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Natchez: A town with a rich history

Today’s visitors to Natchez come by car, recreational vehicle or motor coach. They cross the wide Mississippi River on a modern bridge or come from the north, south or east by four-lane highways.

Some ride aboard the steamboats or roverboats. Those visitors come to the same landing where some of the earliest visitors arrived at the beautiful Natchez region.

Natchez visitors come from all over the world in the 21st century, lured in the main by the city’s reputation for a unique collection of houses representing architecture of the long-ago South.

They come to see how the cotton planters lived in the days when cotton was king and money flowed freely. They are not disappointed.

Tourists by the thousands visit Natchez on the Mississippi River each year, following in the footsteps of many generations of travelers to the historic city.

Attractions were different when the first Europeans traveled down the river and past the high spot on the bluffs of the Mississippi, where Natchez now stands.

The oldest settlement on the Mississippi, Natchez was 200 years ago the destination of flatboatmen and travelers who journeyed down the Natchez Trace.

In later years, travelers disembarked from steamboats at Natchez Under-the-Hill and climbed Silver Street to walk through tree-lined streets and admire buildings, houses and gardens.

Steamboat travelers took carriage rides into the suburbs, where they visited homes such as Dunleith, Monmouth, D’Evereux and Lansdowne.

A visitor to Natchez in 1891 said this:

“Not a city in the land can present finer attractions as a winter resort for Northerners than this. Street cars run in four directions, the mules making good time.

“Being the first really high land north of New Orleans on the river, at an early day it was selected by the wealthy planters of Mississippi and Louisiana for their homes, immense outlays being made by each to initiate the English nobility, residences costing from $90,000 to $125,000, with private billiard halls, bowling alleys, tutor’s apartments, etc., with fine servants’ quarters outside but finished to comport with the mansions.”

The visitor admired the Natchez gardens, also:

“In the spacious grounds are often fine artificial fish ponds while avenues of live oak and water oak, magnolias and cedar wind here and there is graceful curves, often weirdly draped with the long moss.”

As for the furnishings of the houses, the visitor of nearly 100 years ago writes:

“The privilege of going through some of these palatial relics of antebellum days was given us – immense dining rooms with their large central fans still suspended where they were waved by some slave in the days of American royalty.”

What the visitor saw then has changed little since then, and that is part of the attraction that lures tourists to Natchez today.

Natchez was first inhabited by the sun-worshiping, agricultural Natchez Indians, who built ceremonial mounds and lived peaceful lives.

A small group of Frenchmen under the leadership of D’Iberville were the first Europeans to establish a settlement at Natchez. They did so in 1716, naming their post Fort Rosalie.

Relationships between the Indians and the French soured as the years went by, as the French settlers began to encroach more and more upon lands prized by the Indians.

In 1729, the Indians attacked Fort Rosalie and surrounding French settlements and killed many of the residents.

Within two years, French soldiers sought and killed nearly the entire tribe of Natchez Indians, who had fled to nearby Louisiana following the massacre.

England acquired the area in 1763 following the French and Indian War, and settlement became more active then.

The British, in fact, promoted settlement of their new post on the river by offering land grants to veterans who fought with them in the recent war as well as the others interested in moving westward.

Then as fires of the American Revolution began to burn, many residents of the eastern coastal areas began to migrate into the Natchez area. Most were Tories — British sympathizers in the Revolution.

The British remained at Natchez for about 15 years. They laid out streets at Natchez Under-the-Hill, a settlement that was in years to come to gain the reputation of being the bawdiest place on the river.

In 1779 Spaniards occupied Natchez. Despite the differences between the Roman Catholic Spanish and the predominantly Protestant population, the ear was generally a peaceful and productive one.

Spanish officials laid out the town on the bluffs into squares established a fair code of laws and saw the town grow and thrive as flatboats, loaded with goods from the North, stopped in greater numbers at the lowland known by then as Natchez Under-the-Hill.

By 1798, however, negotiations between the Spaniards and the Americans were completed, establishing the town and surrounding region as part of a U.S. territory.

The Mississippi Territory included much of the area that today comprises the states of Mississippi and Alabama.

Territorial days saw the beginning of steam travel on the Mississippi River, as the first steamboat traveled down from Cincinnati in 1811, pulled into the Natchez landing in early 1812 and left with the first bale of cotton ever to be shipped by steamboat.

Mississippi became a state in 1817. The territorial Legislature met on the grounds of Historic Jefferson College, a few miles north of Natchez in Washington.

Many intriguing visitors arrived at Natchez during these early days of statehood. One of the most fascinating was John James Audubon.

The naturalist made his maiden voyage down the Mississippi River in 1820 and arrived in Natchez near the end of that year.

Some of his most popular birds were painted during his years in the Natchez and St. Francisville, La., area. His famous wild turkeys are believed to have been painted in West Feliciana Parish. Other famous birds he found in the area were the cardinal, mockingbird, red-winged blackbird and many others.

Audubon’s wife and two sons joined him in New Orleans early in 1821, and the family moved to Natchez soon after. The two boys attended Jefferson College in the Washington area. Both Audubon and his wife were teachers while in Natchez.

From time of statehood until the Civil War in the early 1860s, Natchez grew as a center of wealth and culture. Handsome mansions were built. They were filled with the finest furnishings available.

These were days when cotton grew in the low river lands, stretching as far as the eye could see — particularly in the lowlands of Louisiana across the river from Natchez.

Slaves toiled in the fields, and they labored to assist in construction of the fine mansions rising in the Natchez area.

Others drove carriages and kept the silver polished. Still others worked in kitchens of the great mansions preparing the delicious foods that have come to be known as Southern cuisine.

Some free blacks owned businesses and operated plantations where they, too, employed slave labor.

Natchez lured men of culture and intellect in the territorial days and before. Many of these men, with their business and social connections with North, opposed secession and the formation of the Confederate States of America.

Nevertheless, when the Civil War began, Natchez people supported their state and the South and sent many of their men into battle then.

Natchez as a city survived the Civil War with little loss to property. The town was quietly occupied in the summer of 1863. Federal troops set up headquarters at Rosalie.

Economically depressed for a decade after the war, Natchez began to revive in the late 1870s. A new merchant class moved into the town, and river trade picked up. Cotton grew once again.

Around the turn of the century, the economy of the area fell again, as river traffic began to give way to railroads and as boll weevils destroyed cotton crops.

The establishment of regular tours of Natchez mansions in 1932 by women of the city’s garden club, the discovery of oil in the early 1940s and the successful attraction of industries to the town in the 1930s and ’40s boosted the economy.

Natchez weathered the stormy 1960s, but did not escape the tragedy that marred so many Southern towns in the Civil Rights era.

Efforts of many peace makers, both white and black, resulted in peaceful transition from the segregated to the desegrated way of life.

With all its changes, Natchez remains the same in many ways. The hospitable atmosphere and the people who demonstrate energy and entrepreneurship continue as traditional.

Visitors enjoy the part of Natchez preserved in its historic buildings and fine antiques. they enjoy equally the progressive air found among the people they meet on the streets and in the restaurants and shops.

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