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Story Archives: Feb. 16, 1941: Jefferson Dickson's Fort Rosalie unveiled
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|Feb. 16, 1941: Jefferson Dickson's Fort Rosalie unveiled|
By Jack Elliott Jr.
(First in a Series)
At noon on Sunday, February 16, 1941 the long awaited event arrived. Natchezeans and visitors from out of town began to converge on South Canal Street in Natchez for the opening of the reconstruction of Fort Rosalie.
This was a resurrection -- of sorts -- of the birth place of Natchez, a fort that was originally constructed in the summer of 1716 under orders of the "Father of Louisiana", Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur De Bienville, and directed by Captain Barbazan de Pailloux using the labor of a multitude of Natchez Indians. The fort offered a vicarious return to the birth of Natchez and of Mississippi.
The project was the brain child of Jefferson Davis Dickson, Jr., who had only recently opened other tourist attractions at Natchez: the Devil's Punch Bowl and the so-called White Apple Village on Hwy 61 south of town. Dickson was a Natchez native who had been a resident in Paris where he gained notoriety as a sports promoter; he was often known as "the ringmaster of Paris." The new fort would -- in line with his vocation -- be a promotion for the tourist trade. However, despite his flare for hype, he did seem to have a sincere interest in his projects. In his description of Fort Rosalie as a national shrine, a place where one can "see a veritable pageant of the nations" that occupied the fort, one might detect something more than mere advertising.
The press reported that almost all of the 48 states were represented at the grand opening as was the noted Mississippi author, James Street of Laurel. Entrance was gained through a log building on the side of Canal Street which served as a ticket office and gift shop. Today this is the only building that remains and was -- until recently -- used by Fat Mama's Hot Tamales. It was built of pine logs -- that looked much like small telephone poles -- a form of construction that one would not have found in the original fort.
After passing through this building, visitors followed a path that led them uphill to the brand-new construction, surrounded by a palisade in the form of an irregular, multi-sided polygon designed not so much to conform to the plans of the original forts as to fit into the space available on the hill top. Entrance to the fort was gained through a large gatehouse unprecedented in the history of French military defensive architecture. Inside was an enclosed space in which one was transported into the world of colonial history as seen through the imagination of Jeff Dickson. There were numerous log buildings similar to the gift shop: a church, blacksmith shop, barracks, officer's quarters, commandant's house. The latter had a much more lavish interior than the other buildings. It consisted of a bedroom and a council room with an enormous painting on the wall of the French king. Replica cannons were located in the center of the fort where they could be conveniently inspected by tourists but were effectively worthless in terms of firing upon invaders. There was also a powder magazine partially buried in the ground and covered with sod.
At the far side of the enclosure was a three story log tower -- "the watch tower" -- as it was called. Press coverage reported that a tower had originally been used by the French troops "to watch for Indians along the river banks." However, in the original fort there had been no such tower. The 1941 version did provide a powerful climax to a tour as the visitor ascended the tower to see over the palisade walls to a panoramic view of the Mississippi River.
If any were aware of the discrepancy between the original and the reconstruction, no one spoke up. The press had reported that Dickson had conducted research at the Smithsonian Institute and used the diaries of "ten French governors of the Natchez territory." He also purportedly visited reconstructed forts at Niagara, Ticonderoga, Quebec, and other places. Summing up with a concern more for flamboyance than truth, the press noted that the fort was "an exact replica"..."historically correct in every detail."
On opening day, it was noted, the visitors marveled at the historical accuracy of the reconstruction. However, one wonders if any in the crowd could have distinguished between a historically accurate reconstruction and a historically inaccurate reconstruction. Dawson Phelps, historian for the Natchez Trace Parkway, was less than impressed. He toured the fort shortly after the grand opening and laconically observed that it provided "useful examples of things the Park Service should not do."
Phelps was probably less than surprised by the lack of attention to historical accuracy; he was certainly familiar with the Devil's Punch Bowl and White Apple Village attractions. If Jeff Dickson was a historical promoter, he was more the promoter than the historian. However, this should come as no surprise. He had worked most of his adult life in advertising and promoting, so that care for historical accuracy must have been somewhat alien.
Although Dickson had gained international notoriety in France, he was not a stranger to Natchez and to Mississippi. He was born in Natchez and often billed as a native Natchezean. Yet his linkages to Natchez were tenuous. He and his family were much more closely connected to Jackson and central Mississippi where he had deep roots. The Dicksons had once been one of the state's premier families, but the aftermath of the Civil War had been hard on them, bringing about a sharp decline in their fortunes. Jeff was the first to recover, and he did so in Europe. To trace the fortunes and misfortunes of the Dickson family that would culminate in the Fort Rosalie reconstruction we have to turn to the Mississippi Territory. It is a story that involves history along with promotional hype.
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