Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Natchez, Mississippi

I had planned on taking the day off and exploring the town of Natchez. The town was founded by the French in the early 1700’s and had since come under the control of the British, Spanish, back to the French and then, obviously, the United States. Times weren’t easy in the area. In 1729 the French had a scuffle with the Natchez Indians, losing the battle. Several years later the French decimated the Natchez, effectively wiping out their tribe. The town was built on cotton farming and trade, taking advantage of its position on the Mississippi river. In 1807 there was a cotton blight, significantly reducing the harvest. Natchez was revived by many Jewish merchants who opened for business in the town. Also, once rail transportation came to prominence following the Civil War it once again sent the town in a downward spiral. Tourism to the rescue.

My first stop was the antebellum mansion Stanton Hall, built by Frederick Stanton. You know you have done something right when you have a 72 foot entrance hall. Unfortunately for Frederick though, he had only lived in the house for nine months before he ended up on the wrong side of the lawn.

While visiting the Stanton house I spoke with an elderly woman there who grew up in Natchez. She mentioned to me how her parents would take her to play in Memorial Park. I deem the one square block park worth a visit. While the park was small in size it was rich in history. Among other things, there was a fountain, several war memorials and a cannon taken from the defenses of Santiago de Cuba in 1898.

I was feeling in a southern mood for lunch and lucked out with some Crawfish Etoufee before heading to a photo exhibit of the Natchez area. The exhibit featured photos from 1860 to 1900 which provided an unbelievable vision of the town in its Cotton growing heyday. It was insane the amount of cotton that was loaded on steamboats being sent down to New Orleans. Some of the boats were nearly underwater they were so heavily and awkwardly laden.

Another afternoon stop was at the William Johnson House. William Johnson was a former slave who became a successful businessman, running several barbershops in Natchez. While slavery was still thriving in the south in the 1840’s, it was possible to be free if granted that right by the slave owner. Rights for ex-slaves were limited, but in my estimation freedom is a big win. Later in his life Johnson was a slave owner himself, which I had come to learn was not uncommon for free African-Americans at that time. Slaves were a stats symbol in certain circles, regardless of race. When talking about slavery, rarely does the area of free African-Americans arise, or at least in my experience.

My last educational stop for the day was Trinity Episcopal Church. The church features some fine stained glass work, including two windows from Louis Comfort Tiffany.

It was such a pleasant evening that evening I decided to spend the remainder of it sitting outside watching the sun glint off the Mississippi River. The sun slowly sank below the horizon as I thought back to kayaking down the Mississippi on a much colder windier day almost a year ago.

In the evening I broke one of my biking rules and that is taking the bike out on a day off. While downtown Natchez does have character, it lacks a place to get a quick bite to eat. It forced me to put in a couple of miles, but not only was I able to have a quick dinner I was also able to pick up a few things for breakfast in the morning. Winner!

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