John Francis Hamtramck Claiborne, a politician, newspaper editor, and historian, was born on 24 April 1807 near Natchez, the eldest son of Ferdinand Leigh Claiborne and Magdalene Hutchins Claiborne. Claiborne’s father was a veteran of the Revolutionary War who later became a general, and his uncles included governor of the Mississippi Territory William C. C. Claiborne.
After graduation from Jefferson College, Claiborne studied law in Virginia and in Natchez. His studies were interrupted several times by ill health; respiratory ailments, probably tuberculosis, affected his entire career. On 18 December 1828 he married Martha Dunbar. The couple had two daughters and one son, who was mortally wounded at the end of the Civil War.
Claiborne soon gave up practicing law to pursue his interests in politics. A supporter of Andrew Jackson, Claiborne was elected in 1828 to the Mississippi House of Representatives from Adams County and served for three terms. He played an important role in organizing the Democratic Party in the state.
Soon after moving to Madison County in 1835, Claiborne won election to the US Congress on the Democratic ticket. Intending to seek reelection, Claiborne and Samuel Gholson won a July 1837 special election and attended a special session of Congress called by Pres. Martin Van Buren. Claiborne and Gholson contended that this election replaced the regular November election, but the Whig Party disagreed and ran Seargent S. Prentiss and Thomas J. Word, who easily defeated the two Democrats. Unable to reach a decision, the House Committee on Elections ordered Mississippi to hold a new election. Bad health prevented Claiborne from campaigning, and he lost narrowly to the Whig candidates in April 1838.
Claiborne returned to Natchez in July 1841 to edit the Mississippi Free Trader, in which he published “Trip through the Piney Woods” and other historical sketches. His 1842 appointment by the federal government to lead an investigation of land claims by Choctaw Indians plunged Claiborne back into controversy. He worked hard to sort out the legitimate claims and to stifle the land speculators who sought to exploit the Choctaw and defraud the government. Representing a land company, Prentiss accused Claiborne of bias and challenged him to a duel. Claiborne avoided this and other duels and Congress adopted his report, but he alienated many people in Mississippi. Beginning in 1844 he assumed the editorship of a series of Democratic newspapers in New Orleans. His support for Pres. Franklin Pierce led to a federal appointment as custodian of public timber for Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and he moved near Bay St. Louis, which proved beneficial for his health.
As the nation moved into civil war, Claiborne believed that the North was infringing on southern rights but had no sympathy for secession, and he subsequently avoided all connections with the Confederacy. With a significant collection of his family’s letters, Claiborne spent the last three decades of his life researching and writing Mississippi history. In 1860 he published Life and Times of General Sam Dale and the two-volume Life and Correspondence of John A. Quitman. He continued to acquire manuscript collections and pamphlets and undertook a history of Mississippi. In 1881 he published his most famous work, Mississippi, as a Province, Territory, and State, volume 1. Although later historians have noted factual errors and biases, Claiborne’s labors were invaluable because of the documents he preserved and donated to the state as well as his firsthand observations of political events and personalities. In March 1884 Claiborne’s home, Dunbarton, burned, taking with it the manuscript of volume 2 of his history of Mississippi. Devastated, Claiborne died in Natchez on 17 May 1884. As his tombstone suggests, Claiborne took pride in his public service but wished to be remembered as “Mississippi’s Historian.”
- William B. Hamilton and Ruth K. Nuermberger, Journal of Mississippi History (July 1945)
- Ted Ownby, in A Literary History of Mississippi, ed. Lorie Watkins (2017)
- Franklin L. Riley, Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society (1903)