Natchez 300th Anniversary Special | Mississippi Roads | MPB

(upbeat instrumental music)

- [Walt] In this episode of Mississippi Roads,

we'll celebrate the 300th anniversary of Natchez.

We'll start by visiting Emerald Mound,

one of the largest Native American mounds in the nation,

and then we'll take a look at how the Mississippi River

helped the city prosper as well as how the city

has thrived from its tourism.

♪ Down Mississippi Roads ♪

♪ Mississippi Roads ♪

Well, hi, I'm Walt Grayson

and welcome back to Mississippi Roads.

Now, we have a special program this week.

I don't think we've ever done one like this before.

Well, as a matter of fact,

I'm sure we've not done one like this before

because Natchez has never turned 300 years old before,

and that's the occasion.

We're in the city of Natchez, the oldest city

on the Mississippi River, commemorating the tricentennial.

And we're starting off on top of Ellicott Hill,

and the reason we're at Ellicott Hill is because in 1797,

Andrew Ellicott first raised the American flag

over Natchez on top of this hill.

The only thing was, in 1797 when he raised that flag,

Natchez had already been here for 80 years.

We'd gone through three owners before then, the Spanish,

prior to the Spanish, the English,

prior to the English, the French,

prior to the French, the Natchez Indians.

The Natchez Indians had a culture so well-developed,

they had time to build places like this, Emerald Mound.

It's over eight acres at the top,

second largest mound in the nation.

Plus, it has even higher mounds on either end,

one taller than the other.

I came up with one of my three second

archaeological theories here at Emerald Mounds one time.

I was out here doing a story,

and had a couple archaeologists with me.

One says the small mound, back over here behind me,

was used by the chief.

That was where he had his house.

And then, the other mound, the large mound,

was where the priests lived.

And then, the other archaeologist says,

"No, no, no, I think they had the temple

"on the large mound, and then the small mound over here

"is where the chief lived."

I told 'em, "Fellas, no you got it all wrong.

"The small mound is where the visitors sat.

"The large mound is where the home team sat,

"and then they played out here in the middle."

And they looked at me for about three seconds,

and then they said, "No, we really think

"that they had a temple on the small mound."

Now, there was a time that my half-baked theory

would have been about as good as any of the other theories

about Emerald Mound because there were no written records

or instructions or anything about what went on here

left by the people who used it.

Obviously, it must have been the ceremonial,

specific and religious rituals were held here.

I've heard stories from people who talked to people

who say they've heard handed down oral histories.

Some of them are pretty far-fetched,

but by the time the Europeans got here

and started writing things down,

the Natchez had already abandoned Emerald Mound.

As well as every other tribe had abandoned

every other mound site in the nation, except one,

and it's just right down the road from here.

The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.

- So Emerald Mound would have been created

by the ancestors of the Natchez people.

There's a variety of different mound sites

located in Adams County and in southwest Mississippi.

- [Walt] So Emerald Mound had been abandoned by the time

the Europeans began to wander down the Mississippi River

from Canada in the mid-1600s,

but the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians

on the banks of St. Catherine's Creek

inside present day Natchez was still in use.

Matter of fact, the major significance of the Grand Village

is that it was the only mound center still being used

when the European explorers got here, and that's important

because the explorers wrote down what they saw.

The buildings, rituals, the day-to-day activity,

the way the village worked, and from what was recorded here,

it's been extrapolated that, pretty much those

same kinds of things must have been going on at all

the other mound centers all over the Mississippi Valley.

But of direct importance to present day city of Natchez,

French explorers who had landed

on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1699

and then over the next 15 or so years,

had wandered out and established trade connections

with Native Americans all over the place,

including here at the Grand Village,

liked this area so much, they came here

and established a fort, Fort Rosalie, in August of 1716,

and it's from the establishment of Fort Rosalie

that Natchez dates its origin.

(whimsical instrumental music)

- The collection is called Gandy Collection.

Dr. Gandy and his wife, Joan Gandy,

they are the ones that found the original prints, the plates

and had them restored to what you see here.

Incredible value, just to have them preserved as they are.

The snippets of history that just go forgotten.

I like the children in that room over there.

Just the expressions and the diversity of the children,

and they're African American and Asian and Caucasian.

- [Walt] Natchez is a different kind of place.

Maybe it's the isolation,

like the remote Galapagos Islands and their unique

animal life evolving so isolated on their own.

It actually started out very isolated,

and it's not that easy to get to now.

There are now Interstate highways nearby,

but early on, there was one primary way to get to Natchez,

the Mississippi River, and when you left,

you pretty much had to walk back home on the Natchez Trace.

Natchez writer Greg Iles says that was

the beginning of the uniqueness of Natchez.

- First, it comes from the river.

We're up on the high ground, the highest ground

until you get up to Missouri, I think.

