The most lasting contribution of the Natchez Indians, who inhabited the area at the time of the first European settlement in 1716 as a French fort, is their tradition of living in scattered parts of the region. The French continued this tradition. They were superceded in 1763 by the English, who built homes primarily along the riverfront below the bluff and also obtained a number of land grants. Again, the region changed hands as the Spanish acquired it in 1779. They laid out the grid which forms the major part of the downtown area of Natchez, gave out large land grants, and built Silver Street to connect the area along the riverfront with the growing town on top of the hill. In 1798, Natchez became the capital of the Mississippi Territory, the southwest frontier of the young United States of America.
The earliest buildings remaining here are those from the frontier period, such as King’s Tavern and Mount Locust on the Natchez Trace. As the town and the nation developed, homes began to incorporate elements of Georgian architecture and then the Federal style of architecture, sometimes with a trace of West Indies galleries or other details designed to make life more comfortable in this area. This style is characterized by windows which often have twelve small panes in each half of the windows, by slender columns, and by fanlights over the front door. There are a number of these early homes remaining in Natchez.
Of course, it was necessary for the area to develop an economic base in order to prosper. The Natchez Trace was an overland route used by those who brought goods down the Mississippi River and then returned to other parts of the northeastern section of the country. Transportation along the Mississippi River improved tremendously after the first steamboat was launched in 1811. Efforts to find a major crop included attempts to grow indigo, sugarcane, and cotton. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the development of improved strains of cotton by local planters, and the means of moving the cotton to market via the steamboats, the area had found the source of its prosperity.
During the past few years, the factories have left Natchez. They have been replaced with a new emphasis on education and technology with the development of Natchez campuses for Copiah Lincoln Junior College and Alcorn State University, with the development of year round cultural events such as the month-long opera festival, with a determination to creatively utilize the abundant natural and human resources of the area, and with an increasing spirit of cooperation as citizens work together to improve the local economy.
The National Park Service has established the Natchez National Historical Park; the Natchez Trace Parkway is bringing its terminus into the city; the new Natchez Convention Center is bringing conventions and special activities to Natchez; antebellum Memorial Hall is being outfitted to serve as the home of the newly designated Federal Court in Natchez; and the city is very actively involved in economic development. People are moving to Natchez-- retirees, immigrants, young people, entrepreneurs, people returning home after living away, those seeking a way of life which allows each individual to make a contribution to the community and to be appreciated. Natchez is continuing its long tradition of opportunity begun by those who first arrived to a frontier wilderness and who were able to use their abilities to establish a vibrant, affluent city high above the Mississippi River.
Once again, there are new homes being built, many of which incorporate the latest amenities and architectural styles. The construction of luxury, custom built homes has expanded the area’s housing. Four lane roads have connected areas which were once considered far from the city, allowing people to live in rural areas and still be quickly connected with the community. The economic expansion on both the Mississippi and Louisiana sides of the river is providing new opportunities for the entire area.
The best things about Natchez are its people and their attitude of optimism tempered by a strong work ethic and creative approaches to improving life in the community for all of its inhabitants and to making Natchez a place to love forever.
The oil crash came in the mid 1980’s; and once again, Natchez was devastated. By that time, the flourishing oil industry had become the backbone of the local economy. Many of the service industries which had developed were eliminated, and building came to a halt. Very little new construction of homes took place, and the population declined as people left to find jobs elsewhere. However, the city and its citizens had come to appreciate the importance of the historic properties here, historic ordinances were passed, and many homes and buildings have been restored.
With the beginning of the Natchez Pilgrimage in 1932, interest began to develop in preserving and restoring the antebellum properties of the area; and the income from tourism helped finance and save some of these homes.
After World War II, oil was discovered in the Natchez area, several manufacturing plants were built, and the population grew as people came to fill the jobs which were created. Some of the larger homes were divided into apartments to house the influx of workers. New subdivisions were built, and the city again expanded outwards. Many of these new homes were small, because owners generally paid for the homes completely themselves or made very large down payments on loans for them.
The Natchez economy grew after World War II, with the Armstrong Tire and Rubber Company, Johns Manville Company, Holsum Bakery, the Natchez Pecan Company, International Paper Company, the timber and cattle industries, and the oil business. Many land owners who had royalty interest in oil wells were able to build fine new homes or to restore antebellum ones. Subdivisions were built with larger, more modern and spacious homes.
With this prosperity came an increase in population and a desire to build bigger and finer homes. Natchez thrived; and by the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, Natchez was graced by a large number of grand homes and buildings, both in the town and in the surrounding area in the form of suburban villas. Many smaller cottages and tenement houses were interspersed throughout the town, providing housing for workers in the local cotton mills and in the grand homes.
After the introduction to the nation of the Greek Revival style of architecture in the construction beginning in 1819 of the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the building of the Agricultural Bank in 1833 in Natchez, homes in Natchez adapted this style and made it the quintessential expression of the Southern mansion. Natchez has many examples of homes, both small and grand, of the Greek Revival style of architecture, often combined with details from Federal or other earlier styles. Typical of this style are a block-shaped house, square columns or those using the Greek order which often support two-storied porticos, large square or rectangular side and top lights around doors, windows with six over six panes of glass, and doors with two vertical panels. Shortly before the Civil War, some new homes began to incorporate many Gothic Revival and Italianate details. Life in Natchez was grand; and the homes echoed this affluence.
Then came the Civil War. The cotton plantations no longer flourished, and few people had the means to build mansions or to “update” their homes by changing them to the latest styles. However, a class of merchants soon developed, prospered, and built a number of the commercial buildings in downtown Natchez. Many of the large suburban estates of the antebellum period were subdivided, as the town expanded outwards from its center and new styles of architecture were introduced.
Many Victorian or Queen Anne homes were built in Natchez around the turn of the 19th century, filling in the spaces around older homes and expanding the city outwards. Both large and small homes were built in this style; they were ornamented with porches and decorative brackets and railings, steep roofs, leaded or stained glass windows, and original and highly ornamented styling.
Again, Natchez suffered a decline in its economic fortunes with the advent of the boll weevil in 1908. Cotton was no longer king, planters who had managed to just hang on to their property were ruined, and Natchez declined. Most of the homes which were built prior to World War II were comparatively small, many in the bungalow or cottage styles.