The Great South - Down the Mississippi
|Natchez, like Vicksburg, lies on a line of bluffs which rear their bold heads imposingly from the water. It is one of the loveliest of Mississippi towns, and was once the home of immense wealth, as well as of much culture and refinement. He who sees only Natchez-under-the-Hill from the steamboat deck, gets an impression of a few prosaic houses huddled together not far from a wharf-boat, a road leading up a steep and high hill, and here and there masses of foliage. Let him wander ashore, and scale the cliff, and he will find himself in a quiet, unostentatious, beautifully shaded town, from which, so oppressive at first is the calm to one coming from the bustle of Northern towns, one almost fancies that|
“Lite and thought are gone away;“
but he finds cheeriest of people,—cheery too, under heavy misfortunes,—and homes rich in refinement and half buried under the lustrous and voluptuous blossoms which the wonderful climate favors. Natchez has an impressive cathedral, a fine courthouse, a handsome Masonic temple, and hosts of pretty houses. You walk beneath the shade of the China tree and the water oak, the cedar and the laurimunda. Nowhere is there glare of sun on the pavement; nothing more clamorous than the galloping of a horse stirs the blood of the nine thousand inhabitants. In the suburbs, before the war, were great numbers of planters’ residences—beautiful homes with colonnades and verandas, with rich drawing and dining rooms, furnished in heavy, antique style, and gardens modeled after the finest in Europe. Many of these have been destroyed, but we visited one or two whose owners have been fortunate enough to keep them.
The lawns and gardens are luxurious; the wealth of roses is inconceivable to him who has not seen such gardens as Brown’s, in Natchez-under-the-Hill, and that of Mr. Shields, in the suburbs of the upper town. I remember no palace garden in Europe which impressed me so powerfully with the sense of richness and exquisite profusion of costly and delicate blooms as Brown’s, which a wealthy Scotchman cultivated for a quarter of a century, and handed down to his family, with injunctions to maintain its splendor.
From the bluff above this indescribably charming spot one can overlook the plain of Concordia, in Louisiana, beyond the broad, tranquil river, and catch the gleam of the lake among the mammoth trees. There are still many wealthy families in Natchez. Here and there a French name and tradition reminds one that the town is of French origin, that d’Iberville founded it in 1700, and that Bienville once had a trading post there, among the Natchez Indians. There that tribe, fire worshipers and noble savages, passed an innocent and Arcadian existence, keeping ever alight on their altars a fire in honor of the sun. But the white man came; the fire on the altars went out; the Indian was swept away. Gayarre, who has written so well concerning these Southern Indian tribes, says the Natchez were the Athenians of Louisiana, as the Choctaws were the Bœotians. A hundred years after the Natchez had first seen the French, Fort Rosalie, whose site on the bluff is still pointed out to the stranger, was evacuated by the Spaniards, that the flag of the United States might be raised over it. Since 1803 Natchez has been an incorporated American city. It has no manufactures, its trade depending entirely on cotton. No railroad reaches it, but a narrow gauge road, called the Natchez, Jackson and Colmubus road, has been begun. The adjoining counties furnish from 5,000 to 20,000 bales of cotton annually, shipped to New Orleans for sale.
Natchez was out of debt when it was given over to the Republican party, but has acquired quite a heavy indebtedness since. The negroes there came into power in 1867. The present sheriff; the county treasurer and assessor, the majority of the magistrates, and all the officers managing county affairs, except one, are negroes. The board of aldermen has three negroes in it. There is the usual complaint among the Conservatives that money has been dishonestly and foolishly expended; but the government of the city seemed, on the whole, very satisfactory. About a thousand children are in the public schools, and four hundred of them,—the colored pupils,—have a handsome new school-house, called the “Union,” built expressly for them. Natchez had an excellent system of public schools before the war, and the “Natchez Institute,” the original free school, is still kept up. The Catholic institutions are numerous and thriving. A good many of the negroes, as in Louisiana, are Catholics.
One half of the population of Natchez is black, and seems to live on terms of amity with the white half. White and black children play together in the streets, and one sometimes feels like asking “Why, if that be so, should they not go to school together?” But the people of Mississippi, like the people throughout the South, will not hear of mixed schools. The negroes are vociferously prominent as hackmen, wharf-men, and public servants generally; but they do not like to leave the town and settle down to hard work on the worn out hills at the back of Natchez.
On the bluffs, some three miles from the town, stands a national cemetery, beautifully planned and decorated, and between it and Natchez stands the dilapidated United States Marine Hospital. The grass-grown ramparts of Fort McPherson mark the site of a beautiful mansion which was razed for military purposes. When its owner, a rich Frenchman, was offered compensation by the army officer superintending the work, he gruffly refused it, saying that he had enough “still left to buy the United States government.”
The taxes in Natchez and vicinity are very oppressive, amounting to nearly six per cent. The State and county tax touches four—and is based on full two-thirds the valuation. The railroad movement has, however, done something to increase the burdens of the citizens.
|Sixty-five miles below Natchez the Red River empties itself into the Mississippi, whose most important tributary it is. The recent improvements made by the general government, under the direction of the Board of Engineers, in the removal of the “great raft” of driftwood, have given the river new commercial possibilities. The raft, which was thirty miles long, had for many years rendered navigation north of Shreveport impossible. The sketch, which the kindness of one of the engineers who had been employed in the removal of the obstructions placed at the disposition of our artist, will serve to show what the “Red River Raft” was.|
Passing the bald bluffs of Port Hudson, over whose fortifications Confederate and Federal fought so desperately in the late war, we came to Baton Rouge, with its ruined Gothic capitol on the green hillside, and thence to New Orleans. With the characteristics of the Mississippi River within the limits of’ Louisiana, the reader of the articles on that State is already familiar.