Mississippi: Natchez Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This Southern city is rich in history. It was originally occupied by the Natchez Indians and later colonized by France, England, and Spain. It was an important cotton trade center prior to the Civil War and was occupied by Union forces during the war. Natchez is home to many scrupulously preserved antebellum mansions and other historic sites.

Site Offices:

Natchez National Historical Park

P.O. Box 1208

Natchez, MS 39121

ph.: (601) 442-7047

Web site: www.nps.gov/natc/

Natchez Pilgrimage Tours

Canal Street Depot

P.O. Box 347

Natchez, MS 39120

ph.: (601) 446-6631

fax: (601) 446-8687

Web site: www.natchezpilgrimage.com

e-mail: tours@natchezpilgrimage.com

Few cities in the United States can claim as many historic treasures as Natchez can. Even fewer have done as much to preserve them. In Natchez today one can find reminders of the area’s first known inhabitants, the Natchez Indians; of the early European colonists who built fortifications along the Mississippi River; of the wealthy cotton planters and brokers who built imposing mansions on the bluffs above the river; of the rougher men who plied various trades, legal and otherwise, along the Mississippi and the Natchez Trace; of free black men who made names for themselves even while most African Americans were enslaved; and of the troops who occupied Natchez during the Civil War.

Early History

The Natchez Indians were a tribe of the Mississippians, who lived all along the river from mouth to source. By 1200 the Mississippians had developed the most advanced Indian civilization located north of Mexico, and by the mid-sixteenth century the Natchez culture had reached its height. The Natchez, like other Mississippian peoples, excelled at agriculture, raising maize, pumpkins, melons, and tobacco. The Natchez also were highly skilled at pottery making. The Natchez had a socially stratified society, with clear distinctions between aristocrats and common people.

The Natchez constructed their Grand Village, the ceremonial and religious center of their culture, along the banks of St. Catherine Creek, within the present-day city limits of Natchez. The tribe was very much entrenched in the area when the first Europeans arrived early in the eighteenth century.

French Exploration

The French had explored the Natchez area as early as 1701, and by 1714 had established a trading post on land belonging to the Natchez Indians. The Indians were outraged, and they displayed their displeasure by killing several French traders and looting the post. French colonial authorities assigned Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, to punish the Indians. He ordered the execution of the Indians responsible for the crimes, demanded the return of the stolen goods, and forced the Natchez to build a fort to be occupied by the French. This was Fort Rosalie, completed in 1716, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.

French settlement in the area increased. By 1723 more than three hundred settlers and their slaves lived near Fort Rosalie, and by 1729 the number had grown to 750. They began farming; their crops included tobacco, wheat, indigo, and rice. During this period French authorities created the Natchez District–one of nine subdivisions of the French colony of Louisiana–and chose Fort Rosalie as its capital. The district included the present-day city of Natchez along with lands stretching forty miles to the east.

The Natchez Indians resented the increasing French presence, and they especially feared the possibility of encroachments on their Grand Village. They made war on the French in 1722, but Bienville and his troops put down the uprising. Toward the end of 1729, armed conflict broke out again. The new commander of Fort Rosalie, the Sieur de Chepart, had demanded the Grand Village land as well as monthly supplies of free goods from the Indians; he also told the Natchez to prepare to leave the area for good. The outraged Natchez planned an attack; Chepart apparently had been forewarned, but he refused to make any special preparations for defense on the grounds that the Indians would see this as a sign of weakness. The Natchez attacked Fort Rosalie on November 29; they killed about three hundred Frenchmen and took more than four hundred women and slaves as prisoners. French troops, aided by the Choctaw Indians–traditional enemies of the Natchez–hunted down and decimated the Natchez tribe. For the next several decades, the Natchez District was largely deserted, and the remains of Fort Rosalie were occupied by only a few French soldiers.

British Rule and the American Revolution

Britain gained control of the Natchez District in 1763, after the resolution of the French and Indian War in North America and the Seven Years War in Europe. The end of the wars also saw Spain take possession of the French colonies west of the Mississippi. The British authorities soon recognized the value of the Natchez area, with its location on the Mississippi River, its fertile soil, and its pleasant climate. Britain made generous land grants to encourage settlement in the area, and farming and commerce grew. As revolutionary fervor took hold in the East, British colonists loyal to the Crown found a refuge in Natchez.

