the president temporarily appointed Claiborne to oversee the new territory, and he transferred to New Orleans. West served as acting governor during Claiborne’s absence. In the wake of the 1804 legislative elections, however, the Republicans were sharply divided, and the Federalists claimed the speakership of the territorial House, crippling West’s ability to confront an aggressive Federalist opposition.
In 1804 Congress organized the Orleans Territory and appointed Claiborne to serve as the territorial governor; legislators then selected North Carolinian Robert Williams as the new governor of the Mississippi Territory. West remained as acting governor until Williams’s arrival. Enraged at being passed over for the governorship, West took all the official territorial papers to his private home and refused to surrender them until the territorial legislature threatened to impose punitive fines. Also in 1805, Cowles Mead replaced West as secretary of the Mississippi Territory.
West reemerged in Mississippi politics during the 1817 constitutional convention, in which West represented Jefferson County. He ultimately refused to sign the constitution. He died in 1818 or 1819.
- J. F. H. Claiborne, Mississippi, as a Province, Territory, and State with Biographical Notices of Eminent Citizens (1880)
- Hazel Kraft Eilers, Hobbies (May 1955)
- Norman E. Gillis, Early Inhabitants of the Natchez District (1963); Robert V. Haynes, A History of Mississippi (1973)
- Jefferson County, Mississippi, Probate Records, 1800–1930
- Statutes at Large, 5th Cong., 2nd sess.