Winthrop Sargent (1753-1820), a native of Massachusetts, was appointed by Pres. John Adams on May 7, 1798, to serve as the first governor of the Mississippi Territory, which included the present-day states of Mississippi and Alabama. Often at odds with the frontier inhabitants of the territory, who resented Sargent's austere New England temperament and the strictness of the laws he enacted, Sargent nevertheless brought much-needed stability to the Mississippi Territory before being replaced as governor by William C. C. Claiborne in 1801.
Sargent was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on May 1, 1753, to Winthrop Sargent and Judith Sanders, and into a family of successful merchants. Sargent was a poet and a member of such educational societies as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. After graduating from Harvard University in 1771, Sargent briefly served aboard one of the family's merchant ships before joining the American war for independence from Great Britain. He became an officer in the artillery regiment of Gen. Henry Knox and eventually achieved the rank of major. Sargent participated with this artillery unit in many engagements, including those at Long Island and White Plains, New York; Trenton and Monmouth, New Jersey; and Brandywine, Pennsylvania. He also was with Gen. George Washington's army during the harsh winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
At the end of the war, Sargent requested and received a recommendation from Washington for a commission in the armed services of the Dutch Republic of Holland. Instead of serving in Holland, Sargent opted for serving in the Northwest Territory, which Congress had opened to settlement in 1785. In June 1786, Sargent was appointed as a surveyor to lay out the new territory's townships. When the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 organized the government for the territory, Congress appointed Sargent secretary. Sargent also served as adjutant-general during the Northwest Indian War of 1785-1795 and was acting governor for a significant period of time. In 1789, Sargent wed Rowena Tupper, who died in child birth along with the child a year later.
Sargent's military and territorial experience positioned him well to be considered for governor of the Mississippi Territory. Pres. John Adams, however, appointed Georgia governor William Matthews. Adams later withdrew the nomination and appointed Sargent after congressional opposition arose because of Matthews's involvement in the Yazoo land fraud scandal.
Sargent arrived in Natchez on August 6, 1798, to accept his appointment. Soon after taking on the role of governor, he married Mary McIntosh Williams, and the couple had two children, William-Fritz Sargent and George Washington Sargent. Sargent brought with him to his new position a preconceived view of a lawless and chaotic society in the territory, believing that it was imperative to rein in this supposed wild populace by imposing the rule of law as soon as possible. Sergeant's haughtiness and austere attitude, however, caused concern even among his friends, who feared his disposition would make the inhabitants dislike him.
While awaiting the arrival of judges to help govern the territory, Sargent formed a temporary government. The territory's new secretary, John Steele, arrived in the fall of 1798 but was too ill to assume his duties for several months. Notwithstanding the unavailability of Steele and the requisite number of judges, on September 9, 1798, Sargent appointed the first local judges, referred to as "conservators of the peace," in the hopes of quickly bringing law and order to the territory. Although he realized that these appointments were temporary and would have to be confirmed when at least one more judge arrived in the territory, he decided to govern actively in the interim. Therefore, on September 8, 1798, Sargent also established a militia when relations between the United States and France soured.
Sargent was finally able to enact official legislation with the concurrence of the necessary number of judges after Judge Daniel Tilton arrived in Natchez in January 1799. The newly constituted government enacted 46 laws between February 28, 1799, and October 30, 1800. Derisively referred to as "Sargent's Code," the laws were considered repressive and unconstitutional by the frontier populace. In particular, they were concerned about the harshness of criminal punishments, such as the forfeiture of all property, corporal punishment, and the death penalty. The pioneers also resented what they considered exorbitant fees for marriage licenses, tavern licenses, and passports. Despite these concerns, the first laws enacted laid the foundation for an orderly government, including a court system for the territory and a permanent militia, as well as laws pertaining to marriage, oaths of office, taverns, sheriffs, coroners, and treasurers.
Fed up with strict regulations, exorbitant fees, harsh criminal penalties, and appointed tax assessors and other unelected officials, a group led by Cato West, Narsworthy Hunter, and Col. Anthony Hutchins worked to remove Sargent from office. These agitators presented grievances to the grand juries of Adams and Pickering counties and petitioned Congress. Lawmakers found no cause to proceed against Sargent for alleged mismanagement of the territory but did vote on May 10, 1800, to give more authority to the legislative branch, which included a popularly elected lower house with the power to override the governor's veto.
Although Sargent had avoided being removed from office by Congress, he did not survive a change of presidential administration. Having received word of Thomas Jefferson's election to the presidency, Sargent temporarily turned over the reins of the territorial government to Secretary Steele and headed for Washington in a futile attempt to save his job. As a Federalist who was opposed by constituents who were mostly Jeffersonian Republicans, Sargent had no chance. On May 25, 1801, he was notified by Secretary of State James Madison that the office of governor would be filled by someone else, and on that same date, William C. C. Claiborne was appointed the second governor of the Mississippi Territory.
Before relinquishing the office, however, Sargent issued a proclamation on June 4, 1800, creating Washington County. The boundaries given to this new county included the area east of the Pearl River and covered an area four times larger than either of the other two counties in the Mississippi Territory. Sargent also implemented the second stage of territorial government: providing the mechanism for the first popular election of the territorial legislature. These actions established the first governmental structure in the future state of Alabama and provided residents in Washington County representation in the territory's legislature.
Sargent retired to his estate near Natchez where he lived the life of a planter. He died on June 3, 1820, in New Orleans or
aboard a steamboat on the Mississippi Rivers at Natchez, according to varying accounts. He was buried in Gloucester Cemetery in Natchez.
Elliott, Mary Joan. "Winthrop Sargent and the Administration of the Mississippi Territory, 1798-1801." Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 1971.
Guice, John D. "The Cement of Society: Law in the Mississippi Territory." Gulf Coast Historical Review 1 (Spring 1986): 76, 82.
Sargent's Code: A Collection of the Original Laws of the Mississippi Territory, Enacted 1799-1800 by Governor Winthrop Sargent and the Territorial Judges. Historical Records Survey, Division of Professional and Service Projects, Works Progress Administration (Jackson, MS: The Historical Records Survey, 1939).
Wunder, John. "American Law and Order Comes to the Mississippi Territory: The Making of Sargent's Code, 1798-1800." Journal of Mississippi History 38 (May 1976), 131-55.
Herbert J. "Jim" Lewis
Published August 6, 2009
Last updated September 21, 2009