Located on a high bluff overlooking the lower Mississippi River in present-day Mississippi, colonial settlement at Natchez existed on the far fringes of the colonial Atlantic world. Consequently, claims to Natchez and its surrounding hinterlands shifted between Native American and European powers through the eighteenth century. In 1798, the United States incorporated “Natchez Country” into the newly formed Mississippi Territory.
The Natchez Indians who inhabited the bluff were descendants of larger, more centralized nations of the lower Mississippi Valley, which had fragmented into a host of smaller tribes and nations in the 1500s because of disease, warfare between native peoples, and Spanish raids. Like other native nations in the lower Mississippi Valley, the Natchez engaged in mixed agriculture, hunting, and the small-scale trading of deerskins. In the late 1600s, English traders operating out of Charles Town, South Carolina, arrived in the area. This led to a dramatic growth in the deerskin trade and intense competition between Native Americans, who now sought to expand their hunting grounds at the expense of their rivals.
In 1714, French colonial officials made a concerted effort to erect a settlement, fort, and trading post at Natchez to expand their influence in the lower Mississippi Valley. Strategically located between Canada and the Illinois Country to the north, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast to the south, and the Native Americans and fur trade of the lower Mississippi Valley, Natchez became an important trading center in the 1720s. Over 300 Africans, many of whom were slaves, 400 Europeans, and perhaps 1,600 Natchez Indians lived in Natchez during this period. Joining them were scores of native and European traders, who periodically met at Natchez to barter and exchange. In addition to the nearly 50,000 deerskins passing through Natchez annually in the mid- 1720s, the Natchez District’s mixed population produced substantial quantities of wheat and tobacco, along with smaller amounts of rice, indigo, cotton, tar, and silk for exchange at Natchez or downriver in New Orleans.
In 1728, Sieur Etcheparre De Chepart, an ambitious commandant, assumed command of the French fort at Natchez. Relations between the French and the Natchez rapidly deteriorated after Chepart ordered the natives to evacuate a village where he planned to establish a tobacco plantation. A group of Natchez chiefs negotiated a settlement allowing them to remain in their village until harvest. To show their gratitude, they promised that each family would provide the French commandant with a “basket of corn and a fowl” at the end of the harvest.
The Natchez then quickly laid plans to revolt against the French and drive them from the area. With the assistance of African slaves, the Natchez planned to “cut off the French to a man.” On November 28, 1729, the Native Americans arrived in Natchez ostensibly to pay tribute to the French commandant. At day’s end, 145 Frenchmen, 36 women, and 56 children lay dead, while 300 African slaves and 50 French women and children became Natchez captives.
This massacre effectively ended French plans to build plantations around Natchez. It also led to the demise of the Natchez people by the 1740s. The French joined with the Choctaw nation who welcomed the chance to destroy this rival to wage war against the Natchez Indians, forcing them to give up their settlements around Natchez. By the 1740s, the French and Choctaws had effectively destroyed the Natchez.
After the Natchez Rebellion, the settlement on the bluff remained sparsely inhabited. From the 1730s through the 1750s, most of the French colonists in the lower Mississippi Valley lived between New Orleans and Point Coupee to the south. The French maintained a garrison of fifty or so troops among the roughly fifty families who remained at Natchez. Native and European traders sometimes traded with the soldiers and settlers, but the small settlement remained but a shadow of the thriving trading center of the 1720s.
In 1763, Britain gained control of Natchez from the French as a result of the Great War for Empire, incorporating the region into the province of West Florida. The British offered large land grants to encourage settlement, and the Anglo-American and enslaved African population around Natchez grew steadily. With the onset of the American War for Independence, the British encouraged loyalists to settle around Natchez, and many brought slaves with them. By 1780, perhaps 5,000 loyalists and 1,200 slaves inhabited Natchez and the surrounding plantations.
In 1783, Spain claimed control of the disputed Natchez region under the Treaty of Paris. Hoping to counteract American claims on the region, the Spanish encouraged American settlement and loyalty to the Spanish government by providing generous land grants, bounties for staples such as tobacco, and free access to the slave trade. Under Spanish rule, Anglo-American planters laid the groundwork for the rapid expansion of a plantation society. The introduction of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793, which Natchez planters copied in 1795, spurred this expansion.
The 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo ceded the lands north of the 31st parallel to the United States, bringing Natchez and the newly created Mississippi Territory under American control in 1798. The plantation economy around Natchez grew steadily, though Choctaw resistance, the constant threat of war and disorder from the Spanish and British, and uncertainty over land claims slowed the migration of American planters. American victory in the War of 1812 weakened the native nations of the old Southwest, while solidifying American power in the lower Mississippi Valley.
After 1815, planters from the Atlantic states poured into Natchez and the Mississippi Territory. The expansion of their plantations finally led to the forced removal of the Choctaws in the 1830s, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. By then, Natchez’s stately mansions, thriving slave markets, and grand plantations had made it the epitome of the antebellum cotton kingdom.
John Craig Hammond See also: French Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology); Native American-European Conflict; Native AmericanEuropean Relations; Native Americans. Bibliography Clayton, James D. Antebellum Natchez. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968. Usner, Daniel H. American Indians in the Lower Mississippi Valley: Social and Economic Histories. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. Usner, Daniel H. Indians, Settlers, & Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1783. Chapel Hill: Published by the University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Virginia, 1992.