Winthrop Sargent, a Puritan and Federalist from Massachusetts, served as the first governor of the Mississippi Territory. Born into a prominent family on 1 May 1753, he graduated from Harvard in the early 1770s and served on a ship owned by his father prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. Sargent enlisted in a Massachusetts artillery regiment, serving as an officer and fighting at Boston, Long Island, Brandywine, and Monmouth. Following the conflict, Sargent moved westward and became a surveyor before becoming secretary of the Northwest Territory in 1787.
In 1798 Pres. John Adams appointed Sargent governor of the Mississippi Territory, which was established that year from land ceded by Spain. The Mississippi Territory consisted of the region bounded by the Mississippi River in the west, the Chattahoochee River in the east, the thirty-first parallel in the south, and the point where the Yazoo River emptied into the Mississippi River in the north. The area was plagued by conflicting land claims, disputes with Indians, and the continuing interference of the Spanish. First of all, France, England, Spain, and the state of Georgia had all issued land grants in the region, and the new government had to sort out these disputes. Second, most of the territory was inhabited by various Indian nations who were apprehensive after their ally Spain abandoned them to the ever-expanding United States. Sargent’s new government would have to maintain peace between these tribes and land-hungry immigrants. Finally, Spanish officials in West Florida and Louisiana posed a potential threat to the security of the region.
Sargent’s tenure had an inauspicious beginning. When he arrived in Natchez, the territorial capital, in August 1799, he was too ill to greet his well-wishers, leading many of them to believe that he had chosen to ignore them. Relations subsequently remained uneasy. Sargent was an aristocratic Federalist, wary of too much public involvement in running the government, and the freedom-loving frontier democrats perceived him as haughty. He favored a strong executive and sought to establish order. The town of Natchez also did not appeal to Sargent’s elitist background, and his open distaste for his location did not endear him to the area’s residents.
His administration was further hampered by the absence of several important government officials. The legislation creating the territory established a ruling council consisting of a governor, secretary, and three judges who were authorized to write laws. It took months for the necessary quorum of officials to arrive so that the council could produce a code of laws.
Once these laws were written and Sargent began making decisions on a variety of issues such as the selection of militia officers, many citizens immediately opposed his policies. This resulting tone of factionalism persisted throughout the territorial period. The opposing faction, led by Anthony Hutchins, Thomas Green, and Cato West, believed that Sargent’s new laws, derisively called Sargent’s Codes, were too harsh. They also believed that his territorial council was illegal in that it merged the executive, legislative, and judicial powers in too few individuals. Finally, they disagreed with his choices for militia officers. These men were probably looking to gain power for themselves and therefore sought ways to change the structure of the government in their favor.
The new faction soon lobbied the national government for change, sending a delegate to propose that the territory enter the second stage of government, which involved an elected assembly, thereby weakening Sargent’s power. Officials passed the necessary legislation, forcing Sargent to conduct elections in which many of his strongest opponents gained office in the newly formed assembly.
Thomas Jefferson’s election as president in 1800 sealed Sargent’s doom as governor. Sargent traveled to the national capital to defend his administration, but Jefferson, a Democratic Republican, replaced the Federalist Sargent with W. C. C., Claiborne, a Tennessee congressman who had helped draft the legislation regarding Mississippi’s territorial government. Sargent retired from public life and lived as a planter until his death in New Orleans on 3 June 1820.
- J. F. H. Claiborne, Mississippi as a Province, Territory, and State, with Biographical Notices of Eminent Citizens (1880)
- Robert V. Haynes, in A History of Mississippi, vol. 1 (1973)
- Robert V. Haynes, The Mississippi Territory and the Southwest Frontier, 1795–1817 (2010)
- Dunbar Rowland, History of Mississippi, vol. 1 (1925)
- Dunbar Rowland, The Mississippi Territorial Archives, 1798–1803, Executive Journals of Governor Winthrop Sargent and Governor William Charles Cole Claiborne (1905)
- John Ray Skates, Mississippi, a Bicentennial History (1979)