Natchez: “On the Mighty Mississippi”
In 1682, during La Salle’s exploration of the Lower Mississippi Valley, French explorers made initial contact with the Natchez Indians. It was not until 1716, however, that the French established Fort Rosalie, considered the first true settlement at Natchez, Mississippi. The fort was a simple wooden palisade that served as a defensive, as well as governmental center. The region thrived under French, British and Spanish colonial rule. In 1789, the Spanish surveyed and laid out the actual town of Natchez. Upon the signing of the Pinckney Treat in 1795, Spain relinquished control of Natchez to the United States of America.
Natchez had long functioned as a stopping point for farmers and adventurers moving boats and cargoes downriver to New Orleans. Natchez’s development and existence, however, relied on the rapidly growing slave-based, plantation economy. By 1860, the town’s population stood at 6,612, including more than 2,100 slaves. Natchez was composed of three distinct areas: Natchez Under-the-Hill, composed of bar-rooms, brothels, and hotels that catered to the river trade; Uptown Natchez, filled with shops, churches and middle-class establishments; and Suburban Natchez, a encircling neighborhood of garden estates occupied by the wealthiest planter families and the enslaved people who worked on them.
Click here to view the Atlantic Slave Trade interactive map.
Interview: History of Natchez, with Kathleen Jenkins, Superintendent of Natchez National Historical Park, and Darrell White, Director of Cultural Heritage Tourism for Visit Natchez.
Many of the wealthy Natchez planters were from the North and the Upper South regions of the United States while some were descended from early pioneer families who had arrived in the area during the Spanish colonial period. These adventurous men, many of whom were lawyers, doctors and merchants, recognized the opportunity to make their fortune in the Lower Mississippi River Valley during the cotton boom of the 1820s.They bought vast plantations and scores of African slaves to work them, and built stately, fashionable homes in and near Natchez. Considered by many to be the “nouveau-riche” of their time, Natchez planters rose to social, economic, and political prominence on the waves of an ever expanding slave-based economy.
Born in Pennsylvania, John T. McMurran, a wealthy lawyer and cotton planter, began the creation of his estate, Melrose, in 1841. Completed by 1848, the main house is considered one of the best examples of Greek revival architecture in the country. McMurran’s daughter-in-law Alice described it as “very elegant, one of the handsomest places I have ever seen North and South.” In addition to the main house, the estate contained a number of dependencies, including two slave cabins, stable, carriage house, kitchen, dairy, storehouses, cistern shelters, and a brick privy. Today, Melrose offers visitors a glimpse into the lifestyle of a wealthy, pre-Civil War southern planter family and the enslaved people who worked on the estate. Natchez National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park Service, maintains the 80-acre site.
William Johnson House
Although born a slave, William Johnson became a free man of color and a very successful barber in Natchez. He owned three barbershops in Natchez, serving the wealthy, white planters and their families. His greatest contribution, however, was his diary, a chronicle of his life as a fee man of color in a slave society. Written from 1835 to 1851, Johnson’s diary comprises more than 14 volumes and his words provide one of the most important first-person accounts of what life was like for a free person of color in the antebellum South.
William Johnson’s life, however, presents several contradictions. He was freed from enslavement as a child—yet as an adult, he owned slaves. He wrote extensively in his diaries—yet he makes little mention of race, class, and slavery, issues that certainly affected him every day of his life. He was a prosperous and successful businessman—yet as a black man, he was limited by his race. William Johnson lived a life between two worlds: the world of free whites and the world of black slaves.
Johnson built his two-and-a-half story townhouse using bricks from nearby buildings that were destroyed in the devastating tornado of 1840. While the Johnson family lived in the upper stories of the house, the first floor was rented out to various merchants and businesses. In the 1990s, the National Park Service renovated the Johnson House and today, visitors have the opportunity to learn more about the life of free African Americans in the pre-Civil War South.
Prior to 1863, Natchez was home to the second largest slave auction site in the country. From 1810 to 1863, slave traders purchased tens of thousands of enslaved people in Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Kentucky for the shipment to the markets in New Orleans and Natchez. Prior to the establishment of the slave auction site at the Forks of the Road, thousands of slaves were sold on the steps of the Natchez courthouse, in uptown auction houses, and at the river landing Under-the-Hill. In 1833, the Natchez City Council passed an ordinance forbidding slave traders from housing their slaves within the city limits. This lead to the creation of the slave depot at the Forks-of-the-Road market, named for its location at the intersection of two streets in outlying Natchez. It has been estimated that nearly 200,000 slaves passed through Forks-of-the-Road as part of the forced migration of slavery. Trading at this market ceased by 1863, when Union troops occupied Natchez and destroyed the slave pens.
Interview: Forks of the Road, with Ser Boxley, Coordinator of the Forks of the Road Society Inc., and Kathleen Jenkins, Superintendent of Natchez National Historical Park.
The Atlantic Slave Trade in 3D
In 2014, CyArk and Trimble embarked on the Atlantic Slave Trade theme to curate an interactive, immersive experience that will complement the continued study, research, and conversation around slavery in the Atlantic World. Utilizing the latest 3D laser scanning and other reality capture technologies, CyArk, with the support of Trimble, will scan, document, and model sites associated with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in an effort to better understand, conserve, and preserve such sites. The digital preservation of Natchez National Historical Park serves as the pilot project for this extensive documentation, and seeks to link specific sites and spaces with the disruption and trauma perpetuated by the Atlantic slave trade system.