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|Matthew Gardner's 1809 visit to Natchez -- the 'sink of sin'|
In 1809, a 19-year-old Ohio man, destined to spend his adult life as a preacher, landed in a flatboat below the bluff at Natchez during a trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans.
Matthew Gardner was a reflective young man, still trying to determine what he wanted to do with his life. His trip to the South changed him.
From the mouth of the Ohio on the Mississippi to Natchez, Matthew Gardner saw on both sides of the river an "almost unbounded and unbroken wilderness. The few dilapidated...villages seemed to belong to other days; and the few cabins and beginnings of towns were far apart till we reached 'Natchez under the Hill,' as it was then called."
There he counted about 40 houses below the bluff, most all "occupied principally by gamblers and lewd women. These houses were located on a narrow strip of bottom land; and there was no place spoken of as a greater sink of sin than 'Natchez under the Hill.'"
Some of the young men who had traveled down the river on flatboats "visited these houses of lewdness." But, said Gardner, "I did not."
Instead, he ascended to the top of the bluff and found "the main town had a beautiful location." A short while later he left Natchez, but soon returned for one final visit.
Matthew Gardner's story of how he got to Natchez, and why, is a good example of life during the frontier days of America. It also offers a glimpse at the many vices that made Natchez country famous then -- prostitution, hard-drinking and gambling. It's still easy to find a drink on either side of the river and you can gamble legally on the Natchez side today. Prostitution continued openly and thrived in both Concordia and Natchez until recently. All of it ended, at least officially, when 87-year-old Nellie Jackson was murdered at her doorstep on 516 North Rankin in 1990.
TWO HORSES FOR 100 ACRES
Born in rural New York on Dec. 5, 1790, Matthew was the fourth born out of 10 children. By the time, Matthew had lived a decade, his father decided to leave New York for Ohio country.
"We had but one small wagon, with three horses, and other means correspondingly limited," Matthew recalled. "The country we had never seen. The route was new, and to us unknown until we approached it. There was then little communication with the wilderness west.
"The mountains were difficult to climb, the streams were dangerous to ford, the undertaking was hazardous, and the journey was long...We reached Pittsburg, on the Ohio River, by the first of October, just one month from the time of starting. Pittsburg was a small village. We waited two weeks before we found a boat going down the river."
On that flatboat were four other families, and each had their small share of livestock, possessions and provisions onboard. Because the river was low, "the progress was slow. Sometimes we floated rapidly; and sometimes we were long aground. We were nearly four weeks coming down to Limestone—a little village on the Kentucky side of the river."
There, they met a land trader by the name of Henry Hughs who sold Matthew's father a piece of land in a horse trade -- two horses for 100 acres. (Not bad -- 50 acres a horse.) In Ohio, "every thing seemed new and strange."
The Gardners had come from a settled region in New York where they were use to seeing people and enjoying a social life with friends and family. But in the Ohio wilderness, they heard little more than "the hooting of owls, the howling of wolves, and the screams of panthers. There were but two cabins within some two or three miles of us."
LIVING ON CORN & POTATOES
"Our land was covered with a heavy forest...immediately cleared for crops, to prevent starvation the coming year...By spring we had nearly five acres cleared, which we planted in corn and potatoes, which sustained us the coming year."
Finding the items they couldn't raise on their farm was difficult and expensive. Salt cost $3 to $4 for a bushel of 50 pounds.
"We learned to make a little do," said Matthew. "Wild beasts were plenty...Bears, deer, and wild turkeys supplied our table with meat, till we reared domestic animals.
"Sheep and wool were not to be had, so our clothing was of flax and hemp (which) served for all seasons, summer and winter alike. Father and the boys prepared the material, and my mother and sisters manufactured the cloth, and made the garments.
"We wore no shoes but moccasins, made of dressed deer skins, for we could get no leather. The deer skin being spongy, absorbed the water from the ground and snow, so our feet were often wet. Yet we were all stout and healthy. We needed no doctors, which was well, as none were to be had."
