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The Heart of Oktibbeha.

Early historians have written that the site of present day Starkville was originally called "Hic-a-sha-ba-ha," reportedly meaning in the language of the Choctaw "sweet gum thicket." Apparently this area was a favored campground of numerous Indian tribes for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1540. The Indians often gave names to places based on simple logic, and this northeast Mississippi town is no exception. Today, the still plentiful groves of sweet gum trees are just as eagerly sought for their shade as they were in pre-DeSoto days.

Geographically Starkville is centered near the heart of the 459-square-mile Oktibbeha County. Named for Tibbee Creek, which traverses near the extreme northeast corner of the county, Oktibbeha is a word that vividly describes the ancient history of this much fought over soil. Translated into English, Oktibbeha means "bloody water" and refers to the many battles fought between the descendants of two brothers, Chata and Chicsa, who parted ways more than two thousand years ago according to ancient stories. Tibbee Creek formed one of the natural boundaries between the two tribes with the Chickasaw Nation to the north and the Choctaws to the south. Legend has it that civil wars between them were both fierce and often.

On September 27, 1830, the Choctaws, led by Chiefs Greenwood Leflore and Mashulatubbee, signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek whereby they ceded possession of the last of their Mississippi lands, some ten million-plus acres (16,286 square miles), to the United States government. State of Mississippi officials wasted little time in carving this vast wildemess into seventeen counties. A large number of the new counties were given Choctaw names, such as: Choctaw (separation), Noxubee (stinking water), Neshoba (wolf), and Leflore (named for Chief Greenwood Leflore, who along with several hundred other Choctaws, never left the state at all), to name a few. Almost the same number of the new counties were named for popular Revolutionary War heroes, including Washington (General George Washington), Carroll (Charles Carroll of Maryland, the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence), and Montgomery (General Richard Montgomery, who was killed during the assault on Quebec in 1776). And there are others. The War for American Independence was still fresh in people's minds during this time; therefore the larger-than-life American heroes who helped to change the course of history were the names that were most eagerly sought. Some of the counties given Choctaw names chose, for the names of their county seats, the names of prominent Continental soldiers. The citizens of Attala, named for the fictitious Choctaw Princess, Attala, selected the name of General Thaddeus Koscuisko for their seat of government; Noxubee chose the name of the intrepid North Carolina Revolutionary War soldier, Nathaniel Macon, who after the War became an outspoken senator from that state; and in 1835 Oktibbeha opted for New Hampshire's favored son, General John Stark.

John Stark was indeed a true American hero, He was a soldier almost all of his life. He was independent, smart, and bluntly honest. He did not mince his words; one always knew where he stood. And he cherished the cause of liberty.

Stark was also steadfastly loyal to his home state. After successfully leading his troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, he took part in the New Jersey campaign where he commanded the right wing of George Washington's troops at Trenton. Following these engagements he took some time off to see to the needs of his family. During this recess in the war he was pressed by the Exeter Legislature to accept a commission as brigadier general of the New Hampshire militia. On the condition that he be "answerable" only to New Hampshire, he agreed.

Stark was born in Nutfield (now Londonderry), New Hampshire, on August 28, 1728. He was a farmer, trapper, sawmill operator, soldier, and the father of eleven children. Between 1754 and 1759 he served first as a lieutenant and then as a captain in the French and Indian Wars. When the American Revolution began he entered the conflict as a colonel.

In August of 1877, Brigadier General Stark led his force of 1,500 officers and men from New Hampshire and Vermont against two detachments of British General John Burgoyne's army near Bennington, Vermont. Emphasizing his determination to defeat the British invaders and Hessian mercenaries, General Stark is reported to have said, "Now, men, over there are the Hessians. They were bought for seven pounds, ten pence a man. Tonight the American flag flies over yonder hill or Molly Stark [his wife] sleeps a widow!" Stark's men carried the day, and the Battle of Bennington is often referred to by historians as the turning point of the war, for it led directly to the Battle of Saratoga where Burgoyne was defeated.

When Oktibbeha County was formally organized on December 23, 1833, Stark's popularity as a genuine Revolutionary War leader was still at its peak. It is reasonable to imagine the community leaders of Boardtown, the original name of Starkville, discussing with some degree of excitement the possibility of their village being named the county seat. Obviously Boardtown, a name which was given the young community more or less unofficially, was not the sort of name the town fathers wished for their new role as the county government site. The community, which started to form there in 1831, did so around a sawmill. As the sawmill grew so did the town, with apparently all the other buildings in the area, stores, houses, barns, etc., being constructed from the local rough cut boards. It is said there were no brick houses and only a few log homes in the vicinity. Taking advantage of the new town's not-so-affluent plight, nearby outsiders played on the term "Boardtown," deriding the new settlement for being "poor." The clapboard houses, built using boards placed vertically to form the walls with a narrow plank (clapboard) nailed over the cracks--an inexpensive way to build structures--encouraged citizens from the wealthier towns and settlements to poke fun at the struggling new Oktibbeha community. Surely, the town fathers must have reasoned, if we change the name of our town to honor General John Stark we will steer a new course in a positive direction for our town,

Throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, Starkville and its surrounding area prospered to a degree, based chiefly on farming. Just as it looked like the town was about to grow in earnest, the War Between the States almost dealt it a deathblow. During this period, women, old men, and children struggled to maintain a meager existence. Following the vain attempt by the South to win its independence, hard times lingered until 1872 when marshal law was finally lifted and thousands of Federal Troops were withdrawn from Mississippi soil.

A healthy and favorable economy did not really plant its feet in Starkville until the coming of the railroads. A branch of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad first reached Starkville from Artesia in Lowndes County in 1874. Nine years later the CA&M, which became the Illinois Central Railroad, built a line thorough the town from Aberdeen down to Durant. These railroads introduced numerous business opportunities, which in turn led to a lasting economic foundation. For the first time in the history of the town, business leaders had a substantial base on which to build for the future. The future, as they envisioned it, lay in the field of education. Working in unison, Starkville's political, business, and religious leaders proposed a plan, which has impacted not only their town, but the entire state. The hard work of these visionaries came to fruition in 1878 when Starkville was selected by the state legislature as the site of Mississippi's first land grant college, Mississippi A&M. The school's first session began in the fall of 1880, with former Confederate General Stephen D. Lee as president. And, with few exceptions, the student and faculty population has grown every year since. In 1932 A&M was renamed Mississippi State College. Twenty-six years later, in 1958, the school became Mississippi State University. Today, with a student enrollment of over 16,000, MSU is the largest institution of higher learning in Mississippi. Still working together as one, Starkville is MSU and MSU is Starkville.

Starkville's progressive atmosphere continues to grow today, and that progress may very well have begun with the changing of its name more than a century and a half ago in honor of an American hero. In 1809 the idealistic namesake of Starkville was invited to attend the thirty-second reunion of veterans who fought at the Battle of Bennington. Because of ill health, the eighty-one year old general was unable to attend. In his written response to the invitation he thanked his former comrades, who had once-upon-a-time "taught the enemies of liberty that undisciplined freemen are superior to veteran slaves," and he assured them that he would never forget their respect. He closed his letter with a toast, honoring them with eleven well-chosen words, which have become one of the most famous phrases in American history: "Live Free or Die--Death is not the worst of evils."

On May 8, 1822, at the age of ninety-four, Major General John Stark died at his home in Manchester, New Hampshire, the last living general of the American Revolution.
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Title Annotation:history of Starkville, Mississippi
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Jul 1, 2001
Previous Article:Seasonal Gifts.

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