Little is known about how Jones County got its nickname “The Free State of Jones,”but there have been many rumors and theories. One with the backing of publication in the Magazine of American History was an article written by G. Norton Galloway, Historian of the Sixth Army Corps, titled “A Confederacy within a Confederacy.”The only problem with his story is that there is no citing of authorities and Mr. Galloway left no information to contact him. He claims in his article that in the latter part of the year 1862, a convention assembled in Ellisville, Jones County, Mississippi, and passed an ordinance seceding from the State of Mississippi and from the Confederate States of America. He even gives the exact words of the ordinance: “Whereas, The State of Mississippi has seen fit to withdraw from the Federal Union for reasons which appear justifiable, and whereas, we, the citizens of Jones claim the same right, thinking our grievances are sufficient by reason of an unjust law passed by the Congress of the Confederate States of America, forcing us to go to distant parts, etc., etc., therefore, be it resolved. That we sever the union heretofore existing between Jones county and the State of Mississippi, and proclaim our independence of said State, and of the Confederate States of Americaâ€”and we call upon Almighty God to witness and bless the act.”
Due in part to Jones County’s sparse population, the majority seemed to be against state secession, and Jones County elected suspected Anti-secessionist J.D. Powell to represent Jones at the Secession Convention. When the time came to vote, Powell voted for secession. Powell was hanged in effigy and abused so much that he did not dare return to the county for some time.
Jones County sent troops to the Confederacy. Three full companies and a great part of four more were formed on her borders. Some deserted and returned to Jones County claiming that they would not fight for the rich men while they were at home having a good time. In the latter part of 1862, the famous “Newt Knight Company”was formed, with Newt Knight as Captain, Jasper Collins First Lieutenant, and W. W. Sumrall Second Lieutenant. Several of those who deserted from the Confederate army joined this company, which numbered when it was organized about sixty men, but later was increased to about one hundred and twenty-five. Its members came from various parts of the country. Mr. Galloway claims Newt Knight was the president of the secession of Jones County from the State of Mississippi. The company made raids against Confederate forces, and it is rumored that the company swore loyalty to the Union Army. They had secret headquarters on the Leaf River and fought many battles in Laurel and Ellisville.
There are other theories as to the nickname. It is true that Jones County was for a period of time without administration around the time of the Civil War due to small population and the lack of pay for administrators. It is suggested that one county member (unclear who) rode to Jackson on horseback and took the oath of office and came back and seceded the county from the state. Another version of the origin of the title is that it was given to the county by the citizens of neighboring counties who lived near the Gulf coast and along the line of what is now the Mobile and Ohio railroad, because of the entire freedom of the citizens of Jones County from the arbitrary rules of society and the restraints of fashion recognized elsewhere. They went to church barefooted, dressed in any way they saw fit, and carried their guns to use in case any game might cross their path.
Newt Knight’s legend has generated most of the rumors surrounding “The Free State of Jones,”but, rumors aside, police cars in Ellisville to this day still bear the nickname.