Historic Jefferson College
16 Old North Street, Natchez, Mississippi 39120
Monday–Saturday 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
Sunday 1–5 p.m.
Historic Jefferson College was the birthplace of Mississippi’s statehood in 1817. Established in 1802, the school was the first institution of higher learning chartered in the Mississippi Territory. Today, the site operates as a museum with several original buildings built between 1819 and 1839, including the East Wing, President’s House, and West Wing.
History and Significance
As governor of the Mississippi Territory, William C. C. Claiborne proposed that an institution of higher learning be established. In 1802, at its first meeting, the Mississippi Territorial General Assembly approved a bill to construct Jefferson College in Washington, Mississippi. The college was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson, then president of the United States. William Dunbar, noted scientist and early explorer of the Louisiana Purchase, was a member of the college’s first board of trustees, and Governor Claiborne served as president.
Jefferson College opened its doors on January 7, 1811, as a preparatory school with 15 students. Funds from Congress, the state legislature, and private citizens allowed Jefferson College to become a full-fledged institution by 1817. Famous students and faculty include 10-year-old Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America; Albert Gallatin Brown, governor of Mississippi; and Benjamin L.C. Wailes, a distinguished geologist, who was both a student and instructor.
In 1830, the college purchased the Methodist church building that had housed the 1817 Mississippi Statehood Convention. The building was later destroyed in a storm.
Jefferson College quickly became the intellectual center of the Natchez region. Several associations dedicated to learning met in the college rooms; around 1837, the Washington Lyceum was formed, the first such group allied with Jefferson College. The Washington Lyceum had standing committees dedicated to studying law, theology, philosophy, history, and the physical sciences. The Lyceum published a notable literary journal and examined local Native American mounds.
Local horticulturalist Thomas Affleck hosted agricultural fairs on campus and organized the Agricultural, Horticultural, and Botanical Society of Jefferson College. Benjamin L. C. Wailes became its president in 1843. Wailes travelled the state collecting fossils, exploring Native American mounds, and studying plantations to gather and publish information on crop production.
The Civil War forced Jefferson College to close in 1863. From that time until it permanently closed in 1964, Jefferson College remained a preparatory school. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the school had become known as Jefferson Military College.
In 1971, Jefferson College was placed under the administrative control of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Historic Jefferson College was restored by MDAH in phases completed 1977 and 1984. The restoration was funded in part by the Friends of Jefferson College.
The T.J. Foster Memorial Nature Trail is named after Historic Jefferson College’s first site administrator. The trail features a longer loop about one mile in length through fairly rigorous terrain, and a shorter, less difficult quarter-mile loop. Two other trails include the challenging Ridge Trail, half-mile long running next to the St. Catherine Creek, and the easy quarter-mile long Pond Trail. More than 65 species of native and non-native vegetation are identified on the trails by small metal placards. Twenty large signs highlight the animals, insects, and plants found along the nature trail.
Portrayed as West Point Academy in the television series North and the South, Historic Jefferson College has also been a popular film location. Portions of Freedom Road, The Horse Soldiers, two versions of Huckleberry Finn, and Raintree Country were filmed at Historic Jefferson College.
The 5K Trail Run for the Animals in January brings runners to the nature trails at Historic Jefferson College to raise funds for animals at the Natchez-Adams County Humane Society.
Ladies Civil War Academy in March brings together female reenactors who don Civil War era attire and learn about the skills and activities germane to that period.
The Great Big Yam Potatoes Old Time Gathering and Fiddle Contest in May showcases old time music and is organized by the Mississippi Fiddlers’ Association.
Reveille is an all-day family event in September featuring living history actors, free screenings of movies filmed at the site, tours of the site’s historic buildings, talks, food vendors, family games, and more.
Black and Blue Civil War Living History Program in October features living history portrayals of prominent African Americans involved in the Civil War.
Ghost Tales and Rubber Duck Hunt near Halloween brings children of all ages to campus to hear ghost stories and to find thousands of rubber ducks hidden around the campus.