The mighty Mississippi River has always been a large influence in my life. I was raised on the bluffs of Memphis, watching huge logs rip down river as though propelled, and being amazed as Arkansas disappeared as the river widened after the spring rains. The river always provided a marker for me every time I’ve ventured west, much as it did for early Americans looking for a new life. The Mississippi provided the highway of trade for much of the heartland of our vast and wonderful country, before the roads and railways, promoting the formation of great cities like New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis. Last year we explored the river northward from Memphis to Iowa, exploring the agriculture and industry that barge traffic facilitated. This year we find ourselves near the delta of this magnificent waterway. I’m currently sitting on a bluff in Natchez, Mississippi, looking up the river where it separates Louisiana and Mississippi.
Natchez was named after the Native American tribe that inhabited the area before “civilization” muscled its way in. Possession passed from the French to the Spanish to the British before we bought it in 1803 in the Louisiana Purchase. Until the invention of steamboats, the Mississippi was a one-way street – going upstream was virtually impossible.
Early traders would float their goods downstream to Natchez, sell everything, and then literally walk home on the Natchez Trace, originally an Indian trading trail extending from Natchez to Nashville.
Natchez evolved as home to traders – cotton and hardwood merchants who amassed great fortunes. They built grand homes along the bluffs to display their wealth, and entertained royally. Many of them sided with the North during the Civil War, and most homes were left untouched, but their fortunes were decimated by the postwar economy.
The town languished through the Great Depression of the 30’s, and then the ladies of Natchez decided to change their destiny. Through the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and various garden clubs, they bought up the once grand mansions and restored them to their former glory, supplementing remaining original furnishings with period antiques.
Today, Natchez proudly protects over 500 structures dating to before the civil war, and boasts 38 antebellum mansions, most of them renewed (mercifully with air conditioning), and many open either as restaurants, bed and breakfasts, or for tours.
Driving around the narrow one-way lanes that make up the old town, there is a quiet elegance and dignity that speaks to a different time. Southern charm oozes from almost every building, and the huge Live Oaks provide gentle shade that somewhat eases the pain of the relentless summer heat and humidity.
It is easy to see why Natchez, far from the beaten path of expressways, hosts 800 – 1000 visitors daily in Spring and Fall. Labor Day is the bottom of their tourist season, so we have the place virtually to ourselves.
We easily fell into the rhythms of the small historic town, extending our stay to four days and three nights to try and take most of it in. We toured 4 mansions, had mint juleps at another, and sampled some really fine restaurants. The cuisine runs from Cajun to Creole to gourmet to fried catfish, shrimp and oysters, and there’s something for every budget.
In the morning haze, from my window on the river, an upstream barge cuts a graceful arc around the bend, leaving room for another coming downstream. Life on the river proceeds at a slow but steady pace, like the kudzu on its banks.
Throughout the South, kudzu covers all unattended land and trees; burying discarded cars, farm implements and even houses in its quest for total domination of the landscape – but that’s another story.
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