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Story Archives: A stroll through Natchez in 1808 -- Mickie's Tavern, 'mixture' of color
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|A stroll through Natchez in 1808 -- Mickie's Tavern, 'mixture' of color|
On the afternoon of Wednesday, August 24, 1808, Fortesque Cuming bade Mr. and Mrs. Harmon Blennerhassett good-bye at their rented cabin near St. Catherine's Creek. He reined his horse southward to Natchez, which was three miles away.
The six-mile wagon path connecting Natchez and the territorial capital of Washington was part of the Natchez to Nashville Road. Just five years earlier, Mississippi Territory Judge Thomas Rodney, writing to his son, described this stretch of road between the two towns.
He said the land is "generally high...but uneven being in hills and dales." Moss, "ten feet long," was found on almost every tree hanging "down from the limbs and bows of the trees like a dunkers beard..." The "wild undergrowth" along the road "is kept fed down by the cattle and horses that are turned on it."
As Cuming traversed this road his energy sank in the thick, steamy air. A violent thunderstorm a few days earlier and a downpour the day before, though welcomed by the planters, left everyone sweltering. But within a short time, Cuming arrived in the town of Natchez, an area that then comprised what is now known as downtown.
"I was much struck," Cuming wrote in his journal, "with the similarity of Natchez to many of the smaller West India towns, particularly St. Johns Antigua, though not near so large as it." He was referring to town of St. Johns on the island of Antigua, part of the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean.
He made this comparison after discovering in Natchez "houses all with balconies and piazzas — some merchants' stores - several little shops kept by free mulattoes, and French and Spanish Creoles — the great mixture of colour of the people in the streets, and many other circumstances, with the aid of a little fancy to heighten the illusion, might have made one suppose, in the spirit of the Arabian Knight's Entertainments, that by some magick power, I had been suddenly transported to one of those scenes of my youthful wanderings."
But as he daydreamed, he said his "illusion" was "dispelled" when a group of Choctaws passed him on the street.
He tied up his horse outside Mickie's Tavern, went inside and made arrangements for a room. Then he ate supper.
Judge Rodney, shortly after his arrival in Natchez country in 1803, wrote his son Caesar A. Rodney about his first visit to this popular tavern: "There is a great deal of genteel company in the city and country here -- not less than 30 or 40 gentlemen dine breakfast and sup at Mickie's Tavern every day."
In his 1996 novel -- "1812" -- author David Nevin wrote about a fictional visit to the tavern by Gen. Andrew Jackson. Here, Nevin imagines, the future president greeted a group of men who "sat in a half circle around the table he leaned against. They were at Mickie's Tavern, the splendid central meeting place of Natchez proper. The mahogany bar, the long mirror, the heroic mural of Washington crossing the Delaware had come up from New Orleans by keelboat. Mickie's was very familiar to Jackson; he'd been a guest on many a business trip to Natchez. Noon was coming on and rich odors flowed from the kitchen..."
After a good night's sleep, Cuming arose on the morning of August 25, 1808, and walked to the Market House "on a common in front of the town, where meat and vegetables were sold..." There, Cuming was amazed at the "motley mixture of Americans, French and Spanish creoles, Mulattos and Negroes."
For a small town, Cuming said all of the staple items could be found at the market house. He thought the "price of butcher's meat, and fish was reasonable," but found the cost of vegetables, milk and butter "extravagantly dear."
Natchez, Cuming said, was situated "on a very broken and hilly ground" and the streets "marked out at right angles, which makes them almost impassable in bad weather, except Market street and Front street which are leveled as much as the ground will permit."
He described the town green as a "small plain of a hundred and fifty yards wide in front of the town rising gradually to the edge of a high cliff, or bluff which overhangs the river," offering a magnificent view still enjoyed some 200 years later.
Cuming also noted something Congress had observed five years earlier -- that open space atop the bluff "contributes to defend the town from the noxious vapours generated in swamps immediately on the river banks, yet not so effectually as to prevent its being sometimes subject to fevers and agues (chills), especially from July to October inclusive, which frequently proves mortal."
This season was particularly harsh on the riverboat men.
At the landing under the bluff, where Cuming found a "few houses," he was told that some of the men working in the "crews of the Ohio and Kentucky boats, who happen to be delayed" under-the-hill during the this season of death, sometimes met their own demise.
Judge Rodney said that in 1803 Natchez survived the recent "sickly season" with "but one death," certainly a remarkable statistic.
Cuming didn't linger along the river bank too long.
Back atop the bluff, Cuming realized that although Natchez "is dignified with the name of a city, it is nevertheless but a small town. It is however a place of considerable importance in consequence of its being a principal emporium of the commerce of the territory, and of its having been so long the seat of government under the French, English, and Spaniards, which caused all of the lands in the vicinity to be cultivated and settled, while those more remote were neglected, though in general a much better soil."
Near the edge of the bluff to the south he visited Fort Panmure (Rosalie), which was empty of soldiers and "in ruins, but the situation, on the extent of the old ramparts, prove it to have been a post of considerable consequence. It effectively commands the river, without being commanded itself, and the view from it is very expansive, particularly over the flat swamps of Louisiana..."
There he saw the old Spanish hospital, where during the very time Cuming was visiting in 1808, the place was "now fitting up as a theatre for a private dramatick society." That society became known as the Natchez Theatrical Association, where performances by local actors and outside troupes were brought in. This was one of the signs that Natchez was moving from its frontier stage and reaching out for cultural growth.
Back in town, Cuming saw the "Roman Catholick church, which is an old wooden building in decay..." This church was the second Catholic Church built in Natchez and known as the Church of San Salvador. Built by the Spanish, the church was located on the property now occupied by Cornerstone Antiques on North Commerce. (The first Catholic Church, built by the French in the early 1700s, was located on the property now designated as a parking lot by the Isle of Capri Casino, near the old fort site.)
In Natchez, Cuming counted about 90 houses, more than half built since 1803. He considered several "very good, mostly of wood..."
After spending much of the day strolling about town, he headed south, passing some cottages, and "deviating a little to the right of the main road, in two short miles" he arrived at the estate of Revolutionary War veteran Col. Winthrop Sargent, Mississippi's first territory governor. From the road he viewed the governor's "handsome brick house," still seen today along the Lower Woodville Road.
(Next week: Cuming strolls about the Sargent estate on his southward journey.)
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