Natchez National Historical Park

Location: Natchez, Mississippi

Webpage: National Park

General Description:  Natchez National Historical Park tells the story of Natchez which has been continuously inhabited since at least the 8th century A.D.  The original site of Natchez was a major village with ceremonial platform mounds of the Mississippian culture around 700 A.D. By the late 17th and 18th centuries the descendants of this culture, known as the Natchez, occupied the area showing up in the accounts of Hernando de Soto and Bienville.  In 1716, the French established Fort Rosalie to protect the trading post, but further settlements and plantations to the northeast caused continual problems with the Natchez, Chickasaw, and Yazoo ultimately leading to the Natchez Rebellion in 1729.  The Indians destroyed Natchez and other settlements in the area killing 229 French colonists.  Over the next two years, the French and their Indian allies repeatedly attack the Natchez eventually killing or driving the Natchez Indians from the region.  Following the French and Indian War in 1763 Fort Rosalie was given to the English, however, it was considered Spanish territory until after the Revolutionary War when it became US territory.  Spain, an ally of the US during the Revolution did not recognize this and maintained control of the fort until 1795 with the signing of the Treaty of San Lorenzo.  In the late 18th century Natchez became the starting point of the Natchez Trace.  Produce and goods were transported on the Ohio and Mississippi River using rafts floating south.  After selling their goods in Natchez or New Orleans, including the rafts, the farmers would make their way back north along the Natchez Trace.  This continued until the 1820’s when steamboats began steaming north along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers providing a more efficient alternative to the Trace.  Within weeks of the Treaty of San Lorenzo, Natchez became the territorial capital.  After several years the capitol was moved to the new town of Washington, 6 miles to the east only to be returned to Natchez when Mississippi became a state in 1817.   Throughout the course of the 19th century, Natchez was the commercial center for the state.  The Natchez District pioneered the cotton industry and the industry exploded throughout the area increasing the demand for slaves which came mostly from the Upper South.  The expansion of cotton farming continued to pressure the Choctaw Nation with multiple treaties taking more and more land away from the Indians.  Beginning in 1831, the Indians throughout the southeast were being forcibly removed to Oklahoma, beginning with the Choctaw.  The early planting elite began building extensive mansions in Natchez and surrounding area and by the Civil War, Natchez had more millionaires then any other city in the US.  During the Civil War, Natchez remained largely undamaged having surrendered to Admiral Farragut in May 1862 after the fall of New Orleans.  Even with the emancipation of the slaves, the lifeblood of the southern plantations, Natchez made a rapid economic recovery after the Civil War.  The cotton plantation and lumber industries continued to be worked by former slaves, although now they became sharecroppers gaining a limited amount of freedom.  However, the main reason for the recovery was shipping which exploded after the Civil War.  This continued until the end of the 19th century when railroads replaced the steamboat as the US continued to expand to the west.  Natchez is no longer the city of the rich, but is today an historic town well worth the visit.

Impressions:

1) The Natchez National Historical Park consists of three units with the main unit and Visitor Center at the Melrose Estate.  The pre-war mansion is a Greek Revival representing the height of Southern prosperity and “Cotton Kingdom.”  It was built by John T. McMurran in 1841 as he rose in the southern society by marrying Mary Louisa Turner from a prominent southern family.  McMurran was himself a very successful lawyer in Natchez and used his marriage to gain acceptance into the elite Southern society.  The mansion is different then most southern plantation as it was designed to be a large house to raise their family as opposed to socializing.  Mary Turner had many relatives in Natchez and they did own a fine house in Natchez proper.  She had plenty of other options for socializing, so Melrose was her home, although very large.  This means there are no large rooms on the first floor for dancing or parties.  Instead there are large living room, dining room, library, and family rooms.  The upstairs is all about the large bedrooms surrounding a central play area for the children.  Following the Civil War, George Davis bought Melrose in 1865, fully furnished.  Surprisingly he maintained nearly all of the original furnishing, only adding a few pieces which are difficult to distinguish as they are all from the same time period.  They did not use the property much and it remained that way for 40 years, being continually maintained.  In 1900, George Kelly moved to Melrose to live in 1900.  Instead of remodeling they decided to keep the structure and furnishings intact.  John Callon purchased Melrose in 1976 and were more interested in preservation as a lavish entertainment property of Callon Petroleum Company.  Thus it was the best preserved example of the pre-war plantation when it was purchased by the National Park in 1990.  Surprisingly this extended to all the outbuildings including slave quarters, barns, kitchen and dairy.  The tour of the house is amazing and well worth the expense.

2) The second unit of the park is the William Johnson House, which tells a different story about pre-war Natchez.  William Johnson was a freed slave who became a successful barber with three barbershops in Natchez navigating the slave society of the deep south.  His diary provides our best look into the life of a freed slave during this time period.  His home is located in downtown Natchez and by comparison to the many mansions, it is a modest home.

3) The third unit is the remainder of the site of Fort Rosalie on the Mississippi River.  The fort anchored a European settlement that survived three different periods of European rule of the French, British, and Spanish.  Unfortunately, the Mississippi River has destroyed nearly all of the fort with only the ramp leading up to the original fort still there.  Today it is still a town park, but little else can be seen.