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Story Archives: Natchez Fort, Part 1 --When Mississippi began --construction of the Natchez fort
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|Natchez Fort, Part 1 --When Mississippi began --construction of the Natchez fort|
(First in a Series)
Why was the Natchez fort -- called Rosalie by the French when it was first built -- so important to the history of Natchez, this region and Mississippi?
Because, says historian Jack Elliott, Mississippi began with the construction of that fort.
Elliott is an historical archaeologist, and also a geographer, who has been researching, traveling and writing for years about many historical topics, but few subjects are more dear to his heart than Natchez and the fort. He serves as Historical Archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and Lecturer at Mississippi State University
"As I researched the fort I began to see it as far more than merely a French outpost that had been massacred in 1729," Elliott told us. "In fact the French continued to maintain a fort there for 30 years after the massacre, and the fort was later occupied by sequentially British, Spanish, and American garrisons. Mississippi's first town -- and its only town to be founded by a European power -- Natchez, was founded adjacent to the fort and the town later served as Mississippi's first territorial and first state capital."
"So the story of the Natchez fort," says Elliott, was "far more than the story of a short-lived French fort, it was the story of the beginnings of Mississippi itself -- everything from wilderness outpost to state emerged in and around the fort."
In 1985, after beginning work for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), Elliott began to travel regularly to Natchez and in 1986, he took a ride with his friend Jim Barnett of the Grand Village, who has written extensively about the Natchez Indians. Barnett showed Elliott the hill south of Rosalie mansion.
"Here he (Barnett) said some believed that Fort Rosalie stood, although he pointed out that there was some dispute in that others claimed that the fort had actually been located elsewhere," recalled Elliott. "Fort Rosalie! For me it had become an almost mythical place, and to think that its location was up in the air. That really piqued my curiosity."
Elliott was hooked.
"Soon after I began to research the history of colonial Natchez and the fort where it began," he said. "It dawned on me that the fort had to have been located on the hill that Jim pointed out, no question about it."
Elliott came to "realize that the uncertainty about the fort's location arose from dubious claims; they were all red herrings that served to muddy the water about where the fort had been. In fact throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries there had been little doubt in people's minds about the site. In 1918 the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) erected a monument on the site, and in 1940 promoter Jefferson Davis Dickson had constructed a very inaccurate 'reconstruction' of the fort on its actual site."
The realization of the importance of the fort became so apparent to Elliott that he proposed to the MDAH board that the site be acquired and developed as a historical park. This idea led to the creation of the Natchez National Historical Park.
Elliott's research led him to author two important articles for the Journal of Mississippi History -- "The Fort of Natchez and the Colonial Origins of Mississippi" (1990) and "City and Empire: The Spanish Origins of Natchez" (1997).
Through the centuries, Mississippi has had a handful of great historians. Elliott and Barnett are at the top of the list. It's interesting that Barnett covers so thoroughly the Natchez Indians from their origin until the construction of Fort Rosalie, the massacre of the French and the French expedition to destroy the Natchez at Sicily Island.
Elliott picks up the story when the French arrived in Natchez and details the fort's history from then until now.
It wasn't that long ago that I asked Barnett about the fort and his first words were, "Oh, you've got to talk to Jack Elliott. Jack is the colonial expert on Natchez."
To follow, are Elliott's answers to our many questions about the Natchez fort.
WHY FRENCH PRESENCE HERE?
ELLIOTT: France was competing with other Western European nation-states for power through gaining control of land, resources, and trade. This competition began on a global scale with the Age of Discovery during the 1400s initially aimed at finding a sea route to the East. It led to exploration, map making, land claims, colonies, and growing interaction between and knowledge of all human societies.
More specifically, France was in the Mississippi Valley in an attempt to establish and defend its claim to the interior of North America through establishing a series of settlements along waterways extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Lawrence River by way of rivers such as the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Illinois and the Great Lakes.
France's biggest problem in accomplishing this was that they had only a very small population of troops and settlers to work with, so control points such as Natchez, Arkansas Post, the Illinois settlements, etc. had to be placed far apart like chess pieces on a greatly depleted board.
THE PURPOSE OF FRONTIER FORTS?
