Exploring Books

The Coast’s ‘Hidden
History’

By Cheré Coen  |  Photography courtesy of The History Press, cover; Josh Foreman, authors.

Childhood friends have side career penning books about little-known Mississippi and New Orleans stories.

   Jackson’s Josh Foreman studied journalism and creative writing while his best friend since childhood, Ryan Starrett, preferred history. Both obtained advanced degrees in their subjects and lived many years outside Mississippi. When they moved home and met up once again, they discussed writing history books together.

   Their initial idea was to pitch three books to The History Press’s “Hidden History” series: Jackson, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the Delta. Their first collaboration, Hidden History of Jackson, hit bookstore shelves in February 2018, and included chapters filled with unusual stories of both heroism and horror.

   This past June the authors published Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound, a collection of tales that begins with the coast’s origins, a blend of French and Spanish beginnings that stands in stark contrast to the rest of Mississippi.

   “The history of the coast is so unique and so different from the rest of Mississippi,” says Josh Foreman. “It was almost an extension of Canada.”

   The first known European contact happened in the fall of 1528, when a group of Spaniards searching for the Rio Grande after exploring Florida arrived somewhere between Mobile and Pascagoula. The men were starving and thirsty for fresh water, so members of what possibly were the Pensacola tribe took them in. After feeding the Spaniards, the Pensacolans attacked the men, driving them from the coast. One of the party members, Cabeza de Vaca, survived and lived to write of the tale, according to the authors.

   Almost 200 years later Canadian Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville arrived, claiming a vast area named Louisiana, which included the Gulf Coast, in the name of French King Louis XIV. He established a colony at Fort Maurepas, in what is now Ocean Springs, and named it Old Biloxi. When his brother, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived, the settlement and its people were struggling to stay alive.

   Survive they did, but the stories Foreman unearthed during his time living in Bay St. Louis while he taught at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast had a recurring thread.

   “Every chapter I researched I realized there was a theme,” Foreman says. “It was struggle against adversity and overcoming adversity.”

   Bienville, for example, became “half wild,” Foreman explains, learning native ways, covering his body with tattoos, and sometimes fighting in the nude.

   “Early Europeans learned to interact with the natives and do savage things,” he says. “Bienville was right there and did some dirty, nasty things. He earned fear and respect — however you want to call it — when very few could survive.”

   One of Foreman’s favorite stories is of Harriet Waters, otherwise known as Grandma Aken, who grew up on Horn Island off the coast. Her father manned the lighthouse on the 13-mile-long barrier island once visited by Bienville. Waters lived in mostly isolation, until an Irishman named Patrick arrived in 1853 and wooed her. Harriet’s father attempted to force Patrick to marry Harriet but a Norwegian named Peter Baker intervened and professed his love.

   Waters chose to wed Peter. She was 12 at the time, and newspaper accounts of her wedding made her a somewhat celebrity.

   “Harriett’s wedding gown was a ‘course factory wrapper’ and a ‘robe of native innocence,’ and she wore neither shoes nor a veil,” the book reads, quoting a Picayune article of the time.

   “They divorced 10 years later,” Foreman says. “In the records, it says she left him. She moved to Deer Island and remarried.”

   Foreman and Starrett have bypassed the Delta for now. They released their third book in the series, Hidden History of New Orleans, in late February, their biggest book to date. Acclaimed Jackson novelist Katy Simpson Smith has written the foreword.

   Their recent book is a natural progression, Foreman says, considering that the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans share a history, that of the LeMoyne brothers as founders and the capital of Louisiana being Old Biloxi and New Orleans at different times in history.

   Starrett lives in Jackson and is also the author of Mississippi Bishop William Henry Elder and the Civil War, also from The History Press.

   Foreman now lives in Starkville where he teaches communications at Mississippi State University, but he treasured his time on the coast.

   “The coast has a special place in my heart,” the author says. “It’s one of the prettiest and most interesting places on earth.”

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