A bullet in the leg. A pet black bear. A high-stakes poker game. 3,000 acres of farmland.
James Oliver had heard the stories about all of these things from his family. Some of the stories, he even lived himself. Growing up as a fourth-generation Mississippian in the Delta, his family was as rich with history as the land he was raised on.
“My family helped form the Mississippi Delta,” Oliver said. “And the Mississippi Delta helped form my family.”
“The Oliver Family: Mississippi Delta Legacy” traces Oliver’s family throughout generations living in the Delta. Oliver, 77, worked his whole life — with years-long breaks in between — to document the stories of his family.
Although he started keeping notes on his family’s stories for as long as he could remember, his mother’s death kick-started his writing. As he was driving home from her funeral, he decided that these stories should be shared. He started writing.
“I’ve got to finish this,” he said. That was in 1995.
In the 24 years between the day of his mother’s funeral and the completion of the book, which was published in December 2019, Oliver hired two graduate assistants and consulted with many lawyers to find and dissect any data he could find about his ancestors throughout several Mississippi counties. His desk in his office was piled high with old courthouse documents, plantation deeds and letters.
The majority of his findings, though, could not be found in documents or deeds. Oliver spent a good portion of his life jotting down memories as they were recalled and passed down by his relatives.
“I learned so much going through this oral history and all the family stories,” he said.
He spoke to family members and heard their version of the stories that were told to them. He spent time with his uncle, who was his last living relative, and the two compared the different legacies they heard through time.
While Oliver was writing and researching in his free time, he was also buying land, traveling the world with his wife Patricia, flying airplanes and making a fortune working in agricultural chemicals.
“I’ve spent time on six continents. I’ve traveled all over the world, had good dogs and horses. I’ve hunted bears and mountain lions,” he said.
But Oliver came a long way to become the family historian he is today. It was 1963 when Oliver first decided to begin to chronicle the stories of his ancestors.
He was waiting for his car tags when his name was called, and an elderly man recognized the name. He called Oliver over and told him stories that he remembered from Oliver’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
“That day, 55 years ago in the Washington County courthouse, resurrected memories of my great grandfather and those of other family members and friends who followed him,” he wrote. “I realized then that I wanted to capture in writing these stories for my family and our generations to come.”
Perhaps the most important part of his family’s legacy, he said, is how the Oliver family made its way to the Mississippi Delta in the first place.
After many run-ins with the law — though Oliver is still unsure about the details of those encounters — his great-grandfather fled St. Joseph, Missouri, in the 1870s with a bullet in his leg. Whether it was a bank robbery or a slew of familial insults that left James Samuel McCollough wounded is still unclear.
Nevertheless, McCollough was en route to Mississippi — by way of a stagecoach, a horse and even a swim across the river.
Oliver traced his great grandfather’s footsteps, from his marriage to Katherine Oliver — whose name he would take — to the birth of Oliver’s grandfather and the death of Katherine at the age of 38.
He wrote about all the farmland that his family owned and operated spanning generations, and he wrote about how his family lost every single acre. The Great Depression took the last bit of Oliver-owned land in the Mississippi Delta.
Oliver recalled many unique stories he learned about his family throughout his research. As he sat back in his large leather chair, overlooked by a portrait of a Native American woman in his massive office, he laughed about all of the tales he included in the book.
His great aunt Beulah owned a tourist court, much like a small motel, between Greenville and Leland until the 1950s. When she was young, Beulah was gifted a young black bear cub by a distant relative. The bear lived with her at this tourist court, sleeping at her feet and roaming freely in her house. Oliver said he remembered seeing the bear as a child.
He also mentioned the land his great-grandfather lost in a poker game. As the bidding got higher in the late-night match, Samuel and his friend were the only two remaining. With little money to put down, James Samuel offered 160 acres of farmland instead. He lost, and the next morning he went to the courthouse to transfer the deed.
Oliver traveled for work, much like his great-grandfather did, but without the law following closely behind him. After working at an agricultural chemical company in Chicago for 25 years, he left to start making and selling similar products himself. He found himself back in the Memphis area with his family and, eventually, Hernando.
After much success in the industry, Oliver and his wife were able to purchase back all of the 3,000 acres of farmland his family had lost in the Delta. Their farms are filled with rolling fields of cotton and soybeans and is home to horses, dogs and even the occasional wild black bear. The couple frequently travels between their farms and their home in DeSoto County.
Noble Oaks, named for the plantation that Oliver’s great-grandfather owned in the 1880s, sits around the bend of a winding road outside of Hernando. The home, built 20 years ago, is home to James Oliver, Patricia and their sleepy dogs and roaming cats.
For now, Oliver enjoys spending time with his family, frequently visiting the farm and even flying a Cessna 182 every now and then. Patricia, who encouraged him to finish the book and even helped with the research, said that her talkative husband just wanted to see things through.
“He just loves to see things grow,” she said.
Though, Oliver isn’t sure that he has any plans to continue writing. For now, he is happiest spending time on his farm with his wife and his animals.
“I’m just getting back in the dirt.”