Where the River Flows and the Trace Begins
“M, i, crooked letter, crooked letter, i, crooked letter, crooked letter, i, hump back, hump back, i.” This is how my mom remembered how to spell Mississippi when she was a kid. I thought about that and smiled as we strolled through the charming downtown streets in Natchez. I found myself completely relaxed in the cool evening breeze that carried the sweet smell of jasmine. The large oak trees adorned with resurrection fern and Spanish moss lined the narrow lanes.
Natchez, MS, founded in 1716, is the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River and it was the most important port on the river when cotton trade was at it’s peek. There is said to be more antebellum homes in Natchez than in any other place in the US. It’s a colorful, historic city that just oozes southern charm and friendly folks.
You can spend a lazy amount of time in what is known as Natchez proper. The city on top of the hill boast quaint shops, museums, and elegant hotels such as The Grand Hotel. You may wish to just spend time gliding in a porch swing at one of the many historic bed and breakfasts in the downtown area or eat your weight in oysters Rockefeller, charbroiled oysters, fried oysters, raw oysters, anyway you want them; there’s oysters folks. Be sure to wear your walking shoes though, because there is a lot to see and exploring on foot is definitely the way to go.
In 1816 traveler William Richardson wrote, “…without a single exception the most licentious spot that I ever saw. It is inhabited by the worst characters and it is well known that not a virtuous female will ride in this polluted spot. From this filthy spot emanate all the contagious disorders that infest the town above.”
Well, of course that quote on a marker at the top of the hill in Natchez proper cinched it for me. We had to go down to Natchez improper and see for ourselves. It is just a short stroll down under the hill where you can immerse yourself in the naughty history of Natchez. This port was known as the rowdiest on the Mississippi where the women of the night greeted the Kaintucks that had made the long journey down the Mississippi by boat to deliver their goods for sale. They’d enjoy the pleasures of the brothels, gambling halls and saloons before the long walk back up the Natchez to the north and home.
Needless to say, Natchez Under-the-hill historic district has cleaned up it’s act since the 1800’s and is now a picturesque little spot to visit right on the river. The boardwalk is a perfect place to take a walk and view a spectacular sunset over the Mississippi river. The restored buildings are home to a couple of restaurants and pubs that offer good food, live music and great history.
We stopped in at Under-the-Hill Saloon and while sitting on the porch watching the American Queen steamboat cruise down the river we chatted with a local gent about the colorful history of Natchez. Randy takes people on carriage ride tours of Natchez and gives history lessons as part of the price. As luck would have it, he’d stopped in on his day off and gave us the lesson without the cost of a carriage ride. While I wandered around snapping pictures, he and David sat outside sipping their drinks and petting the dog that was enjoying the cool sidewalk. Randy shared so much information on Natchez, we were regretful that we didn’t record it. I stopped taking pictures long enough to get in on some of the conversation. His passion for his city was contagious and we were honored that we had had the pleasure of meeting him. We visited several free museums thanks to him. The William Johnson House museum is a very hands-on tour through the life of one of Natchez’s first freed persons of color whom was an entrepreneur, barber and a slave owner. Historic Jefferson College, the first of its kind in Mississippi, was established in 1802 and is open to the public for touring. There are a few buildings and a gift shop with replicas of dorm rooms to view. The college was operated much like a military school and it was interesting to have a look into what life must have been like for the young boys that attended there. The grounds are just beautiful with manicured lawns and towering live oaks. Another cool fact is that the college was used in several well known movies. Parts of “North and South” were filmed here as well as John Wayne’s, “The Horse Soldier”.
I cried when I saw the shackles that chained the slaves together as they were marched from Nashville to Natchez to be paraded at The Forks of the Road for buyers to pick and choose the women, men and children that they wanted to work their cotton plantations. It makes you appreciate how far we have come as a country and humankind.
After a full day of exploring we found our way to Kings Tavern, the oldest building in Natchez circa 1789. Before we could enter, a gentleman on a bicycle was coming from the house beside the restaurant and greeted us. After a few pleasantries he shared some history of the Kings Tavern and the ghost that lived there. He said he’d seen a lady in white a time or two in the upstairs window that was across from his house. We asked if it bothered him and he just waved it off with a laugh and told us that he just keeps the curtain closed now. We decided that we’d not let that deter us from sliding in for a fresh brewed glass of almond sweet tea and ending up having the homemade wood fired artichoke, tomato, olive and onion flat-bread. Wow! Were we ever glad we did because it was awesome. I was sad that we didn’t have room for the in-house made ice-cream because it too looked amazing. They make their own sauces and craft cocktails too
I have just barely touched the surface of things to see and do in historic Natchez, MS. We were here for three days and wish we could have spent a couple more. We camped at Natchez State Park , which was beautiful and the perfect spot, not too far out of town and a wonderful beginning to our two week, 444 mile trip up the Historic Natchez Trace to Nashville.