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|The wealthy in 19th Century Natchez: What did they contribute to economy?|
In 1835, Irish-born stage actor Tyrone Power, in Natchez for several performances at the local theater, flitted about town and country as the guest of wealthy landowners, merchants and professional men.
At the Concord mansion, built by the last Spanish governor of Natchez in the 1790s, Power was entertained by Katherine Lintot Minor. She was the widow of American born Stephen Minor, one of the most prominent men of wealth and political influence locally during both Spanish and American rule.
Concord (located next to the old tire plant) was among the first of many mansions erected in Natchez from the 1790s through the 1850s. Built by Manuel Gayoso, Concord was purchased by Stephen Minor not long after Gayoso died in 1799. Power called the mansion, which he described in glowing terms, as "the very beau ideal (perfection) of a Southern dwelling..."
There, Power met a black man whom he was told was 120 years old. The man had been purchased by Stephen Minor 50 years earlier. It was on the backs of men like Minor's slave that the wealthy of Natchez grew rich in their agricultural pursuits.
By 1835, renowned actors like Power were performing in the local theater in Natchez as the town by then had grown from a frontier outpost into a commercial center where the wealthy indulged themselves in the things required to live a finer life. A lavish social scene had emerged among the rich. Paintings and great art from Europe were imported to fill the sprawling mansions, and from around the globe fine wines and clothing arrived daily by steamboat at the landing under-the-hill.
But what did the Natchez wealthy give back to the community to contribute to the region's economic and social well-being? Not much, according to historian D. Clayton James. In his book "Antebellum Natchez," James gave this assessment:
"On the eve of the Civil War Natchez boasted one of the largest concentrations of men of great wealth of any town in the south. The notion of 'wealthy Natchez' was created largely by the presence of this nabobery. The aristocrats' contributions to the local economy, however, are debatable, for in many instances their principal holdings lay outside the town and country. Some paid almost all of their taxes to the Louisiana government (where their large plantations were located), few seem to have added much to the tax coffers of Natchez and Adams County.
"In shipping and importing they usually dealt with the wealthy local commission merchants or directly with the factors of Liverpool, New York, or New Orleans. Thus the downtown middle-class businessmen did not profit greatly from their proximity...The role of the men of great wealth in Natchez may be compared with that of certain Northern coal magnates, who, mainly for social reasons, chose to keep their residences in a town long after their labors had exhausted the local resources and had moved on to more lucrative strip-mining elsewhere."
A local newspaper, The Natchez Free-Trader, said the small farmer contributed much more to the local economy than the large plantation owner.
In 1842, the paper reported:
"They (small farmers) would crowd our streets with fresh and healthy supplies of home productions, and the proceeds would be expended here among our merchants, grocers and artisans. The large planters –- the one-thousand-bale planters -- do not contribute most to the prosperity of Natchez. They, for the most part, sell their cotton in Liverpool; buy their wines in London or Havre; their Negro clothing in Boston; their plantation implements and supplies in Cincinnati; and their groceries and fancy articles in New Orleans.
"The small planter has not the credit nor the business connections to do this; he requires the proceeds of his crop as soon as it can be sold; and he purchases and pays for, cash in hand, almost every necessary want during the year, in the same market where he sells his cotton. The small planter hoards no money in these times; he lends none at usurious (exorbitant) rates of interest; he buys up the property of no unfortunate debtor for a few dollars; but he lays it all out for the purchase of supplies, and thus directly contributes his mite to the prosperity of our city."
In 1854, Frederick Law Olmsted was a journalist working for the New York Times when he visited Natchez. In the days before he became famous for designing Central Park in New York, he strolled about the region and was overwhelmed by its beauty. Olmstead, however, was turned off by the attitude of the rich and described their "marble-like" behavior as they looked at others "stealthily from the corner of their eyes without turning their heads..."
A man interviewed by Olmsted warned him of the "young swell-heads (rich)...Why, you can tell them by their walk...They sort o' throw their legs as if they hadn't got the strength enough to lift 'em and put them down in any particular place. They do want so bad to look as if they weren't made of the same clay as the rest of God's creation."
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