Mary Ann Mann Hamilton was a white frontier settler whose touching and historically revealing autobiography, Trials of the Earth, provides insight into life in the Mississippi Delta at the turn of the twentieth century. Mary Ann Mann was born on 19 May 1866 in Illinois to William Calvin Mann and Elizabeth Ritchie Mann. The family subsequently moved to Arkansas, where Mary left school by the second grade. When she was seventeen, both of her parents died, leaving her to care for her brothers and sisters as well as several boarders.
She subsequently met an Englishman, Frank Hamilton, and married him on 28 July 1885. He proposed to her by declaring, “I am tired of boarding around from pillar to post, with nowhere I can call home. You can make a home for me.” Though the two struggled together, with five of their ten children dying before the age of six, Mary retained her self-confidence and optimism. She recalled, “I had nothing to live for but to make every house we lived in a home.”
In Trials of the Earth, Mary Hamilton relied on her vivid memory and storyteller’s voice to recapture life in the Delta from 1896 to 1932. The stories reveal her courage and wit, physical strength, and efforts on behalf of her family. After arriving in the Delta with her husband and two small children, Hamilton encountered what seemed to her a “new world.” It was January 1896, and she thought she might be the first white woman to cross the frontier: “We drove down the Mississippi River levee about a mile, then turned off the levee down into the thickest timber I had ever seen. Oak, gum, ash, hackberry, and poplar stood so thick, with no underbrush, only big blue cane growing rank and tall, almost to the limbs of the trees. It looked so odd, but what looked odder still to me was the black mud, ‘gumbo.’ . . . [W]hen we came out on the Mississippi River, the ground was sandy, but it was black sand, and cottonwoods and sycamores that seemed to me when I looked up like their tops were lost in the sky. It was a pretty sight, except the road. The soft black sand was almost hub deep.” From there, her stories went on to detail life in Delta boardinghouses; the threats of timber work, malaria, floods, typhoons, wild boars, and poverty; and the treachery and lunacy of certain neighbors. The book also included violent moments that revealed the racism of the white settlers.
Hamilton’s volume gives a sense of the roles of the pioneer men, women, and children. There was little time for play or affection between parents and their children, who began laboring as soon as they could walk. Men worked long days clearing the land and bought all the family goods; some abused alcohol. Women cooked, kept house, and managed the family. Yet Hamilton treasured her life on the frontier, recalling the efforts to live “day by day, young and full of life and fun, trying to make our home pleasant and home for dozens, yes hundreds, of men. To me they will all live as long as I do, laughing and joking, sympathizing with each other and us, in sickness and trouble, working, toiling to blaze a way and build a home in this dear old Delta where the happiest part of my life has been spent.”
In 1931, when she was living near Greenwood, Hamilton began to set down her recollections with the encouragement of Delta writer Helen Dick Davis, who had family connections to the elderly Hamilton. Two years later she turned over a draft of the book to Davis, who edited it and offered it to a publisher. It was rejected, and Hamilton subsequently changed her mind about publishing it. She died on 19 May 1937 and is buried in Yazoo City’s Glenwood Cemetery. The manuscripts were rediscovered in a box in 1991 and published the following year. A new edition, the slightly renamed Trials of the Earth: A True Story of a Pioneer Woman, was published in 2017.
- Mary Hamilton, Trials of the Earth, ed. Helen Dick Davis (1992;
- Primeaux, Better Chancery Practice Blog, chancery12.wordpress.com/2014/02/ (28 February 2014)