ELLIOTT: Frontier forts tended to serve multiple functions. In the broadest perspective they served as strategic outposts for establishing and maintaining territorial control which was particularly important in French Louisiana where -- with only a skeletal population -- the government was attempting to control the interior of a continent with only a handful of men.
Given this broad purpose, we can look at more specific activities through which it played out. First, forts such as the Natchez fort served to police the river to prevent the movements of those unfriendly to French aspirations, and here the British come first to mind. They could additionally serve to supply French forces moving up and down the river.
Other than serving to either deter or expedite movement on the river, forts also served to interface with their local hinterlands. In this regard French forts played an important role in the fur trade, helping to develop a much needed economic base for the Louisiana colony. Whereas a defensive structure isn't essential for conducting trade, it does help to protect the trading post from unfriendly forces, and this was probably the spark for establishing the fort at Natchez.
Forts could also serve to protect French civilian settlement, thereby encouraging its development. The Natchez fort certainly played this role as agricultural settlement developed around it between 1716 and 1729. Although the fort did provide a base for a garrison and offered defense for settlers, in November 1729 it was almost irrelevant given the nature of the Natchez Indian attack upon the settlers.
Given this background, the immediate cause for the establishment of the Natchez fort was a response to the Natchez Indian uprising, usually referred to as the First Natchez War. This "war" purportedly began after Governor Cadillac refused to smoke the calumet ("peace pipe") with the Natchez. Subsequently, they murdered four French voyageurs (backwoodsmen, probably fur traders) who were traveling upriver. They also looted the French trading post that had been established in one of the Natchez villages (probably the Grand Village) and took captive the La Loire brothers who operated the post.
Bienville's trip to Natchez was intended to put down the uprising, which he did by taking captive several Natchez dignitaries and holding them until they agreed to produce the murderers of the voyageurs for execution and to provide labor for construction of the fort. The fort would provide varied benefits for the French, one of which would be a more secure base for the trading post.
SITE FOR FORT? ROAD TO FORT?
ELLIOTT: Bienville would have been the one who made the decision to construct the fort on the knoll on the bluffs overlooking the river. The site was selected by Bienville's adjutant, Jacques Barbazan de Pailloux, who apparently designed and supervised the construction of the fort and, after Bienville's departure, was left as the fort's first commandant. With the founding of New Orleans in 1718 de Pailloux was recalled from Natchez to serve as the commander of the new town and replaced by Philippe Blondel.
The fort site was so obviously the best site that there probably wasn't much debate about it. The site was very elevated with a very steep precipice on the riverward side -- which was good for defensive purposes and also had an excellent view both up and down the river, so movements of boats could be monitored.
Furthermore, the site was adjacent to an established landing that connected the river to the Natchez Indian villages -- and proximity to the villages was important for trade and proximity to the landing for being able to ship furs out and bring in supplies and personnel. Also, the garrison would have initially been to a large degree dependent upon trading with the Indians for food supplies.
One of the reasons that the landing was at this particular location was the fact that the top of the bluffs could be accessed with relative ease because here the bluffs didn't drop straight down to the river. The terrain was "stair-stepped" with a lower ledge at the landing, then halfway up the bluff there was a terrace then above that the top of the bluffs. A road following this path, although difficult, wasn't nearly as difficult as other stretches of bluff where there were no breaks in slope from top to bottom
The famous Silver Street, which is so closely associated with access between Natchez-under-the-hill and Natchez on the hill, apparently was not in existence during the French settlement. It was apparently constructed by the Spanish during the 1790s to provide more direct access to the newly founded city of Natchez and also to provide a continuous and relatively low gradient for the entire length. The original road, being stair-stepped, alternated between relatively steep slopes to extremely low slopes.
There was apparently only one road from the landing to the top of the bluff during most of the 18th century. This began at the southern end of modern Natchez-under-the-hill then ascended approximately following modern D.A. Biglane Street, first to the terrace then to the top of the bluff at the northern end of the Rosalie mansion property. During the 1720s the terrace served as the site of several key French buildings such as the church and the commandant's house. It is now occupied by a parking lot for the Isle of Capri gambling boat.
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