Natchez is the county seat and only city of Adams County, Mississippi, United States. Natchez has a total population of 15,792 (as of the 2010 census). Located on the Mississippi River some southwest of Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, and north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it is the 25th-largest city in the state. It is named for the Natchez tribe of Native Americans who inhabited the area.
Established by French colonists in 1716, Natchez is one of the oldest and most important European settlements in the lower Mississippi River Valley; it later served as the capital of the American Mississippi Territory and then of the state of Mississippi. It predates Jackson, which replaced Natchez as the capital in 1822, by more than a century. The strategic location of Natchez, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, ensured that it would become a pivotal center of trade, commerce, and the interchange of ethnic Native American, European, and African cultures in the region, for the first two centuries of its existence.
In U.S. history, it is recognized particularly for its role in the development of the Old Southwest during the first half of the nineteenth century. It was the southern terminus of the historic Natchez Trace, with the northern terminus being Nashville, Tennessee. This was used by many pilots of flatboats and keelboats, to return overland to their homes in the Ohio River Valley after unloading their cargo in Natchez or New Orleans. (It was not until the implementation of steam power that travel northward on the Mississippi River could be accomplished by boat.) The Natchez Trace also played an important role during the War of 1812. Today the modern Natchez Trace Parkway, which commemorates this route, still has its southern terminus in Natchez.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the city attracted wealthy Southern planters as residents, who built mansions to fit their ambitions; their plantations were vast tracts of land in the surrounding lowlands of Mississippi and Louisiana, where they grew large crops of cotton and sugar cane using slave labor. Natchez became the principal port from which these crops were exported, both upriver to Northern cities and downriver to New Orleans, where much of the cargo was exported to Europe. Many of the mansions built by planters before 1860 survive and form a major part of the city's architecture and identity. Agriculture remained the primary economic base for the region until well into the twentieth century.
During the twentieth century, the city's economy experienced a downturn, first due to the replacement of steamboat traffic on the Mississippi River by railroads in the early 1900s, some of which bypassed the river cities and drew away their commerce. Later there was an exodus of many local industries that had provided a large number of jobs in the area. Despite its status as a popular destination for heritage tourism, because of its well-preserved antebellum architecture, Natchez has had a general decline in population since 1960. It remains the principal city of the Natchez, MS–LA Micropolitan Statistical Area.
Pre-European settlement (to 1716)
According to archaeological excavations, the area has been continuously inhabited by various cultures of indigenous peoples since the 8th century A.D. The original site of Natchez was developed as a major village with ceremonial platform mounds, built by people of the prehistoric Plaquemine culture, part of the Mississippian culture. Archaeological evidence shows they began construction of the three main earthwork mounds by 1200. Additional work was done in the mid-15th century.
By the late 17th and early 18th century, the Natchez (pronounced "Nochi"), descendants of the Plaquemine culture, occupied the site. They used it as their major ceremonial center, after leaving the area of Emerald Mound. They added to the mounds, including a residence for their chief, the "Great Sun", on Mound B, and a combined temple and charnel house for the elite on Mound C. Many early European explorers, including Hernando de Soto, La Salle and Bienville, made contact with the Natchez at this site, called the Grand Village of the Natchez. Their accounts provided descriptions of the society and village. The Natchez maintained a hierarchical society, divided into nobles and commoners, with people affiliated according to matrilineal descent. The paramount chief, the "Great Sun", owed his position to the rank of his mother.
The site of the Grand Village of the Natchez is preserved as a National Historic Landmark and is maintained by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The site includes a museum with artifacts from the mounds and village, picnic pavilion, and walking trails. Nearby Emerald Mound is also a National Historic Landmark.
Colonial history (1716–1783)
In 1716 the French founded Fort Rosalie, to protect the trading post which had been established in the Natchez territory in 1714. Permanent French settlements and plantations were subsequently developed around the fort. The French inhabitants of the "Natchez colony" often came into conflict with the Natchez people over land use and resources. The natives increasingly split into pro-French and pro-English factions; English traders entered the area from British colonies to the east.
After several smaller wars, the Natchez (together with the Chickasaw and Yazoo) launched a war to eliminate the French in November 1729. It became known by the Europeans as the "Natchez War". The Indians destroyed the French colony at Natchez and other settlements in the area. In the Natchez revolt on November 29, 1729, the Natchez Indians killed a total of 229 French colonists: 138 men, 35 women, and 56 children (the largest death toll by an Indian attack in Mississippi's history). Counterattacks by the French and their Indian allies over the next two years resulted in most of the Natchez Indians being killed, enslaved, or forced to flee as refugees. After surrender of the leader and several hundred Natchez in 1731, the French took their prisoners to New Orleans, where they were sold as slaves and shipped as laborers to the plantations of Saint-Domingue, as ordered by the French prime minister Maurepas.