The Indians settled here.

Everybody knew this was an ideal place.

It was above the yellow fever,

just a lot of positive things about it.

But what really makes it different is that

it has always been an island of license and liberality

in a state otherwise known

for its blue laws and conservatism.

And that comes from the fact that

it was settled by the English and the French early on,

and there was a lot of wealth here,

before there was ever wealth in the Delta

or anywhere else in the state,

and that created a situation where

because it was an Anglo-philic city,

people sent their children to the best universities

in the land, they sent them to the courts of Europe,

so you tended to have more educated population here,

right on through, I think till World War II,

when we had a pretty big influx of labor

to work in the paper mill and the tire plants

and the things that were put up,

so that defined the character of Natchez.

- [Walt] So you had the river bringing

all sorts of people to Natchez, some staying,

some passing through, like flatboatsmen selling

what they brought, then selling their boats

for use as wood for buildings.

And then they walked back home on the Natchez Trace.

Others fleeing the eastern seaboard

and the gathering Revolutionary War,

loyal to the crown, walked here on the Trace,

and there were outlaws making their own Natchez

down below the bluff on the riverfront,

Natchez Under the Hill, with the rest of Natchez

all simmering in the same pot with African slaves,

south Louisiana trappers and freed men of color,

until 1811, when the world changed.

The steamboat was invented.

Not only then could the river bring

people to Natchez from upstream.

With steam, it could take them back home upstream,

and not only people, but cotton.

(acoustic guitar music)

- What I would like for people to understand

is how complicated history is.

That this was an era when if you had certain attributes,

you can make a whole lot of money,

and if you had the unfortunate circumstance

to be born and sold into slavery in Africa,

your life could be a living hell,

or you could lose your life very easily; it wasn't yours.

It seems so capricious to us now.

- Roughly one million enslaved people were either

purchased, ill-gotten, bought, stolen,

or had from the eastern seaboard

and the upper mid-west states such as Kentucky,

Tennessee, Missouri, and one of the places

where they were intended to come are the destination

was the Forks of The Road.

- [Walt] The Forks of The Road was a huge slave market

on the outskirts of Natchez.

Raising cotton is a labor-intensive undertaking.

We have machinery.

They had slaves on the antebellum plantations.

Ser Boxley's dedicated much of his life

preserving the Forks of The Road

so we can understand the contribution of the slave.

Only, he would take offense to that catch-all term, "slave."

You lose sight that these were people,

individuals, just like us.

- There would be no Mississippi for white folks.

There would be no Natchez for white folks and other folk,

black folks, for that matter, and anybody

who is benefiting today, if it wasn't for slavery,

chattle slavery and such, and so that point

has gotta be taken away from here.

Bottom line, it's the stolen humanity

of African descendants, our folk's parents

and our ancestors, that this site speaks to as such.

- [Walt] Cotton brought wealth to Natchez,

but it came at a price: slavery.

But southern cotton brought wealth to the nation,

not just southern plantation owners.

The dark side of Natchez that's beginning

to be given its rightful place in the history of the city

is the role slavery played.

- The planters who lived in Natchez

in the 1840s and early 1850s were

the wealthiest people in the United States,

and so they could buy the finest things

that money could buy, and because we have

the Mississippi River right here,

it could all be shipped right to their doorsteps.

People are astonished by the scales of these mansions,

where the ceilings can be 15 feet high

and the rooms can be 30 feet across.

And when you drill down and look at the details of that,

it becomes more and more amazing that those rooms

that are 30 feet across have cypress floors

that are one board the entire length,

just the size and the grandeur of those things is amazing,

and then inside, they had the finest things

money could buy; they had very fine American furniture

with French silk on it and beautiful French gilded mirrors

and beautiful European china.

I mean, there is an opulence here

that we would expect to see in Newport or at Biltmore

or some of the other finest mansions in the United States.

- Not many southern planters that owned a mansion

ever laid a brick, and his brother-in-law didn't come down

for the summer and winter to help him, but trust me.

Every one of these mansions were built

on the back of so-called slaves;

most of them, by that time, though, were free

or had freedom in their pockets, so to speak,

but they built and they were artisans.

They made their bricks, they made their moldings.

They made what they put together,

and now, we're showing it off like it's all ours.

It belongs to them just as much as it does to the owners.

(upbeat instrumental music)

- [Walt] You know, the shorthand understanding of society

of the old south as it's been sifted down to us today,

150 years later is,

if you were white, you were free.

If you were black, you were a slave.

But that's not entirely true.

There was a colony of free people of color in Natchez.

One branch of the Natchez National Park illustrates that

at the William Johnson House downtown.

- William Johnson was a mixed-race person

who was born into slavery.

We assume that his father was the plantation owner

named William Johnson, though that's nowhere written down.

