Knowing Natchez by Its Dead

Make your way around Natchez, Miss., and you get the sense that if some people ever got really close to living like European aristocrats in the United States, it happened there. The town, which overlooks the Mississippi River, has perhaps the greatest concentration of splendid antebellum mansions in the country. “Economic historians will tell you that Natchez was the richest town per capita in the United States from about 1820 to 1860,” said Mimi Miller, executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation.

Most of those fortunes were wiped out by the Civil War; but Ms. Miller believes that Natchez itself, with all its grand homes, was spared largely because “Natchez voted against secession.” Not that its elite were opposed to slavery — most of their fortunes were built on cotton, and thus on slave labor — but, as Ms. Miller put it, the town’s leading citizens recognized that “secession was bad for business — and crazy.” Even today, she said, you rarely see Confederate flags there.

Instead, many proud Natchezians honor their heritage — and, in some cases, subsist — by preserving their big old houses and opening them to the public: some year-round, many more during annual spring and fall pilgrimages.

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Most of Natchez rests on top of a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, but one neighborhood, at its base, is known as Natchez-under-the-Hill.CreditSara Essex Bradley for The New York Times

“Natchez is a blue dot in a red state,” Ms. Miller explained; and, like most living, breathing contradictions, it has a complex and compelling back story. You could say the town is even more riddled with history than it is with Old South manors and manners. And since so much of Natchez is counterintuitive, it makes an odd kind of sense that the best place to start exploring its history is the last stop for so many of its residents: the city cemetery.

It was established in 1822, on 10 acres; today it comprises around 110, verdant meadows infiltrated with hills and speckled with big old trees, some of which are, true to archetype, dripping with Spanish moss. Not everyone buried there — and no one knows how many people that may be — was rich, of course.

But the rich are the easiest to spot: Just look for the really big pillars, like the one for Frederick Stanton (1794-1859). His epitaph, “We walk by faith and not by sight,” seems ironic considering that his stone, which sits atop a hill, can be seen from just about anywhere on the grounds. “Just like his house dominates the town, his marker dominates the cemetery,” Ms. Miller noted. That house, Stanton Hall, completed in 1858, occupies an entire city block.

The pillars naturally draw the eye, but the best stories can be found on more modest markers. There are veterans of the Revolutionary War, and explorers, and artists, and gamblers, and the founder of the state’s first newspaper. And there are some who, even in such company, stand out:

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Don José Vidal was laid to rest in the “Old Catholic” section of the cemetery.CreditSara Essex Bradley for The New York Times

Here Reposeth the remains of Don JOSÉ VIDAL

Who was Born in the city of Coruña, Spain March 12, 1765

DIED In New Orleans on the 22, of July 1828.

Natchez was founded by the French in 1716 — two years before New Orleans — and appropriated, after the French and Indian War, by the British. But the Spanish, who in turn seized it from the otherwise-occupied British in 1779, had the greatest impact on colonial Natchez, even though they only held it for 19 years before ceding it to the Americans. It was the Spanish who laid out Natchez in its current form. They even installed a cotton gin there in 1795 — just two years after Eli Whitney invented the machine in Georgia.

“The Anglo settlers loved the Spanish,” Ms. Miller said. “They spoke of the Spanish days as the Golden Days: no taxation, liberal land grants.” Don José, who reposeth beneath a respectable but hardly ostentatious column, was the secretary to Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, the last Spanish governor of Natchez; the town of Vidalia, La., just across the Mississippi, is named for him. The Don is interred in the cemetery’s Plat 1, or the “Old Catholic” section. It has, Ms. Miller said, “some of the oldest graves — and the most poorly cared-for.”

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The grave of William Johnson, who owned plantations, a barbershop and slaves.CreditSara Essex Bradley for The New York Times

IN MEMORY OF WILLIAM JOHNSON

BORN 1809 IN NATCHEZ MISS.

