Imagery of the Old South:
Natchez on the Mississippi
Two southern belles enjoy the annual spring Pilgrimage in Natchez, MS. During the spring and fall pilgrimages, emphasis is on the history and heritage of all residents, magnificent homes and the style of southern life.*
By Marcia Levin
Natchez conjures up images of flowering magnolia blossoms, lovely tree-lined streets and gracious and historic homes.
That’s the image -- and the reality.
Natchez, on the Mississippi River within the southeastern corner of Mississippi, has a long eclectic history as one of the South's oldest cities. (An example of the Old South's columned architecture is shown at right.*).
The Natchez Indians inhabited what is now southwest Mississippi starting in about 700, with the culture at its height in the mid-1500s. Historical records also show that people of color came to the region with French settlers as early as 1716.
Before the Civil War, Natchez was one of the country’s wealthiest communities. Cotton brokers -- whose sprawling plantations across the river in Louisiana grew fine cotton for the world -- enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in the city.
Spring and Fall Pilgrimages
Today, many of these entrepreneurs' magnificent antebellum mansions take center stage for visitor tours during the twice-yearly Natchez Pilgrimages, now celebrating their 75th year.
While touring Natchez, you'll view dozens of diverse homes and mansions -- from European-styled villas to stately mansions and classic plantation homes with white pillars.
For example, 1855-era Montaigne (see photo at left*) was built by Confederate General William T. Martin.
Montaigne is surrounded by century-old oaks, azaleas and more than 350 varieties of camellias.
Another popular home for tours is the 1818-era Monmouth Plantation (see photo at right*), the home of General John A. Quitman, an early Mississippi governor of Mexican War. It's a popular bed and breakfast inn.
While the exteriors of the city's homes are magnificent, definitely take time to tour the interior of several homes.
Going inside will give you the sense of entering "the inner circle" of the cotton barons and others who resided in the city in the 1800s.
You'll peruse priceless antiques, original furnishings and personal effects of the former owners. For example, Monmouth displays much original Quitman family furniture.
Interiors showcase the former owners' personal tastes. For example, visitors may peruse this elegant Victorian parlor (shown at left*) at Rosalie. This mansion served as the headquarters for the Union Army during the occupation of Natchez in the Civil War.
During pilgrimages, visits to Natchez' antebellum homes are best booked in advance through Natchez Pilgrimage Tours (800-647-6742 or www.natchezpilgrimage.com), 640 S. Canal St.
This group also will assist visitors with booking of accommodations during the pilgrimages and will make reservations for evening activities.
In addition to enjoying mansion tours, travelers who come for the pilgrimages attend musicals and plays based on the "cotton-is-king" culture.
Visit the Natchez Pilgrimage Tours site for useful information about the pilgrimages and Natchez in general. We liked this specific page that details the homes, their history and photos: www.natchezpilgrimage.com/houses.htm
So when are the next pilgrimages? The Fall Pilgrimage is Sept. 29-Oct. 13 with 19 homes open for touring.
The next Spring Pilgrimage is March 8-April 12, 2008, with 27 homes open for tours, A three-house tour booked at Natchez Pilgrimage Tours runs $24 per person, a three-house tour on a mini-bus runs $34. Pick-ups are from the Natchez Visitor Center.
Pilgrimages are timed to take advantage of the potential for optimum weather and the colorful blooms of the South's spring and fall floral displays. (see photo at right.*)
If you aren't able to journey to Natchez for one of the pilgrimages, you'll be pleased to know that Natchez is a year-round destination.
Nine historic homes are open for touring throughout the year.
Whenever you head for Natchez, you'll find a range of local accommodations. Among those are more than 130 bed and breakfast inns -- many housed in magnificent Victorian or antebellum homes.
Honoring People of Color
The Natchez Association for Afro-American History and Culture Museum (601-304-9399 or www.visitnatchez.com), 302 Main St., exhibits artifacts from early Natchez.
At right, a visitor views old photos of African-Americans who lived in Natchez during the 1800s.*
The Museum showcases contributions and lifestyles of African Americans in Mississippi starting with the earliest slave residents through the Civil War, the onerous days of Ku Klux Klan activities, the Civil Rights era and the present century.
Visitors will learn about the late William Johnson, known as “The Barber of Natchez.” Born a slave, he later became a free man, purchased a barbershop in 1830 and fathered 11 children.
Because Johnson wanted to be considered a success during those pre-Civil War days in Natchez, Barber kept as many as 15 slaves; at the time, business success meant owning both land and slaves. Interestingly, he also kept a comprehensive diary of his life as a free black man.
The three-story William Johnson House in Natchez is owned and operated by the National Park Service, (601-442--7047 or www.nps.gov/natc), 640 S. Canal St. Admission is free.