But the family worked hard and endured hardships. In a few years, "the heavy timber gave place to orchard trees, and the wilderness to fruitful fields. Then our wants for food and clothing were plentifully supplied; but there were other wants (such as) schools and churches."
On the farm, one of Matthew's jobs was to care for the cattle. There were no fenced fields and the cows roamed the woods. Sometimes it was hard to keep up with the cattle and when he couldn't find them, "I was severely reprimanded by my father. Sometimes in cloudy weather I would get lost, and finding the cattle by the tinkling of their bell, they would then pilot me home."
A FUTURE FOR 25 CENTS
He and his father sometimes clashed, not an uncommon occurrence in any household at any time of history. Matthew's father was a good man, frugal, industrious and neat, making sure every farm implement and every item he owned was kept in the proper place. He ruled the roost with a stern voice and if need be, a heavy hand.
From an early age, Matthew was a thoughtful person and he struggled to find a religious foundation for his life. While he adored the good traits of his father, he found the bad ones difficult to accept at times.
He said his father "often reproved and even punished his children when in anger, which parents should never do. If any thing went wrong on the farm, or a tool was broken...the blame too generally fell upon me. The corrections of my father, the taunting of my older brothers, and the neglect of prayer, soon led to the full neglect of my (religious) vows, and I became more hardened than before."
At 14, he sold a raccoon skin to a trader for a quarter, "more money than I remember having had at one time before in my life!" He needed and wanted many things but chose to buy a Webster spelling book.
"I now think that the best purchase of my life," he said when an old man. "For that twenty-five cents has profited me more than a thousand dollars would have done...After this my spare hours at night were spent in study; and, by diligence. I soon learned to read. After some two years, an eastern man took board at our house during the winter, instructing us in the long evenings. At this night school I learned to write, improving my hand afterwards by practice."
As he grew into manhood, the wilderness was thinned with the arrival of more pioneers. At this time, he said, "the young people would gather, for miles around, to frolicking and dancing parties. I am sorry to confess...I fell in with these amusements, and tried in vain to find happiness in them. During the two years of this indulgence I became very wicked."
He was a scrapper, and could land a hard punch. But he feared death, was troubled by bad dreams and felt a need to get away. At the age of 19, restless and unhappy, he decided to leave.
"My mind wandered far away, and I desired to get away," he said. "The only tie was my mother; she was always kind. To leave her was a great trial. I loved her dearly."
A RAWHIDE WHIP NEAR NATCHEZ
After midnight on April 14, 1809, while all in his household were asleep, Matthew slipped out. He walked 50 miles to Cincinnati, then a small village on the Ohio.
There, he met a man named Joseph Jenkins, who hired Matthew as a hand on a flatboat. Soon they headed down the Ohio for the Mississippi to deliver goods in Natchez and New Orleans. Before departing, Matthew wrote his family and told them of his plans.
On this voyage, those aboard the flatboat survived two intense storms. Arriving safely in Natchez, Jenkins sold some supplies and his party soon continued for New Orleans and tied on to another flatboat crowded with travelers.
Along the way, Matthew and Joseph Jenkins discussed religion. Jenkins was of the Universalist theory -- that all men were destined for Heaven despite how wickedly they lived their life on earth. Briefly, Matthew found the thought appealing. Considering himself a wicked man, it gave him hope to think that despite his ways he was destined for Heaven no matter what.
But he quickly became disenchanted with that theory shortly after leaving Natchez:
"We fell into company with a boat, whose owner, a man named Tompkins, from Kentucky, was also a Universalist...One morning as we were floating down...there was a whipping....going on upon a sugar farm. It was...the custom in the South to whip their (slaves), after first firmly tying each hand and foot to a stake driven deep into the earth.
"The Negro was thus tied down, with his breast and abdomen upon the ground, and the bare back up. The lash was about ten or twelve feet long, made of leather or raw hide, apparently nearly an inch in diameter in the largest part, with a handle about eighteen inches long.
