Harrisonburg, Louisiana, the seat of Catahoula Parish, is located about 30 miles west of the historically significant cotton port of Natchez, Mississippi. In the 1850s, when the Harrisonburg Independent was being published, Catahoula Parish had a population of about 8,000 and was much larger in area than it is today, portions of it having been carved away over the years to form new parishes; the most recent division occurred in 1908, when La Salle Parish was formed from Catahoula Parish’s western half. The area’s principal crops in the 19th century were cotton and corn, which farmers shipped to market via numerous local waterways, including the Ouachita, Tensas, Black, Red, and Little Rivers.
At present, the earliest recorded issue of the Independent dates from November 1853, when the paper was being edited by William A. Bryan. Politically neutral, Bryan printed news reports from around the world, editorials on miscellaneous topics (including the debate over slavery), advertisements, obituaries, marriage notices, and a large selection of poetry, fiction, and literary essays copied from other sources.
By October 1856, Bryan had sold the Independent to James Govan Taliaferro (1798-1876). Born into an old Virginia family, Taliaferro (pronounced Tolliver) moved with his parents to Mississippi in 1806 and then to Catahoula Parish in 1815, where they were among the first white settlers. Taliaferro was educated as a lawyer at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, and eventually became a devoted follower of Kentucky senator Henry Clay and other prominent members of the Whig Party.
Although a wealthy slave owner, Taliaferro strongly opposed secession. For the Independent, which he published with his son John Quincy Adams Taliaferro (1827-1865), he selected a motto from a speech by Cicero: “Defendi rempublicam juvenis; non deseram senex” (“I defended the republic in my youth; I will not desert it as an old man.”) Taliaferro commented in his editorials on slavery and the free-soil movement as well as related topics such as Southern filibuster and former New Orleans Daily Crescent [LCCN: sn82015378] editor William Walker, a “petty marauder,” in Taliaferro’s words, who led several private military expeditions to Latin America in an attempt to establish his own slaveholding empire.
Because of his Unionist sympathies, Taliaferro became so disliked among his neighbors that they threatened him with violence. In January 1861, he was one of the few delegates to the Louisiana secession convention to vote against the state leaving the Union. His scathing protest was published as a broadside after the convention refused to print it in its journal. On May 8, 1861, stating that he was “no longer able to conduct the paper in conformity with its title,” Taliaferro ceased publication of the Independent, adding: “There is not on God’s green earth a more odious restriction upon the freedom of the press than that which prevails in the Confederate States at this time.”
Taliaferro remained in Louisiana during the Civil War and was imprisoned for a time in Alexandria; two of his sons joined or collaborated with the Union Army. After the war, he reentered politics, running unsuccessfully in 1865 for lieutenant governor on the Conservative Union party ticket, which supported Reconstruction but opposed black suffrage. In 1868, various factions, including the Pure Radicals (led by Louis Roudanez, African-American publisher of the New Orleans Tribune [LCCN: sn83016710]), persuaded Taliaferro to run for governor as a less divisive alternative to the election’s winner, Radical Republican carpetbagger Henry Clay Warmoth. Taliaferro served as a justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1866 until his death in 1876, participating in important Reconstruction-era cases.