by Joe Goodell
The streams, Oakahay and Okatoma gathered strength from the creeks to become wider and deeper, while wandering their steady way through the future Smith County of Mississippi. It was a network of generous waterways, one to be named Sullivan’s Hollow Creek, which had contoured a terrain graced with elegant longleaf pine and rich with game, then southward into the Rivers Leaf and Pascagoula.
The territory was claimed by a new nation still small, wanting to grow larger, so encouraged the hardy and venturesome, President Jefferson’s “Great Migration,” to move in. Those who did were the Knights along the lower Leaf River, and the Sullivans northward where the fields had been configured into a hollow. First among these was Thomas Jefferson Harvey Sullivan from Georgia, around 1810, following a short stint at farming in Alabama. With other Sullivan families, he staked his claim and branded his name.
Old Tom, as he came to be known, born most likely in 1785, was said to be strong enough to crush a bear, and hot of temper, picking fights even as an old man “just for the fun of it.” He was accompanied by his Alabamian wife, Maud Elizabeth Arnold, and the first of eleven children she was to provide him. They built a house of axe-hewn, v-notched logs, central dog-trot hallway, and two brick chimneys.
A few “outsiders,” including Mary “Polly” Workman, established claims too. It was she who presented Old Tom with another eleven children, some concurrently with Elizabeth’s, and whom he married after Elizabeth’s death.
The Sullivans farmed some but were primarily stockmen and hunters of the abundant game. From the start, they valued their privacy and favored an isolated, independent life style dedicated to well-kept homesteads. They termed themselves Scotch-Irish, became Baptists and Methodists, suited to the frontier, and thrived.
Their “Hollow” expanded to most of southern Smith County, plus parts of Covington and Simpson. Despite their prosperity, peaceable they were not, but neither were they highwaymen nor common bandits. Their rough ways went with them, and violence would be triggered by slights, insults, property disputes, revenge, even contrary opinions. Killing, though not condoned, was accepted for matters of honor, or to settle a grudge when whatever law there was might be insufficient to satisfy an imperative of personal justice.
Yet the raw frontier violence often merged with some raw frontier humor to enrich the Sullivan fable, myth, and folklore. Anyone who could establish acceptable reason for entering their land might occasionally be extended a rare hospitality. But in general, it was suspicion and contempt they handed to strangers.
Brothers “Wild Bill” and Cornelius (Neace), grandsons of Old Tom and Polly, earned a notorious reputation for bawdy mirth. Taking exception to an interloping peach tree peddler, they stripped him, then hitched him to the plow alongside their mule for a while. Another trespasser found his head locked between two fence rails adjacent to an active bee hive.
Such tales were embellished into legend and began to spread, establishing the Hollow as a mean place, one to be avoided. The Bishop of Louisiana spoke of their “pernicious maxims.” And there were, in fact, instances which did exceed prankish mischief, ending with lethal results.
Wild Bill, “King of the Hollow,” and Neace traveled, drank, and fought together, ordinarily in public places, even at churches. May of 1871 marked the “Battle of Shiloh Baptist” (unrelated to the one at Shiloh Methodist nine years earlier in Tennessee) over someone’s vendetta against Neace. It became a fearsome melee extended in time, diverse in weaponry. Two died, and Neace barely survived a near disemboweling.
In early 1903 a congenial “candy breaking” segued into heavy drinking, likely the popular moonshine called “Blind Tiger.” Insults and fighting ensued, ending with the death of Wild Bill’s brother Wils from knife wounds.
So you will understand the omen of apprehension which hovered around me en route to the Watermelon Festival, late one July in Mize, “capital” of the Hollow. I was both relieved and pleased when introduced to Paul, the current and respectable patriarch of that old log house on CR 35. He was cordial enough, but seemed a bit guarded, preferring to visit among the several oases of his kinfolk assembled about the grounds.
I appreciated an informative conversation with Neace’s great-great-grandson, Brad Sharp. He was busy chatting up the crowd to refine his own research: making more audio-videos for his superb website. And continuing his search for the sites of Neace’s home and grave.
The cemeteries, like the neighborhoods, of course, are dominated by Sullivans. Alex Sullivan Cemetery on CR 26 sustains its own stately “headstone” of three towering pines murmuring their requiem in the light breeze. It is a well-tended acre with testimonies to life spans of merely hours, to those exceeding seventy years, where Old Tom’s grave lies quietly between those of Elizabeth and Polly.
Sullivan’s Hollow, still thriving in Century 21, continues to display conspicuous pride in the appearance of churches, homes, and farms. But despite fancied expectations, you won’t see any peach tree salesmen hitched to plows, nor will you encounter furies of gunfire.
Quite the contrary. With a mannerly expression of genuine interest, you might instead find the tendency for aloof independence yielding to hearty greetings, and find yourself being regaled by irresistible stories. Even offered a draft of fine American whiskey, though unlikely will it bear the Blind Tiger label.
Photos: ONLYINYOURSTATE web site and