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Story Archives: They had fun on the frontier, too: Gator games, mooning, gambling
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|They had fun on the frontier, too: Gator games, mooning, gambling|
Not every frontier story is of misfortune, loss and violence. Many are just purely entertaining. No age of time was without humor, adventure or play.
A few stories about Natchez two centuries ago attest to this fact:
ALLIGATOR GAMES: From atop the bluffs at Natchez, 21-year-old Englishman Francis Bailey scanned the Mighty Mississippi and noticed in the distance alligators "prowling along amongst the bushes and brambles which are in the bottom, and at times uttering the most dismal howlings."
Bailey was on an adventure in America. He had traveled along the Atlantic seaboard and the Ohio Valley and was in route to New Orleans. He learned shortly after arriving in Natchez in the summer of 1797 that the American gator was hard to kill and that a musket ball would hardly faze it. But he also learned of one sure fire way to catch a gator when watching a daring maneuver perfected by Indians, an act that often drew a crowd. Few white men would dare try the technique.
As Baily watched one day, a Native American firmly held with his right hand the middle of a two-ft. long hickory stick, barbed at each end, and walked to the bank. In his left hand, the Indian held an article of food, likely spoiled animal flesh, and dangled it near the animal.
Slowly, the gator moved toward the free meal and when it suddenly leaped from the water, its giant mouth gaped open, the Indian snatched "that arm away" and presented "the other furnished with the double dart." Unaware of the slight of hand, Baily said the gator closed his mouth over "his supposed present" and "unable to extricate himself or open his jaws," the Indian pulled the animal to shore "amidst the applause and acclamation of the spectators" who admired "his daring act."
TWO MOONS ON THE OHIO: In 1804, Dr. George Hunter, a native of Scotland who had lived in America since 1774, arrived in Natchez to join William Dunbar of Second Creek for an exploration of the Ouachita River.
Months earlier, while traveling down the Ohio River on a small bateau, he and his companions observed a large, long keelboat "manned with Indians and one white man." These men were from "the Illinois country," he said, and their boat "was laden with skins." They were in route to Pittsburgh to sell their pelts.
Hunter said the men with great speed, timing and agility were using poles to power the keelboat, adding:
"I examined them with my spy glass & found them all quite naked except a handkerchief tied round their heads & a breechcloth round their middles. As we approached their boat they perceived my glass and immediately two of them lifted up their breechcloth and stuck out their bare posteriors."
OLD MAN MCCOY: People who live extraordinarily long lives are fascinating to any local populace. In the early 1800s, a man past 60 years of age was considered old, one past 70 was ancient.
George Willey, who moved to Natchez with his family in the late 1700s, told Mississippi historian John F.H. Claiborne about a man named McCoy whose old age was known all about Natchez country. This man often visited in the Willey household and there provided "wondrous recitals of his varied and active life," including the massacre of the French by the Natchez Indians "with the vivid accuracy of a participant."
Added Willey: "McCoy...was said to be a hundred and twenty years old. I do not know where be lived, but it was somewhere not far from town, for he used to come in to mass on occasional Sundays, walking and leading the horse, on which was mounted his son, who was from the infirmities of age unable to walk."
$5 ON THE BROWN HORSE: In 1809, 19-year-old Matthew Gardner of Ohio paid two visits to Natchez -- once on the way to New Orleans on a flatboat and later while walking home. A future preacher, he would always remember that of the 40 houses below the bluff, most were "occupied principally by gamblers and lewd women. These houses were located on a narrow strip of bottom land; and there was no place spoken of as a greater sink of sin than 'Natchez under the Hill.'"
Some of the young men who had traveled down the river on flatboats "visited these houses of lewdness." But, said Gardner, "I did not." A long illness in New Orleans had almost robbed him of his health and left him with only pennies in his pocket. He later returned to Natchez with a load of watermelons and sold them quickly, realizing a modest profit.
"I avoided bad company, lewd women, and places of drinking, and all gambling, with one exception," he said. "There was to be a horse race, and I heard someone say, 'If the morning is cloudy, the dark horse will win.'
"The morning was cloudy, so I bet five dollars on the brown horse. The money was staked, and, the horses started. My heart fluttered with fear, for I had no money to lose. It was a close race, but the judges announced that the brown horse had won.
"I took the money -- (he doesn't say how much) -- and as it was the first so it was the last bet that I ever made. I did it thoughtless of the evil; but it is a wonder that winning did not make a gambler of me."
IN RECENT WEEKS, we wrote about Windy Hill Manor, once the home of New Jersey native Benijah Osmun and later the Stanton family, which was demolished in the 1960s. Built in the late 1700s and expanded in the early 1800s, the house was located more than a mile off Liberty Road and there, Aaron Burr, the former vice-president, stayed for several days in 1807.
Smokye Joe Frank of Natchez, who has studied the Natchez Indians for years, has walked much ground in Natchez country and probably knows as much or more about the many archaeological sites in the region than anyone. He's also discovered old road beds and noted recently:
"Archaeological evidence has indicated that a number of pre-1730 Natchez Indian house sites were located on the ridge tops near Windy Hill. They were part of an extended Natchez village that was situated on a trail from Windy Hill through the woods to Washington, Mississippi. This trail can be traced out and predates the Old Washington Road."
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