On Prospect Hill

James Belton of Magnolia stands in cemetery at Prospect Hill Plantation.

First in a three-part series

LORMAN — In the early 1800s, a South Carolina landowner named Capt. Isaac Ross packed up his family, slaves and possessions and moved to southwest Mississippi. He established a plantation east of Lorman called Prospect Hill.

His slaves built a mansion, which later burned, then built another, which still stands, albeit in disrepair.

“I’ve been knowing about it all my life because my dad used to talk about Prospect Hill,” said James Belton, 78, of Magnolia.

Belton is a descendant of the slaves who built Prospect Hill — and possibly the owners.

The Beltons and Rosses came over from Queens County, Ireland, in the 1700s and eventually made their way to Kershaw County, S.C.

Belton had a DNA analysis done and learned he’s 28 percent European, though “I can’t say for certain” if he’s a descendant of Isaac Ross.

Belton’s great-great-grandmother Mariah Belton was a slave at Prospect Hill who lived to be 112.

“She told my daddy how the trip was, coming down from South Carolina to here,” Belton said while standing on the remote, deep-woods grounds around the massive, dilapidated plantation house. “They had about 100 wagons, animals — chickens, horses, cattle. So many mulattoes.”

Mulattoes, or mixed-bloods, meant white owners were having children with black slaves, which Belton suspects caused problems for Ross in South Carolina, prompting him to leave. Also, the Rosses and Beltons were Quakers, a religious group that experienced persecution.

“My dad was about 9 years old when Grandma Mariah died,” Belton said. “She would tell him a lot of things about Isaac Ross and Prospect Hill.

“My daddy would pass it on to me, and I am passing it on to you.”

Belton was born and raised in Magnolia. He taught math and science at McComb High School for 27 years and simultaneously worked as a ranger at Percy Quin State Park for 19. When he retired from teaching he went to work for the Mississippi Regional Housing Authority, and the job took him to Jefferson County.

He asked around until he found out where Prospect Hill was located — way back in the woods off Phillip Road north of Red Lick. The back side of beyond.

“The first time I came down here it was so exciting, I had goosebumps,” Belton recalled. “I said, ‘This is where my ancestors, my great-great-grandmother, walked around here.’”

A cemetery beside the house features elaborate stone monuments for Rosses and Beltons, centered around a towering edifice for Isaac Ross.

“Isaac Ross was beyond his time,” Belton said. “He had slaves teaching others to read and write. That was unheard-of. Slaves were musicians and had a band that would play for visitors. He was very good to his servants.

“They had about a 50-acre garden. He would come in from time to time to help in the garden.”

Ross served on the board of directors for Oakland College, which is now Alcorn State University.

“A lot of people, blacks, are bitter about slavery, but I never had any ill feelings because of the things I have been told about Isaac Ross,” Belton said.

According to a 1947 article in the Journal of Mississippi History, “His slaves were trained to do all kinds of skilled plantation work as he had well constructed barns, negro houses, out buildings of every kind needed on a well equipped plantation, and machinery. His wagons, save the iron that went into them, were made by the skilled slave labor. ...

“His slaves were taught to be self reliant in many ways as he would give each family a certain number of corn fed hogs for their year’s supply and each one had smoke-houses and cared for their own meat. His large herd of fine cattle was used for the most part in supplying his slaves with fresh beef during the summer and fall as it was his custom to have two fine beeves slaughtered each week for their benefit.”

When Ross died in 1836, his will allowed his slaves to move to Africa, where they could live in freedom.

According to the Journal of Mississippi History article, “Captain Isaac Ross provided in his will that his slaves should be sent to Liberia, if they elected to go, through the American Colonoization Society, and his entire fortune was to care for them, except about $10,000, given to his granddaughter, Mrs. Adelade Richardson. The inventory made under the order of the Court gave 160 slaves, 5,000 acres of well improved land and personal property valued at around $100,000.”

Ross’s grandson, Ross Wade, contested the will and blocked it for several years. That prompted some of the slaves to burn the plantation house down in 1845, killing a child in the process. The book “Burning Prospects: A Novel Based on a True Story” by Melissa Miles — a descendant of the Ross and Wade families — tells the tragic story in detail.

The suspected arsonists were executed, but a judge upheld the will. The house was rebuilt in 1854, and a number of slaves sailed to Africa, where some of their descendants live today.

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Next: What became of the freed slaves and their descendants?

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