It’s hard to fit three centuries of history into a weekend, but that’s what I attempted to do on a recent visit to Natchez with my daughter Olivia Moore and my one-year-old granddaughter Ainsley.
The city is celebrating its 300th anniversary throughout 2016. The date the city considers is beginning is August 3, 1716, when the French completed Fort Rosalie in an area occupied by the American Indian tribe known as the “Natchez.”
What followed was prosperity, war, decline and historic preservation; a story of the men and women who made Natchez the extraordinary destination it is today.
We arrived on Friday evening and checked into Natchez Grand Hotel. The hotel is situated high above the Mississippi River and, lucky for us, our room overlooked the fast-flowing river.
On Saturday we first headed for the Natchez Visitors Center and Natchez National Historical Park where we perused the many displays and watched a film to better understand the area’s history.
Soon after the fort was built the French brought the first African slaves to work the land. But after the French lost the French and Indian War in 1763, they were out and Spain was in. Spain, in turn, traded land east of the Mississippi River with Great Britain.
The influences of the African-American population and three European nations can certainly left its mark in the architecture of homes and businesses.
After the American Revolutionary War, the city served as the capital of Mississippi until 1822 when the honor was passed to Jackson because of its central location.
Natchez flourished as a center of trade and commerce for two centuries. In addition to its location on the river, it was also the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace with Nashville as the northern terminus.
In the mid-1800s, wealthy Southern cotton and sugarcane planters built mansions here. Natchez was the principal shipping port for the crops. Many of these mansions survive and form the foundation of local tourism.
During the Civil War, the city surrendered and remained mostly undamaged.
The city’s fortunes suffered, however, when the railroad began to haul goods to market. Today there are just over 15,000 residents.
Although not chronological, we decided to first visit Longwood, an unfinished octagon mansion most identified with the city. We drove a short way into the countryside, back a long lane and there she was with her exterior inviting anyone to argue that if she had been completed, she would have truly been the bell of the Natchez ball.
We took the tour which included the basement where the family lived thinking as soon as the upper rooms were finished they would occupy them. But Civil War took the workmen away to fight leaving the house exactly as they left it for more than 150 years now.
From Longwood we headed for The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians. The 128-acre site includes a prehistoric village, earthwork mounds and an excellent museum. The village was constructed starting about 1200 BC by the Plaquemine culture. They built three platform mounds. The Natchez people used the site in the 17th and 18th centuries and added to the mounds.
Back in town we decided to take a horse drawn carriage tour. Our college-aged guide was excellent and pointed out various sites we had heard about when we toured the visitor’s center.
After a long day of touring and an excellent meal at Pearl Street Pasta, the three of us walked back to the hotel just in time to watch the sun set over the river from our hotel room.
The second mansion I wanted to visit was Stanton Hall, a massive Greek-revival style mansion built between 1851– 1857 at a cost of $83,000. It occupies a full block on High Street between Pearl and Commerce Streets and is the largest of the Natchez mansions.
Dr. Frederick Stanton was a family physician, wealthy planter and cotton merchant. He insisted that everything in house be the very best. From the European furnishings to the 17-foot high ceilings and 10-foot high doors, the 11,000 square foot is a masterpiece.
In 1938, Stanton Hall was purchased by the Pilgrimage Garden Club. Since then it and other mansions including Longwood have been maintained and operated as museums year round.
After learning about the Natchez Native Americans, touring two very impressive homes and taking a horse-drawn carriage tour, we had one more stop to make — city cemetery. Here a beautiful angel monument overlooks five headstones, each with the same date of death.
On March 14, 1908 there was an explosion at the Natchez Drug Company, destroying the five story brick building and killing several people including employees who were working at the time. The company owner purchased a lot to bury his employees and the angel monument to place at their grave site. His youngest employee to pass away was 12 years old.
The monument is now referred to as ‘The Turning Angel’ because at night when cars drive by on Cemetery Road and their headlights shine on the angel, the angel appears to turn as their car passes by. Approaching on foot from the correct angle makes the angel appear to turn as well.
Natchez is a beautiful reminder of the past, its residents and the different cultures blended to make it a special destination. So if you have a week, or even just a weekend, head for Natchez and drift back in time.
If you go:
Special events are planned for the tricentennial. For more information check the city calendar.
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