DEPARTED THIS LIFE JUNE 17, 1851

“He was murdered,” Ms. Miller said of the man buried beneath this very large, flat rectangular stone slab, also in Plat 1. “Over a land dispute.” The Natchez Courier denounced “a horrible and deliberate murder” that was “committed upon an excellent and most inoffensive man” who held “a respected opinion on account of his character, intelligence and deportment.” It noted: “We observed very many of our most respected citizens at his funeral … Johnson left a wife, nine children, and quite a handsome property; probably twenty to thirty thousand dollars.” He owned plantations, a thriving barbershop, and slaves.

And he was black.

He was born a slave. The man who owned him, also presumed to have been his father, emancipated him at age 11, an act Mississippi made very difficult and later banned. William Johnson’s status as a free man of color, as one of Natchez’s more respected and successful businessmen and as a slaveholder are remarkable, but not unique. What really makes him special is that he kept a meticulously detailed diary. It’s a record of loans he made and game he bagged, local events (lots of brawls) and gossip (lots of feuds). In that regard, it’s about as scrupulous an eye-level account of antebellum Natchez as you will find. But it can also be a harrowing read, knowing what fate had in store for its author, and contemplating the peculiar existence of a black slaveholder. He had tried to train one of his slaves, Steven, as a barber, but it didn’t take:

“To day has been to me a very Sad Day; many tears was in my Eyes to day On acct. of my selling poor Steven … I felt hurt but Liquor is the Cause of his troubles; I would not have parted with Him if he had Only Let Liquor alone but he Cannot do it I believe …”

Mr. Johnson’s significance to history is confirmed by the fact that his house in town is today a museum run by the National Park Service; his significance to his contemporaries is confirmed by the fact that his and his family’s graves are surrounded by those of other prominent families of Natchez, all of whom were white. Natchez’s cemetery was, like others throughout the South, racially segregated — but unlike those others, Ms. Miller explained, in Natchez’s “it wasn’t always adhered to.” Other African Americans are buried throughout the cemetery, too.

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The tombstone of Rosalie Beekman, daughter of Aaron and Fanny Beekman, who died in 1862.CreditSara Essex Bradley for The New York Times

פ״נ ריזל בת אהרן

ROSALIE, daughter of AARON & FANNY BEEKMAN

Born May 13th 1855 Died Sept. 3d 1862

SHE WAS KILLED BY A SHELL, AND WAS THE SOLE VICTIM OF THE BOMBARDMENT OF NATCHEZ, BY THE U.S. NAVY, SEPT 2d 1862.

Natchez wasn’t entirely spared during the Civil War, but responsibility for its one instance of bloodshed lies squarely with locals, not the Yankees. On Sept. 2, 1862, the Union gunboat Essex docked at Natchez to take on some ice for its wounded sailors. No one in town seemed to mind except “a group of retired men, sort of a home guard — they called themselves ‘the Silver Grays,’” Ms. Miller said, her voice tinged with contempt. “They got upset, and overreacted, and fired at them. The Essex retaliated, and shelled the city of Natchez.” Some buildings were hit; miraculously, there was only one casualty: 7-year-old Rosalie Beekman, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Germany.

“We had a large wave of Jewish immigration starting about 1840,” Ms. Miller explained, “from the French-German regions of Europe.” Along with an earlier wave of English and Scottish craftsmen, she said, these Jewish immigrants “had the largest impact on the town.” They were, for the most part, merchants; the community grew and grew, attracting more immigrants from Central and later Eastern Europe. Their names can still be found embedded in sidewalks and painted on buildings. The handsome domed synagogue they built downtown, Temple B’nai Israel, is still in use, though few members of the congregation remain. Many more can be found in several Jewish sections in the cemetery. Rosalie rests in the “Old Jewish” section, which dates to 1844. Her parents, who lived into the 20th century, can be found in a newer section, laid out atop what is called Jewish Hill.

It’s said that as Aaron Beekman and his family were running for shelter from the bombardment, he saw his daughter fall, and urged her to get up.

“I can’t, Papa,” she replied. “I’m killed.”

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No one knows where Louise came from, but after she fell gravely ill and died, a Presbyterian minister buried her.CreditSara Essex Bradley for The New York Times

LOUISE.

THE UNFORTUNATE.

There was a lot of unfortunate in Natchez back when. You didn’t have to be murdered by a greedy neighbor or shelled by a Union gunboat to die before your time, as another marker near Louise’s attests: It commemorates Joseph Eisley’s wife and five children, all of whom died of yellow fever within one week in 1853. When Eisley himself passed away, 39 years later, someone chiseled his name, in a humbler font, at the bottom of that long list.

As for Louise, she worked down by the river, where unfortunate dwelt in abundance. While most of Natchez rests atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, one neighborhood, at its base, is known as Natchez-under-the-Hill. Today it’s just a few blocks of gift shops and fun-but-not-too-raucous pubs; back in the day, though, it was much larger, with a rather colorful reputation. As Joseph Holt Ingraham, a New Englander who visited Natchez in the early 1830s, wrote in his 1835 account “The South-West, by a Yankee”:

“Like the celebrated “Five Points” in New-York, ‘Natchez under the Hill,’ as it has been aptly named, has extended its fame throughout the United States, in wretched rhyme and viler story. For many years it has been the nucleus of vice upon the Mississippi.”

Steamships were constantly docking at and shipping out from the landings at Natchez-under-the-Hill. The streets were lined with grog shops, gambling dens and bordellos, and teemed at all hours with stevedores, sailors, gangs and thieves. And prostitutes.

No one knows where Louise came from or how she ended up in Natchez, but at some point, she fell gravely ill — likely with consumption — and a number of her co-workers implored a Presbyterian minister, Joseph Buck Stratton, to pay her a call. “I would have shrunk from it,” Mr. Stratton wrote in his diary in May 1849, “but the friends wished me to be with them and I stayed for their good and my own, to see the Prostitute die … it was a death that gives no tangible ground for hope.”

Mr. Stratton buried Louise and commissioned her stone. It’s not known how many others like her are interred throughout the cemetery. Most, it is presumed, have no marker at all.

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There aren’t many cemeteries where pets, in this case the St. Bernard Eva Marie, are regularly buried alongside their owners.CreditSara Essex Bradley for The New York Times

IN LOVING MEMORY OF EVA MARIE OUR ST. BERNARD DEC. 4, 1991 MAR. 15, 1999

EVIE, SO SWEET, GENTLE, LOVING AND BEAUTIFUL, YOU BROUGHT LOVE AND JOY BEYOND MEASURE. WAIT FOR US.

I can’t recall another cemetery where pets are regularly interred alongside their owners, but they are in Natchez’s, including, in one of its newer sections, nine St. Bernards arrayed around a large dual marker fitted with twin urns and a modest obelisk. “LIVED AT THE BRIARS 1975-2008”— a tribute to the dogs’ owners’ 1818-built mansion, the childhood home of Varina Howell Davis, the first lady of the Confederacy — is the only epitaph Oliver Newton Wilds, Jr. and Robert Everett Canon chose for their stone. “Bob and Newt,” Ms. Miller told me with a smile. “Most people just called them ‘The Boys at the Briars.’”

In 2016, shortly after Mississippi passed a law allowing individuals, businesses and organizations to deny service to LGBT customers, Natchez issued its own statement referencing the new ordinance and declaring, without reservation, that all were welcome in their city.

“Natchez,” Ms. Miller said, “marches to its own drummer. Always.”

The 2019 Spring Pilgrimage runs through April 16.

Richard Rubin is the author of “The Last of the Doughboys” and “Back Over There,” as well as a book about Mississippi, “Confederacy of Silence.”


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