Natchez, Mississippi prides itself on showing tourists the antebellum experience. In Natchez National Historical Park, the National Park Service interprets two very different houses, one of a free Black man and one of a very rich family, the one percenters of the day.
William Johnson House
I got to State St. in front of the William Johnson House a little after 9 am but the house was dark. Fifteen minutes later, a woman opened the door to the brick home of Johnson. He was born in 1809 of a white father and Black mother. He was freed in 1820 but it wasn’t that simple. The white father had to petition the Mississippi General Assembly to allow his son to be free.
Johnson built his home in 1841. He was a barber, entrepreneur, and slave owner. He left $30,000, which might be $750,000 today, an incredible sum for a Black man in those times. Johnson kept a diary because at the time, he couldn’t talk about the issues of the day, which he might have been discussed in his barbershop.
The Johnson descendants lived here until 1976 when they sold it to the Preservation Society. In 1990, the City of Natchez donated it to the Park Service.
The second floor of the house where the family lived was closed. I spent some time reading the exhibits but I found Anna Tong, a volunteer, more interesting. She’s a retired medical technician from Texas who travels the country in an RV, volunteering for the Park Service full-time. She chooses a park based on location and recommendations from other volunteers and focuses on historic parks. She learns a new park by going with seasoned guides reads the written accounts of their tours.
Melrose, the townhouse of a cotton king
A few miles from downtown Natchez, a 1800s Greek revival-style mansion represents the height of Southern prosperity and the Cotton Kingdom before the Civil War. The house is part of an 80-acres estate. Ranger Stephens Don gives a lively tour of the house.
The name, Melrose, is taken from a small Scottish town. This is an estate or town house, not a plantation so I can’t compare it to Cane River Creole but it is certainly much more luxurious. The Park Service brought the furnishings and effects back to the 1840s. The family bought their furniture from Philadelphia and Boston and china from London.
The house survived the Civil War because Natchez didn’t provide any opposition. When 1,600 Union troops came into town after their victory at Vicksburg, they turned Natchez into a supply depot.
After the tour, I went back to the visitor center. Ranger Barney Schoby was behind the desk and I happened to mention that I had seen the Johnson house first thing in the morning. Schoby had really studied Johnson’s life and gave me a short lecture.
Johnson married a mulatto and didn’t really belong to either the Black or white world. “He only cut white men’s hair and lent money to white men,” Schoby said.
Free Blacks needed to carry papers all the time to show that they were free. “Even so, some white man could grab the papers and tear them up.” Johnson’s children were all baptized as Catholics. “Now why do you think he did that?” He asked me.
Free blacks tended toward Catholicism because in the Catholic Church, baptisms are recorded. The fact that they were free would also be recorded. The church would vouch that the person was known and was in fact free. Of course, Blacks were always second-class citizens in the church. “In modern times, Catholic schools were the first to accept Black kids,” Ranger Schoby pointed out.
Somehow, the topic got onto the Jews in Natchez.
“In 1830, the Jews were pushing a cart to sell their goods,” Schoby said. “In 1880, they owned every single store in Natchez.”
The previous generation might have called this comment an anti-Semitic stereotype, but I was laughing all the way back to my car.
I wanted to see the rural back roads of Louisiana and I sure did. The only sign of commerce or people on my way to Poverty Point was the occasional gas station and mini mart.
A few times, I needed to slow down for a cluster of houses. In Europe, they use the word, village, but here there’s no word for tiny town.
The land has been climbing. You can tell because the cemeteries have their graves underground. In New Orleans and even further north, bodies are buried above ground. The altitude here is about 100 feet. Finally Poverty Point, east of Monroe and close to the Mississippi border.
Poverty Point is an archaeological site, where prehistoric people lived between 1730 to 1350 BC. They moved soil to level the land, and then create mounds and ridges. They had no domesticated animals or wheeled carts. The archaeologists never gave a name to these prehistoric people.
Besides the museum, the site offers a tram ride or a 2.6-mile walk past several mounds. I pick up a 12-page trail booklet.
