Historic Natchez

By | Category: Travel destinations
the parlour in William Johnson's house ©  National Park Service

the parlour in William Johnson’s house © National Park Service

The Mississippi city of Natchez is small – only about 15,000 people – may have been the birthplace of the wife of the Confederate president but it remained largely undamaged during the American Civil war. It remains one of the oldest areas of settlement on the Mississippi river and pre civil war  buildings survive.

To me, for some reason, the name has always conjured up images of paddleboat steamers and Mississippi gamblers of the nineteenth century. There is still a paddleboat plying up the river and two modern casinos are down by the river but much of the old remains.

Natchez has nearly 600 examples of antebellum architecture),more than any other city in the South. Think of those grand southern mansions in the film, Gone with the Wind, before they were put to the torch and you know what I mean.  These historic homes and buildings, along with churches and other heritage sites, make Natchez a treasure trove for history buffs. Not all are grand mansions though. One, the home belonging to William Johnson is that of an ordinary African American barber  who just happened to keep a diary so that we, today, have a mirror into those times.

Named after the native American tribe called Natchez, who lived hereabouts, there is still strong reminders of their influence.  A large, 128 acre site called the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians features a museum, a reconstructed Natchez Indian house, and three ceremonial mounds. Two of the mounds, the Great Sun’s Mound and the Temple Mound, have been excavated and rebuilt to their original size. All mounds here are flat-topped and probably ceremonial in origin.  A religious structure once stood on top of one of the mounds –  Temple Mound  – and housed bones of previous chiefs

one of the eleven mounds to be found in Mississippi © National Park Service

one of the eleven mounds to be found in Mississippi © National Park Service

There are eleven areas in Mississippi where these mounds can be seen and they reveal a life as unlikely as any seen in almost any film of the wild west that you would ever see. Only a few high-ranking tribal officials would have lived permanently at the mound, whilst most of the members of the tribe would live on family farms, only gathering at the centre of the mounds for ceremonial, religious and important tribal occasions.

It is the settlers that came later that largely draw visitors to the city.  The first route into the city was along an old buffalo trail called the Natchez Trace. Flatboat men plied their craft down river to Natchez or New Orleans, sold their goods and boats, and walked or rode wagons north toward home on the Trace.  With the advent of steamboat travel in the early nineteenth century, the Trace fell into disuse.  Now administered by the National Park Service, it runs 450 miles between Nashville and Natchez, a green and peaceful route dotted with interpretive exhibits, 18th century inns, and picnic sites.

Tobacco and indigo were initial crops, but the introduction of the Whitney gin in 1795, combined with the already established institution of slavery, revolutionized cotton production and brought great wealth to Natchez planters and merchants. Much of that wealth produced grand city and country estates ranking among the most beautiful in America.

one of the antebellum mansions - the House on Ellicott Hill

one of the antebellum mansions – the House on Ellicott Hill

During March and April some twenty four mansions fling open their doors to the public in what is known as the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage. Visitors are met by nineteenth century costume-clad guides to show you around. In many cases, guides are descendants of the first occupiers of these houses so they have those family stories and rumours that visitors love to hear. In addition, each house is unique with 18th- and 19th-century furnishings, porcelain, silver, clothing, tools, documents, and diaries.

For over 80 years, residents have been showing their houses to eager visitors and each year, thousands come to Natchez to gaze, wonder and perhaps dream of themselves as Rhett Butler or Scarlett O’Hara. The House on Ellicott Hill maybe one of the oldest houses in Natchez – built in 1798 – but there is no descendent there today for the owner, Andrew Ellicott, who had been tasked by George Washington into drawing the boundary between the new country of the United States and the then still Spanish held area of Louisiana,  sold the house after he moved elsewhere and the house became a school.

It all began back in 1932 when the ladies of the local garden club opened their homes and began the very first tour of its kind in the US. The monies raised from these tours are ploughed back in to preserving the heritage of Natchez. Members of the Natchez Garden Club and the Pilgrimage Garden Club, have preserved over 30 antebellum mansions, all of which are on the National Register of Historic Places and twelve of them have been decreed as National Historic Landmarks.

Normally Just about Travel doesn’t publicise tour operators but Natchez Pilgrimage Tours is slightly different. It is an arm of those garden clubs and, as the only full service receptive tour operator in Natchez, the company you need to seek out if you want to get around to more than one or mansions and make a day of it.

The Rosalie Mansion

The Rosalie Mansion

Natchez is also home to dozens of African-American heritage sites, including historic churches, neighbourhoods established by freedom after the Civil War, the boyhood home of internationally acclaimed author Richard Wright, and the Forks of the Road, site of the second largest slave market in the South.

In 2016, Natchez will celebrate its 300th anniversary; that is the 300th anniversary of when non-native Americans arrived there.  The French built a fort and established a settlement here in 1716 and Rosalie Mansion is built on part of the land where Fort Rosalie once stood. Natchez was under British rule from 1763, controlled by the Spanish from 1779 to 1798 and therefore has influences from a number of different cultures. That is reflected today in the number of restaurants which will offer you any variety of cuisines including one that seems to meld at least four together!

If you can’t visit Natchez this year for the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage, try getting there next year when the anniversary celebrations will be in full swing.

For more about Natchez, click here.

 

 

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