A Natchez Photo Album
More than 500 historic pictures on display at First Presbyterian Church's Stratton Chapel Gallery, (601-442-2581 or www.fpcnatchez.org), 405 State St., are worth thousands of words. They tell dramatic stories about the ebb and flow of everyday life in Natchez from the Civil War through the mid-20th century.
Where did the photos come from? Three skilled photographers took them. Thousands of the original glass plate negatives had been lost for decades until unexpectedly "found" on the porch of a local couple.
The stunning black-and-white photos were printed from the original negatives. They vividly portray life in the river city from Civil War days through the mid-20th century.
You'll peruse shots of local families, businesses, and, river life and riverboats laden with bales of cotton (such as the J. M White at left.*)
This photo display is available for visitors to view Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. and to 4 pm. The suggested donation for entry to the exhibition is $3 per person.
Editor's Note: If you go to Natchez, simply do NOT miss this photo exhibition. I've twice visited this amazing display of photography. Each time I was fascinated by the extensive collection of photos showcasing "everyday life" in Natchez through the decades. You'll see young adults in their Sunday finery at the turn of the century. You'll view portraits of families in the post-Civil War era. The shots of rural farm life, historic commercial buildings (some still standing), and, of course, the riverboats are extremely helpful to "visualize" Natchez's past.
Classic Southern Cuisine
Much more than finger lickin’ good, the southern fried chicken at the Carriage House Restaurant (601-445-5151 or www.natchezmansions.com), 401 High St., is a culinary classic.
In addition to the fried chicken, don't miss the fried green tomatoes, tomato aspic, buttered biscuits, and gumbo. The pecan pie will kill your diet for a month, but what a way to go! A complete lunch runs less than $15 per person.
Editor's Note: If it's a hot summer day, opt for a delightful mint julep from the Carriage House bar.
The restaurant is on the site of the original carriage house at Stanton Hall, a "must-see" mansion that covers an entire block. The white pillared Stanton Hall with gorgeous spring flowers is shown at right.*
The restaurant is open Thursday through Monday throughout the year, except during pilgrimages when it's open daily.
A Place for Angels
Contemporary author Greg Iles, a Natchez resident, immortalized the Turning Angel in his eponymous novel of the same name.
Many tourists enjoy going in search of the Turning Angel Monument at Natchez City Cemetery, (601-445-5051 or www.natchezcemetery.com), 2 Cemetery Rd.
That angel monument (shown at left*) is only one outstanding site at this old cemetery, which dates to 1822.
Some tombstone inscriptions are charming and some more mysterious.
One gravesite belongs to a planter who insisted on being buried seated in a rocking chair overlooking his cotton fields.
Interred on the grounds are many Confederate military officers. The CSA (Confederate States of America) logo identifies their gravesites.
Also buried at Natchez City Cemetery, in separate areas, are early Jewish immigrants as well as former slaves.
Gaming, Native American Culture and Antiques
If you've soaked in plenty of Old South history and want different diversions, Natchez has many.
Located within the "Under-the-Hill" area along the river, the Isle of Capri Casino (800-722-5825 or www.isleofcapricasino.com), 70 Silver St. is a full-service casino with lots of bells and whistles – to say nothing of flashing lights.
Table games include blackjack, crap, roulette and three-card poker. At left, the casino is shown during a fireworks display.*
Other local diversions include a drive down the picturesque Natchez Trace Parkway, originally a native American trail and now a scenic byway.
Another popular activity is exploration of the 128-acre Grand Village of the Natchez Indians (601-446-6502); this National Historic Landmark is administered by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
On site are a museum accredited by the American Association of Museums, a reconstructed native American house and three ceremonial mounds. Two of those mounds -- the Great Sun's Mound and the Temple Mound -- have been excavated and rebuilt to their original sizes and shapes.
Depending on the time of your visit, you might be treated to some Natchez ceremonial dancing (shown above right*), storytelling or other native American cultural demonstrations.
For antique shoppers, a big draw is the city's Antique Row (shown at right*).
Natchez offers many other attractions. Wherever you journey in the city, though, you'll feel as though you've entered a time warp.
One fact is certain. The history of the Old South -- with all its achievements and its flaws -- as well as the heritage and tales of those who lived in the region still shine through with pride.
For More Information
Visit Natchez at 601-446-6345 or 800-647-6742 or www.visitnatchez.com.
Natchez Pilgrimage Tours at 601-446-6631 or 800-647-6742 or www.natchezpilgrimage.com.
Marcia Levin is a travel writer based in South Florida. She specializes in writing about Florida, the Caribbean and cruising. She is a past president of the Society of American Travel Writers.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Tourism Development, the Natchez Convention & Visitors Bureau, Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, Susan J. Young and Morton S. Levin. All rights reserved. Do not link to nor copy. Thanks.