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|Two decades later Natchez fort project still undeveloped|
BY JACK ELLIOTT
In 1987, following intensive research and thought, I came to see how extremely significant the Natchez fort was in Mississippi history.
Founded by the French in 1716 as Fort Rosalie, the fort served four countries consecutively: France, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States, effectively serving as the nucleus for the Natchez District, and later the territory and state of Mississippi.
It seemed to me 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, much as Jamestown served as the birthplace of Virginia and New Orleans the birthplace of Louisiana. With these considerations in mind, I proposed that something be done.
I first discussed the idea with people at the main office of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History including Elbert Hilliard, Director, and Sam McGahey, Chief Archaeologist, informing them that I thought that the fort site was of sufficient importance to warrant its development as a park. They liked the idea. I also discovered that the late Tom Reid of Natchez had recently advocated the same thing.
As a consequence of these discussions, I was invited to present my ideas before the Board of Trustees of Archives and History at their next meeting which would be on October 16. Ironically this meeting was to be held in Natchez.
I was scheduled to be in Natchez at about that time to monitor the construction of D.A. Biglane Street which would link Natchez-under-the-Hill with South Canal Street passing across an area that had been occupied by many French buildings during the 1720s. I needed to be there to observe the grading to make sure that no remains were discovered.
On Wednesday October 14, I received a call informing me that construction would soon begin, so I departed immediately and arrived in Natchez that evening. I was on site the following morning as the earth moving equipment began to roll.
The day after – Friday, October 16 – I had to monitor construction during the first part of the day then attend the Board meeting which would turn out to be a critical event in the development of the park. When called to speak, I summarized my findings – pointing out that the site of the fort was indeed known and that its significance was far greater than previously thought. The Board liked the idea and decided to support it, requesting the assistance of the Natchez Historical Society and the City of Natchez in promoting a park. It was at this meeting that I met John Williams, the President of the Historical Society, and later that day met John's wife Nancy. At the time the couple lived at Selma Plantation outside of Natchez. They immediately invited me to stay in their home whenever I was in Natchez. Over the subsequent weeks and months, then years and decades, John and Nancy became like a second family to me.
John later asked me to define how much land should be acquired to constitute the fort site. This set me to thinking. I had initially thought of the site as little more than about 200 feet square, the bare minimum to include where the fort had actually stood. However, as I had come to understand, the fort was significant not merely because it was a fort but because it was a center of activity where local settlers connected with each other. It was also a point of attachment through which the locals were connected to the outside world – whether New Orleans, Paris, London, Madrid, or Washington – via the Mississippi River.
Consequently I came to realize that the environs of the fort were an integral part of the site. They were needed to convey a sense of the landscape where the bluffs and the river interfaced. So the boundaries that were drawn ran from Canal Street to the Mississippi River. This would include the locations of French buildings such as the church and the commandant's house where the 1729 massacre began and the old river landing where Europeans and Indians landed their boats before ascending to the fort.
John and the Historical Society soon appointed one of the Society's members – Ed Killian - to direct the project. Whereas I had thought primarily of the fort park to be a state project – since the fort was the birthplace of Mississippi - Ed transformed it into a national park. He expanded it to focus on a number of Natchez properties including the entire stretch of bluffs. Whereas in one sense this broadened the scope of the project, in another sense, it diverted the focus away from the fort.
Regardless, Ed was an excellent promoter. He built local support while establishing liaisons with our representatives in Washington. By early 1988, the park project had gained considerable support in and around Natchez and was well publicized. Furthermore as city elections approached in May, most campaigners included support for the park in their platforms. The city was so interested in having a National Park that it decided to provide its own incentive, stating that if the park was established the city would donate its property at Under-the-hill which included the old colonial landing area to the National Park Service.
People traveled to Washington to testify before Congress. Legislation was written. On Tuesday April 26, Representative Wayne Dowdy from Mississippi introduced a bill into Congress to authorize the creation of a national park at Natchez. U.S. Senator John C. Stennis, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and U.S. Representative Jamie Whitten, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, informed Dowdy that they would support the bill. Finally, after passing both houses of Congress, the Natchez National Historical Park was authorized on October 7, 1988 -- only 356 days after my presentation to the Archives Board of Trustees!
The act stated that the park was to "preserve and interpret the history of Natchez, Mississippi, as a significant city in the history of the American South." Park properties were to include both the fort site and Melrose, an antebellum mansion. Subsequently, the William Johnson house was incorporated into the park. However, difficulties lay ahead.
With the advent of riverboat gambling and with the National Park approved and in the pocket, so to speak, the City of Natchez in October 1991 reneged on its promise to donate the old landing site to the National Park Service. There were also difficulties in acquiring the remainder of the fort site that have dragged on for over two decades, so that today the fort site – the original inspiration for the park idea - remains undeveloped as part of the park and uninterpreted.
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