03-10-2014 Natchez Jewel Part 1

Current Location:  Rising Star Campground COE  south of Pine Bluff, AR 65 degrees F and partly cloudy at 8PM

Natchez_053It is just a little before 6AM on Tuesday morning and still dark outside.  The night chorus by the lake in this lovely park is still going strong.  As I fell asleep last night I recognized crickets and frogs and didn’t have a clue what other night creatures were making the peeps and hoots and whistles that lulled me to sleep.  I stepped outside a few moments ago to try to figure it out again.  Impossible.  One would have to be a Mississippi native, with long nights to listen and decipher the music.

there are at least a dozen kinds of leaves on this forest floor

Natchez_062Natchez State Park was a jewel in disguise, at least to us.  Entering the park, there is a sign directing toward Campground A, and another toward Campground B and the main office.  When we came in night before last, we went to our assigned campsite in A, following a very old, very poor, rough narrow road into the campground.  As I mentioned, it was tight and a bit crowded.  Interesting was the word.

Natchez_064We made the decision at that time to spend another day exploring Natchez, and yesterday before going to town, we stopped in at the camp office to request an extension.  Lo and behold, we found another route into campground A and the beautiful campground B.  Seems as though the water pump was broken, and there was no water in B, hence all the assignments to A. These newly found roads were excellent, smoothly paved and well signed.

State park facilities?Driving through B, we hoped for the chance to camp there, in front of the small lake and in the large spacious sites that were nestled into the leafless but lovely hardwood forest.  Not a problem, checkout time was 2PM, and we had our choice of spaces, picking number 36, on the outside loop by the lake.

It is amazing to me how different our impression of this state park would have been if we had only seen A, or if we had entered the previous night and been in B.  This is a lovely park, and as most RV’rs know, expensive doesn’t always mean level.  Here each campsite is graced with a perfectly level cement RV pad and a cement pad underneath the large picnic table.  There is electric and water when it is working, and just $13.00 per night for seniors.  Some sites might be a bit short for a big rig, but there were also plenty of big rigs in some of the longer spaces.  When I say plenty, I mean three.  Campground B wasn’t even 1/3 full last night. Even with the ten miles or so trip back to Natchez, it is a perfect place for home while exploring. 

amazing oaks at Jefferson CollegeNatchez was a surprise.  With three hundred years of history and a strategic location along the Mississippi River, the people are deservedly proud of their city.  It is really just a nice sized town, with a population of a little more than 15,000 people. I don’t think I can remember seeing so much culture in such a small space anywhere we have visited.

Our first planned stop was the Visitor Center, but we were sidetracked by the Jefferson College, located at what was once the town of Washington, and the Territorial Capital from 1802 until 1827. I picked up a brochure listing the trees and plants on the beautiful nature trails around the restored buildings and we took Abby for a walk.  Knowing our agenda for the day was a big one, we thought better of wandering the beautiful grounds for as long as they deserved.

Jefferson CollegeThe Visitor Center near the Mississippi River is impressive.  In addition to information about the city of Natchez, the visitor center for the National Historic Park and the Natchez Trace is in the same building. For $1.50 each we watched a great 25 minute movie about the history of Natchez. We knew from reading the night before that we were in Natchez during what is called “Pilgrimage”, a long standing tradition sponsored by the two local garden clubs since the early 1930’s.

downtown NatchezNatchez was once the hub of cotton production in this part of the south, and during it’s heyday before the Civil War, more then 3/4 of the millionaires in the entire United States lived right here in Natchez.  There are more than 500 Antebellum homes in this small town that are on the National Historic Register.  Some of these residences are simple modest bungalows and cottages, but are far outnumbered by the huge palatial mansions that were built by the cotton growers.

Natchez_045The people are proud of their Antebellum heritage, and the annual spring and fall Pilgrimages reflect that pride, as does the performance at the City Auditorium of the Historic Natchez Tableaux.  There are other theater performances during Pilgrimage, which this year began on March 8 and extends a little over a month into April.  Our day just happened to coincide with the 4x weekly performance of the Tableaux, so our first plan was to purchase tickets at the visitor center for $15. each.

There are 12 mansions on the Pilgrimage tours, with visits to 3 mansions for $30. and a complicated schedule for which three houses will be on each tour.  With a bit of ambivalence about the romantic interpretation of Antebellum life in Natchez, we thought that visiting the free National Historic Park was more to our liking.

walking to William Johnson House in the National Historic ParkThe National Historic Park encompasses three sites, including the undeveloped Fort Rosalie overlooking the river and not open to the public, the Melrose mansion and the William Johnson House.  The William Johnson House is right downtown and we parked right in front of it for our visit.

The story of William Johnson is fascinating.  Born a slave to a black mother and her owner, he was emancipated by his father/owner at the age of eleven. Trained as a young boy as a barber, William eventually owned three barbershops in the city.  Even though once a slave, as a free person, he was not prohibited from owning slaves and by reaching financial success, William was able to purchase slaves and profit from their labor. 

William Johnson's diariesWhat set William apart, however, was his sixteen years of hand written diaries that include some of the most detailed accounts of daily life in Natchez at that time.  Little in his diaries reflects any personal feelings about family , slavery, or race.  Visiting his residence was interesting, but the park displays about life for a free person of color at the time were more fascinating. Another interesting fact learned at the William Johnson visitor center was that during the early 1800;s, the town was peopled by about 3,000 whites, 1,600 black slaves, and 200 free blacks who were mostly mixed race.  Currently the town is peopled nearly 60 percent blacks, less than 40 percent whites, and tiny tidbits of Hispanic, Indian, and Asian people.

Natchez_049We then drove out to Melrose, only to discover that visiting the interior of the mansion was by tour only and we were past tour time.  We were able to walk the grounds and visit the slave quarters of what were called “town slaves”, supposedly a life much better than field slaves were allotted.  All these great houses were built with slave labor and the wealth accumulated by cotton growers with huge plantations and slave labor down on the Mississippi flood plain.  They chose to build their big houses up on the flood free cliffs above the River in Natchez. 

Natchez_056Natchez_055We ended that part of the day with a visit to the Forks in the Road, nothing more than a bare grassy spot with a haunting plaque commemorating the location of the second largest slave trading spot in the South. Slaves were brought from all over the south to this location to be sold for labor at the huge cotton plantations. The juxtaposition of the wealth and romance of the Antebellum South and the slave trade that supported it is hard to fathom. We visited Charleston, another place full of Civil War history and that same conflict of our American story, but somehow Natchez seemed to personify all that was at the heart of what the South once was.

Next: Natchez Jewel, part 2

Author: kyotesue

Soil scientist/mapper working for 35 years in the wild lands of the West. I am now retired, enjoying my freedom to travel, to hike without a shovel and a pack, to knit and quilt and play, to play with photography and write stories about all of it.

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