Natchez Trace, and Antebellum Natchez…
November 17, 2009
Natchez Trace was originally a trail carved out by Indian tribes, then frontier scouts, as a wilderness “highway” which extended from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN, a distance of ~445 miles. We sampled the first 20 miles of it this last Saturday; it’s rich with history of that bygone era of the antebellum period before the Civil War. (At the risk of sounding redundant, for you astute readers!) As you’ll see in today’s gallery, today there’s a nicely-paved two-lane road traversing the Trace’s entire length, but obviously the early users of the Trace had to hoof it, in more ways than one. The early significance of Natchez in particular becomes more apparent when you realize that, prior to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Natchez was at the southwestern corner of the budding United States!
One of our first discoveries along the Trace was the ruins of the “Elizabeth Female Academy,” which opened in November of 1818 and finally closed in 1845, after Mississippi’s cultural center moved north to Jackson. But the Elizabeth Female Academy was the first institution of higher learning in the entire United States to confer degrees upon women! Here’s what’s left of this pioneering institution:
After arriving in Natchez Friday evening, we Yelped ourselves (iPhone terminology: Yelp, an iPhone application, lets you run the yellow pages for restaurants or any other businesses in your immediate vicinity, with customer reviews) to a good local restaurant. The one we chose, the King’s Tavern, happens to be in Natchez’s oldest building, built before 1789.
Legend has it that a promiscuous young woman named Madeline was once murdered there in the Tavern by a jealous landlord’s wife, in fact workmen in 1932 found a diminutive skeleton with a jewel-handled dagger embedded between the ribs. Well, Madeline’s ghost seems to be real to the locals, and there’s even a news reporter’s accounting of a direct encounter with the wispy damsel. Our waitress told us how one night when she’d had to close up the restaurant, she closed up all the rooms, turned off all the lights, and when she got down to the street, saw someone watching her from a window. She went back inside, no one was there, or was there? We went into the dark upper quarters of the building ourselves after dining, but alas, Madeline chose not to show herself. (Good thing!)
After driving a bit on the Trace the next day, we came down to Natchez to tour a few of the many antebellum homes scattered throughout the town. First we visited Stanton Hall, on High Street:
This was a HUGE house, but its builder/owner, Frederick Stanton, was a very rich man who owned seven plantations on the other side of the Mississippi. For him this house was built mainly to – PARTY! It was seven years or so a-building, and scarcely had it been built, when nine months later, Mr. Stanton passed away, leaving it to his wife, who lived there for 32 more years until her own death. In the gallery, you’ll see the huge central hallway of this behemoth. (No photographs were allowed inside, but…) Next, we visited the House on Ellicott Hill:
James Moore, a prominent Natchez merchant, built The House on Ellicott Hill about 1798. This is the last remaining 18th Century merchant’s house on Canal Street, and the oldest building exhibiting high-style architectural details such as fanlights in Natchez. We experienced a sharp contrast between the droll, humorless docent who’d shown us around the Stanton House, to the enthusiastic, animated docent of Ellicott Hill (recurring theme?). The builder of this house, Mr. Moore, never actually lived there, but it served as offices for dentists in its history, among other professionals and merchants. We drove by yet another antebellum home, the Dunleith House, and shot a few photos of it, but didn’t take its tour, so you’ll have to go to the gallery to see it in any detail. Lovely place! 😉 But we saved the best for last:
Said to be the “largest octagonal house in America,” this house was originally designed by architect James Wright, for Haller and Julia Nutt. Haller, a wealthy plantation owner, turned out to be a Nutt for details, and he carefully supervised every detail of the house’s construction, including 5-sided bricks (all bricks were made on the premises) to make the octagonal joints at the corners of the geometric structure. The house was well on its way towards completion when the Civil War erupted. At that point, most of the workers having been hired from the North, returned to their homes to join the Union Army, and work on Longwood was abandoned. To compound Nutt’s misfortune, he had generously provided the grounds of his 7 plantations across the River for encampment of Union Army soldiers, like U.S. Grant, for example. Before leaving, they “gratefully” torched all his properties, leaving him penniless, unable to complete his project in Natchez. Thus, to this day, Longwood stands unfinished, and that’s perhaps what sets it apart for the visitor, seeing the workmen’s tools and materials strewn around the upper floors. Only the first floor was ever lived in, and Haller Nutt himself eventually died, it’s said, of a broken heart. After touring Longwood, we drove south into a beautiful twilight sky…Well, much asphalt and concrete have flowed under the wheels since Longwood. We spent the night in a small burg west of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and sallied forth into Texas next day. San Antonio (remember the Alamo?) is already behind us, as I write this entry from Boerne, Texas (pronounced “Bernie” by natives). We’re poised to head off tomorrow to the Texas Hill Country, prior to landing in Austin in a couple of days. TTFN!