Written by Dr. Timothy D. Hudson
The earliest European settlers of modern Union Parish, John Honeycutt, Sr. and his son, John Honeycutt, Jr., made their way from Natchez, Mississippi to the Poste d’Ouachita in 1792. Then a tiny, insignificant outpost in the unsettled hinterlands of Spain’s Luisiana Colony, the region remained a backwoods locale until the land boom of the mid-1830s brought the first wave of settlers from the east. Longtime Indian traders, the Honeycutts lived by themselves along Bayou D’Arbonne near modern Point, together with the large population of Choctaw Indians who moved into the Ouachita country as refugees from Mississippi in the latter 1700s, establishing an extensive trading partnership with the Spanish at Fort Miro (now Monroe).
The first people of primarily African descent who permanently settled in Union Parish were two slaves John Honeycutt, Sr. obtained shortly after 1800. Several other European settlers and their few slaves arrived in the Piney Hills about 1808 from Natchez, these settling near modern Downsville, a neighborhood then known as Upper Pine Hills. So although African-Americans helped to settle Union Parish from about the time the Americans assumed control of the Ouachita region from Spain in 1804, virtually nothing is known of them or their families due to a dearth of records from that early period.
One early Union Parish African-American family we can document is that of Dandridge and Eliza Claiborne. Dandridge Claiborne was born about 1790. We know nothing of his early life, including his precise place of birth, although family tradition claimed that he was born in Virginia or Kentucky. Eliza was born about 1807, probably in Adams County Mississippi. Eliza’s mother was a slave belonging to William Wood, who had moved from South Carolina to Adams County Mississippi in the early 1800s. In 1808, Wood purchased land in the Piney Hills, now along the Ouachita/Union Parish line a few miles south of Downsville, and he soon moved his extended family there.
Wood and a small group of settlers from the Natchez area made the trek to the Piney Hills, including Mills Farmer, then a single, 25-year old man. In fact, one wonders what attracted a well-educated man like as Farmer to such an unsettled wilderness. Soon after their arrival in northeast Louisiana, Wood’s son-in-law died, leaving his daughter, Susannah Wood McCowen, a young widow with an infant son. In 1812, Mills Farmer married Susannah, and they settled in Upper Pine Hills in modern Union Parish. Farmer joined the Louisiana Militia in late December 1814 as the British threatened New Orleans, and he then returned and established a farm and worked as a justice of the peace.
On 16 April 1821, William Wood sold Eliza, then fourteen years old, to his son-in-law, Mills Farmer. We have no record of how or when Farmer acquired Dandridge. It is possible that Dandridge came to the Piney Hills with Farmer in 1808, or he may have acquired him from his father-in-law like he did Eliza. In the 1820s, Mills Farmer helped to found the Pine Hills Baptist Church, the earliest Baptist church in the northern half of Louisiana, serving the church as a deacon. It is possible that Dandridge or Eliza belonged to the church.
By the mid-1820s, Dandridge and Eliza married, and they soon had sons Dennis, born about 1828, and Reuben, born about 1831, and a daughter, Nicy, born in 1834. Dandridge undoubtedly worked in Farmer’s extensive farming operation, which by 1834 included 120 acres of cleared farmland, a mill, and a cotton gin. Mills Farmer had four sons, including William Wood Farmer (who later served as Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor), plus younger male slaves Joshua, Edmund, Nelson, and Willis. Mills Farmer died at his farm in the Pine Hills on 21 October 1834, but Susannah continued to operate their farm until her death on 21 October 1843.
In the settlement of Mills and Susannah Farmer’s estate, ownership of Dandridge and Eliza and their younger children passed to the Farmer’s youngest daughter, Sebella, and her husband, William J. Payne. Dandridge and Eliza’s family had grown by this point, and in addition to their daughter, Nicy, they also had sons Humphrey, Joshua, Aaron, and Alonzo (Lonsey). Dennis and Reuben. Dandridge and Eliza’s elder sons, went to another daughter, Leah Farmer Wilhite, who lived on a farm near the Payne’s.
For the next ten years, life continued as usual for the Claibornes on the Payne-Farmer farm near Downsville. Dandridge and Eliza had additional children, including sons Monroe and Isaac. William J. Payne’s 1852 death created significant changes for Dandridge and Eliza’s family. After living near modern Downsville for forty years, upon Sebella Farmer Payne’s marriage to Farmerville merchant William H. Carson, they left their homes and moved with Sebella to Farmerville.
At the end of chattel slavery in the United States, Dandridge and Eliza and their children all chose the surname of “Claiborne,” but its significance, if any, is unknown. Dandridge lived into his seventies, dying sometime in the 1860s. In 1870, Eliza and her sons lived near Farmerville, where most of them worked as sharecroppers. Her eldest son, Dennis, worked on the Carson farm, whereas Eliza lived with her son Humphrey on Judge John Taylor’s large farm just off the road to Marion.
Dandridge and Eliza’s son, Aaron Claiborne, was born about 1840. It is unclear if he were born blind, or if an injury or illness caused his blindness as an adult. We do know that he had become completely blind by 1860, when he was twenty years old. Aaron never married and due to his blindness, he had no known occupation, living with his married brothers in 1870 and 1880. He had a routine of walking to Farmerville many mornings, led by his “faithful dog.” On his way into town by a backstreet one June morning in 1875, someone knocked him down with a brickbat. He got up and walked on into town, where he remained all day, following his usual custom. That evening as Aaron walked back home, he was waylaid just outside of town and cruelly beaten, causing severe cuts to his head. A witness helped to identify Aaron’s assailant, Sam Jones, leading to his arrest.
Eliza Claiborne and her sons Dennis, Humphrey, and Aaron all died in obscurity, sometime after 1880. Dandridge and Eliza’s sons Alonzo, Monroe, and Isaac all worked and raised their families near Farmerville. Monroe Claiborne purchased his own home in Farmerville in the 1890s. He worked as a laborer in Farmerville until 1904, when the railroad finally came to Farmerville. He then obtained a position as a railroad section hand, while his wife and daughter operated a clothes-washing service. Monroe died in Farmerville on 3 March 1915. Isaac’s wife, Laura, died of tuberculosis in 1916, and Isaac worked as a laborer with the Farmerville Public Works until his death at the age of seventy in August 1920.
Although Dandridge and Eliza arrived in north Louisiana in the early 1800s as property of other humans, a century later, two of their grandsons, Ollie and Jonas Claiborne, registered for the World War I draft, employed as a railroad section hand and a clothes presser, and were educated well enough to sign their names in a clear, firm handwriting. After their service in the U.S. Army, Ollie Claiborne owned and operated a general store near Farmerville, whereas Jonas Claiborne owned and operated his own clothes-pressing business in El Dorado.
Dr. Timothy D. Hudson is the mathematics department head at Southeastern Louisiana University and an avid historian on Union Parish. Dr. Hudson is a Union Parish native and graduate of Farmerville High School.