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Story Archives: Happy Christmas from Natchez country -- 1803 & 1804
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|Happy Christmas from Natchez country -- 1803 & 1804|
On Thursday, December 1, 1803, a flatboat docked at the busy Natchez landing. On board was 60-year-old Thomas Rodney of Delaware, who had recently been appointed to a Mississippi territorial judgeship by President Thomas Jefferson.
Thus began the first of two consecutive Christmas seasons -- 1803 and 1804 -- that rank among the most exciting in Natchez country history, which after decades of French, British and Spanish dominion, was now all American.
The very day Rodney arrived, Mississippi Territory Gov. W.C.C. Claiborne left for New Orleans as a commissioner appointed by Jefferson to accept Louisiana from the French in a ceremony planned at the place now known as Jackson Square.
Rodney bought a horse and rode to Washington, six miles east of Natchez, where the territorial capital was located. Accustomed to cold Delaware winters, Rodney was happy to find the weather in Natchez country "fine and pleasant." He enjoyed the cool nights, the "white frost" instead of the Delaware snow, and loved the "clear, mild days."
Both communities were excited about the arrival of Tennessee troops in route along the Natchez Trace to New Orleans. When they departed Tennessee, it appeared that there might be a battle.
During the previous summer, William Dunbar, the planter, scientist, astronomer and future explorer, who lived at the Forest Plantation south of Natchez, received a letter from the President of the United States.
"Before you receive this," Thomas Jefferson wrote Dunbar on Sunday, July 17, 1803, fully aware that it could take more than four weeks for a letter to reach Natchez from Washington, "you will have heard thro' the channel of public papers of the cessation of Louisiana by France to the U.S...That the treaty may be ratified in time I have found it necessary to convene Congress on the 17th of October, and it is very important for the happiness of the country that they should possess all the information which can be obtained respecting it, that they may make the best arrangements practicable for its good government."
Jefferson requested Dunbar's input on a number of issues regarding the purchase, which would double the size of the country. The price tag was $15 million for 827,000 square miles, or 529,280,600 acres, which amounted to about three cents per acre, a deal even in 1803.
"I am encouraged to propose this trouble to you by a thorough persuasion of your readiness and desire to serve the public cause by whatever shall be in your power and by the belief that you are one of those who will sincerely rejoice at our success..." Jefferson said.
Two years earlier, Napoleon, in the Treaty of Madrid, secretly wrestled all of Louisiana from the Spanish. Later, deep in debt and at war with Great Britain, Napoleon feared that he might lose both New Orleans and all of Louisiana to the British. For both reasons, he decided to sell Louisiana to the United States.
But trouble was afoot. Spain, which continued to hold physical possession of the territory, argued that France had promised not to sell and formally protested the agreement. In September Jefferson warned: "The government of Spain has protested against the right of France to transfer, and it is possible that she may refuse possession, and that may bring on acts of force, but against such neighbors as France there and the United States here, what she can expect from so gross a compound of folly and false faith is not to be sought in the books of wisdom."
Remembering Spain's tardy withdrawal from the Natchez District following the Treaty of San Lorenzo, Jefferson was determined to show that he meant business and would accept no delays. Suddenly, the entire Natchez frontier became a key point in this international crisis during this exciting time in history of both the nation and Natchez country.
Jefferson quickly sent out his orders. The troops garrisoned at Fort Adams about 40 miles south of Natchez were put on alert, and later many followed Gen. James Wilkinson and Gov. Claiborne to New Orleans as commissioners to receive Louisiana from France. Jefferson also included a call to arms for the Mississippi Territory militia. Additionally, the President ordered that volunteers from Tennessee join the forces at Natchez, which was earmarked as a staging point for possible hostilities along the Mississippi and at New Orleans.
Across the river at the Post of Concord (present day Vidalia), news of the Louisiana Purchase was a shock to Captain Jose Vidal, who had governed the Spanish outpost since its formation in 1798, a few days after Spain gave up the Natchez District to the United States. For a decade and a half, Vidal had been on the front lines of governance for Spain in both Natchez and Concordia.
This was a time locally when the City of Natchez had only recently been incorporated and Congress was debating the future of the city, while the tiny village of Washington six miles to the east had only one year earlier been tapped as the new territorial capital of Mississippi and it was bustling with activity, including the construction of Fort Dearborn, a new military installation. Political favors were being handed out on both sides of the river and it was a period of great growth and great optimism as well as a great time to be an American. To add to the excitement, it was the Christmas season.
In Washington on December 23 Rodney wrote his son in Delaware: "Yesterday the first two companies of Tennessee Horse arrived at Fort Dearborn, a mile from town," while another "company of Tennessee Troops came in this afternoon and say the remainder of the 500 now on the way will be here tomorrow."
Soon a long remembered Christmas season event took place. Rodney wrote that "Secretary (Cato) West, now exercising the office of governor here, upon hearing of our getting quiet possession of Louisiana, gave a public entertainment and invited the commissioner (mayor of Natchez), the Tennessee officers and a number of other gentleman to his feast, where we drank a number of patriotic toasts and spent the day with great accord and pleasantry."
Rodney said "34 gentlemen" in all enjoyed an "elegant dinner" at 3 p.m. All, said Rodney, were "social and joyous." At dark, they returned to the banquet hall for wine and spirits.
Months later, William Dunbar of the Forest Plantation was exploring part of the Louisiana Purchase -- particularly, the Ouachita River Valley. By Christmas Day, 1804, the expedition was at its destination, the hot springs of Arkansas.
"Spirituous liquors must be out of the question" for future explorations, warned Dunbar, who along with Dr. George Hunter led the American expedition. Although both men were natives of Scotland, their personalities were as different as day and night.
For this journey, Dr. Hunter purchased 38 gallons of whiskey, 17 gallons of brandy and one case of gin. On Christmas Day at the hot springs, Dunbar, who was usually all business, didn't seem to mind the howling celebration by U.S. troops who did the grunt work on the expedition. Dunbar said the whiskey flowed for hours. Here's his description of the celebration:
"This being Xmass we were obliged to indulge the men with a holy day for which purpose they had hoarded up their ration whiskey, to be expended on this day; a great deal of frolick was the consequence; but perfectly innocent."
Hunter's description of the same event is much more heartfelt. Popular among the troops and a man you would instantly like, Hunter described Christmas Day this way:
"Being Christmas our soldiers had previously divided themselves into two messes or parties, one of which remained at the Springs & the other half went to the river Ouachita to keep their holiday at the camp by the boat with the sergeant. They had made a reserve of their liquor for the occasion, with which...a saddle of venison they made themselves very merry, dancing, hooping in the Indian manner & singing alternately, not forgetting to serenade us from time to time with a volley from their rifles, wishing us a happy Christmas with all the compliments of the season..."
They had much to celebrate. Today, 205 years later, America still has much to celebrate and appreciate. We're certain that Hunter would be pleased to extend his holiday good wishes to all of us in present day Natchez country.
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