Tracing Natchez

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Natchez, Mississippi, is the oldest permanent settlement on the Mississippi River; it had more millionaires in pre-Civil War days than anywhere else in the United States but New York, and more than five hundred of the handsome houses with which Natchezians glorified themselves and their town still stand. High on the bluffs above the river, Natchez proper was considered the healthiest, pleasantest, and most genteel place to live in the whole region, while at the same time its lower, scruffier section, two hundred feet below on the riverbank, known as Natchez-under-the-Hill, was described by travelers of the time as a “most licentious spot” and the “nucleus of vice upon the Mississippi.” Natchez is also the terminus of the most heavily traveled road in the old Southwest, the Natchez Trace.

On a recent visit I approached this city of superlatives via the Trace, now a serene, lovely parkway, beautifully planted and maintained for leisurely driving free of commercial traffic. It is punctuated by historical markers and sites that tell the road’s story.

The story is an old one. Indians originally walked the paths that in the eighteenth century gradually became a continuous route over 550 miles long from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez. The Trace—partially mapped by the French as early as 1733—was trampled out by pioneer settlers of the Ohio River valley who floated their produce downriver in flatboats to sell in Natchez and New Orleans. In those presteam days the easiest way to get home was to walk, so they sold their flatboats for lumber, stocked up for the trip to Natchez, and set off on the slow journey home.

Primitive hostelries, called stands, sprang up along the route to accommodate the travelers, and one of them, Mount Locust, survives today, restored to its 1800 condition by the National Park Service.

The Trace was also a magnet for thieves, who hid in the woods waiting to rob flatboatmen returning home, often with their year’s incomes in their pockets. The Mount Locust guide assured us, however, that the Trace’s reputation for wickedness has been exaggerated. By 1810, eight to nine thousand peoplepostriders, soldiers, itinerant preachers as well as the Kaintuckswere traveling the Trace during the summer months, making it too public for uninhibited thievery.

Sections of the original Trace are still visible—beautiful, quiet, and rather eerie—and a five-minute walk along the old route, often deeply eroded by feet and time and closed over at the top by trees, makes it easy to imagine how weary the walkers must have been, trudging for weeks through swamps and heat, plagued by mosquitoes, and wary of both Indians and bandits.

After the first steamboats appeared on the Mississippi in 1812, the flatboat-men found it easier and safer to go home by water. By 1830 the Trace had once more become a quiet forest lane.

The flags of five different nations have flown over Natchez during its lifetime. The French first settled the area, naming it after the Natchez Indians, a friendly agricultural tribe that lived there. In 1716 French soldiers built Fort Rosalie as headquarters for the new Natchez district. The Indians’ friendliness soured as the French encroached more and more on their lands, and eventually they attacked, massacring the garrison at Fort Rosalie. In retaliation the French totally wiped out the Natchez as a nation in 1730. The site of the tribe’s Grand Village, with burial mounds and a small museum, is now a national historic landmark, within the city limits.

Next to fly their flag over Natchez were the British, who took over the town after the French and Indian War. Both they and the French before them confined their settlements to the riverbank where Natchez-under-the-Hill now stands. Today’s Natchez on the heights was designed by the Spanish when they hoisted their flag over the town in 1779. Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution found refuge there, and the Spanish, using offers of land and tobacco subsidies as an inducement, drew more Americans to settle in the area. So many did that by 1798 Spain had withdrawn, leaving Natchez to the Americans. In 1817 Mississippi became America’s twentieth state, and Natchez was its capital until 1821. (The fifth flag to fly over Natchez, briefly, was the Confederate one.)

The beautiful old town is still laid out in the grid pattern that the Spanish designed, with its “grand feature,” as Frederick Law Olmsted described it in the eighteen fifties, “the bluff, terminating in an abrupt precipice over the river, with the public garden upon it....” Some of this garden was lost as the city grew, but Bluff Park, a belt of green, still remains.

Natchez plays host to travelers all year round, but spring and fall, when the city offers its Pilgrimage Tours, attract the largest crowds. I went in the fall and found the city enticing. It does not have the rarefied atmosphere of a museum but is alive with a rich and varied past. Thirty antebellum houses, some dating back to the Spanish period, are open for visiting, and hoopskirted hostesses, unfailingly gracious, wait in each room to describe the houses’ histories and treasures. I was impressed that at one house we were greeted by Tony Byrne, who owns and lives in the building and is the mayor of Natchez.

Some of the houses that are open for viewing also offer bed-and-breakfast accommodations for guests who delight in sleeping among antiques and in canopied beds so high that stepping stools are needed to climb into them. I was intrigued to take the tour through Stanton Hall, the mansion I was staying in, and to join a group that was admiring—from behind a rope—the noble, lofty room I had slept in the night before. (The director of marketing for Pilgrimage Tours, Hattie Stacy, told me that she had once arranged for the Japanese ambassador to sleep in that room, forgetting that it bears a silver placard on the doorframe in honor of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who once stayed there. It was too late to change rooms, so Ms. Stacy raced over to Stanton Hall with a screwdriver and removed the possibly offensive nameplate.)

In Stanton Hall front and back parlors join to form a seventy-two-foot-long room with massive mirrors at each end that reach to the sixteen-foot ceiling. Light from bronze chandeliers is reflected back and forth between the mir- rors, making the room seem limitless. The mantels are white marble, and the doorknobs and hinges are all silver. This splendid building occupies an entire block in Natchez’s historic district.

More than five hundred of the handsome houses with which Natchez citizens glorified themselves still stand.

Most of the city’s mansions, including Stanton Hall, were built by men who had made fortunes in cotton. The plantations were across the river in Louisiana, but the planters and brokers chose to live in Natchez, where the air was healthier and the high bluff protected their houses from flooding. There are also old inns and middle-class residences among the buildings open to the public. One of them, the Smith-Brontura-Evans House, was built by the owner of a prosperous carriage business who was a free black man (though the guides in the house didn’t mention this fact).

One of the most beautiful houses, and certainly the most intriguing, to be seen in Natchez is Longwood, a high-domed octagonal mansion, started just as the Civil War was breaking out and never finished. (See the October/November 1985 issue of American Heritage for an article about Longwood.) It was planned to include such locally unheard-of amenities as bathrooms, closets, and skylights.

Natchez has such architectural riches not only because it was a wealthy, cosmopolitan place but also because it was virtually unscathed by the Civil War. Many of the planters, in fact, had business connections with the North and opposed secession when the war first broke out. Their young men went to fight for the Confederacy as a matter of course, but when the town was threatened by Federal troops in 1863, the city fathers threw it open, and Natchez lived quietly as an occupied town during the rest of the war. For the restraint of the conquerors and the good sense of the conquered in saving intact this lovely town, we can be truly grateful.

—Barbara Klaw