Many of the refugees who escaped enslavement ultimately became absorbed into the Creek and Cherokee nations. Descendants of the Natchez diaspora have reorganized and survive as the Natchez Nation, a treaty tribe and confederate of the federally recognized Muscogee (Creek) Nation, with a sovereign traditional government.
Subsequently, Fort Rosalie and the surrounding town, which was renamed after the defeated tribe, spent periods under British and Spanish colonial rule. After defeat in the American Revolutionary War, the British ceded the territory to the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1783).
Spain was not a party to the treaty, and it was Spanish forces that had taken Natchez from the British. Although the Spanish were loosely allied with the American colonists, they were more interested in advancing their power at the expense of the British. Once the war was over, the Spanish were not inclined to give up that which they had taken by force. The Spanish retained control of Natchez for a time. A census of the Natchez district taken in 1784 counted 1,619 people, including 498 African-American slaves.
In the late 18th century, Natchez was the starting point of the Natchez Trace overland route, a Native American trail originally established by migrating animals, most likely buffalo, which ran from Natchez to Nashville through what are now Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. Produce and goods were transported on the Mississippi River by the flatboatmen and keelboatmen, who usually sold their wares at Natchez or New Orleans, including their boats (as lumber). They made the long trek back north on the Natchez Trace to their homes. The boatmen were locally called "Kaintucks" because they were usually from Kentucky, although the entire Ohio River Valley was well-represented among their numbers. The Trace was traveled heavily until steamboats allowed northward navigation (against the current) on the River.
On October 27, 1795, the U.S. and Spanish signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo, settling their decade-long boundary dispute. All Spanish claims to Natchez were formally surrendered to the United States. More than two years passed before official orders reached the Spanish garrison there. It surrendered the fort and possession of Natchez to United States forces led by Captain Isaac Guion on March 30, 1798.
A week later, Natchez became the first capital of the new Mississippi Territory, created by the Adams administration. After it served for several years as the territorial capital, the territory built a new capital, named Washington, to the east, also in Adams County. After roughly 15 years, the legislature transferred the capital back to Natchez at the end of 1817, when the territory was admitted as a state. Later the capital was returned to Washington. As the state's population center shifted to the north and east with more settlers entering the area, the legislature voted to move the capital to the more centrally located city of Jackson in 1822.
Throughout the course of the early nineteenth century, Natchez was the center of economic activity for the young state. Its strategic location on the high bluffs on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River enabled it to develop into a bustling port. At Natchez, many local plantation owners had their cotton loaded onto steamboats at the landing known as Natchez-Under-the-Hill to be transported downriver to New Orleans or, sometimes, upriver to St. Louis or Cincinnati. The cotton was sold and shipped to New England, New York, and European spinning and textile mills.
The Natchez District, along with the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, pioneered cotton agriculture in the United States. Until new hybridized breeds of cotton were created in the early nineteenth century, it was unprofitable to grow cotton in the United States anywhere other than those two areas. Although South Carolina had dominated the cotton plantation culture in the eighteenth century and early in the Antebellum South, it was the Natchez District which first experimented with hybridization, making the cotton boom possible. Historians attribute the major part of the expansion of cotton in the Deep South to Eli Whitney's development of the cotton gin; it lowered processing costs and could handle short-staple cotton, making this profitable for cultivation. It was the kind of cotton that could be grown on uplands and throughout the Black Belt of the Deep South. Development of cotton plantations expanded rapidly, increasing demand for slaves in the South.
The growth of the cotton industry attracted many new settlers to Mississippi, who competed with the Choctaw for their land. Despite land cessions, the settlers continued to encroach on Choctaw territory, leading to conflict. With the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828, he pressed for Indian removal, gaining Congressional passage of an act authorizing that in 1830. Starting with the Choctaw, the government began removal of Southeastern Indians in 1831 to lands west of the Mississippi River. Nearly 15,000 Choctaw left their traditional homeland over the next two years.
On May 7, 1840, an intense tornado struck Natchez, killing 269 people, most of whom were on flatboats in the Mississippi River. The tornado killed 317 persons in all, making it the second-deadliest tornado in United States history. Today the event is called the "Great Natchez Tornado".
