Published 2:12 pm Monday, July 1, 2019

After recently reading an article about the Mississippi School of the Arts in Brookhaven,MS, my thoughts turned to another Brookhaven located up on Long Island in New York State.

My introduction to that part of the country came in 1961 when I got an appointment to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy located at Kings Point on the north shore of the island and about 20 miles from New York City.

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After some months there, my plebe class finally got some liberty, and I went into the nearby town of Great Neck.  There I met an elderly man who had been born in Brookhaven and was something of a local historian. When he heard where I was from, he jokingly accused Mississippians of stealing the name of his hometown.  And though I had no idea at the time what he was talking about, there was some truth to his accusation.

The story begins in 1818 when Samuel Jayne left Brookhaven for the new state of Mississippi.  He cleared land for a farm in Lawrence County and set up a gristmill on the Bouge Chitto River.  The mill soon became the nucleus for a small settlement that continued to grow after Samuel built a store that also served as a post office to distribute mail sent up from Natchez.  He was evidently fond of the name Brookhaven since that is what he called his settlement.

Jayne’s village continued to prosper until 1851 when the New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern Railroad passed through about one and a half miles to the west.  The railroad offered greater opportunities, so the inhabitants deserted Jayne and moved to the depot taking the name Brookhaven with them.  I suppose one could say that by that time the name had been stolen twice.

I was later to discover a family connection to this story when I researched a series of letters written by Edward R. Neilson, my great-great-grandfather.  In 1861, some ten years after Brookhaven moved to the railroad, Edward raised an infantry company in Tallahatchie County for service in the Confederate Army.  When called into service, his company was ordered to report to a training camp at Brookhaven.

His first letter from the area revealed that after getting off the train, his company had moved some distance away to take temporary shelter “in some old vacant houses.”  I wondered if that might have been the original town, and that question was soon answered by a later letter that invited his wife down to board with a widow lady named Jayne who lived about 200 yards from the camp.

Neilson’s letters and other sources reveal that Samuel had died some time in 1861 before my grandfather’s company arrived.  Mary, his widow, continued to live in the old home surrounded by abandoned buildings from the original town that the locals referred to as “Old Brook.”

In addition to boarding my great-great-grandmother, Mrs. Jayne also made her home available as a hospital before such a facility could be set up in the encampment.  Edward wrote that a young soldier named James Cockroft from Leake County died of pneumonia in the Jayne home.

More than 130 years after my grandfather’s experience at Brookhaven, I was on board a ship stationed at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean when a party of naval officers from the base at Subic Bay in the Philippines flew down for a visit.

Upon hearing that I was from Mississippi, one of them told me that he had roots in the state.  When he told me his name and confirmed that it was spelled J-a-y-n-e, I correctly guessed he was from the Brookhaven family.

He was quite surprised that I knew so much about the Jayne’s and enjoyed hearing my account of how I had become interest in his family story.  It seem quite a coincidence to both of us that we should chance to meet on a remote atoll and discover that my grandmother had once boarded in his family home in Brookhaven – or more accurately, where Brookhaven had once been.

I make the trek back up to Long Island every five years for a class reunion, and that will take place next year.  If time permits I plan to drive out to Brookhaven.

It seems unlikely that anyone there will accuse Mississippians of stealing their town’s name, but since this subject has a way of popping up from time to time in my life, it’s not impossible.

Should such an accusation be made, I won’t deny it. I’ll just say that Brookhaven is a lovely name that travels well.