Natchez: Full of gracious Southern hospitality

Nestled in the southwestern corner of Mississippi, the charming city of Natchez promotes itself as having more historic homes than any other American city. Virtually every street in the Historic District has homes that are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places or are designated National Historic Landmarks. Its 20,000 residents take pride in sharing their historic community with visitors.

At the time of its founding in 1716, Natchez was the only port on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and the mouth of the Ohio River. This steamboat era made residents so wealthy that half of America’s millionaires lived in Natchez in the early 18th century. When the Civil War started in 1861, Natchez was almost 150 years old. Fortunately, buildings in Natchez was unscathed by Civil War battles.

The 128-acre Grand Village of the Natchez Indians preserves the heritage of the area’s first residents. Of special interest are three ceremonial mounds and a reconstructed Indian house.

Located on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, Rosalie is a circa 1820 mansion built on the former site of Fort Rosalie where the French suffered a massacre in the 18th century. It was built by lumber baron Peter Little who spared no expense to have top quality construction. The home was sold to Andrew Wilson in 1857. Mrs. Wilson soon traveled to New York City where she purchased 20 pieces of rosewood furniture made by John Henry Belter. Visitors today can see one of the finest collections of Belter furniture on public display in America. During the Civil War, Rosalie served as Union headquarters following the surrender of Natchez.

Union General Walter Gresham ordered his troops to lock all the furniture and fragile accessories in the attic. Therefore, nothing was damaged except the dining room. Today, the white marble mantel over the dining room fireplace has smoke damage and cracks because the soldiers cooked in this fireplace.

Another perspective on antebellum history can be seen by touring the William Johnson House, which was built in 1841. Johnson was a free African American who worked as a barber. He kept a diary from 1835 until his death in 1851. Johnson’s writings provide an extraordinary overview of social, political and economic life in Natchez. Visitors to the Johnson House see his personal belongings as well as exhibits relating to African-Americans in the area.

Learn more about the role of both freed blacks and slaves at the Natchez Museum of Afro-American History and Culture, where hundreds of exhibits explain the importance of African-Americans in Natchez from the end of the Civil War through World War II.

Natchez has more than 40 bed and breakfast inns awaiting weary tourists and many are located in restored historic homes. Built in 1818, Monmouth Plantation was originally the home of Mexican War hero General John Quitman. Today it’s an award winning luxury inn with the perfect blend of historic charm and modern amenities. The circa 1855 Greek Revival mansion known as Dunleith Historic Inn rises majestically over 40 acres of manicured gardens and wooded bayous in the heart of the city. It has been called the most photographed home in America. Guest rooms are furnished with period antiques and reproductions.

The best time to enjoy the majesty of gracious southern mansions is during a Natchez Pilgrimage. Visitors to Natches – known as “pilgrims,” will have the opportunity to visit 28 antebellum mansions, many of them private residences during the 76th anniversary of the Spring Pilgrimage, which will be held March 8 through April 12, 2008. The selection of tour houses changes daily throughout the five-week event. Hostesses will welcome visitors to four houses each morning and four each afternoon.

The Historic Natchez Pageant, which will be performed four times a week, depicts scenes from the Old South as it transports the audience to the era when cotton was King. With more than 200 local performers in elaborate period costumes, this show has become as noteworthy as the home tours.

No tour of Natchez is complete without a leisurely ride on the Natchez Trace Parkway. This route began as a trail for Indians about 8,000 years ago. In “recent” years it was used by Spanish explorers, British troops and frontier settlers. Today, this 444-mile stretch of national highway runs northeast from Natchez through the northwest tip of Alabama to Nashville, Tenn. No commercial traffic is allowed and the speed limit is 50 mph. This route provides a breathtaking scenic oasis for drivers, hikers and bikers to literally stop and smell the roses.