Our Legal Heritage: the Courthouse at Jacinto

Luke Dove

Article by Luke Dove Featured Author


One of the finest examples of Federal style architecture in America is located a few miles south of Corinth in the virtually abandoned town of Jacinto, Mississippi. This graceful and stately building is popularly known as the Jacinto Courthouse. Until 1870 it served as the courthouse and seat of government of (Old) Tishomingo County.

Where Jacinto Got Its Name

Jacinto, Mississippi was incorporated in late 1836 by veterans of the Battle of the San Jacinto in Texas. This famous battle for Texas independence stirred the imagination of settlers in Mississippi. They may have mangled Spanish pronunciation but remained true to the ideals of liberty.

Today we don’t know or think much about the Battle of San Jacinto in April, 1836. But we surely know the story of the siege of the Alamo Mission at San Antonio one month earlier in March, 1836. General Santa Anna and his army besieged and killed all the mission defenders except two. Those who died at the Alamo included the frontier legends Jim Bowie and Davey Crockett. One of the two Alamo defenders to have survived was the famous Texas scout, Erastus “Deaf” Smith (pronounced “Deef”) who was the courier for William Barrett Travis, the Alamo commander.

The perceived justice of the cause for independence for the fledgling Republic of Texas coupled with sensational reports of cruelty by the Mexicans incited hundreds of southern patriots and adventurers from Mississippi and Tennessee to join the ragtag army of General Sam Houston as he retreated across east Texas. Those who were able to remain sober during the daylight hours found themselves marching with General Houston over a wooden bridge (Vince’s Bridge) which spanned the San Jacinto River. Most of Santa Anna’s army had already crossed Vince’s bridge and was patiently waiting for the Texan Army on the other side.

Deef, who joined Texan army as a scout, was originally from Port Gibson. Even so, he apparently had little confidence in the battle skills of his fellow southerners. In the event the pending battle might turn into a decision as to whether to fight or to retreat, Deef made the potential choice clear by burning Vince’s bridge behind Sam Houston’s army, thus effectively reducing their tactical choices. Deef, having fought off a band of Comanche a few years earlier, believed that 1,500 Mexicans could hardly be a challenge.

Deef turn out to be right because, as the fates of war would have it, the Mexican army was (literally) taking a siesta with their camp followers during the midday heat. By afternoon Houston formed his men into battle lines and attacked.

The infantry charge lasted only 18 minutes. But the slaughter continued for some time thereafter as Mexicans were shot while attempting to retreat across the San Jacinto River. Shouting “Remember the Alamo” the Texans and their allies killed over 600 Mexicans and captured 700 more. Only 9 Texans died.

Santa Anna sought to facilitate his own escape by discarding his colorful gold-braided uniform. Unluckily, however, he continued his hasty retreat wearing silk underwear and was thus recognized and captured by a perceptive Texan who probably did not own any underwear. Sam Houston spared the life of Santa Anna and negotiated a treaty which led to the independence of the Republic of Texas.

The Jacinto Courthouse Story

Tishomingo County was organized in February 1836 from a vast tract of land ceded by the Chickasaw Nation when Chief Tishomingo made his mark on the Treaty of Pontotoc. The chief and hundreds of other displaced Native Americans later died along the “Trail of Tears,” thus effectively ending Chickasaw culture in Mississippi. Millions of acres of virgin land and timber were acquired by speculators.

Jacinto was incorporated later in 1836 as the Tishomingo county seat and named in honor of the now famous battle in Texas. Within ten years, Jacinto became a flourishing town with stores, hotels, schools, churches and, of course, taverns. It served as the center of government and commerce for Tishomingo County.

The elegant Tishomingo County courthouse was commissioned in 1852 and was built from bricks fired on the site. Construction was completed in 1854 for a cost of less than $8,000. Both the courthouse and the town of Jacinto were busy places for several years. No doubt justice was swift and certain at the courthouse in Jacinto since hapless prisoners could reflect upon the stout limbs of the hanging tree from the window in the jail. But just a few years later, between 1856 and 1860, the railroads laid their tracks through Corinth and bypassed Jacinto. This was both good and bad.

The bad part was that the town of Jacinto withered as commerce and trade went through Corinth. The good part was that when General U. S. Grant disembarked from a steamer at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River in April, 1862 he marched to the railroad junction in Corinth after a brief but very bloody detour at a place called Shiloh Church. Jacinto and its courthouse were spared.

In 1870, Tishomingo County was divided into three counties: Tishomingo, Alcorn and Prentiss. Corinth became the county seat of the newly established Alcorn County. The county seat of the much reduced Tishomingo County was organized at the town of Iuka, named for a son of Chief Tishomingo.

After 1870, the courthouse was gradually abandoned as the town of Jacinto diminished in size and importance. There were no longer terms of court, and the business of the county moved to Iuka. The building was used as a school for about 30 years. But the school closed. For the next 50 years it housed a small Methodist church. Then the church disbanded. The congregation sold the building for salvage to a wrecking company for $600. In 1964 a group of Mississippi citizens bought the building from the salvage company for $2,000 and saved it from certain destruction.

Today the “Old Courthouse at Jacinto” has been refurbished and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is open to visitors and is considered to be one of the most elegant and graceful Federal style buildings in the United States.