National Geographic : 1949 Feb
History Repeats in Old Natchez BY WILLIAM H. NICHOLAS With Illustrationsby National Geographic PhotographerWillard R. Culver CHAMPAGNE and turkey days are com ing back to the durable ante-bellum mansions of Natchez, Mississippi. Industrial plants and oil, pumped from four fields in Adams County, are spreading wealth in Natchez for the first time since the War Between the States and later the boll weevil ended the reign of its fabulous cotton barons. Cotton supplied the gold which built the "more stately mansions" on those high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River (page 190). In pre-Civil War days wealthy planters vied with each other over the size of their spacious houses. They went to Europe to find carved marble mantels, huge gold-leaf mirrors, rose wood furniture, heavy brocade drapes, fine statuary, and other costly furnishings with which to adorn them. Golden Age of Natchez Plantation owners cantered into Natchez on spirited horses. Their dazzling ladies were drawn in fine carriages, with liveried outriders and appointments of gold and silver (page 183). Glittering balls testified to the general affluence. Then came reverses. The straitened owners withdrew into their big houses, and Natchez withdrew into itself. A grim struggle for sur vival began, to last for the better part of a century. Paint peeled from the walls of the once-re splendent dwellings and from the once-shining pillars and columns. Costly drapes molded, hand-blocked French wallpaper cracked. Today, with new wealth, mansions have perked up again. New paint and new plaster have worked wonders. In the last few years half a dozen homes, long ago abandoned in disrepair, have been restored. Once more they stand proudly alongside those which more successfully with stood the lean days. Restoration of one of the oldest plantation houses recently was marked by a huge bar becue. Two thousand people attended. Pine torch flares held by Negro boys lighted the lane to the mansion. Bands played. Formal receptions signalized the reopening of two other big houses. Long-darkened chan deliers in the huge drawing rooms were lighted. Turkey and champagne appeared in abundance. "Like old times," sighed more than one Natchezan. Almost the first thing I saw as I entered the outskirts of the old town one sunny Sunday afternoon was a storage yard jammed with pipe and other oil field equipment. Industry Brings New Wealth Later I walked across the expansive floor of the huge $7,000,000 insulating board plant being rushed to completion by Johns-Manville Corporation. I visited the Armstrong Tire and Rubber Company where 700 men were hard at work. I passed a clothing factory where machines clacked busily. Here were sources of the new wealth.* I strolled to the plaza at the edge of the river bluff, rising 200 feet above the Missis sippi, and looked across the broad expanse of water to the Louisiana lowlands. For untold years before the white men came this area was the home of the Natchez Indians. In 1716 Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, the French colonizer, clambered up the bluff to establish a stockade, which he named Fort Rosalie. But 13 years later the Indians massacred the settlement's entire population. At the close of the French and Indian War British redcoats took over Fort Rosalie. Within 10 years some 15 English families occupied large grants of land about the settle ment. During the Revolution a third flag flew over Natchez-the flag of Spain. While England was occupied along the Atlantic seaboard, the Spaniards moved in the back door and took the town. Not until 19 years later was the young United States able to gain possession. Near where I stood at the edge of the river bluff was the southwest terminus of the his toric Natchez Trace, wilderness trail which in pioneer days linked Natchez and Nashville, Tennessee, 450 miles away. Buffaloes Built Natchez Trace Original builders of the Natchez Trace were buffaloes. On their way to salt licks or feeding grounds, year after year, their hoofs beat out trails through the wilderness. Several of these trails, when joined together by the Indians, led southwesterly from Nashville to the Mis sissippi. This rude road system provided * See "Machines Come to Mississippi," by J. R . Hildebrand, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, Sep tember, 1937.