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|Natchez fort nexus of Mississippi's colonial history|
BY JACK ELLIOTT
Places resonate with mystery. They are the backdrop of our existence. We pass through places, often barely aware of them.
However, we are occasionally jarred into realizing that each place is like the tip of the proverbial iceberg, recalling stories and associations that invite us to look beyond the immediacy of our experience to a larger context of life.
In 1987 after considerable research I concluded that the knoll on the west side of South Canal Street in Natchez was without a doubt the site of old Fort Rosalie which was first constructed by the French in 1716. I didn't realize until later that there was far more to the story of the fort than the French occupation and the legendary massacre of 1729. As the result of subsequent investigation of the fort, I gained new insights regarding its significance.
The popular emphasis on the French fort had, as I discovered, overshadowed the fact that there had been a continuity of occupation at the fort for over 80 years, being occupied successively by French, British, Spanish, and American garrisons. For decade after decade the fort had been the central military and administrative center for the Natchez area, a centrality that grew in importance as farmers began to settle in the surrounding area. As the Natchez District emerged as a political entity that became the core of the Mississippi Territory and later the State of Mississippi, the fort eventually gave way to town of Natchez (founded ca 1790), which served as the capital of the Natchez District, and later as first capital of the Territory and first capital of the State.
What I came to realize was that the entire historical process leading to the birth of Mississippi began at the fort. Around it played out Mississippi's colonial history in which the fort carried the symbolic authority of three colonial powers and eventually the flag of the United States flew over it in 1798. The fort's significance couldn't be reduced to one event or one time period, because it epitomized decades of history and growth.
In the fort and Natchez one sees a process that was played out in many places throughout this country in which colonial outposts laid the ground work for what eventually became states which are, in turn, the key building blocks of the country. One finds comparable sites at Jamestown-Williamsburg for Virginia, New Orleans for Louisiana, and Arkansas Post for Arkansas. The Natchez fort site could indeed be considered to be the birthplace of Mississippi.
How was this overlooked? For one thing much of the history of Mississippi has neglected geography. In discussing the different colonial eras, political and economic history was usually discussed with little attention devoted to identifying the geographical continuities that led from the founding of Fort Rosalie in 1716 to the birth of the Mississippi Territory in 1798. Second, the establishment of Fort Maurepas in 1699 on the Gulf Coast was a red herring, shifting attention to it as the beginning of Mississippi simply because it was earlier than the Natchez fort. Indeed on the grounds of Jefferson College at Washington MS, a marker commemorating the signing of Mississippi's first constitution in links the beginning of the state to Fort Maurepas. The Mississippi history textbooks feature Fort Maurepas quite prominently.
However, Maurepas was little more than a temporary post established by Iberville on Biloxi Bay as a place to leave a few men until he could return from France and find a better location that would have better access to the vast hinterland that had been claimed for the Louisiana Colony. Consequently when a better location was found on the lower Mobile River, Maurepas was abandoned after being occupied for only 2 1/2 years. Although Maurepas might be earlier than the Natchez fort, yet no political entity like a territory or state evolved from it. In fact if we are only looking for the earliest date of any sort of settlement we could just as well say that Maurepas was the beginning of the State of Louisiana, or Alabama, or Arkansas, among others.
The geography of human activity is not spread out evenly on the landscape. Instead it focuses on centers, such as towns and forts. These centers take on symbolic resonances over time. We see this in particular with national capitals which are the centers of activity and effectively serve to define a country. I might cite for example, London around which emerged the England and the United Kingdom. It is the center of the government – Parliament and Buckingham Palace – and the Church of England – Lambeth Palace and Westminster Abbey, to say nothing of many other iconic images.
Similarly Mississippi evolved around a center—it didn't just pop into existence with the 1817 constitutional convention. This technically created the state, but before a state could be created there had to be a substantial body of people living there under a social order that predated the state. This basis for the state was an expanding cluster of settlements with their center at Natchez that had been known successively as le Natchez, the Natchez District, the Mississippi Territory, and finally the State of Mississippi. For decades the center at Natchez was the fort, the institutional center of colonial nations and consequently the center around which settlers gravitated for law and order and just to trade and socialize.
The fort was the very nexus of Mississippi's colonial history. The flag of every colonial power that ruled the area flew over it. It was closely associated with Indian groups, and, often known as "the fort of Natchez," bearing the name of the Natchez Indians. Furthermore, fighting associated with the American Revolution took place at the fort.
During the early 1800s the fort was abandoned and dismantled and began to fade from memory. Houses were eventually constructed on the site. During the early 20th century it was still occasionally remembered. In 1918 the DAR erected a monument with a flag pole there to commemorate the raising of the American flag over the fort after the Spanish withdrawal in 1798. In about 1940 promoter Jefferson Davis Dickson reconstructed a poorly researched and highly inaccurate version of the fort as a tourist attraction. It was soon abandoned.
In 1987 I came to see how extremely significant the site and story of the Natchez fort were. It seemed that the site should be turned into a park so that others could know its history and realize that states didn't simply spring into existence at constitutional conventions but usually had much earlier origins as colonial outposts in the midst of extensive wilderness. I then proposed that something be done.
(Jack Elliott is historical archaeologist for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
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