The Forks of the Road Market had the highest volume of slave sales in Natchez, and Natchez had the most active slave trading market in Mississippi. This also stimulated the city's wealth. The market, at the intersection of two streets, became especially important after the slave traders Isaac Franklin of Tennessee and John Armfield of Virginia purchased the land in 1823. Tens of thousands of slaves passed through the market, transported from Virginia and the Upper South (many by walking overland), and destined for the plantations in the Deep South. In this forced migration, more than one million enslaved African Americans were taken from their families and moved southward. All trading at the market ceased by the summer of 1863, when Union troops occupied Natchez.
Prior to 1845 and the founding of the Natchez Institute, the city's elite residents were the few who could afford a formal education for their children. Although many parents did not have much schooling themselves, they were anxious to provide their children with a quality education. Schools opened in the city as early as 1801, but many of the wealthiest families continued to rely on private tutors or out-of-state institutions. The city founded the Natchez Institute to offer free education to the rest of the white residents. Although children from a variety of economic backgrounds could obtain an education, class differences persisted among students, particularly in terms of school choice and social ties. Although it was considered illegal, black slave children were often taught the alphabet and reading the Bible by their white playmates in private homes.
American Civil War (1861–1865)
During the Civil War, Natchez remained largely undamaged. The city surrendered to Flag-Officer David G. Farragut after the fall of New Orleans in May 1862. Two civilians, an elderly man and an eight-year-old girl named Rosalie Beekman, were killed when a Union ironclad shelled the town from the River. The man died of a heart attack and Rosalie was killed by a shell fragment. Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant occupied Natchez in 1863; Grant set up his temporary headquarters in the Natchez mansion Rosalie.
Some Natchez residents remained defiant of the Federal authorities. In 1864, William Henry Elder, the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Natchez, refused to obey a Federal order to compel his parishioners to pray for the President of the United States. U.S. officials arrested Elder, jailed him briefly, and banished him across the river to Confederate-held Vidalia. Elder was eventually allowed to return to Natchez and resume his clerical duties there. He served until 1880, when he was elevated to Archbishop of Cincinnati.
Ellen Shields's memoir reveals a Southern woman's reactions to Yankee military occupation of the city. Shields' memoir portrays the upheaval of Southern society during the war. Because Southern men were absent at war, many elite women had to call on their class-based femininity and their sexuality to deal with the Yankees.
In 1860 there were 340 planters in the Natchez region who each owned 250 or more slaves; not all of these were not enthusiastic Confederates. The exceptions were fairly recent arrivals to the South, opposed secession, and held social and economic ties to the North. These planters lacked a strong emotional attachment to the South; but when war came, many of their sons and nephews joined the Confederate army. Charles Dahlgren was among the recent migrants; from Philadelphia, he had made his fortune before the war. He did support the Confederacy and led a brigade, but was criticized for failing to defend the Gulf Coast. When the Yankees came, he moved to Georgia for the duration of the war. He returned in 1865 but never recouped his fortune. He had to declare bankruptcy, and in 1870 he gave up and moved to New York City.
White Natchez residents became much more pro-Confederate 'after' the war. The Lost Cause myth arose as a means for coming to terms with the South's defeat. It quickly became a definitive ideology, strengthened by celebratory activities, speeches, clubs, and statues. The major organizations dedicated to creating and maintaining the tradition were the United Daughters of the Confederacy and United Confederate Veterans. In Natchez and other cities, although the local newspapers and war veterans played a role in the maintenance of the Lost Cause, elite white women were particularly important—especially in establishing cemeteries and memorials, such as the Civil War monument dedicated on Memorial Day 1890. The Lost Cause enabled (white) noncombatants to lay a claim to the watershed event in the reshaping of Southern history.
Postwar period (1865–1900)
Natchez made a rapid economic comeback in the postwar years, with the resumption of much of the commercial shipping traffic on the Mississippi River. The cash crop was still cotton, but gang agricultural labor came to be largely replaced by sharecropping. In addition to cotton, the development of local industries such as logging added to the exports through the city's wharf. In return, Natchez saw an influx of manufactured goods from northern markets such as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.
The city's prominent place in Mississippi River commerce during the nineteenth century was reflected by the naming of nine steamboats Natchez, which traveled the lower river between 1823 and 1918. Many were built for and commanded by the famous Captain Thomas P. Leathers, whom Jefferson Davis had wanted to head the Confederate defense fleet on the Mississippi River. (This appointment never was concluded.) In 1885, the Anchor Line, known for its luxury steamboats operating between St. Louis and New Orleans, launched its "brag boat", the City of Natchez. This ship operated for a year before being lost to a fire at Cairo, Illinois, on 28 December 1886. Since 1975, an excursion steamboat at New Orleans has borne the name Natchez.
