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|Dr. Bedford in 1807 Natchez -- Drinking by day, dancing by night, dodging shells|
On March 4, 1807, Drs. John Bedford and Thomas Augustine Claiborne, both of Tennessee, were in route down the Mississippi River when they stopped at the home of Judge Peter Bryan Bruin at Bayou Pierre in Claiborne County, Miss., across the river from Lake Bruin.
The men planned visits in Natchez and in New Orleans. Claiborne's brothers were important men in the Mississippi Territory and the Territory of Orleans, which became Louisiana.
At Bayou Pierre, Bruin updated the two doctors on the biggest news event in the country at the time -- the recent arrest of former Vice-President Aaron Burr near Bruin's home. The judge also told the men about a Grand Jury's decision at the territorial capital of Washington not to indict Burr for treason, of Burr's escape in February from the Mississippi Territory while still under bond, and his subsequent capture on the Tombigbee River in present day Alabama.
The next day, March 5th, Bedford and Claiborne arose early and headed out on a cloudy, cold morning with rain threatening. Although the weather had been spring-like during the previous days, this day turned exceptionally frigid. But the clouds gave way to a bright sun, enough to lift the two men's travel-weary spirits.
They arrived at Natchez at 3 p.m. Here, Bedford would indulge for the next five days in food, drink and merriment. And it would all end in a memorable way -- his skiff was fired on by one of the gunboats prowling the Mississippi at Natchez.
Bedford kept a gossipy diary and recalled when entering Natchez a military barge was "stationed about two hundred paces above the upper end of the town and twice that distance above (were) the naval forces stationed there in the river to guard the pass, and prevent the conveyance of arms or ammunition below, for the vile purposes of the Burrites. Immediately after landing throwed off our very dirty clothes, that had not been in contact with water since Nashville, except when we were wet with rain or by an accidental tumble into the river — dressed in the best and cleanest we had, barely then reaching common decency and tripped up into the town."
Dr. Claiborne went to visit his brother, Col. Ferdinand Leigh Claiborne. The men's brother -- Louisiana Gov. William C.C. Claiborne -- had previously served as the governor of Mississippi Territory.
Bedford went sight-seeing, talked with local residents and educated himself about Natchez and the region. He noticed in town the "houses are of wood and in the French style elevated 7 or 8 feet from the ground above which is one story only, and piazzas or galleries all round. Under the galleries are their storerooms, which have a great resemblance to cellars. Natchez contains about 2000 inhabitants. Merchants of considerable wealth. Some retail $70,000 or $80,000 worth of goods per annum. The Mississippi Territory contains a great deal of wealth. Many planters sell annually 100 or 200 bales of cotton, which is their staple article."
VISIT AT THE CLAIBORNE HOME
Bedford met the manager of Col. Claiborne's general store and later joined Dr. Claiborne for a visit at the home of the colonel, who was not in town at the moment. Mrs. Claiborne, however, received the two men with "the most ardent cordiality and affection of a brother, and me, with all the ease and affability of an accomplished and amiable woman and the sincerity inseparable from chaste and virtuous sentiments."
Mrs. Claiborne was expecting her brother-in-law and also made Dr. Bedford welcomed, insisting that he spend the night in her home also.
"Therefore," said Bedford, "not dreading the risk of the imputation of intrusion, was placed perfectly at ease and did not feel the customary solicitude for lodgings at an Inn was flattered to consider myself as a temporary member of the family and this appearance of welcome was not, as is often the case, deceitful, but its sincerity was indubitably realized."
Three other doctors came by to visit that evening -- Speed, Lattimore and McCreary, partners in their profession -- "all the most pleasant and excellent of men. A particular intimacy soon sprang up between Doctor Speed and myself, both natives of the same county (in Tennessee), students of the same professional man, Doctor Brown, and an early and permanent attachment having subsisted between our fathers. Retired to bed about 12 o'clock and reposed very comfortably in a well-furnished bed room."
TOO MUCH MADEIRA
On Friday, March 6, 1807, the five doctors enjoyed a hearty breakfast and two hours later visited George Bell, Thomas Maury and Nathaniel McNairy. Maury and McNairy were from Nashville.
All five doctors and others returned to the Claibornes for "a sumptuous and grateful dinner — after quaffing a great deal of the best of Madeira, almost to inebriety and gulping down of three courses at table. 1st, meats and salads of every kind, most delicious in quality. 2d, sweetmeats of the finest flavor and 3d, pastry, apples, cheese...I felt constrained to abscond the company rather abruptly, with Mr. George Bell, whose disposition at this moment happened to be similar to my own."
The two men were drunk.
They "strolled about the suburbs of the city viewing the scenery as attentively and correctly as our deranged faculties would permit until somewhat restored. Returned and gladly, because luckily for ourselves found the balance not quite so fond of repetition in the taking of glasses, it being supplied with a liberal hand till near the close of the evening."
That night a dance was planned in town and Dr. Bedford decided to attend, mostly to see "a collection of the most genteel and respectable persons, males and females, of the Territory." So, with his Tennessee friends, Bedford was there for one of the biggest social functions in Natchez during the month of March 1807.
COUNTRY DANCE AT NATCHEZ
Mrs. Thomas Maury was the host for the evening. Bedford found most everyone there "most pleasant and agreeable." At least, at first.
About 40 eligible men and 15 eligible women were present. Bedford, also single, said preparations for the dance began at 8 p.m.
"I was requested by a friend to get a number for the dance...the drawing was going on in the other room and (was) pulled in by the elbow to the drawing in an adjacent apartment, which I should probably never have seen otherwise, nor others who were equal strangers with me. Entered the room — saw a red-headed, hump-shouldered, hard looking fellow, resembling the baboon tribe, perched on an elevated step of a flight of stairs."
