This Sister and I watched Free State of Jones last night. If you are unfamiliar, it stars Matthew McConaughey, and came out earlier this year. It’s the story of Newt Knight, set during and after the Civil War, in Mississippi.
It was weird watching a major Hollywood film talk about my stomping grounds. They’ve done films about Mississippi before, but it’s Jackson or further north and has nothing to do with me. So, for the film to mention Ellisville, Jones County, SoSo, or Meridian is startling. Every time it would happen, it made The Sister and I exclaim a little, our eyes getting a little bigger and heads moving backwards with a small jolt or recognition.
Not to mention our strong connection with Newt Knight. That’s a whole lot of odd right there.
So, my Yankee grandparents moved to Laurel (10 minutes from Ellisville) in Jones County in the 1940s, from Ohio. My grandfather started a company supplying hoe’s and rakes and the like and bought up some land in Moselle (which is 10 or so minutes south of Ellisville). Then he adopted some children, my mother being one of them. So, there’s my grandparents, mother, and aunt right in the middle of that whole area.
The land that my grandfather purchased in along the Leaf River had belonged to the Knights. Not Newt Knight, but some line through his uncle or aunt, sister or brother, 42nd cousin twice removed whose also his brother? I don’t know. Anyways, Mrs. Knight, (I never knew her first name, but dad was scared of her husband and her son. Dad doesn’t easily scare) whose husband is a direct (somehow) relation with that family owns land encircling some of our land. But Newt Knight could very well have tromped around on the land that we own now… and that’s weird.
It seems like everyone and their mama is related to him somehow. Not because they want to be related, so are claiming it, but because in some fashion or another, they actually are related to him. You can’t really get away from the Knights in that area. Went to Hot Coffee once, on the border of Covington and Jones Counties (near where Newt Knight did all his living and guerrilla tactics), and the guy who owned the tiny and disgusting store was a Knight. Super proud of it too. Had a photo of Newt Knight hanging in there on a post next to the fetid lunch meat in the “refrigerated” glass front cabinet that he was trying to peddle. Also he had some prehistoric looking creature that someone in the Knight family drug out of the Leaf River at the turn of the last century. It was stuffed and mounted up on a high shelf. Its taxidermied corpse not faring well through the decades of oppressive Mississippi heat and humidity. The man also wore a holster with double pistols. We couldn’t back-pedal out of there fast enough, to be honest. He had that look about him, in the eyes, where if we looked at something wrong he might have shot us with those pistols.
Laurel and the surrounding areas, being directly effect by Newt Knight historically (and apparently housing 95% of his relatives) has always been a buzzing hub of talk concerning the topic. My grandmother found it quite fascinating, so would purchase books written about the incident and found it all to be a very pleasing amusement. One of her friends, Kitty (maiden name Knight), lived down the street. Her nephew, a Mr. James T. Knight and his wife and son would go and visit her.
When my mother, as an adult, searched for her birth mother, what she found was a woman married to that very same Mr. James T. Knight, who was visiting his auntie a few houses away from my mother while she was growing up. It’s very odd. He, however, is not my mother’s birth father, as her birth mother married this man later. But, my mothers step-brother is a Knight. They all look the same; very strong genes; it’s unnerving actually. I’m pretty certain that he’s descended from a brother or sister of Newt, or a brother or sister of Newts Father, not Newt himself, but as I only ever half paid attention, I couldn’t tell you how the lineage works.
He was actually a really swell guy, and everyone just called him Knight; Mr. James, I mean. I don’t know how far removed any of the Knight family is that you might happen upon in Jones County, but Knight’s lineage had him directly in the crossfire of immediate relations. He however lived separate from them with a group of women including aunts and his mother. He told us that those people were insane. Completely crazy and scary and not people to be looked at in a wrong way or crossed. His father was a bad man, which is why his mother removed herself and her son from all of that. He also thought everything to do with the Knights was bullshit. All the Echoe’s of the Black Horn hero worshiping mumbo-jumbo.
Newt Knight did share company with black people, as the film portrayed, which is totally fine. By me. However, most of Knight’s family would leave all of that out, because that’s somehow an abomination. I think perhaps Newt’s intentions may have been good? But then the path to hell is laid with good intentions. His first wife and his second woman lived with him and he kept having babies with each. Like in the film, the first wife was white, the second woman (because they could never legally be married) was black. And he encouraged both sets of kids to marry each other and, in turn, have kids of their own and so on and so forth. Historians have documented three lines of incest/inbreeding just from Newt Knight. It’s a whole lot of creepy is what it is. I’ve read that part of his view was to make all of his kids white, in an effort so that they might have a better life. The other thing I’ve read is that black and white people wouldn’t have anything to do with his offspring, so who else were they going to marry?
I could get on board with his first wife leaving and he falls in love with a black woman and they have kids. Or even his first wife coming back because she has no where else to go. But you don’t go and have a polygamous union and make babies with both of them only to have those babies make babies with each other. He didn’t seem like he was that stupid, so I’m going to go with that he was slightly unbalanced as well.
I’m not saying he didn’t try to help people gain back their farms and crops or that he didn’t try to help black people set up a community (the one’s who had fought with him in the swamps) or help them to vote. But, there’s too much hero-worship and demonizing everywhere you look about that man’s life and I think it’s best to take a middle of the road approach. He wasn’t a hero, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a demon either.
The court case featured in the film of the great-grandson of Newt, his first wife Serena, and of Rachel; Davis Knight, did happen. But according to my parents that battle of Ellisville didn’t happen, but I don’t know, since Newt did apparently take Ellisville over from leading officials of the country seat town. Wouldn’t there have been some sort of skirmish?
Also, we toured the Deason Home in Ellisville several years ago for Halloween. The general consensus is that during his desertion years of the war, Newt Knight murdered a man in that house. Actually the general consensus is that Newt Knight murdered more than a few people. The tour even had one of his bajillion descendents there to play him in a recreation of the famed murder.
The Sister and I had heard that during the years of the war, he and his band hid out in swamps. Watching this film made us wonder if it might have been our swamp, but I figured it would have been too small to actually hide out in and not have been caught. In the film, you can see the smoke rising from the swamp from Ellisville. But according to historians, the swamps along the Leaf River where he hid out were further north-west on the edge of Covington County. Which you certainly wouldn’t have seen smoke from that far away. Or it wouldn’t have seemed that ridiculously close.
I know that my writing here seems like I want Newt Knight to have been hiding out in our swamp or traipsing out land. No. It’s just considering that they’re not talking about Billy Joe from somewhere in Tennessee or Kentucky, which doesn’t matter, one can’t help but think if it’s their land, when the film is talking about their area. It just made us ponder and also made us feel weird about the entire affair seeing as it was quite plausible.
Also, the only reason that I care all of a sudden, is because it’s strange that this is a film that people all over the world have seen, or will see. It’s almost like a microscope has been directed at me and the world suddenly feels much smaller and it’s an odd place to be.