Such river commerce sustained the city's economic growth until just after the turn of the twentieth century, when steamboat traffic began to be replaced by the railroads. The city's economy declined over the course of the 20th century, as did that of many Mississippi River towns bypassed by railroad traffic. Tourism has helped to compensate for the decline.
After the war and during Reconstruction, the world of domestic servants in Natchez changed somewhat in response to emancipation and freedom. After the Civil War, most domestic servants continued to be black women. Often, the women were supporting children; although they were poorly paid, their domestic work produced important income for family maintenance. White employers often continued the paternalism that had characterized relations between slaveholders and slaves. They often preferred black workers to white servants. White men and women who did work as domestics generally held positions such as gardener or governess, while black servants worked as cooks, maids, and laundresses.
For a short time, the women's school Stanton College in Natchez educated daughters of the white elite. It was located in Stanton Hall, built as a private mansion in 1858. During the early 20th century, the college was a site of negotiation, as daughters of the traditional planter class encountered those of the new commercial elite. Other interplay took place between traditional parents and their more modern daughters. The young women joined social clubs and literary societies, which helped to maintain relations among cousins and family friends. The coursework included classes in proper behavior and letter writing, as well as skills that might enable those suffering from genteel poverty to make a living. The girls often balked at dress codes and rules, but also replicated their parents' social values. Stanton Hall was designated as a National Historic Landmark in the late 20th century.
Located on the Mississippi River, the town long had an active nightlife. On April 23, 1940, 209 people died in a fire at the Rhythm Night Club, a black dance hall in Natchez. The local paper remarked that "203 negroes bought 50 cent tickets to eternity." This fire has been noted as the fourth-deadliest fire in U.S. history. Several blues songs pay tribute to this tragedy and mention the city of Natchez.
Civil Rights Era and cold cases
In the early 1960s, as the civil rights movement gained some successes and James Meredith was admitted as the first black to the University of Mississippi, Natchez was the center of Ku Klux Klan activity opposing integration and the movement. E. L. McDaniel, the Grand Dragon of the United Klans of America, the largest Klan organization in 1965, had his office in Natchez at 114 Main Street. In August 1964, McDaniel established a klavern of the UKA in Natchez, operating under the cover name of the Adams County Civic and Betterment Association.
Despite the violence, Forrest A. Johnson, Sr., a well-respected white attorney in Natchez, began to speak out and write against the Klan. From 1964 through 1965, he published an alternative newspaper called the Miss-Lou Observer, in which he weekly took on the Klan. Klansmen and their supporters conducted an economic boycott against his law practice, nearly ruining him financially.In his October 1964 report, A.E. Hopkins, an investigator for the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, who spied on activities of residents, wrote that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was in Adams County in force
"because of the alleged burning of several churches in that area as well as several bombings and the whipping of several Negroes; also, because of the murder of two Negroes from Meadville whose bodies were recovered from the Mississippi river while the murders of three civil rights workers from Philadelphia was being investigated by Federal, State and local officials."By that time, more than 100 FBI agents were in the area as part of the Philadelphia investigation; three civil rights workers had disappeared and were found murdered and buried in an earthen dam.
The FBI was also trying to keep racial violence under control. Bill Williams, an FBI agent in Natchez for two years during that time, said in a 2005 interview that the "race wars in the area are 'a story never told,' that Natchez in 1964 had become the 'focal point for racial, anti-civil rights activity for the state for the next several years'." Murders of four other African-American men in this area in 1964 are attributed to Klan members. Other Klan murders followed in succeeding years.
In 1965, two weeks after urging the school board to accept desegregation, George Metcalfe, an NAACP official in Natchez, was seriously injured in a car bombing. On February 27, 1967, Wharlest Jackson Sr. was killed when a car bomb went off in his truck as he drove home from work at the Armstrong Rubber Company. He had recently received a promotion to a position previously "reserved" for whites. A Korean War veteran, married and with five children, he also had been treasurer of the NAACP. His murder was never solved, and no one has been charged in the crime.
In 1966, the House Un-American Activities Committee published long lists of the names of Natchez residents who were current or former members of the Klan, including over 70 employees at the International Paper plant in the city, as well as members of the Natchez police and the Adams County Sheriff's departments. HUAC found that at least four white supremacist terrorist groups were operating in Natchez during the 1960s, including the Mississippi White Caps. The MWC distributed flyers anonymously around the city, threatening "crooks and mongrelizers". The Americans for the Preservation of the White Race was founded in May 1963 by nine residents of Natchez.