The settlers could not escape the revolution entirely, however. In 1778 the Continental Congress sent a military expedition led by James Willing to bring Natchez residents over to the colonies’ side. Willing’s men plundered the homes of those who refused to renounce their allegiance to Britain; this action served to make the loyalists even more hostile to the revolutionists’ cause. Then in 1779, Spain went to war with Britain, and a force led by Bernardo de Gálvez, governor of Spanish Louisiana, captured Natchez. The British residents were fearful of Spanish rule, and in 1781 they made an unsuccessful attempt to drive out the Spanish. Overall, however, the period in which Spain controlled Natchez was relatively peaceful. Spain’s governance of the area, made official by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, was efficient and benevolent.

Spanish Influence

Spain did not attempt to displace the British population with Spanish settlers, but actively sought to bring Anglo-Americans into Natchez. The Spanish authorities promoted settlement and agriculture through a liberal land grant policy. During the Spanish period, Natchez agriculture focused on the commodity that shaped the Natchez of the nineteenth century: cotton. Natchez tobacco had never matched the quality of the Virginia crop, and indigo production had various drawbacks. So Natchez planters turned to cotton production on a large scale in the mid-1790’s. The scale was made possible by Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin. The cultivation of cotton also required large amounts of slave labor; by 1798 the population of the Natchez District was 6,900, of which 2,400 were slaves.

During this period Spain and the United States were in negotiations concerning the control of the Natchez District. An ambiguity in the 1783 treaty had led U.S. authorities to believe they had the right to the area, and they had protested through diplomatic channels. In 1795 Spain, wishing to concentrate on problems in Europe, signed a treaty acknowledging the U.S. claim to the area. The Spanish soon had second thoughts, however, and the issue of who owned Natchez remained unsettled until 1798, when Spain finally removed all its military posts from the district.

Creation of Mississippi Territory

That same year, the U.S. government created the Territory of Mississippi, with Natchez as its capital. The capital was moved to the inland town of Washington in 1802, but Natchez–formally incorporated as a city in 1803–was quickly developing into a center of the plantation economy and an important river port. During this period of development, some notable political and military ventures touched Natchez.

Early in 1807 Aaron Burr, former vice president of the United States, arrived in Natchez along with several boatloads of men. Burr was suspected of planning to foment revolution in the western territories of the United States, or, perhaps, to take Texas and Mexico away from Spain. He was arrested in Mississippi, but the territorial supreme court refused to indict him, believing that Burr’s designs were on Mexico rather than the United States. Burr was arrested again near Mobile and was tried for treason and acquitted in Richmond, Virginia.

Militarily, Natchez residents were heavily involved in the War of 1812, especially at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. One historian reported that nearly all the men of Natchez took part in the battle.

Cotton Cultivation

Mississippi became a state in 1817, and Natchez was becoming one of its most prominent cities. By this time cotton was unquestionably the leading crop of western Mississippi. Many of the wealthiest cotton planters and brokers soon built majestic homes in Natchez. The rest of Mississippi was populated primarily by small farmers, but the Natchez planter class had the trappings of life that most people continue to associate with the antebellum South–white-columned mansions, luxurious furnishings and clothing, and extensive holdings of land and slaves.

The planter’s prosperity was made possible not only by cotton and slavery, but also by Natchez’s location on the river and by the advent of steamboat transportation. The New Orleans was the first steamboat to serve Natchez, beginning in 1811; Natchez soon became one of the world’s leading cotton ports. Land transportation also was important to Natchez commerce. The Natchez Trace, stretching from Natchez to Nashville, Tennessee, had opened as a result of an 1801 treaty with the Chickasaw Indians. The Trace was basically a wilderness path and often hazardous, but it was used by countless settlers and traders on their way to and from Natchez. Some entrepreneurs would make use of both the river and the Trace. One might come down the Mississippi on a keelboat, sell both one’s goods and boat in Natchez, and make one’s way back northeast on the Trace.

In Natchez, the boatmen often gathered in a district known as Natchez-under-the-Hill; its name distinguished it from the bluffs on which the planters’ mansions sat. Natchez-under-the-Hill became notorious for its rough taverns, gambling houses, and bordellos, and the area was the site of many bloody fights.

