Mississippi: Natchez National Historical Park

Melrose estate grounds
Melrose Estate Grounds

Courtesy of Mac Katz, Flickr's Creative Commons

The Mississippi River sustains the people, plants, fish, and other creatures living in its waters and along its riverbanks. American Indians, Europeans, African Americans, and others have all found opportunities to establish themselves and prosper in the Natchez area of Mississippi along the great river. Natchez National Historical Park preserves historic sites that reveal stories of the diverse peoples who settled in the historic riverbank town of Natchez, the oldest permanent European settlement along the Mississippi River. From the site of the French Fort Rosalie to the antebellum Melrose estate and the home of an African American barber and diarist, Natchez National Historical Park allows visitors to experience the rich history and diversity of Natchez.

The human history of the area extends back thousands of years before the European settlement of Natchez began in 1716 with a French trading post. By the time Europeans first passed through this area in the late 16th century, the Natchez Indians and their ancestors before them had been living and thriving there for quite some time. The early ancestors of the Natchez Indians were primarily hunters and gatherers who lived off the waters, land, and forests of southwestern Mississippi. By the 9th century, improved agricultural methods for cultivating maize, beans, and squash, and the introduction of the bow and arrow allowed the Natchez Indians to settle into a more sedentary lifestyle and become part of the mound-building cultures.

From 800 A.D. until 1400 A.D., the Natchez constructed mounds, as did other American Indian groups along the Mississippi River and elsewhere in the Southeastern United States. The Natchez built earthworks and mounds that served as ceremonial centers, urban centers, and the sites of civic life and games. These construction projects required great planning providing evidence that the Natchez had a well-organized society. They participated in extensive trade networks that circulated goods from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Great Lakes area. By the time the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto passed through the Natchez region in the 1540s, the mound-building cultures were in decline.

When the French began to settle in the Natchez area, the Natchez Indians welcomed the newcomers, and relations between the two groups were relatively civil. In 1716, two years before the founding of New Orleans, the French established Fort Rosalie as the center of control for France’s colonization of the lower Mississippi River Valley. By 1729, relations between the French and the Natchez had deteriorated, and the Natchez attacked and killed most of the inhabitants at Fort Rosalie. The French retaliated by sending in reinforcements, and by 1731, most of the Natchez Indians had either fled the area, or had been killed or adopted into other tribes such as the Chickasaw, the Cherokee, or the Creek. 

Following the French, the British and Spanish in turn occupied the Natchez area until the end of the 18th century when the United States gained control. Natchez’s prime location along the Mississippi River provided convenient river access for travel and trade and fertile soil for cultivation. These combined factors helped make Natchez a major center for the South’s cotton empire and cotton plantations by the 1820s. By the 1830s, the wealth and culture from the southern cotton plantations had made Natchez a cosmopolitan town. 

The town had theaters, banks, and printing offices, and the wealthy planting elite lived in large mansions in and around the outskirts of town. Natchez became a place where the wealthy white planter elite lived among enslaved African Americans; free “people of color;” immigrants from Ireland, Germany, France, and Italy; and middle class shop-owners and tradesmen. Two men living in Natchez in the 1800s, John T. McMurran, a wealthy lawyer, entrepreneur, and plantation owner; and William Johnson, a freed slave, business owner, barber, and slave-owner, exemplify the entrepreneurial theme that has long been a part of Natchez history. 

John T. McMurran found success and prosperity in Natchez shortly after he arrived from Pennsylvania in 1825. He quickly established a successful law practice, won election to the State legislature, married into a successful local family, and acquired the first of five plantations. In 1841, McMurran purchased 133 acres of land just outside of Natchez to construct his luxurious home, Melrose. He built his Greek Revival style mansion over the course of eight years using free and enslaved labor. Melrose exemplifies the lifestyle of the wealthy at the height of Southern prosperity during the “Cotton Kingdom” years. Melrose’s two story colonnaded porches, four massive Doric columns, parlors, and hidden hallways (through which enslaved African Americans used to move discreetly about the house) provide visitors with a glimpse into the lifestyle of the pre-Civil War American South. Visitors can take a guided tour of Melrose. With its handsome house, many original furnishings, outbuildings, and landscape design, Melrose is one of the best-preserved antebellum estates in Natchez. 

Also a part of Natchez National Historical Park, the William Johnson House in downtown Natchez is only a short distance from Melrose. Like McMurran, William Johnson made the most of his entrepreneurial skills and surroundings. Born as an enslaved African American, Johnson obtained his freedom at the age of 11. He later became a very successful barber, property owner, and entrepreneur in Natchez--an example of the American rags to riches story. Like many of the wealthy white planters of this era, Johnson was also an avid diarist. Contained in 14 leather bound volumes and spanning from 1835 to 1851, his diary entries tell the story of everyday life in antebellum Natchez, his own business dealings, his experiences as a slave owner, and his desire for success. Johnson did succeed, and eventually owned several barbershops around Natchez. He also loaned small sums of money at interest to white businessmen and operated a “buy & sell” business and a small scale hauling operation.

In 1840, Johnson began construction on his mother-in-law’s State Street property of a new three-story home for himself and his family. He used bricks from Natchez buildings that were destroyed in the infamous tornado of 1840 to build what would be his final home. In 1841, Johnson moved his family into the second and third levels of the home and rented out the ground level space to merchants. Over the next decade, Johnson had great success in his businesses and in his growing family; unfortunately, his life came to a sudden end with his murder over a boundary dispute in 1851. His large family continued to live in the house long after his death. Today, visitors can take free self-guided tours of the house to see the Johnson family’s living quarters and many of their original furnishings, and learn more about the lives of free African Americans in the pre-Civil War South.

Natchez National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System, is located in Natchez, MS. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places files for Melrose: text and photos and the William Johnson House: text and photos. Melrose Estate, located at 1 Melrose/Montebello Parkway, is open daily from 8:30 am until 5:00 pm. The William Johnson House at 210 State St. in downtown Natchez is open from 9:00 am until 5:00 pm every day. Both Melrose and the Johnson House are closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1. For more information and directions, visit the National Park Service Natchez National Historical Park website or call 601-446-5790.

Natchez National Historical Park has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. Some historic sites near Natchez appear in the National Park Service’s Indian Mounds of Mississippi Travel Itinerary.

Last updated: August 11, 2017