Natchez Before America

River Views™, a River Cruise Blog


Guests travel with the American Queen Steamboat Company for both the onboard experience and the destinations. What they find ashore is often a bit of a surprise. Small towns and big cities alike each have intriguing histories and our guests are well-educated and intellectually curious. In most cases, they are eager to learn more about the places they visit. But some of the history is not what our guests expect.

The American Queen’s décor is a tribute to the Victorian finery of the latter half of the 1800s. In many of our ports of call on the Lower Mississippi river, the stately antebellum plantation homes set the tone while women in hoopskirts reinforce the images that visitors have of the Deep South. It is a land of cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, magnolia blossoms and wide front porches with rocking chairs and a pitcher of lemonade or sweet tea. Amazingly, just what our guests imagine is often the reality, particularly in cities such as Natchez where virtually the entire downtown area is a national historic treasure. We always encourage guests to have their cameras ready when strolling through Natchez as it truly is the idyllic Southern town.

But Natchez is a funny place. With the focus on the antebellum years that led up to the Civil War, it would seem at first glance that the period when cotton was king is all that Natchez has to offer and that there is nothing deeper. While antebellum architecture and stories of the Old South are an undeniable draw there is more than meets the eye and our most inquisitive guests are quick to discover Natchez’s roots. Hidden in this lovely city are the reminders of Natchez before America even existed.

The French entered the area in the early 1700s and founded a trading post in 1714. By 1716, Fort Rosalie was built to provide protection for the wilderness settlement and what was to become Natchez became well-known. A number of French settlers built homes in the area and, eventually, plantations. But, as the French presence grew, the Natchez tribe became increasingly disenchanted with the French who were encroaching on their land. In the frontiers of what would become Mississippi, some in the tribe supported the French while others backed the English.

Things came to a head in 1729, a half century before America was founded. The Natchez banded together with the Yahoo and Chickasaw to drive the French from the land. The unsuspecting French were massacred on November 29, 1729 when the Natchez killed 229 colonists in the opening deadly salvo of what became known as the Natchez War. The fighting raged on for two years and the armament of the French, who also enlisted the help of Native American tribes who wished to see the Natchez eliminated, took a heavy toll on the Natchez. Reportedly, most of the tribe was killed, captured and used as slaves, or fled the lands they loved. By 1731, the remaining Natchez and their leader surrendered to French troops. What to do with hundreds of hostile Native Americans? The French sent them downriver to New Orleans and sold them off as slaves. It was a tragic and horrific end to the Natchez.

Fortunately, there were a few survivors of the war and they found a home among the Creek and Cherokee. Today, their descendants are recognized as the Natchez Nation within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

After the skirmishes ended, Fort Rosalie and the settlement near it bounced between Spanish and British control right up to the American Revolutionary War. At some point, it was renamed Natchez in recognition of the tribe that had fought against the French. American independence was secured in 1783 when the Treaty of Paris ended the colonial rebellion and the United States of America became an internationally-acknowledged sovereign nation. At the time, Natchez and the surrounding area were under British rule and the territory was ceded to America. However, there was a slight kink: although the Spanish were not technically the rulers of Natchez, they were undeniably in control of the town. Spain had not signed the Treaty of Paris and was no fan of England so for many years Spanish troops retained control of the area. With the fledgling United States struggling with building a nation, the dispute over Natchez was not a high priority and eventually the Spanish acknowledged that the area was part of America. But the Spanish didn’t formally acquiesce until the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795. Without telegraphs, telephones, television or the Internet, word of the treaty was slow in reaching the Spanish officials in Natchez. The fort and the town weren’t turned over to the United States until nearly three years later.

Now an American city, Natchez took on prominence even before it became a steamboat hub in the 1800s. In the late 1700s, it was the staging area and starting point for an important overland route to the frontier settlement of Nashville known as the Natchez Trace. It was primarily a one-way route since the men who navigated their rafts, flatboats and keelboats down the Mississippi to sell their goods in Natchez then had to trek through the wilderness of the Natchez Trace to get home and start the cycle all over again. By the time steamboats arrived on the scene a few decades later, Natchez’s role as a major force in the Southern economy was well-established.

While Natchez today is a charming Southern city that is one of the best representations of the antebellum years, it has a more robust and richer past that predates the formation of America. Natchez is featured prominently on most of our voyages on the Lower Mississippi. As the American Queen Steamboat Company’s cruises in the heartland and on the Upper Mississippi come to a close, she returns to the lower stretches of the Mississippi beginning in November and December. Though bookings are strong, a few suites and staterooms remain available. Come and see for yourself what makes Natchez so special.