In the man's hand was "something of which a numerous crowd that pressed round seemed extremely anxious to obtain, and when obtained, some looked on the prize, as I did not know what else to esteem it, with pleasurable emotions — others — with discontented and grim faces.
"They dispersed after a little, and I was pulled up...to draw a ticket. Now the mystery was explained, and I understood this was drawing tickets for the country dance. I intruded my hand to his, which contained the tickets. He admitted me to draw with the careless indifference, inseparable from rusticity — drew No. 10. The partners, according to the lottery, were arranging — I was called out to face the lady whose number corresponded with mine — met her with some confidence — but my modesty was as much ruffled as hers, when the (host) introduced her by a wrong name and me by no name at all.
"Finding an unobjectionable apology in his unaffected want of politeness, regained my confidence, which inspired some more confidence in my very modest partner — and flirted through the dance, with all the little gracefulness and activity that I possess. Seated my partner and returned to the society of Doctor McCreary and one or two more. Conversation miscellaneous."
Bedford, however, wasn't enjoying the evening. He felt somewhat neglected and thought a few folks had been a bit snooty to him. Dr. Speed introduced Bedford to "Mrs. Lintot and Miss Reed, her relative" and then whispered "that these only merited an introduction and were interesting. And thus I was enabled to account for the inattentive and selfishness that prevailed generally this evening."
Shortly after midnight, supper was served. After the women ate, the men "flocked like hungry shoats to a sty — little and big — young and old, without distinction." Bedford sipped "took two cups of coffee in the corner without anything else, with Doctor McCreary. Heavy rain, which began about 10 o'clock, detained the company till after four o'clock in the morning." He lodged "the balance of this night with my Tennessee acquaintances" at Mickey's Tavern.
FIRED ON BY THE NAVY
On Saturday, March 7, Bedford and his friends had breakfast, visited, and at "the dusk of the evening" returned to Mrs. Claiborne's home where the colonel had arrived. They were up until past midnight gossiping and discussing the various events dominating the news on the Natchez frontier -- Burr, Gen. James Wilkinson, the Legislature and the expanding cotton market.
Bedford didn't sleep well that night nor the next night and attributed his sleeplessness to eating too much and drinking too much. Each, he said, "clogs digestion and oppresses the vital powers."
On the morning of Monday, March 9, he mailed some letters from the post office at Claiborne's general store. Later in the morning, Bedford and a few others boarded their skiff for the trip down river.
But before their departure, Navy officers boarded the vessel to examine their possessions and "to ascertain whether we were the party of Burr." The military had been on alert up and down the Mississippi -- from Natchez to New Orleans -- during Burr's trip down river.
The Naval officers who inspected Bedford's skiff were maneuvering along the river in a vessel "which was more of the resemblance to a terrapin's shell than to anything else." Bedford's party was given clearance to leave and headed down river.
"We passed then near half a mile, and heard the report of a musket. The ball whistled over head," said Bedford, thinking that the Navy was simply "amusing themselves only with the implements of their profession." But a short time afterward, another "fired ball whistled over head."
They cursed the Navy, but continued onward until "soon after off went a cannon with a sound that seemed as great as the rending of earth and Heaven, and the ball buzzed over head and struck the water two hundred yards beyond the bow of the boat. This was a strong hint to put in — and although much irritated because their conduct seemed inconsistent, we obeyed them — choosing rather to submit to the over-bearing spirit of the military than to be hurt by their incivility."
Soon officers from Naval vessels boarded Bedford's skiff "without a scrap of permission from the commander, which could not be obtained without returning to the fleet near two miles back." Detained, Bedford and his friends were forced to board one of the Navy vessels. Though not bound, Bedford said they were "in the presence of men, guns and bayonets, like prisoners of war."
They boarded the schooner Revenge, one of the gunboats on the river at Natchez, and were soon visited by Captain Reid, who was known by two of Bedford's friends.
"We were therefore received with great politeness and apparent cordiality, with an apology for their previous military salute, after being informed of the previous visit before we had left the wharf." The captain invited the men "under deck" where they "partook of two bottles of excellent Madeira and entertained with much politeness...After one and a half hours' stay, when the bottom of the two bottles were uncovered," the men were released and headed on their way.
FORT ADAMS AND THE RED
On Tuesday, March 10, Bedford's skiff arrived at Fort Adams on a day when disaster was averted after "escaping a dangerous sawyer that nearly touched the stern." At Fort Adams, he saw soldiers and "a store of considerable importance kept by a Mr. Evans & Co.
"The neighborhood of this place is wealthy, producing much cotton. It is remarkable for being one of the loftiest pinnacles on the whole of the Mississippi. A bottom extends up and down the river a long way and off about 100 yards, then commences a bluff similar to that at Natchez, rising and falling in an undulating manner, but in a sudden freak bounded and formed the pinnacle called Loftus Height, two hundred feet above water mark, on which stands a block house only, under which is the barracks and arsenal in the bottom."
At Fort Adams, Bedford and his friends "sauntered about here 2 or 3 hours. Just before departing was very agreeably surprised by the sudden appearance of Thomas Butler on board the barge, in company with a Capt. Sample. Sincerely regretted the necessity of setting out so soon, because I wished to have much conversation with him, as I esteem him a good and sensible young man and one every way interesting to me.
"He had lately arrived in the Territory and then intended to settle thereabouts. The best of friends must part, and therefore took an affectionate farewell and set out from Fort Adams about 11 o'clock a.m." Sixteen miles down river, Bedford's skiff "passed the mouth of Red River, emptying in on the west or Louisiana side so much celebrated latterly for the fertility of its soil and salubrity of its climate."
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