"A man accustomed to it could swing this heavy lash over his head, and strike very hard, bringing the blood at every stroke, and the crack could be heard for half a mile...We could hear the lash at every stroke. We could hear the poor Negro's every shriek; we could hear him scream and piteously beg; but still the lash went on."
He was horrified: "Oh! it was heart-sickening!"
One man on the flatboat said "there ought to be a hell for that man" whipping the slave. The comment stayed with Matthew. Surely, he thought, men who enslaved others and treated them so cruelly would find Heaven's gate closed.
SICKNESS BRINGS NEW LIFE
In May 1809, the flatboat arrived in New Orleans. Once there, he became ill, suffering from diarrhea and fever. He became so weak he could hardly walk. He called his ailment "the great Southern fever."
At that time, New Orleans was stricken with one of the "sickliest seasons" ever known. As a war with the British loomed, some 2,000 U.S. troops, many newly-recruited from the North who had never been to the South, became sick. Hundreds died in New Orleans and many more would die when they were shipped upriver to Point Coupee, Fort Adams and Natchez to recover. (An account of this voyage will be a future column.)
Matthew initially got a job on the wharf in New Orleans, but became so sick that he was almost blinded by fever. One day he passed out and awoke in a home with no memory of how he got there.
He said: "I awoke with a burning fever. I soon divided my money with the woman (a freed woman) of the house and the doctor. I gave them from thirty to forty dollars...I was a stranger, and few called to see me or speak to me, or cared for me, except the poor black woman who had charge of me. Then I thought of my mother, more dear to my heart than any other human being...how I desired to see her!
"Death seemed very near. The feeble hope of recovery seemed nearly gone...I prayed night and day, when not deranged by fever. I renewed my broken vows. After many nights and days, spent almost sleepless, it seemed to me that my prayers were answered.
"After four or five weeks during the hot season of June and July in that hot climate, my body was a mere skeleton, and the bones seemed to protrude through the skin."
Slowly, he recovered. His experience was shared by hundreds of others from New Orleans to Natchez during the summer of 1809.
Matthew decided to return home to Ohio. He was renewed spiritually and thoroughly rejected the Universalist theory that all men would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. (He remained firm throughout his life in his opposition to slavery, too, and shook his head in disbelief at Southern preachers who used the pulpit to defend the hideous institution which still exists throughout the world today.)
$5 ON THE DARK HORSE
He walked to Natchez, and along the way depended on the kindness of people: "I carried no provisions, but ate such as I could procure of the few people along the road...The few people whom I met treated me with marked kindness, and doubtless pitied me as a poor wandering, homeless boy. So I found shelter every night on the way, reaching Natchez about, the 15th of August, 1809, tired and worn out."
While here, he stayed with a family he had met on the voyage from Ohio to Natchez. Totally destitute of funds, he earned money by buying "watermelons by the load" and then reselling them at market in Natchez. But remember those vices of Natchez which Matthew witnessed on his first visit?
"I avoided bad company, lewd women, and places of drinking, and all gambling, with one exception," he said. "There was to be a horse race, and I heard some one say, 'If the morning is cloudy, the dark horse will win.'
"The morning was cloudy, so I bet five dollars on the brown horse. The money was staked, and, the horses started. My heart fluttered with fear, for I had no money to lose. It was a close race, but the judges announced that the brown horse had won.
"I took the money -- (he doesn't say how much) -- and as it was the first so it was the last bet that I ever made. I did it thoughtless of the evil; but it is a wonder that winning did not make a gambler of me.
"About the first of September, having purchased a mule, I prepared to continue my journey homeward, when I found a man who had purchased a large drove of cattle west of the Mississippi, and was driving them to Philadelphia or some eastern city. I engaged to accompany him to where our roads would part, which I hoped would take me at least half way through the Indian country."
On the day he left, someone stole nearly all of his clothes. When he parted from the cattle drive along the Natchez Trace a short time later someone stole his mule. The Choctaw and the Chickasaw helped him along the way and in a few weeks he made it home.
Soon he became an ordained minister and was apparently respected and revered by all who knew him. He died at the age of 82 years, 10 months, five days, in 1872.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|