And the plantation owner granted freedom

to William Johnson's mother, to his sister Adelia,

and to young William when he was about nine years old.

And these people joined a community

of about 200 free people of color here in Natchez,

and it was the largest community of free people of color

in the state of Mississippi, and they sort of occupied

a middle class status, and so they valued learning.

William Johnson was very literate.

We don't know how he learned to read and write,

but what he is primarily known for is his work as a diarist,

that between 1835 and 1851, he kept daily journals

of what was going on in Natchez, and you know,

he was a barber, and if you think about the gossip

that goes through a barber shop, it's fascinating reading.

You find out not only who's running around with who,

who's losing money at the racetrack,

which politicians are having fistfights in the street.

It's quite fascinating.

(acoustic guitar music)

- [Walt] Slavery ultimately led to the Civil War.

The right to own slaves is primarily the state right

that's often referred to in history books

as the sanitized reason for the war,

fighting over states' rights,

but even in the Civil War, Natchez ended up being unique.

One Natchez historian put it this way.

Natchez surrendered early and often.

- When I was in 11th grade, I was a delegate

to Boys State in Jackson, Hinds Junior College,

and I sensed a sort of prejudice

against me and the other boys from Natchez,

particularly the boys from Vicksburg, and I finally realized

it was because we had surrendered early and well,

and they had suffered through the siege.

- [Walt] Actually, there was a battle casualty

in Natchez in the Civil War, just one.

A Union gunboat shelled the city in a dispute over ice,

and twelve year old Rosalie Beekman was caught

by a piece of shrapnel and bled to death.

She is the only person who died at Natchez

in the Civil War in battle.

She's buried here in Natchez City Cemetery.

Well, not only is little Rosalie Beekman buried here,

but there's a hundred acres of other folks who are here,

nobles, ignobles, aristocratic folks.

There's governors here, governors of Mississippi,

governors of the Spanish territory over across the river.

Generals of all kinds, Civil War soldiers.

Every other kind of soldier.

There's tombstones with epitaphs that are

continued on the back, some of them are so long.

And then there's some whose story's short,

but says a lot, like this one.

Louise, period, the unfortunate.

Volumes spoken in just these three words.

- Natchez has its own familiarity.

It's structured around community.

Natchez is, in one word, family.

The structure of Natchez has always been

surrounded around a historic venue,

but the true history of Natchez

are the people that tell the story,

the people that are involved in the story,

from all genres, generations, ethnicities, religion.

We've always found a way to make Natchez happen.

- There's wildness, there's incredible sophistication.

There's music, there's art, there's culture.

And yet it has maintained a sense of small town

and a sense of something that you don't see everywhere else.

- [Walt] After the Civil War, and on into Reconstruction,

the old cotton money was gone, by and large.

The mansions still stood,

but the families were on their own to survive,

and the lively happy island of wealth and sustainability

that was antebellum Natchez was gone.

The spirit of the town was just a shadow of itself,

until the Great Depression years,

when something entirely new came to town: tourists.

(whimsical upbeat music)

Perhaps it was interest in the Old South generated

by romanticized stories being produced by Hollywood

in the 1930s that generated interest in places like Natchez.

Between that and good all weather roads

beginning to connect all parts of the nation,

pilgrims flocked to Natchez,

at first to see the gardens in bloom for spring,

but one year, there came a late freeze

and the town was already full of tourists,

so the gardens were abandoned,

and the doors to the old homes thrown wide open,

and the pilgrims have toured the interiors since then.

It was the coming of the pilgrimage in the 1930s

that helped save many of these old homes.

- During that 50 years after the '30s,

the world was populated with a lot of ladies,

blue-haired ladies whose greatest fantasy

was Gone With The Wind, and they came here by the thousands

to see the pilgrimage, and the pilgrimage was pretty much

an unapologetic celebration of the antebellum South,

and that leaves out 50% of Natchez's population,

so it's always been a sort of schizophrenic thing here,

and only in the last few years

have we really started to rectify that.

- [Walt] The biggest criticism of the pilgrimage in Natchez

was that it didn't tell the whole story

about antebellum days, particularly about slavery.

But initially, the pilgrimage wasn't designed

to tell a story at all.

- Because Natchez, unlike Vicksburg,

was not defended by the Confederacy during the Civil War,

it was not shelled and destroyed by the Union Army

during the Civil War, so we still walk

among the physical remnants of that culture.

It's still very much with us.

The houses are still here, the churches are still here,

and in Natchez, when you hear the whistle

of a steamboat leaving or you hear

the sound of the horse hooves on the horse-drawn carriages,

it's very evocative of a time period that's still with us.

When the ladies of Natchez first opened their homes

to visiting guests, it was very much about hospitality.

It was very much an ethos of welcoming people

into your homes and it would've been the height of rudeness

to discuss difficult things like that.

And a parallel track has developed

the real kind of historic interpretation,

where we no longer, in this track,

over here, we no longer have to sell a fantasy.

We no longer have to make people feel

like you're good enough folks

that you can come in the front door of this house.

Right now, it's that you are an American.

This is a national park; you own this place.

So let's come in and really talk

about some things that matter.

- Fortunate side is Natchez is uniquely situated

to take advantage of the growing segment of tourism,

which is heritage tourism.

That's a great thing, but in order to take advantage of that

and not out of reasons of greed,

but in order to be fair to our own citizens

and to sort of un-distort our history, as it were,

we're gonna have to change completely the face

that we present to the world.

- [Walt] And that is part of the reasoning

behind making a deal out of the 300th anniversary year

of the city of Natchez.

To take this year to have events and do projects,

not so much to change the face

of Natchez that the world sees,

but to make sure the world sees all of the faces of Natchez.

Jennifer Ogden Combs came home this year from Hollywood

as a movie producer to head up the tricentennial commission

for her hometown, because she believes

this is the time to make this happen,

and the 300th anniversary is the vehicle to use

to get all of Natchez on board.

- Natchez is an interesting place.

It's a very unique place, it's a very...

I mean, aside from the history,

it's a very unusual small town

that's got a lot of sophistication

and much bigger feel than a normal small town,

and I thought, what would be something

that could bring everybody together

that would really serve and be about everybody?

This is a year that not many places can claim

this kind of 300th birthday, and we could use that

to bring our community together

to celebrate and to commemorate.

This is not my story or the city's story, the county's story

or the Garden Club's story, or the Grand Village story.

It's all of our story.

It's the slavery story, it's the civil rights story.

It is about all of us.

It's about telling all of our story

and celebrating our stories,

and certainly commemorating them as well,

because some of the history is...

Our history isn't necessarily something you celebrate,

but you learn from it by commemorating it and sharing it

and then using that to create a better, more united future

for Natchez and Adams County.

- Natchez is a national treasure,

and it is my mission to make this treasure shine.

There is a wealth of history.

There's a wealth of architecture.

There is a wealth of aesthetics that we have here in Natchez

and it's my plan to make the people

who are topped in this community,

appreciate this community, enhance this community,

and bring people here like a Savannah, like a Charleston,

show the world the beauty and the aesthetics,

and not only just Natchez, but our contiguous communities.

We have great counties that surround us

and we just need to take advantage of all of the things

that we have to offer here in Natchez.

- [Walt] Natchez, Mississippi's had 300 years

of relative isolation in modern day terms

to come up with some unique architecture

and some unique places and some unique history and lore

to go along with those places.

- We do have St. Mary's, which is beautiful,

beautiful Catholic church, and was the seat

of the Catholic faith for many years in Mississippi

before the diocese moved to Jackson.

- Natchez is so filled with landmarks.

It's hard to even cover them.

What I would advise is I like the smaller things,

like the Turning Angel that I named one of my books after.

The cemetery at Natchez is just one of the greatest

in the whole country to see.

- [Walt] I like the cemetery, myself.

I like it so much I've been locked in there twice.

- Wait a second, you've been locked in the city cemetery?

- [Walt] Well, I never thought

it was something to brag about before.

- Longwood, of course, completely unique.

This house here, completely unique.

But I think people should just come for the feel.

Savannah has its own feel, Charleston has a feel.

Natchez has a similar feel,

New Orleans, and those are rare.

We live, Walt, you know this,

you've traveled around, that's your job.

We've reached a point, this is what I tell people

on book tour if I'm in California or Maine

or anywhere, I say, anywhere I get off the plane,

I almost can't even tell where I am

cause everywhere looks the same.

Everywhere feels the same.

Same franchise restaurants,

same outdoor mall, same whatever.

When you get off the plane in Mississippi,

you know you're somewhere, right?

And when you come to Natchez, even in Mississippi,

you know you're somewhere special.

- This is the new Bridge of Sighs in Natchez.

It's part of the riverwalk,

and this bridge is one of the 300th anniversary projects.

And speaking of 300th anniversary,

it's amazing how little bit of 300 years

you can cram down into 30 minutes' worth of television,

but that's all the time we have for the show.

But if you'd like information about anything you've seen,

not only on this Mississippi Road show but on any of them,

you can contact us at,

and while you're at your computer, go ahead and hit like

on our Mississippi Public Broadcasting Facebook page.

I think while I'm here,

I'm gonna look around Natchez a little bit more,

but until next time, I'm Walt Grayson.

I'll be seeing you on Mississippi Roads.

(upbeat country music)

- [Female Narrator] Mississippi Roads is made possible

in part by the generous support of viewers like you.

Thank you.