The Mansions of Natchez


Natchez. Pronounced like Matches. Compared to a city like Jackson, MS, it is a tiny little speck on the Mississippi. But that speck is OLD (one of the oldest settlements in the lower Mississippi), and because it was not held under siege for 47 days like Vicksburg, it survived mostly intact from the war.

I don’t really know how to weave this into a narrative. We went to three houses, and there is a real prestige still to be a part of the Garden Club that manages the public mansions. There is a pilgrimage (you read that right) in March – four weeks of all the private and public homes open for tours. We saw three. That seemed like a lot.

We started at Longwood. It’s unfinished because the workers were fromPhiladelphia, and when the war began, they dropped their tools and went home. The family lived in the 10,000 sq ft “basement” – essentially the ground floor of the house. Longwood is octagonal, and i was fascinated by air flow and the furniture. Here I learned how to pronounce two words I’d only ever seen in print – a tester bed (pronounced teest-er) and an epergne (ay-pern) and I learned the word punkah, a ceiling fan that is like a giant fin hanging over the dining room table. It was operated by a slave child who puled the rope and started the fan moving, shooing away flies and keeping the air moving. Egad.

IMG_7375Then to Stanton Hall – the house and grounds are on a full city block on the High Street. Seventeen foot ceilings and a dining room that seats 24, the docent there was quick to point out that slaves who worked in the home were called ‘servants’ – slave referred to someone who worked in the field. This house has incredible oiled bronze gasoliers and gas fireplaces. This house had a restaurant and silver shop on the grounds, and that building housed the portraits of the Pilgrimage Garden Club kings and queens who preside over the tableaux apparently – Oh, my, heavens. So much white dress. So much confederate uniform. Although this house was beautiful, that tour left a nasty taste in my mouth.

IMG_7420On to Melrose. After stopping to read the interpretive markers at Forks-In-the-Road, the location of a permanent slave market outside of Natchez, we took in Melrose, an antebellum estate that is part of the National Parks Service. Here there is a house that is slowly being restored by the Parks Service. They had limited hours this week, but we had a wonderful tour. Here slavery is faced directly. The building was built so that guests would never see the slaves as they kept the place working. Bells, screens, side doors – all made it possible for slaves to go about their work unseen. The house has 85% of the original contents (like the first mistress of the house bought 500 pieces of French china for the dining room). Incredible.

I wish we had been able to go to the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture. There is such a rich history that we just did not see. That will be for another trip.


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