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|Prostitution in Natchez thrived under four flags in 1700s|
(First in a Series)
One cultural deposit deeply imbedded in the history of Natchez country is prostitution. Examples of its existence can be found in the journals of Frenchmen dating back to the early 1700s.
When the Europeans first explored this region, they witnessed the existence of prostitution among various Indian tribes, Much of it was managed by local chiefs who would happily provide an exploring European with a villager's daughter for a time in exchange for various goods, ranging from blankets to trinkets, or simply to promote good will.
Prostitution in Natchez country probably still exists today, although not in the publicly-tolerated manner it did for hundreds of years. In Concordia, it took the determination of newly-elected District Attorney William C. Falkenheiner, who was pushed by a ministerial alliance, to close the Morville Lounge for good in early 1967. In the months and years to follow, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice arrested and prosecuted the mobsters, law enforcement officers and madams involved in the cash-rich Morville operation where prostitution and gambling thrived for almost three years. The official end to Natchez prostitution came in 1990 after the murder of legendary madam Nellie Jackson.
For centuries, the Natchez Indians and their close relatives on the Louisiana side of the river, the Tensas (Taensa), dominated life in this region. Historian John R. Swanton wrote in his 1911 book, "Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley": "Looseness on the part of the Natchez and Taensa women was particularly noted and commented upon by the first missionaries, and there was little in their dealing with the Frenchmen to improve them in this respect." In fact, Swanton said "a girl was esteemed" by the money "she would amass by the loan of her person..."
Frenchman Jean-François Dumont, who operated a plantation in Natchez for a few years beginning in 1722, wrote that "girls let themselves out willingly to the Frenchmen in the capacity of slaves and mistresses at the same time" for money, adding that "they remain in these two relations during the space of a month."
Without question, women suffered great emotional and physical abuse from prostitution and through the centuries many a child was born or aborted as a result of this practice. Frenchman Andre' Penicaut, a ship's carpenter, wrote that if the daughter of a Natchez Indian couple became pregnant as a result of prostitution and wanted to rear the child, the parents would assist. But if the daughter didn't want the child or if the family was unable to provide adequate care, the infant would be strangled and buried "seemingly as routine."
In the of spring of 1767 during British rule, West Florida Lt. Gov. Montfort Browne visited Natchez country. At the village of the Tunica on the east side of the Mississippi in present day West Feliciana Parish, he was hosted by a chief who, during the Calumet dance, gifted Browne with the promise of marriage to a Tunica girl upon her 12th birthday.
During the 1700s, French, British and Spanish governments each occasionally kept a military force at Natchez, usually very small. Any frontier outpost with single, bored and lonely men was a good market for prostitutes who, despite the surrounding wilderness, managed to find their way here.
In 1797, U.S. Captain Isaac Guion, the civil and military authority in Natchez during the period after the departure of the Spanish and before the arrival of the American governor, chastised Lt. Joseph Campbell about the lieutenant's affair with a prostitute. Guion instructed Campbell by letter to "change your conduct and abandon" the harlot who had moved into the lieutenant's tent up river, adding, "I now positively forbid you having any further connexion with this woman, on the point of arrest for disobedience of general orders and ungentlemanly conduct; you will do well to reflect on your late behavior and speedily reform it...."
When Winthrop Sargent, the first governor of the new U.S. Territory of Mississippi, arrived in Natchez in August 1798, he quickly decided that Guion's small U.S. Army garrison should move down river. By this time a growing underworld of gambling, prostitution and thieving was developing under-the-hill. Sargent quickly informed Gen. James Wilkinson, who arrived in Natchez a day before the governor, to relocate the men at Loftus Heights, a high point along the Mississippi in present day Wilkinson County where a military post known as Fort Adams was established.
At the time, the heights were in the middle of nowhere on the southwestern corner of the United States near the border with Spain. Sargent told Wilkinson his troops should remove to the wilderness there, rather than remain in Natchez, "to prevent (the) men from debauching, and being debauched..."
Seven miles below Fort Adams, United States and Spanish surveyors and work crews were jointly marking the new border established as a result of the Treaty of San Lorenzo. But during the long, hot summer of 1798, the camp had been embroiled in turmoil over a prostitute, who was reportedly hired as a "washer woman." The woman was employed by Andrew Ellicott, the talented, competent and married American commissioner of the survey who. during a year-long stay in Natchez, reportedly developed a liking for local "milk maids." The washer woman was apparently brought down with Ellicott's crew from Philadelphia primarily to satisfy the physical needs of Ellicott's son.
Her presence in camp, and Ellicott's arrogant temperament, fueled a controversy that raged for years. Differing accounts of camp life, including an alleged ménage à trois which included the woman, Ellicott and his son, surfaced in depositions in the years to follow. At the time, military and civilian authorities, including Gov. Sargent, commented about the situation in their correspondence.
Yet these genuine accounts of prostitution during the 1700s under the flags of the French, the British, the Spanish and the Americans, paled in comparison to the developments that followed in the 1800s. In two decades -- from 1800 to 1820 -- prostitution in American Natchez would become one of the city's biggest industries and tourist attractions, and would be centered on a stretch of ground under-the-hill along a street called Maiden Lane.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|