The Cottonmouth Moccasin Gang was founded by Claude Fuller and Natchez Klansmen Ernest Avants and James Lloyd Jones. In June 1966, they murdered Natchez resident Ben Chester White, reportedly as part of a plot to draw Dr. Martin Luther King to Natchez in order to assassinate him. The three Klansmen were arrested and charged by the state with the murder. In each case, despite overwhelming evidence and, in Jones' case, a confession, either the charges were dismissed or the defendants were acquitted by all-white juries. Blacks were excluded from juries as they had been disfranchised since 1890 by the state legislature and could not vote.
James Ford Seale, one of two men arrested in November 1964 as a suspect in the kidnapping and murders of Dee and Moore, was released when the state district attorney decided evidence was insufficient. Interest in the case was revived after 2000, when FBI files from 1964 were recovered by journalists, and the FBI re-opened the investigation. Seale was arrested and charged by the US Attorney. He was tried and convicted in federal court in 2007. He died in federal prison in 2011 at the age of 76.
The FBI discovered that Ben Chester White had been killed on federal land near Pretty Creek in the Homochitto National Forest of Natchez, which gave them jurisdiction. In 1999 they reopened an investigation into the case, and indicted Ernest Avants in 2000. He was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison. He died in prison in 2004 at age 72.
In February 2011, The Injustice Files of the Investigation Discovery channel aired three TV episodes of cold case murders related to the civil rights era. The first episode was devoted to the story of Wharlest Jackson, Sr., killed in 1967, as noted above. This was part of a collaboration with the FBI, which had started an initiative in 2007 to investigate and prosecute civil rights cases.
In August 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Natchez served as a refuge for coastal Mississippi and Louisiana residents, providing shelters, hotel rooms, rentals, Federal Emergency Management Agency disbursements and animal shelters. Natchez was able to keep fuel supplies open for the duration of the disaster, provide essential power to the most affected areas, receive food deliveries, and maintain law and order while assisting visitors from other areas. Many churches, including Parkway Baptist Church, were used as emergency shelters. In the months after the hurricane, a majority of the available homes were purchased or rented, with some tenants making Natchez their permanent new home.
Flooding in 2011 drove the Mississippi River to crest at on May 19, the highest recorded height of the river since the 1930s.
Images and memory
Historic wealthy and notable families in Natchez have used the Natchez Pilgrimage, which is an annual tour of the city's impressive antebellum mansions, to portray a nostalgic vision of its antebellum slaveholding society. Since the Civil Rights Movement, however, this version has been increasingly challenged by blacks who have sought to add the black experience in Natchez to its public history. According to the author Paul Hendrickson, "Blacks are not a part of the Natchez Pilgrimage."
A cinema verité account of the 1960s Civil Rights movement in Natchez, which was led by local NAACP leaders, was depicted by the filmmaker Ed Pincus in his film Black Natchez. The film highlights the effort to organize a black community in the Deep South in 1965 during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. A black leader has been car-bombed and a struggle ensues in the black community for control. A group of black men organize a chapter of the Deacons for Defense—a secret armed self-defense group. The community splits between more conservative and activist elements.
By the winter of 1988, the National Park Service established Natchez National Historical Park around Melrose mansion. The William Johnson House in the city was added a few years later. The tours given by the N.P.S. tend to present a more complex view of the past, when juxtaposed with the nostalgic one at the Natchez Pilgrimage.
The historic district has been used by Hollywood as the backdrop for feature films set in the antebellum period. Disney's The Adventures of Huck Finn was partially filmed here in 1993. The 1982 television movie Rascals and Robbers: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn was also filmed here. The television mini-series Beulah Land was also filmed in Natchez, as well a number of individual weekly shows of the TV drama The Mississippi, starring Ralph Waite.
In 2007 a United States Courthouse was opened, after renovating a historic hall for changed use. Part of the old hall had a Jim Crow-era monument to the local men and women from Natchez and Adams County who served in World War I. The 1924 monument was the subject of several stories in the Natchez Democrat, as reporters noted it lacked representation of black Army troops who had served in the war. A story suggested the monument may be updated and the old monument retired. On November 10, 2011, new plaques were installed which include the names of 592 African American soldiers along with 107 white soldiers, all of whom were not included on the old plaques.