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Story Archives: Like Jamestown, Fort Rosalie is a historic treasure
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|Like Jamestown, Fort Rosalie is a historic treasure|
BY JACK ELLIOTT
(First in a Series)
Just as Natchez and the State of Mississippi trace their origins back to Fort Rosalie, so too does the Natchez National Historical Park.
The park, a branch of the National Park Service, had its origins in the realization of the overall significance of the fort to the birth of the State of Mississippi.
I remember my first encounter with the site of the old fort on a bluff top that overlooked the Mississippi River. It was probably on or about March 11, 1987. I was riding with friend and colleague Jim Barnett who at the time directed both the Grand Village of the Natchez and Historic Jefferson College. We were inspecting the route of what would soon become D.A.Biglane Street. If you're familiar with this street you know that it runs from Natchez-under-the-hill up the bluff, alongside a parking lot and onto Canal Street next to Rosalie Mansion. Its entire path is in the open -– free of trees and undergrowth.
Such was not the case in 1987. The street did not exist at the time. However, plans were under way to construct it to provide an alternative route to Under-the-Hill which was only accessible by Silver Street. The driving force behind the project was the fear that a landslide could close Silver Street, leaving people stranded at Under-the-Hill. The new street had to pass through a heavily vegetated area -- something of a jungle. As I later discovered, this area -- the present-day parking lot -- in the 1720s had been the location of French buildings associated with Fort Rosalie -- the commandant's house, the priest's house and church –- this is where the massacre began on that long gone morning of November 28, 1729. During the early 20th century, a large box factory was constructed on the site, but after a few decades it shut down. By 1987 there were only concrete and brick ruins that intermittently popped out of the growth, somewhat like Mayan ruins in the jungles of the Yucatan.
Jim and I were surveying the area to assess impact that construction might pose to the archaeology of the site. We pulled off Canal Street at the southern end of the Rosalie Mansion property and were soon into woods. Although we were in the heart of Natchez, it felt like we were a wilderness miles from any city. Off to our left the ground rose up abruptly in a cliff-face covered with a tangle of trees and vines. Jim pointed to this feature and informed me that many thought that Fort Rosalie once stood at the top. However, as he went on to qualify, no one was really sure where it was. Some thought that it was located much further inland.
I was amazed to hear that I was possibly near the Fort Rosalie site. Since grade school the old French fort had been in my mind a mythical place of frontier adventure and wonders. I recalled a painting of the massacre from my Mississippi history textbooks by the artist John J. Egan, one of a set of panoramic paintings of the Mississippi River commissioned by the Philadelphia physician turned archaeologist Montroville Wilson Dickeson in about 1850. The painting depicted the massacre with frenzied hand-to-hand fighting between French soldiers and Natchez Indian warriors. This was exotic and exciting fare for a school boy and remained so for the adult. So there I was, thinking that I might be on the very spot where the fighting took place and only yards away from fabled Fort Rosalie. It was certainly one of the most romantic sites in the region, and, as Jim had pointed out, no one was really sure where it was. I determined then to look further into the old fort and its possible site.
At the time I was engaged in a study of the period of European colonization in Mississippi -- primarily the 1700s. I began concentrating on the problem of the fort, one of the key targets of my study; more specifically I began looking for written sources and maps that might demonstrate where it was located.
In Natchez at the time there was some confusion as to whether the fort site was on the knoll on the west side of South Canal Street and overlooking the river or whether it was elsewhere. From the first time that Jim first showed me the knoll, I thought that there was no other place that it could have been. Geographically it made complete sense. It was the highest knoll, it overlooked the river, and it was easily accessible from the landing below.
However, one story going around was that the fort had possibly been located further inland; another story had it that there were actually two fort sites: the first -- built in 1716 and destroyed in 1729 -- was supposedly further inland, while the later fort was on the knoll. Sorting through the records I quickly came to the conclusion that there had been only one fort site, and that was in the most obvious location -- the knoll on Canal Street. In fact this had been regarded as the site well into the 20th century. Somewhere along the way that which was known had been forgotten, or at least it fell into the fog of ambiguity.
Consequently a few objected to my claim that the site was found. However, the objectors had no compelling evidence to support them. Occasionally they recalled the late archaeologist Robert S. "Stu" Neitzel, who had excavated the Grand Village of the Natchez. They reported that Neitzel had believed the fort to be elsewhere and had even mentioned other possible sites, apparently without any real evidence. Since Neitzel had been dead for some years, I couldn't discuss the matter with him, nor could his arguments be resurrected, since they had never -- to my knowledge -- been written down.
After exhaustive research I could find nothing that supported this contention, so I eventually dismissed it as mere speculation. Furthermore, about this time I met the renowned "Smokye" Joe Frank, a Natchez native who was living at the time in Louisiana. Smokye had written a paper that came to the same conclusion that I had regarding the site of the fort. All lines of evidence pointed to the fact that the fort had indeed been located on the knoll on Canal Street. This would not be all though. As I researched the fort's history I came to realize that it was far more significant than anyone had previously thought. The emerging picture pointed to the fact that the fort site could very well be called "the birthplace of Mississippi." In my mind the site –- like Jamestown Island -- deserved to be commemorated as a historical park.
(Jack Elliott is historical archaeologist for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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