A gem of preservation in a complex story

Natchez, Mississippi sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River about 170 driving miles upriver from New Orleans. Its history runs deep, as tribal lands of the Natchez Indians to French settlement beginning in 1716. Today the town is perhaps best known nationally for it amazing collection of antebellum homes, many built in the years before the Civil War when cotton was king and men were becoming obscenely wealthy off the backs of enslaved labor. Known as the Natchez Nabobs, many of them moved to Natchez from other parts of the US or Europe and their combined wealth gave the county the distinction of wealthiest county in the United States. They left behind a city filled with grand homes that have survived war and economic depression. I’d long wanted to see the city and recently seized an opportunity when a friend relocated to the area.

My friend and I arrived in Natchez just after the “spring pilgrimage,” a period when select private homes are open to the public. We decided to visit Stanton Hall, open to the public year-round. Sometimes described as one of the most opulent antebellum mansions to survive in the southeastern United States, Stanton Hall, a columned palatial Greek Revival mansion, sits on an entire city block surrounded by a wrought iron fence. While I had never heard of the Stanton family who built it, the fact that the house had served as a setting for the 1980s miniseries North and South, (as the interior of the Main family home), was an added bonus. Construction on the house ended in 1857 and the owner, Frederick Stanton, a cotton broker from Ireland, moved in and sadly died of yellow fever only nine months later. In 1861 most of the town’s wealthy citizens opposed secession, but their sons ran off to join the Confederacy. Despite the town’s vote against secession, their state seceded. In 1862, Confederate forces surrendered the city to Union officials and thus avoided wartime destruction unlike neighboring Vicksburg upriver.

Stanton Hall is filled with opulence and beauty. I love historic house museums, especially those that feature distinct architectural designs. But I expect that a tour will offer insight on the people who built and lived there and what their daily life entailed. My interest in decorative arts – the furniture, painting, carpets and light fixtures – only goes so far. I need a human hook to hang the information on. I’ve noticed that at homes where the vast majority of visitors have never heard of the owners, (like the Stantons) the tour often focuses entirely on decorative arts and potentially loses the attention of much of the audience. Tell me why I should care about the Stantons and how their life contributed to the overall narrative of American history. I want context! The tour of Stanton Hall did keep my interest, despite an ongoing narrative about the light fixtures. Intriguing side stories about filming North and South and about General Douglas MacArthur and his family’s stay when the house was a bed and breakfast were interesting. But what was life like for the Stantons and the people who served them? Yes, of course the Stantons owned a number of enslaved people who essentially ran the household operations. Who were these people? Not a mention of them. At the end of the tour I felt as if a big part of the Stanton Hall story had been left out. Certainly the limited time of an hour tour requires hard decisions of what stories to include. Every house museum faces this challenge. But historic house museums, wherever they are, have a responsibility to offer a more holistic interpretation. If little documentation of the enslaved people from a specific site exists, then draw comparisons from a similar site.

Often I will read a book or two prior to visiting a new place. I stumbled upon The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi by British journalist Richard Grant and loved it. Part Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and part Confederates in the Attic (by one of my favorite writers, the late Tony Horwitz), it offers a peek into the challenges of presenting the history of the town and of navigating centuries of racial animosity. I highly recommend the book.

An important site in town that Grant wrote about was the Forks of the Road, a small piece of land farther from the city center, surrounded by auto repair shops and busy roads. Here the second largest slave market in the US at one point in history served as a crossroads for the domestic slave trade and thousands of enslaved souls were allowed to rest before being sold. Thankfully large panels interpret the history and a sculpture depicting slave manacles in concrete conveys the power of this place, despite the incongruous setting. Recently the site was transferred to National Park Service ownership.

We ate lunch looking out on the Mississippi River in the lower part of town, Natchez-Under-the Hill, where the rowdies from the riverboat culture enjoyed brothels and gambling halls and taverns and other such dens of iniquity. Then we walked the streets of Natchez, gawking at the beautiful old homes, such as Choctaw Hall (below). I did not get to spend enough time in this fascinating city and concluded that its layers of history deserve much closer examination and reflection. For Natchez is a city of extreme contrasts: its architectural beauty built by enslaved people. Hopefully some day I will return.

Related post: Houmas House, a Louisiana plantation

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: timgrove.net - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: grovehistoryconsulting.com I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at tim@grovehistoryconsulting.com or authortimgrove@gmail.com
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