April 27 – 28
The next morning, we set out to fill the day up with sights in Natchez and our first stop was just up the street at Stanton Hall. Also known as Belfast, it was built in the 1850s and is known as one of the most opulent antebellum mansions to survive in the southeastern United States. Now operated as a historic house museum by the Pilgrimage Garden Club, it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974 and a Mississippi Landmark in 1995. Interestingly enough, it served as a design for Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.
Occupying an entire 2-acre city block north of downtown Natchez, bounded by High, Commerce, Monroe, and Pearl Streets, it was built for Frederick Stanton, a cotton broker, as a replica of his ancestral home in Ireland. He named it “Belfast”, but only lived in it a short time before he died. The house’s scale and opulence made it a great financial burden on his heirs, but it survived the American Civil War, and in 1890 was made home to the Stanton College for Young Ladies. In 1940 it was acquired by the Pilgrimage Garden Club, which uses it as its headquarters and operates it as a museum and event venue.
It was a good tour, led by docents on each floor (our second-floor host was a somewhat odd young man who although extremely knowledgeable, had an off-putting air about him) who along the way let us know that Stanton was originally from the North and like a lot of his fellow plantation owners, not a born and bred southerner, but happy to make his money owning slaves.
He was also vindictive in that after some folks built a house down the street that he claimed, spoiled his view, he offered to buy it so he could tear it down. They refused and so he put his stables right next door (they are still there and sit behind the carriage house we stayed in) so they could smell those horses and their by-products all day long.
We left the Stanton House and walked into and around the downtown area, stopping in for a snack at Natchez Coffee Company, where a big latte and giant blueberry muffin provided the horsepower to keep exploring. Down the street and around the corner is St. Mary Basilica, formerly St. Mary’s Cathedral, where construction was begun in 1842. Designed by Baltimore architect Robert Cary Long Jr.; it is similar to Long’s contemporary Church of St. Alphonsus in Baltimore. Two stories in height, it was constructed on a partially raised basement and its original organ is an H. Pilcher and Sons dating to 1882.
We wandered around some more and then returned to the coach house in time to join a guided cart tour, Open Air Tours, we’d booked which is operated by the owner of the Pearl. It started at the Visitors Center down by the river, but we hitched a ride there on the cart since it was parked right in front of our porch. After a brief introduction, we headed out, first passing by Natchez National Historical Park, which was the site of Fort Rosalie, built by the French in 1716.
Following the Treaty of Paris in 1763 after the British won the Seven Years’ War, the French ceded the fort and part of present-day Louisiana to British control (with New Orleans and the land west of the Mississippi River going to Spain). The British renamed the fort Fort Panmure. After the Revolutionary War, the United States took over, establishing the Mississippi Territory with Natchez as its first territorial capital, eventually abandoning the fort in 1804.
Next was the William Johnson house, owned by the same who was also known as the “barber” of Natchez. He began his life as a slave but was given his freedom at age eleven began and working as an apprentice to his brother –in-law James Miller, a barber. Johnson would later buy the shop in 1830 for three hundred dollars and teach the trade to free black boys. It was shortly after that he began to keep a diary, which would become a mainstay in his life until his death in 1851.
He married in 1835 and would go on to father eleven children and would eventually die after being ambushed by another free black Baylor Winn. Angry at having lost a boundary dispute with Johnson, Winn was tried for the murder, but not convicted as his defense argued that he was actually part white and not a free person of color because of his Indian ancestry in Virginia.
Therefore, the “mulatto” boy who accompanied Johnson on that fateful day could not testify against Winn, Mississippi law allowing only for blacks to testify against whites in civil cases, but not in criminal cases. Two hung juries could not decide if he was white or black, so Johnson’s Killer walked free. Johnson’s house on State Street in downtown Natchez continued to be owned by the family until they sold it to the Ellicott Hill Preservation Society in 1976. The house was then donated to the city who in turn donated to the National Park Service in 1990. After an extensive restoration process, the National Park Service opened the house as a museum detailing William Johnson’s life in 2005.
The tour continued on through town, hitting a number of historic buildings, none of which can I remember what they were used for, but all having a connection to old Natchez as well as new. It is the thing about traveling in the south and the east coast, much like in Europe, where multi-hundred-year-old buildings are still in use, not put aside as objects for us to admire.
We finished the tour and headed down to the river to hit the Under the Hill Saloon, one of the oldest buildings, if not the oldest, in town. While still an operating port town, this area had a nasty reputation for boozing, brawling, and prostitution, a rest stop as it was for rivermen of flexible moral codes. In fact, one traveler wrote in 1816 that it was “without a single exception the most licentious spot that I ever saw.”
And the centerpiece of the vice-riddled outpost was where we decided to get a drink on a warm afternoon. I can truthfully say that although it was served in a Styrofoam cup, that Gin and Tonic was awfully good.
Later, we capped our stay in town with dinner just down the street at the Guest House Restaurant, under new ownership. One of the new owners enthusiastically greeted us as we sat at a table in the lovely courtyard and enjoying a house chardonnay, I ordered the blackened Redfish while Joanna had the Shrimp and Grits. My fish came with curry rice, a feta cheese salad, and grilled vegetables, but I should have opted for non-blackened as it was a bit too spicy, so much so that it overpowered the delicate flavor of the fish.
Beyond that, it was all one could ask for in a good meal and it left us sorry that the changes needed in our itinerary meant that the extra day we’d originally planned here would have to wait for another visit. We’d leave happy that we came and actually thinking that we might return some day.
Natchez Coffee Company: https://www.yelp.com/biz/natchez-coffee-natchez
St. Mary Basilica: https://www.stmarybasilica.org/
Open Air Tours: https://www.openairtoursntz.com/
William Johnson House: https://www.visitnatchez.org/business/william-johnson-house-the
Under the Hill Saloon: https://www.facebook.com/Under-The-Hill-Saloon-579803702086947/
The Guest House Restaurant: https://guesthouseinnatchez.com/our-restaurant