Historic Jefferson College
Historic Jefferson College is the site of the first institution of higher learning chartered in the Mississippi Territory. It features a museum and several original buildings, including the East Wing (circa 1819), President’s House (circa 1835), and West Wing (circa 1839).
Incorporated by an act of the first General Assembly of the Mississippi Territory in 1802, the college was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States and president of the American Philosophical Society. Territorial governor William C. C. Claiborne served as president of the college’s first Board of Trustees.
After years of initial financial difficulties, Jefferson College opened its doors on January 7, 1811, as a preparatory school, with 15 students. Funds from Congress, the Legislature, and private citizens led the way to new prosperity, and by 1817 Jefferson College had become a full-fledged college; 10-year-old Jefferson Davis attended in 1818. By 1819 a new building, the East Wing, designed by prominent Natchez architect Levi Weeks, was complete.
In 1830 the college purchased the Methodist church building that had housed the 1817 Mississippi statehood convention, renovated it in 1832, and in 1839 completed construction of a new West Wing.
Intellectual and Cultural Significance
As the most impressive educational institution of the Natchez region, Jefferson College quickly became a center of the intellectual community. William Dunbar, the territory’s most active man of science, was a member of the first board; later board members included Benjamin Wailes and John Wesley Monette.
Several associations dedicated to learning met in the college rooms; around 1837, the Jefferson College and Washington Lyceum was formed, the first such group allied with Jefferson College. Standing committees were organized on belles-lettres and mental science, moral philosophy and theology, constitutional law and political economy, natural history, mathematics and physical science, antiquities and history, and anatomy and physiology. The Lyceum published an important literary journal and also undertook investigations of local Indian mounds.
The outbreak of the Civil War forced the closing of Jefferson College in 1863. It reopened in 1866, again as a preparatory school. From that time until 1964, when its doors closed forever, Jefferson College remained a preparatory school. By the beginning of the 20th century, the school had become known as Jefferson Military College.
The T.J. Foster Memorial Nature Trail at Historic Jefferson College
Historic Jefferson College Today
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Historic Jefferson College was restored by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in phases completed in 1977 and 1984. The restoration was funded in part by the Friends of Jefferson College, a non-profit corporation. Popular annual events include the Copper Magnolia Festival each fall, Civil War re-enactments, vintage baseball games, and the Children’s Victorian Christmas.
The T.J. Foster Memorial Nature Trail is named after the first director of the site. The trail features a longer loop about one mile in length through fairly rigorous terrain, and a shorter, less taxing quarter-mile loop. More than 65 species of native and non-native vegetation are identified on the trails by small metal placards. The 20 large, new signs will highlight the animals, insects, plants, and other features found along the nature trail.
Portrayed as West Point Academy in the North and the South television series, Historic Jefferson College has been a popular film location – for Horse Soldiers, Mistress of Paradise, and two versions of Huckleberry Finn.
Jefferson Military College Foundation
The Jefferson Military College Foundation is a private, non-profit organization composed of former students, faculty, and friends of the school. Founded in 1980 as the “Jefferson Military College Alumni Association,” the organization has expanded to welcome family members and friends of students and faculty, and anyone interested in the preservation of Historic Jefferson College.
The Foundation is active in assisting the Mississippi Department of Archives and History with the preservation of Historic Jefferson College. In the 1990s, the organization played a vital role in the state’s acquisition of property near the school, safeguarding the historic site’s tranquil setting. Currently, the Foundation is raising funds through its Memorial Brick Walk Project to assist with the renovation of a 1915 dormitory building for use as a museum about the school’s 20th century history.
Membership is open to anyone with an interest in the school. Annual dues are $50.00. In addition to helping support the Foundation’s work, members receive a quarterly newsletter with stories by former students and faculty, updates on Foundation projects, reunion plans, and news about programs and events at Historic Jefferson College.
The Foundation recently completed the first section of a Memorial Brick Walk honoring almost 200 people who have been associated with the school in some way. As new bricks are purchased, additional sections of the walk will be completed. Inscribed bricks are $50.00 each.
Anyone interested in joining the Foundation or purchasing Memorial Bricks can contact Historic Jefferson College for information and order forms:
Postal address: Historic Jefferson College, P.O. Box 700, Washington, Mississippi 39190
Visitors are invited to tour the restored West Wing, the kitchen buildings, Prospere Hall – where interpretive exhibitions, a gift shop, and rest rooms are located – and the T.J. Foster Nature Trail. Normal hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For more information call 601-442-2901 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directions: Historic Jefferson College is located at 16 Old North Street, Natchez, MS 39120. Approaching Natchez on Highway 61, you will pass through the town of Washington. Historic Jefferson College signs will direct you to the entrance, at right.