Free Black Residents

Natchez in this period was home not only to planters, slaves, and boatmen, but also to a number of free blacks and mulattoes. By 1820 most of Mississippi’s five hundred free people of color lived in Natchez. The best known of them today, thanks to his extensive diary, is William Johnson. Johnson, a mulatto, was born into slavery in 1809 and freed by his owner in 1820. He became a barber, a popular occupation for free men of color. After an apprenticeship, Johnson operated a shop in Port Gibson, Mississippi, and within a few years he moved to Natchez. Johnson’s Natchez barbershop was something of a clearinghouse for the news of the day, and he kept a detailed diary of events. Johnson became a very successful businessman, owning rental property within the city of Natchez, along with farmland just outside town; even though he himself had been freed from slavery, he owned slaves who labored on his property. Johnson’s life ended violently; he was shot to death in 1851 as a result of a dispute over the boundaries of his land. A man named Baylor Winn was tried for Johnson’s murder and acquitted. Race was a factor in the trial; most people believed Winn was of African descent, but he had lived as a white man and enjoyed whites’ legal privileges, one of which was that blacks could not testify against whites in court. The exclusion of this testimony made it difficult to convict him.

The diverse and prosperous community of Natchez could not escape the sectional conflicts of the mid-nineteenth century, but certain of its residents tried. Most of the Natchez planters were opposed to secession and war, and their opposition was based on economics. Not only did they have more to lose in war than did the small farmers; they also, being knowledgable and well-traveled men, realized the North was better equipped for any fight that might come. Many of the planters had even invested their cotton profits in Northern industry. Over their objections, however, Mississippi seceded from the United States early in 1861.

The Civil War

The Civil War did not bring physical destruction to Natchez. Union forces captured the town in 1862 and began a peaceful occupation. The occupation force made its headquarters at a Georgian-style mansion called Rosalie, named after Fort Rosalie. Located on a high bluff with an excellent view of the Mississippi River, the mansion provided a strategic location for the Union headquarters. General Ulysses S. Grant stayed at the mansion for a brief period; he was followed by General Walter Q. Gresham. Gresham allowed Rosalie’s owners, the Andrew Wilson family, to stay there during his occupation, and Gresham was generally so gracious that he became known as “Natchez’s favorite Yankee.”

One type of wartime destruction that Natchez could not escape, however, was economic. Many of the planters’ cotton fields had been confiscated or burned, and Natchez’s stature as a river port had declined. For many years the city was stagnant. By the twentieth century, however, manufacturing had brought some economic revival to Natchez, and tourism had become increasingly important.

Modern Tourism

Tourism in Natchez focuses on the city’s rich history, which is apparent in many well-preserved sites. Touring historic homes is one of the most popular activities among Natchez visitors. Several homes are open for tours year-round, and additional homes are open to visitors during the annual Natchez Spring Pilgrimage. Some of the most notable homes are Rosalie; Longwood, an arresting octagonal house left unfinished after its builder lost his fortune in the Civil War; Monmouth, built by Confederate general John Quitman; Stanton Hall; Dunleith; and Auburn.

Other aspects of Natchez’s history are showcased in Natchez-under-the-Hill, which maintains its nineteenth century appearance but now houses upscale restaurants and nightclubs; the William Johnson House, which underwent restoration in the mid-1990’s; the Fort Rosalie site, also in the process of being acquired and restored by the National Park Service; and the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians. Going northeast from Natchez, the Natchez Trace Parkway is now a smoothly paved, modern road, with numerous markers explaining events in the area’s history.

For Further Information
  • Brooke, Steven. The Majesty of Natchez. 2d ed. Gretna, La.: Pelican, 1999. A history of Natchez and historic buildings of the region.
  • Daniels, Jonathan. The Devil’s Backbone. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962. Reprint. Gretna, La.: Pelican, 1992. Provides a colorful anecdotal history of Natchez and the Trace.
  • Davis, Edwin Adams, and William Ransom Hogan. The Barber of Natchez. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1954. A profile of William Johnson.
  • Johnson, William. William Johnson’s Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro. Edited by William Ransom Hogan and Edwin Adams Davis. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951. Reprint. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968. Offers Johnson’s own words.
  • Kane, Hartnett T. Natchez on the Mississippi. New York: William Morrow, 1947. A slightly dated but still informative overview of the history of Natchez.
  • Skates, John Ray. Mississippi: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Includes several sections on important events in Natchez.
  • Wanner, Glen. Bicycling the Natchez Trace: A Guide to the Natchez Trace Parkway and Nearby Scenic Routes. Nashville: Pennywell Press, 1997. Provides excellent background information and detailed information important to cyclists.
Categories: History Content