The city of Natchez is named for the Natchez tribe of Native Americans who lived in the area. The Natchez tribe descends from indigenous peoples that have been continuously inhabiting the area since the 8th century.
Natchez was one of the first European settlements on the lower Mississippi. It was established by the French in 1716. One of the reasons they selected the site is its location on a bluff high above the river. This not only made Natchez easier to defend against possible aggressors, it also protected the town from the periodic flooding of the Mississippi River.
On one of the occasions we drove around the city of Natchez, we stopped at the park that is located on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. From here, we could see why the French picked this site for a settlement. There are commanding views of the river in both directions.
Bluff Park has a nice gazebo, walking paths, and benches so you can relax and enjoy the view.
It was the periodic flooding of the river that made the land along the river so fertile. The majority of the plantations were located in the lowlands on the Louisiana side of the river.
Most of the wealthy plantation owners in this area did not live on their plantations. They only spent part of the year there during growing season. What they considered to be their permanent homes were in and around Natchez, which was protected from flooding. There were over 50 very wealthy planters who had homes in the area.
Natchez surrendered to Union forces with little resistance fairly early in the Civil War shortly after New Orleans fell in 1862. For that reason, many of the luxurious, old homes and other historic buildings still stand today. Only one home was known to have been lost as a direct result of the war. We'll have more about that a little later in this post.
A few of the larger homes are operated as museums and are open to the public year round. We will have more on a couple of the grand, old Natchez homes in upcoming posts. Many of the old houses are private homes, but some of them are open to the public during the Natchez Pilgrimage Tour in the spring and fall.
Since we were in Natchez too late for the Pilgrimage Tour, we drove around town to check out some picturesque old homes on our own. Most of them are on the National Register of Historic Places, and many have signs indicating their names and dates. Just a few of them are shown below.
Dr. Charles H. Dubs was a city alderman and dentist.
Myrtle Terrace was the home of internationally-known steamboat captain Thomas Leathers. Leathers piloted the riverboat Natchez in the famous 1880 race against the Robert E. Lee. Leathers career spanned more than 50 years, and he piloted 7 boats with the Natchez name.
Stanton Hall was built by Irish immigrant and wealthy planter Frederick Stanton. Originally named Belfast, the home became a college for young ladies in the 1890s. It became a private residence again in the early 1900s and was renamed Stanton Hall. The home is owned by the Pilgrimage Garden Club and is open for tours year round.
Clifton was a large mansion at the northern end of town owned in the 1860s by Frank Surget. The Union Army, which was occupying Natchez at the time, destroyed Clifton in 1863 to build a fort. Clifton was destroyed even though Frank Surget was a Union sympathizer. As the story goes, destruction of the house could have possibly been avoided had Surget invited a certain Union officer to a certain dinner party. This is the only known house in Natchez to have been lost because of the war.
In spite of the fact plantation owners struggled after the Civil War, the city of Natchez itself was able to make a fairly rapid economic comeback because of the resumption of river traffic and shipping on the Mississippi. In the 1880s, housing expanded along the bluff to the north of the city on the land that was previously occupied by Clifton. Known as Clifton Heights, the area was the home of wealthy Natchez merchants.
One evening back at the campground, we noticed a large riverboat heading up the river just as we sat down to dinner. It was the American Queen, which offers cruises of the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries.
The American Queen used to have two sister ships - the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen. We remember the Delta Queen, coming up the Ohio River and docking in our old home town of Pittsburgh years ago. Because of the Delta Queen's wooden hull, she no longer sails the rivers. She is permanently docked in Chatanooga, TN as a floating hotel. The other sister ship, the Mississippi Queen, served as temporary shelter following Hurricane Katrina. She was awaiting renovation, but ended up being sold for scrap instead in 2009 because of the poor economy.
The American Queen was out of service for several years due to the failure of the company that owned her. She now has a new owner, and she returned to active service just this spring with a new season of river cruises.
When we went out to go sightseeing the following morning, we could see the American Queen was still docked along the river as we crossed bridge to Natchez. We decided to take a short detour past the location where she was tied up, which is known as Natchez Under the Hill.
Natchez was a large river port back in the day, and Natchez Under the Hill is where the riverboats used to (and the American Queen still does) dock. There was a wide, flat area of land filled with warehouses, bars and brothels that extended out into the river. The next two photos show views of Under the Hill from around 1860.
Under the Hill was one of the most notorious river landings along the entire Mississippi River. Fist fights, knife fights, muggings, and murders occurred on a regular basis. Activity at Under the Hill began to decline with the rise of the railroads as a means of transportation.
In the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers changed the course of the river upstream which caused an increase in flow in the vicinity of Under the Hill. The increase in flow eroded away most of the landing. Today, the few buildings that remain have been restored and house a couple of quaint guest houses and bars. The view shown in the photo below is looking down the the same street shown to the right in the first 1860 photo above.
The American Queen was tied up at Under the Hill. The American Queen is the largest steamboat ever built. Her stern paddle wheel is indeed driven by a real steam power plant. There is secondary propulsion by means of diesel-electric thrusters located on either side of the paddle wheel to provide better maneuverability. The American Queen is 418 feet long and has 222 state rooms on 6 decks.
Natchez is a city that has a rich history, and history is a big interest to both of us. We have already visited historic Frogmore Plantation, and we'll have have more to report on in the Natchez area in the next several posts.