Natchez, MS

The last time I wrote to you about my travels, I was pulling in to the historic city of Natchez, Miss. Natchez has a magical ring to some, even today, as the romanticized river travel on a modernized steamboat entices those who are expecting to see Scarlett or her twin swooshing across a manicured lawn attended by many brown hands. While I was there a river boat docked in a storybook spot called “Under the Hill.”

There is no intent to disparage the river boat companies or the grandeur of the restored plantation homes. I would love to take at least one of those trips; however, I would prefer to be a presenter. You know the saying, “truth is stranger than fiction?” I would change that just a bit: “truth is far more exciting, entertaining and decidedly more informative than fiction.”

Many of these antebellum locales, especially along the rivers, struggle economically today and have come to lean heavily on the tourism business and the curiosity of plantation life pre-emancipation. There are varying accounts of splendor (or lack thereof) from mint juleps on the veranda to no glass in the windows and no books in the house. It is the gracious lifestyle that becomes the illusion desired by so many visitors and one that has kept the tourist dollars flowing.

But times they are a changing.’ The houses are expensive to maintain, and the visitors are demanding to hear a more accurate interpretation—even if harsh or myth-busting, inquiring minds want to know what it was really like. More intriguing to researchers like myself, those travellers are particularly interested in learning accurately and more completely about the lives of the enslaved: the ones who tilled the fields, cooked the meals, raised the babies, built the houses and prepared the mint juleps.

Natchez has a well-interpreted visitors’ center and a marvelous museum: The Museum of African American History and Culture. They also have a beautiful historic area above the Mississippi with historic homes to tour and streets to walk.

And then there is the area known as “Under the Hill.” Perhaps, if it had been 1860 or 1870 or 1910, I would not have been allowed along the hustle and bustle of the wharf among the juke joints where people of all color gathered for drinking, gambling and whatever else might be the vice of the day. Nonetheless, in January 2018 that former ambiance was all but non-existent. There is legalized gambling in mega-casinos on both river banks, but I had no discretionary funds that I could spare. I stayed away, seeking instead a small cluster of remaining 19th century structures, one of which provided a delicious meal of crawfish etouffee.

Walking along the banks of the river with the rest of the world living in the 21st century at the top of the hill above me, I could almost hear the music and sense the dreams of those who imagined what lay upriver.

As to Madison’s slaves sold to William Taylor and brought to Louisiana, sadly there are only scant records of sales or other transactions in Natchez related to the thousands of people sold and shipped from this city.

Natchez is an estimated 70 miles from Taylor’s plantation Lakeland with a dock directly on the western bank of the Mississippi. It is unknown whether they walked the remaining distance or were loaded on to something that looked like a flat boat for the final leg of the journey. However, there is little doubt that the world of river cities, with flat terrain and more water than they had seen in a lifetime, was very different from home.

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