I remember, this summer, I was talking with someone from Birmingham, Alabama.
“Thank goodness for Mississippi!” he said. “In lists of the best and worst states, Alabama is always near the bottom. But Mississippi is always lower than us. Thanks to Mississippi, Alabama is not the worst state in the Union.”
I told him that I was considering visiting Mississippi, to see it for myself rather than just trust all the stereotypes. He agreed that it was a good thing, and he made a good case for me visiting Birmingham.
I wanted to visit Birmingham, but alas, for logistical reasons, it did not happen during this trip. But at least I got to visit Mississippi.
Going out of New Orleans, the bus went on one of the roads over Lake Ponchatrain and along the bayous full of cypress trees all the way to Baton Rouge.
In Baton Rouge, I transferred to another bus, and there was no more swamp. Once we left the Baton Rouge urban area it was … lots of forest. We passed through West Feliciana Parish – a place I originally planned to visit, but ended up cutting out of my itinerary – and I saw that it was full of quaint old houses nestled in the woods, with a commercial corridor in downtown St. Francisville, but if I were not aware that there was a town there because of my travel planning, I probably would not have noticed.
The woods continued to the Louisiana/Mississippi border. The first I saw of the state of Mississippi was rolling hills blanketed with trees. The trees were in a mix of green, yellow, and red colors – I suppose that is December in the deep south. It was lovely. I literally did not know until I was already in Mississippi that it is a heavily forested state.
Though there were occasional houses along the road, there were pretty much no town between the state border and Natchez, my destination for the night.
I stayed in the Clifton Heights neighborhood, on the north side of downtown. It consists of Victorian homes built in the 1870s-1880s. Originally, it was a Jewish neighborhood. After the Civil War, a lot of Jewish carpetbaggers came to Natchez, and they felt more comfortable forming their own neighborhood. They made a lot of money as merchants, so they could afford to build nice houses.
There had been Jews in Natchez ever since the 1780s, but it was after the Civil War that the Jewish population reached its peak – Natchez even had a Jewish mayor in the late 19th century. However, the infestation of boll weevil devastated the cotton crop in the early 20th century, which destroyed the local economy and inspired most of the Jews to leave. I’ve heard that there are still a few Jews in Natchez, but the Jewish community is not what it once was.
Clifton Heights is right on top of the Natchez Bluff – a geographical feature which defines the town.
Natchez has the highest elevation of any place along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Memphis. This is basically why there is a town here and not at some other point along the Mississippi. It is right next to the river (which means access to river boats) without being vulnerable to flooding, which makes investing in permanent buildings/infrastructure more sensible.
Natchez is named after the Natchez Nation, one of the indigenous peoples of the region. It is the oldest European settlement along the Mississippi river – it’s older than New Orleans. Furthermore, I learned in Natchez that Mississippi had once been part of the Spanish empire. I might be wrong, since I discovered that I am really ignorant when it comes to Mississippi history, but I think the sequence is Indigenous rule (which actually includes various differnt indigenous groups, most notably the Mississippian culture) > French rule > Spanish rule > British rule > Spanish rule again > United States rule > Confederate rule > United States rule again. There are still some buildings from the Spanish era in the 18th century which still stand in Natchez today, including the oldest brick building in all of Mississippi.
Natchez was one of the main river ports for the most productive cotton region in Mississippi prior to the Civil War. That meant there were lots of rich plantation owners in the vicinity. However, plantation life was unpleasant even for the masters (it was outright misery for the slaves of course) so they preferred to live in Natchez where they could attend each other’s parties and not be isolated on some rural plantation. Some plantation owners decided to cash out by selling their plantations and live in Natchez full time. In any case, these rich people built a lot of fancy houses in Natchez, which is one reason why Natchez has more antebellum southern mansions than anywhere else in the United States (I will explain the other reason shortly).
Visiting the antebellum mansions is expensive, so I only visited one, Stanton Hall. The building is full of spacious rooms and high ceilings – which helped moderate temperatures in the days before air conditioning. The ceilings are almost 17 feet high because, if they were any higher, they would have had to pay a tax. According to the guide who spoke with a local accent “Even though they had lots of money, they didn’t want to pay the government the tax. I wouldn’t want to give my money to the government either.”
[Note: While I was in Mississippi, I was thinking ‘oh, most of these people speak with a southern accent’ and then I thought ‘wait a minute, they are talking normally, and I am the one with a funny accent’.]
The Stantons were immigrants from Ireland. Mr. Staton started as a cotton trader, but he eventually became the owner of six plantations. He built this large house with his wife, and died months after it was completed. Mississippi was one of the first states to allow women to own property (yet another thing about Mississippi history which I had not known) so his widow took title to the property (of course widows in Louisiana could also own property via the Napoleonic Code. She lived in the house for over 30 years. There are various descendants of the Stanton family around the United States, including in San Francisco. Some of the original furniture which is now in the house was donated/returned by Stanton heirs in San Francisco.
The *other* reason why Natchez has so many well-preserved antebellum buildings is that they did not fight in the Civil War. Natchez was a ‘union-sympathizing’ town. The delegation from Natchez had planned to vote against secession, but when they figured out that Mississippi was going to secede anyway, they abstained instead. When the Union forces came to Natchez, the town surrendered immediately, in fact, Union officers were invited to social events in these antebellum mansions. I heard two explanations for this Union-sympathizing:
1) There were many retired plantation owners who wanted a peaceful retirement, not a war.
2) The most influential residents of Natchez were merchants, who depended on clients in the North to stay in business. They did not want to be cut off from the North.
These explanations might both be right. No matter why they surrendered, the swift surrender spared Natchez the pain the Civil War inflicted on many other southern towns (such as Vicksburg, the next town I visited).
Just as there is Natchez-on-the-hill, there is Natchez-under-the-hill. One writer called Natchez-on-the-hill ‘Natchez proper’ and Natchez-under-the-hill ‘Natchez improper’. It was where the river docks were, and where the sailors hung out, and was a ‘den of sin’.
As steamboat traffic dried up, Natchez-under-the-hill went into decline until it was revived by historical preservationists.
Out of all the favorite historic buildings in Natchez, my favorite is Bontura House.
I like that the architecture looks a bit like New Orleans style. It was built in 1852 by a free black man, who was also the first resident of this house. It was later sold to a Portuguese wine merchant called ‘Bontura’. It may not be as grand as the mansions, but I feel this building has more of a personality to it.
So that is a basic overview of Natchez – which was my first exposure to the state of Mississippi. I found that there is a lot more to Mississippi than stereotypes will every tell anybody.
In the next post, I will discuss what I learned about Natchez’s African-American heritage, and explain why I am including photos by other people in this post.