November 26, 2010

Antebellum Homes of the Natchez Area, Mississippi

In the Antebellum Period, prior to the Civil War, an elite weathy few ran enormous plantations with hundreds of slaves. With the massive profits of these endeavors, they decided to build grandiose neo-classical and neo-greek revival mansions that are so famous today. While the arcitecture and landscaping certainly is beautiful and impressive, it certainly sits in the back of your mind about under what circumstances they were built and by whose blood and toil it was made possible.

Melrose Estate - A National Park Service owned Antebellum Mansion
Natchez is one of the major centers of Antebellum homes in the south. That is because for the most part, the major battles of the civil war avoided the area and most of the plantations survived unscathed. Natchez National Historic Site preserves some of the structures and history of the antebellum period in Natchez. Included in this site, is the Melrose Estate, which is a mansion owned by the National Park Service.

Domestic Slave Cabins at Melrose Estate
John McMurran established a profitable law practice in Natchez prior to the civil war.  He also won election to state legislature and married into a respected local family.  Over time, he aquired five plantations, 300 plantation slaves, and 25 house slaves. He had the Melrose house built; construction was completed in 1849 on 132 acres of former cotton fields.  

One of the bedrooms inside Melrose Mansion
However, contrary to those famous views of long tree-lined driveways with spanish moss hanging from large live oaks and expansive cotton fields spreading out beyond, that isn't really the way it was in Natchez. Natchez sits on a high bluff above the Mississippi River, which is safe from flooding. So, it's a great place to build. It's also high above the swamps, so the mosquitoes weren't as bad. But, the soft loess soils erode quickly and the nutrients leach too easily, so it turns out to be a bad place to grow cotton.

From high on the bluffs of Natchez looking down to the lowlands of Louisiana

Historic Downtown Natchez
However, on the Louisiana-side of the river, the lowlands flooded frequently, providing a continuous supply nutrients. So, most Natchez plantation owners had their expansive fields on the Louisiana-side and then built their large homes in the town of Natchez to be close to the social activities. As such, there are many beautiful Antebellum homes, but they have no yards and are within walking distance of downtown.

An pre-civil war (and still operating) cotton plantation in Louisiana about 24 miles from Natchez.
The owners live in Natchez, just like they always did.

Beautiful Victoria-style home in Natchez

Another beautiful home in Natchez
There remains a great deal of money in Natchez. Many people still own farmland in Louisiana, while maintaining their fancy homes and street-side businesses in the downtown district. We were told that there remains a lot of "old money" from that by-gone era in the area. Some might call it "blood money". But, I'll won't quite go that far. But, I will say this, Natchez is a beautiful small city, with beautiful arcitecture and an interesting history and we really enjoyed our stay. 

Ferns and Spanish moss on a live oak at Melrose Estate

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