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Story Archives: Natchez Under-the-Hill thriving center of commerce & sin in 1820-30s
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|Natchez Under-the-Hill thriving center of commerce & sin in 1820-30s|
(Third in a series)
For centuries, Natchez Under-the-Hill has been described vividly by river travelers, newly-arriving residents and writers. Among these witnesses to history during the 1820s and 1830s were two men, John Quitman, a Mississippi governor, and Joseph Holt Ingraham, a writer whose 19th Century book was cited as a source for the 1956 movie, "The Ten Commandments." Their words were written at a time when the steamboat was revolutionizing travel on the Mississippi.
The first steamboat seen at Natchez was the New Orleans, built in Pittsburgh in 1811 for $38,000. The steamer was either a stern-wheeler or side-wheeler -- there are varying accounts -- but it is known that it was 148 feet long and 32 feet wide. On her maiden voyage, the vessel encountered various problems but overcame them all. It also survived the New Madrid earthquake that shook the Mississippi Valley and wiped out landmarks typically used by river travelers for navigation.
On December 30, according to historian J.H.B. Latrobe, the New Orleans "came in sight of Natchez, and rounded to opposite the landing place. Expecting to remain here for a day or two, the engineer had allowed his fires to go down, so that when the boat turned its head up stream it lost headway altogether, and was being carried down by the current, far below the intended landing.
"Thousands were assembled on the bluff and at the foot of it; and, for a moment, it would have seemed that the New Orleans had achieved what she had done, so far, only that she might be overcome at last. Fresh fuel, however, was added, the engine was stopped, that steam might accumulate; presently the safety valve lifted -- a few turns of the wheel steadied the boat -- a few more gave her headway; and, overcoming even the Mississippi, she gained the shore amid shouts of exultation and applause."
Among the thousands in Natchez that day was Samuel Davis, a wealthy transplant from Philadelphia who owned plantations throughout the region and was the son-in-law of the Spaniard Joseph Vidal, the founder of Vidalia. According to Mississippi historian J.F.H. Claiborne: "Mr. Davis was the only man in the crowd that had the nerve to ship cotton on the first trip of the boat. The first cotton ever shipped by steamer from Natchez was shipped by him, and he was thought to be taking a very great risk."
Eleven years later in 1822, a 23-year-old New York native caught his first glimpse of Natchez Under-the-Hill. John Quitman was born in 1798, the year Natchez became American, and he was a young man seeking his fortune when he arrived here by steamer.
Quitman later married Elizabeth Turner, daughter of a Supreme Court judge, and would benefit from her healthy dowry. In time, Quitman would own and operate four plantations and depend on 400 enslaved Africans to labor in his fields. In 1826, four years after his arrival in Natchez, he bought Monmouth Plantation for $12,000, where he died in 1858 at the age of 59.
Quitman would become quite famous in Natchez -- elected to the legislature, a judgeship, governorship and to Congress. His greatest fame came from his exploits during the Mexican-American War from 1846-48, where he rose to the rank of major-general in the U.S. Army.
He described Natchez in a letter after his arrival here as "a bustling place. The streets are lined with carriages, drays (carts) and wagons. The rush to the river is incessant. Every hour we hear the roar of the cannon, announcing the arrival and departure of steamers. Hundreds of arks or flatboats, loaded with the produce of the western States, even from the interior of Pennsylvania, here line the landing for half a mile, often lying five tier deep..."
Under-the-hill, he said, "vice and infamy are rampant and glaring, and the law almost powerless. Day and night the orgies of blackguardism (scoundrels) and depravity are enacted without shame and restraint. The Sabbath is there particularly a day of profanation and debauchery. The gambler, the bully, the harlot reign triumphant, and little jurisdiction is taken over the atrocities..."
Twelve years after Quitman's arrival, Joseph Holt Ingraham's steamboat came into view of Natchez in 1835 where he viewed "a pile of gray and white cliffs with here and there a church steeple, a roof elevated above its summit, and a light-house hanging on the verge."
Ingraham was 26, an educated man born in Portland, Maine. He became a professor of language at Jefferson College in nearby Washington. His most famous work of non-fiction -- "The Southwest. By A Yankee." -- includes his description of Natchez. An Episcopal clergyman, Ingraham also wrote a book of fiction in 1859 -- a religious romance -- entitled, "The Pillar of Fire, or Israel in Bondage." It was the basis for the 1956 Cecille B. DeMille movie, "The Ten Commandments," starring Charleston Heston.
While viewing Natchez for the first time from the deck of his steamer, Ingraham also observed that at "the foot of the bluffs are long, straggling lines of wooden buildings, principally stores and storehouses; the levee is fringed with flatboats and steamers, and above all, tower majestically the masts of two or three ships. The whole prospect from the deck presents an interesting scene of commercial life and bustle."
He called under-the-hill "a repulsive spot," which "had the tendency to depreciate the city, and fasten upon it a bad name...for many years it has been the nucleus of vice upon the Mississippi. But, for two or three years past, the establishment of respectable mercantile houses, and an excellent hotel, combined with an efficient police, and a spirit of moral reform among the citizens, has, in a great measure, redeemed the place -- changed its repulsive character and canceled its disgraceful name. Though now on the highway of reform, there is still enough of the cloven-hoof (mark of Satan) visible, to enable the stranger to recognize its former reputation was well earned.
"The principal street, which terminates at the ascent of the hill, runs parallel with the river, and is lined on either side with a row of old wooden houses; which are alternately gambling-houses, brothels, and bar-rooms; a fair assemblage! As we passed through the street -- which we gained with difficulty from the boat, picking our way to it as we could, through a filthy alley -- the low, broken half-sunken sidewalks, were blocked up with fashionably-dressed young men, smoking or lounging, tawdrily arrayed, highly rouged females, sailors, Kentucky boatmen, Negroes, negresses, mulattos, pigs, dogs, and dirty children. The sounds of profanity and Bacchanalian (drunken) revels, well harmonizing with the scene, assailed our ears as we passed hastily along, through an atmosphere of tobacco smoke and other equally fragrant odors.
"After a short walk we emerged into a purer air, and in front of a very neat and well-connected hotel. From near this place, extending along the Levee to the north, commences the mercantile part of the 'landing,' lined with stores and extensive warehouses, in which is transacted a very heavy business. The whole of the lower town is built upon a reclaimed flat, from one to two hundred yards broad, and half a mile in length; bounded upon one side by the river, and on the other by the cliff or bluff, upon which Natchez stands..."
So busy was the Natchez landing two years later that the well-respected national newsweekly, the Niles Register, reported that 38,000 bales of cotton were loaded onto vessels bound for Liverpool and 3,500 bales for Boston.
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