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The heart of the Delta. (Looking Back).

On/March 21, 1918, a reinforced German army stormed the allied trenches of French, British, and Belgian defenders along a cold, slippery, 60-mile western front--the final German push in the Battle of the Somme--in a supreme effort to take the lead in the four-year-long war which had seen little change in real estate since fighting began in 1914. More than one million steel-helmeted invaders charged shoulder to shoulder as fast as a man in soggy leather hobnailed boots can run across a treeless, grassless, lifeless no man's land, rechurning 100 kilometers of muddy Belgian earth into a virtual sea of death. The scene was horrific! British losses alone totaled 77,650 men.

One week to the day later, March 28, 1918, back home in the American South, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, a new county was given life. Humphreys County was named for GSA Brigadier General Benjamin Grubb Humphreys, a native of Claiborne County who gallantly led Mississippi troops at Chickamauga, Knoxville, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, and who in 1865 was elected as Mississippi's 26th governor. It was Humphreys who before the war bought a small tract of land in Sunflower County and who, according to historian Harold A. Cross in his book They Sleep Beneath the Mockingbird (1994), "cleared the land of its virgin timber, built a home and named it 'Itta Bena' from the Choctaw phrase meaning 'Home in the Woods."' Humphreys, who entered West Point as a classmate of Robert E. Lee, was a natural leader who, long after his death in 1882 on his Leflore County plantation at the age of 74, was a man who attracted many admirers. For instance, when the $4.5 million Greenville, Miss.,-to-Lake Villag e, Ark., bridge, which at the time was the final link in the shortest all-paved, all-weather route from New York to Los Angeles, was opened to traffic on October 5, 1940, it was named in his honor--the B. G. Humphreys Bridge.

On December 10, 1917, the state of Mississippi, composed of 81 counties, celebrated its centennial. Twelve weeks later, Humphreys County, number 82, was formed from portions of Washington, Yazoo, Sunflower, Holmes, and Sharkey Counties. At 430 square miles of land area, Humphreys ranks 66th in overall size, and with more than 14,000, it ranks 59th in population.

Ninety years before Humphreys County became a reality, Louisianian Alvarez Fisk saw agricultural opportunity and the wealth that was associated with what he surely must have envisioned as a win-win situation. After all, how could anyone go wrong buying the richest farmland on earth? Carolyn Newton and Patricia Coggin report in their book, Meet Mississippi (1976), that Fisk apparently wasted little time, after purchasing a sizeable tract of land in the then-extreme southwestern corner of Washington County, in laying out streets and measuring off lots. Fisk named his new town, which overlooked the Yazoo River from the west, Fisk's Landing. When the influx of colonists failed to materialize in accord with his schedule, he decided to change the name of the town. Without question, he gave his struggling enterprise a new lease on life when he renamed the town for a famous person, Giovanni Battista Belzoni. The story goes that Belzoni was actually an acquaintance of his. At any rate, the ploy did work. The town bega n to grow, at least somewhat, and then a setback came in the form of the four-year-long Civil War. Especially bad were the years 1863 through 1865, when the men in blue brought death, pillage, and destruction by fire to the sparsely populated Delta.

Giovanni Battista Beizoni was born in Italy on November 15, 1778. At the age of 25, he immigrated to London, where he joined a traveling circus. At 67? tall, the red-haired, red-bearded Italian served the circus for 12 years as a strong man. He became known throughout the world as the "Patagonian Samson" and the "Great Beizoni." He gained worldwide fame for his feat of lifting a specially made iron frame upon which 12 people would sit and then, still holding it, walking across the stage. After leaving the circus, he traveled to Egypt to try his hand at a new line of work, archeology. Using the knowledge of hydraulics he had acquired before leaving Italy, he attracted the attention of the British Consul General, Sir Henry Salt, when he successfully removed the colossal stone head of Ramses II, which was later transported to the British Museum. In 1817, Belzoni discovered the tombs of Amenhotep III, Ramses I, Merneptah, and Ay, as well as the entrance to the sepulcher of Seti I, Ramses I's son. In 1818, Belzoni became the first person in modern history to enter the pyramid of Khafre at Giza. Three years later, he was honored in London with an extravagant exhibit called Egyptian Hall for being the greatest archaeologist of his era. Quite a legacy for a small town to live up to!

Despite the fact that the town of Belzoni was not blessed with a railroad, English, Irish, and Jewish merchants successfully built businesses that helped the river town grow into the largest trading center between Greenwood and Yazoo City. However, it wasn't until December 29, 1879, that a post office was acquired. Perhaps because of the local pronunciation of the Italian word "Belzoni," the post office spelling became "Belzona," and it remained that way for 31 years. On January 20, 1910, the spelling was corrected. Even so, 93 years later, Belzoni is still pronounced "Bel-zone-ah."

During the first six years of Belzoni's life as the county seat of Humphreys County, the city hail doubled as the courthouse. But in 1922, the same year British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen, Humphreys County's $300,000 courthouse building was completed. Since then, the population of Fisk's dream has more than tripled to 2,663. The city with ties to archeology has in a sense rediscovered its purpose, and in a real way has redirected its mission. Fisk visualized agricultural opportunities, but he had no way of knowing about aquaculture opportunities. Today, with more acres of farm-raised catfish than any other county in the United States, Humphreys County--with Belzoni as its hub--is known across the globe as the "Catfish Capital of the World." Surely if Fisk could see his "Landing" now and taste just a little of its success, he would realize that in more ways than one, Belzoni truly is the "Heart of the Delta."
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Title Annotation:Mississippi history
Author:Cooper, Forrest Lamar
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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