“If you don’t want to walk in the trees,” the woman behind the desk says, “you can walk on the road.” Uhh? Are people that afraid of forests?
The first mound is Sarah’s mound, named that because Sarah Wilson Guier is buried in the mound. Sarah and her husband established Poverty Point Plantation, hence the name of the site.
The trail is well signposted. I figure out that the state mowed a path through the fields since there are no trees for blazes.
They’re put in stairs up Mound A, which they think was a ceremonial site. The top is at the dizzying height of 172 ft. I feel like the Kenyans who come to the U.S. to race. The trail is so flat that I only stop to read the plaques.
So what happened to these people? Archaeologists speculate that the Mississippi River changed course and may have flooded out the community and they dispersed.
On the web, the site is shown as a National Park unit. When I got here, it was obvious that it was a Louisiana state park.
“Now that it’s become a World Heritage Site,” the state ranger said, “it will never be turned over to the Federal Government.” So I just got some extra credit.
This morning, I left New Orleans and drove almost five hours to Northwest Louisiana to Cane River Creole National Historical Park. I practiced how to say Natchitoches all morning but I was wrong! The volunteer at Cane River said “Nakatish.”
First stop was Magnolia Plantation, active until the 1960s when mechanization changed the nature of cotton growing. The LeComte and Hertzog family sold 18 acres to the National Park Service in the 1990s and the Magnolia Plantation became part of Cane River in 1994. The family still grows cotton on the rest on its holdings. There’s cotton on both sides of the road as far as the eye can see. If you know Mt. Le Conte, note that this family name is with an “m.”
When I got to Magnolia Plantation, I met a young woman in a black dress and heels, carrying a notebook and a camera coming across a field from a slave/tenant cabin. She was here for the soft opening of a cabin furnished as 1950s quarters for tenant farmers and family. Ranger Dusty Fuqua was still putting the finishing touches to the effects. They’ll be working on furnishing another cabin, to represent the antebellum period.
“I’m a Creole,” Ranger Fuqua said. “My family came over from France in the 1700s. Creole used to mean, Born in the new world of old stock. It historically referred to those born in Louisiana during the French and Spanish periods, regardless of ethnicity.
Creole is much more inclusive than Cajun. Technically, to be a Cajun you must be a descendant from the 500 people or so who emigrated from France to Nova Scotia and then moved to Louisiana after the America Revolution.
The National Park Service bought 18 acres of plantation land; the site is fenced off to separate it from the original private land. The plantation home is still in private hands.
Oakland Plantation about 10 miles further north, close to Natchitoches, is considered the main site. The word, Natchitoches, means place of paw paw. The Natchitoches Indians have vanished as a people.
Jean Pierre Emanuel Prud’homme began farming the land in 1785 and received a Spanish land grant a few years later. First, the cash crops were cotton, tobacco, and indigo. By 1815, they concentrated on cotton; it was the most successful plantation west of the Mississippi.
Before the Civil War, the family had 3,000 acres. They ran a general store and post office open to the public until 1983. Two old gas pumps are still rusting in front. The daughter of the Magnolia plantation married a Prud’homme and moved to Oakland Plantation. Several families from the area intermarried throughout the centuries and some still live in the area.
I took a tour of the main house, given by Don, a volunteer. Don and his wife have come from Arkansas for the past three years to volunteer at Cane River. They stay in a trailer just outside the park for three months. Don tells me that he’s Cajun French.
“All the buildings on this plantation are original and have not been moved,” Don says several times. The family sold 40 acres which included all the important building, like the main house, store, cook’s house and pigeonnier. A pigeonnier is a structure to keep pigeons so that the family could have squab.
The last person moved out in 1998. The family took whatever furnishings and pictures and the Park Service got the rest.
Don gives us a fascinating tour of the house, built in 1821. The family went to France the next year to buy furniture. But it was obvious that the family was hurting toward the end. Several families could be living here at the same time. The large kitchen dated back from the 1950s, complete with pink stove. Now who wants a 1950s kitchen in the 1990s?
After Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808, slaves became more expensive, Jean Lafitte, a pirate and privateer, smuggled them in from the islands. Lafitte went to Andrew Jackson and offered to help him against the British during the War of 1812 with the understanding that he and his men would not be prosecuted for their crimes. Jackson agreed though he really had no authority. Pres Madison took some convincing. But now six sites are part of JELA, including Barataria Preserve south of New Orleans.
We walk a mile from the visitor center to Bayou Coquille Trail on boardwalk where we meet Ranger Amber Nicholson. Bayou means slow-moving water. This bayou, with its natural levee, is fed by rainwater.
The ranger starts her walk introduction with “Are you afraid of anything”?
Yeah, one eye, one horn flying purple people eaters. The other visitor with us rattles off “snakes, spiders, gators …” but Ranger Amber redeems herself with her knowledge and casual air.
In Louisiana, elevation is measured in inches. In the mountains, a change in elevation over 1,000 feet is needed to affect forest types. But here changes of a foot can mean the difference between live oaks or swamp maples, between baldcypress and open marsh.
Dwarf palmetto lives on high ground of a swamp but there’s less plant diversity in the marshes on lower ground. Swamps are forested wetlands with baldcypress and water tupelo tree. Marsh only has plants. Moss, vines, trees, air plants, swamp marigolds envelop every surface and take over every vista. Huge swamp marigolds fill in the canals.
The name, Barataria, comes from a fictional land in Don Quixote. The name has been around since the days of Lafitte and his pirates. We keep our eyes out for any animal life and find an alligator and several turtles in the marsh. Golden silk orb weaver, a large spider also known as a banana spider, builds huge webs on the side of the trail.
The National Park Service protected over 23,000 acres of wetlands in 1978. It should be all fresh water but it’s brackish. Before all the levees, natural levees were created when sediment-laden water spilled over banks during spring floods.
But after the great flood of 1927, there was a great outcry to do something about the Mississippi River. The Army Corps of engineers built levees almost the whole length of the Mississippi–Levees, dams, weirs, canals, and jetties, lots of structures.
Then the oil and gas industry came in, creating more problems but also created jobs. Several oil companies still own subsurface rights. They could do directional drilling into the Preserve.
Back at the visitor center, Ranger Aleutia Scott explains, “Deltas are a conversation between sea and river. The sea level is also rising. Our wetlands are being lost. We should care!
I finally understood a lot of concepts that were just words before. Interpretation is what the National Park Service does best.
In 1814 we took a little trip Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip We took a little bacon and we took a little beans And we caught the bloody British in a town in New Orleans
I have been waiting for years to use these lyrics in a blog. This song written by Johnny Horton was the no. one song in 1959. I knew the song before I’d even heard of the War of 1812.
Ever since I started this National Park project, I knew that I’d be going to Chalmette Battlefield, part of Jean Lafitte National Historic Park. Of course, the famous song that came out of the War of 1812 was the Star-Spangled Banner, of course. But the tune isn’t as catchy.
The Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815, was the last significant battle of the war of 1812. You know, that’s the war that’s almost forgotten in the U.S. but not in Canada. We declared war on Great Britain partly so we could conquer Canada and get rid of the British north of us. Well, it didn’t work but the war did seal our fate as a country. The United States was going to last. We weren’t going to revert to a colony. As the website says, American democracy triumphing over the old European ideas of aristocracy and entitlement.
Chalmette Battlefield, south of New Orleans, is a quiet site. The battlefield is now a large, well-maintained lawn. There’s a one-and-a-half mile walking and driving loop which explains the strategy of both sides. On the loop, they’ve planted a British flag; after all we’re all friends now.
I climbed the monument put up by the Daughters of the War of 1812. The state actually built it and it was completed in 1908. On the site, we visited the Malus-Beauregard House, a Greek Revival plantation style house. The battle only took two hours and we spent a lot more time at the site.
But there’s life around the battlefield site. In particular, we saw an oil refinery with its several smoke stacks. You can only buffer parks so much from the everyday and oil refineries are part of life in Louisiana.
We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’ There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago We fired once more and they begin to runnin’ On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico