Traveler’s Tales – Stories From Natchez Mississippi
Every town has its stories. In the south we call them yarns which means “a long or rambling story, especially one that is implausible.” We discovered on a recent visit to Natchez MS that this is a town with way more than its share of yarns. Here are my personal observations, a few southern stories from Natchez Mississippi.
Natchez is obsessed with history…and stories
I have never EVER been to any city where the citizens of a town know more about its history. Seriously, y’all. From people at a local bar to the antebellum home owners to young restaurant waitresses…every single person we met had something to tell you about the history of Natchez.
I would say that the love of history in Natchez borders on obsession.
The history of the homes, the history of the antiques, the history of their collections, their own personal history…story after story all mired in the past.
All about the hiSTORY
Make no mistake, the history told by the Natchez natives was heavy on the “story” part. All kinds of stories of interesting people and events.
At first you might think that the tales are a bit embellished. However, the more you learn the more you realize that what you are hearing is actually true. The people of Natchez seem to have always had a flair for the outlandish. The events in Natchez seem to have always taken a turn toward the dramatic.
Even though the tales are mostly true, they also neglect to mention some of the important parts of the history of Natchez.
Obsessed with their history except for slavery…
There is one story that is barely told. The story of slavery and the way that slavery is inextricable a part of the history of Natchez.
This is a town which once had more millionaires per capita than anywhere but New York. That wealth was built on cotton. It was built on cotton which was planted and harvested by slaves.
So here we were constantly hearing about the past of these grand homes and yet the fact of slavery was almost ignored. It was typically mentioned that the homes had “servants.” One of the guides said, “they’ll tell you around here that there were servants, but let’s be real, they had slaves.” I appreciated his honesty.
This seems to be a part of their past that some in Natchez would like to skim over, to barely mention, perhaps even to try to forget.
I must say that things are starting to change regarding the topic of slavery in Natchez. There was an excellent exhibit at the Natchez Visitor Center about slavery, some of the slave sites have recently received some attention, and there is a local museum of African American History and Culture…but I would say that there is still a long way to go before the complex story of black and white in this city is fully told.
And you want to know something else that was surprising?
It’s not just the locals…
Obsession with the past isn’t only a trait of the born and bred people of Natchez. I discovered that many of the residents and antebellum home owners were from all over the US. They were from the northeast, They were from out west…they weren’t southern at all. Yet, there they were living in Natchez, telling stories of the past of their homes, the past of Natchez, and their own past.
It is as if people from around the country visited this small town, stood on a bluff above the Mississippi river, looked out at the lush river bottom land over in Louisiana, took a deep breath of the hot and humid and history laden air, and thought, “Hallelujah, I’ve found my tribe.”
Perhaps it is because they fit in with the quirkiness of some of the Natchez natives.
It’s not as if I didn’t expect the occasional interesting, resident. That’s normal in the south. The saying here is that we don’t hide our crazy we parade it out on the front porch, sit it in a rocking chair, and give it a cocktail.
I just didn’t expect so many of them to not be southerners!
Natchez is a hard town to describe.
The locals often compare themselves to New Orleans…they will be sure to tell you that Natchez is older than New Orleans and that their town is often called “The Little Easy.” In some cases you feel that they aspire to be like New Orleans and in other cases you get the impression that they already think that they are better.
It is an apt but not totally fair comparison. Natchez is small, much smaller than New Orleans, only about 15,000 residents and shrinking.
However, this small town looms larger than its size. It is complex, confusing, and oddly compelling. Both the people and the place are fascinating. Natchez draws you in with its history and stories and hauntings and gossip and eccentricities and traditions.
The Natchez Pilgrimage
Natchez is a town filled with local traditions – none more venerated than the Natchez Pilgimage.
From the perspective of an outsider the Pilgrimage seems to just be a time when tourists are invited to tour the antebellum homes. To a native Natchez-ian it is much, much more than that.
The Pilgrimage started back in the 1930’s when the grand Natchez homes were falling apart and nobody had the money to fix them up. Some of the ladies of Natchez formed The Natchez Garden Club and planned an event to highlight the town’s gardens.
Unfortunately there was a late spring freeze and the ladies scrambled to find something else to offer the tourists. The women decided to open up their homes to the public for a fee and thus the Pilgrimage was born.
I cannot possibly go into everything we learned about the pilgrimage.
I will simply say that the Pilgrimage is a business. A business run by volunteers, mostly women, and it is a BIG, HUGE deal in this town. It involves many events besides the touring of the homes, the most important of which is the Historic Natchez Tableaux that depicts life in Natchez from its inception to the Civil War through tableaux, song, and dance, as well as the crowning of a king and queen. The Tableaux has come under fire in recent years due to its lack of diversity and the way it depicts or doesn’t depict slavery.
The Pilgrimage is important because it helps the local home owners to pay for the maintenance, taxes, and upkeep of their old homes. It helps the garden clubs (yes, there are more than one due to a rancorous split many years ago) to maintain the houses that they own.
When you dig a little deeper you realize that there is drama, controversy, pettiness, gossip, and jealousy surrounding the management of the Pilgrimage…but there is also unmatched southern hospitality and hope.
Reaction to the book The Deepest South of All
Before going to Natchez I had read the book The Deepest South of All by Richard Grant which is about both the past and the present of the city.
I like to ask people questions and listen to their opinions and their stories. My husband says that in this case I was stirring the pot but…I really didn’t mean to! I was genuinely curious as to what the people of Natchez thought about the book.
What did I find?
Well, before I tell you what they thought I have to say that…
First: I didn’t encounter a single soul in town who would admit to having read the book. Not one. I find that hard to believe.
This is a small town and many, many, many of the locals are mentioned…by name…no less.
I mean, wouldn’t you want to know what was being said about you and your town and your people?
If a book was written about present day Little Rock naming names of the locals I’d be reading the heck out of that book and this is a much bigger city than Natchez.
Second: I didn’t encounter a single soul in town who liked the book. They wouldn’t admit to having read it, but they sure didn’t like it. The nicest comment that I heard about it was from a shop owner who said, “Well, I haven’t read it myself, but I know people aren’t happy about it. Maybe that’s because the truth hurts.”
Third: Even though they wouldn’t admit to having read the book, I heard sad, but true stories of people who had been terribly hurt and who had long time friendships damaged from certain things that the author wrote about them.
Here is a synopsis of the general feelings in town about the book, a book that they won’t admit to having read:
- Richard Grant, the author of the book, was helped greatly by a certain woman in town. Let me just tell you…her name is mud in Natchez right now. Without fail, every single person I asked about the book had something to say about her. None of it was good and sometimes it involved a bit of cussing. I’m sure that she has her supporters, but I didn’t meet any of them.
- Because so much of Mr. Grant’s information came from this one particular person the people of Natchez feel that the book presents a one-sided, lop-sided view of the city and especially of the garden clubs. I suspect that they are right.
- Certain stories were told to the author and then written in the book. Some of these were stories that were a part of local lore, but perhaps not intended for the ears of someone who was going to write it down and publish it for the rest of the world to see.
- There was zero attempt to disguise the identity of the people who are still living in Natchez. In fact, on our visit to Natchez I met person after person who I already “knew” from reading the book. Some of the things that I had read were a bit, well, sordid. It felt voyeuristic to already know certain things about their lives.
- The locals felt that the book was just too gossipy…and they aren’t wrong! It is definitely gossipy.
Why I think this happened
Although, the people of Natchez realized that they were talking to a writer you’ve got to remember the local propensity for story telling.
I suspect that many got carried away due to having a new and interested listener and told stories that they shouldn’t have told.
Plus, we all know how it is. We can talk about the flaws and foibles of our friends and family, but it is different for an outsider to come in and then repeat our scandals, our silliness, and our sordid events for outsiders to hear.
I hope that time will ease the pain that some feel about the contents of this book because after our visit I have developed a soft spot for the people of Natchez.
I also cannot imagine that this book will do anything to damage the town. If anything, it will make it seem that much more fascinating and bring in more tourists.
Take the time to listen
Natchez is a town filled with some of the most interesting and hospitable people I have ever met. It is a town filled with stories.
You should visit.
And when you do I suggest that you take the time to ask questions and listen deeply to the answers. Go to the Under the Hill Saloon and strike up a conversation with an older local. Talk to people in the shops and antique stores. I promise that you will get an earful.
You will hear the yarns and stories from Natchez.
And it was captivating.
Thanks so much for stopping by!