Mississippi in Liberia: In Search of Lost History at Prospect Hill and Sinoe County

US House style in Sinoe County

.... Much of Sinoe’s historical connections with Mississippi remain unstudied and unknown. Through archaeological, ethnographic, and historical methods, we hope to uncover a more holistic story of the lives of the Mississippians who became settlers in West Africa as well as the memory and legacy they created both before and after they became Liberian.

By: James Andrew Whitaker (Troy University and Mississippi State University); Shawn Lambert (Mississippi State University); Andrew Wegmann (Delta State University) and Jessica Crawford (The Archaeological Conservancy)

Many of the early Americo-Liberian settlers to Sinoe County came from the southwestern region of Mississippi in the United States. They were sent by the Mississippi State Colonization Society to what became known as “Mississippi in Africa” during the 1830s and 1840s, making the voyage to Liberia a condition of their freedom from slavery. 

The area where they settled was already inhabited by Indigenous groups who had long been resident there. However, the new settlers from Mississippi built new towns and established new social and political systems, sometimes by force. 

The towns that they created, centered at Greenville, often made reference to locations across the Atlantic in Mississippi and the southeastern United States.  Although representative of a complex and troubling legacy, these historical place names remain in Sinoe County today alongside street names and other parts of the symbolic landscape.

An archaeological excavation is currently being conducted in the United States that aims to uncover new data concerning this part of Liberian history. From June 18-28, this excavation is being led by Dr. Shawn Lambert at a plantation in Mississippi called Prospect Hill, a place of enslavement in the antebellum United States. 

The excavation is supported through a Global Development Seed Grant from the International Institute at Mississippi State University. The site is currently owned by The Archaeological Conservancy and managed by their Southeast Regional Director, Jessica Crawford, who has conducted research concerning the former residents of Prospect Hill and worked to locate their descendants. 

Although this phase of our broader research project is being undertaken on the other side of the Atlantic, its purpose is to uncover material culture that will reveal new information about Liberian history. Although Prospect Hill is a site associated with slavery in the United States prior to the American Civil War, it is also a place closely connected to the historical founding of Sinoe County.

Founded in 1831 and headquartered in the town of Natchez, located in the western part of the state along the Mississippi River, the Mississippi State Colonization Society was a branch of the larger American Colonization Society for much of its existence. Between 1835 and 1848, the Mississippi State Colonization Society sent several hundred formerly enslaved African Americans to their colony in West Africa known as “Mississippi in Africa.” 

The largest group of these settlers—some 300 individuals who departed between 1847 and 1848—were from the Prospect Hill plantation near what is now the town of Lorman in Jefferson County, Mississippi. 

The general history of Prospect Hill and the migration of some of its formerly enslaved inhabitants to the Pepper Coast of Liberia is the subject of journalist Alan Huffman’s book Mississippi in Africa. Although Huffman was unable to visit Sinoe County, he spoke with some of the settlers’ descendants both in the US and through a short visit to Monrovia during the latter years of the Liberian civil conflicts. 

However, much of Sinoe’s historical connections with Mississippi remain unstudied and unknown. Through archaeological, ethnographic, and historical methods, we hope to uncover a more holistic story of the lives of the Mississippians who became settlers in West Africa as well as the memory and legacy they created both before and after they became Liberian.

In 2022, Dr. James Andrew Whitaker visited Liberia for two months to interview current and former residents of Sinoe County (both Indigenous people and Americo-Liberians) in relation to oral history and historical memory of the area’s settlement and its complex aftermath. 

He conducted ethnographic fieldwork interviews in Greenville, Lexington, and Louisiana in Sinoe County, as well as in Monrovia in Montserrado County. These interviews were aimed at better understanding how Liberians remember and describe the events and circumstances of Sinoe’s settlement and subsequent relations between settlers and Indigenous groups. 

He completed 52 interviews during this research visit, which was supported through a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. He was joined by Dr. Andrew Wegmann for a second visit to Liberia in May 2023, which focused on follow-up interviews and new interviews concerning these topics in and around Monrovia.

What emerged from these interviews was both continuity and diversity in historical memory concerning Sinoe County’s ties with Mississippi, a complex set of perspectives on the nature and legacy of Indigenous-settler relations, and a frequent sadness that Liberians of all backgrounds have not benefited more from these past connections to the United States. 

The comparative examination of these themes lays at the heart of a book that James and Andrew are developing with contributions from Shawn and other leading voices in Liberian studies from both sides of the Atlantic. 

The excavation at Prospect Hill is an integral part of this broader project. Our goal is to follow up these archaeological and ethnographic phases with a subsequent excavation in Sinoe County to map material culture along the transatlantic route that binds the two places to better understand how Americo-Liberian settlers’ lives changed as they moved from Mississippi to Liberia.

Through this multi-phase research project, we hope to contribute to re-building mutually beneficial bridges between Sinoe County and the United States (particularly Mississippi and Alabama). 

Our main goals are to further knowledge of these historical ties and to educate and collaborate with communities through public archaeology and interdisciplinary anthropology. Indeed, this summer’s project at Prospect Hill includes a public education component, supported by the Mississippi Humanities Council, that will help to spread public awareness of this history. 

We hope to include a similar public education component during the excavation in Sinoe County. We welcome emails concerning this project from anyone with personal or family connections to Sinoe County or Prospect Hill who may have information about these topics. We are currently looking for specific sites with GPS coordinates of very early settlement locations in Sinoe County. We are particularly interested in connecting with descendant communities (both Indigenous and Americo-Liberian) whose families have been touched by this history.

James Andrew Whitaker (jaw159@msstate.edu)

Shawn Lambert (shawn.lambert@anthro.msstate.edu)

Andrew Wegmann (awegmann@deltastate.edu)

Jessica Crawford (tacsoutheast@gmail.com)

(Please send emails to all four addresses)