In the 18th century, French colonists traveled up the lower Mississippi River searching for a prime area to settle and found a dramatic bluff with a wide view of the river as the perfect spot. In 1716, they constructed a wooden palisade fort in the region occupied by the Native American tribe known as Natchez and named the site after its first residents.
This year, the city of Natchez celebrates its founding by the French with a year-long celebration. The Natchez Tricentennial not only marks its French origins – Natchez is the oldest continuous European settlement in the Lower Mississippi Valley – but also the periods of time the city operated under British and Spanish colonial rule before becoming part of the United States with the establishment of the Mississippi Territory in 1798. The “Jewel of the Mississippi” also served as the first capital of Mississippi in 1817 and was home to African slaves who contributed greatly to the region’s economy.
Because of the town’s antebellum wealth, extravagant homes were built, most of which survived the Civil War. Today, there are more than 1,000 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places and about a dozen of those are designated as National Historic Landmarks. Many of these homes are open for tours or as bed and breakfasts and two annual events open private homes, the Spring and Fall Pilgrimages.
The Museum of African American history celebrates the role Africans and African-Americans played in the development of Natchez and the William Johnson House, operated by the National Park Service, honors a successful free man of color in antebellum Natchez. Johnson acquired several city buildings, approximately 2,000 acres of land and several slaves. He kept a diary for almost 16 years, the lengthiest and most detailed personal narrative authored by an African-American during this time in U.S. history.
On the outskirts of town is The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, a site where the local Native Americans lived and prospered from 700 A.D. to 1730, when relations between the tribe and the French deteriorated.
“We have such a varied history,” says Jennifer Ogden Combs, Tricentennial executive director.
The quaint town that rests atop the bluff isn’t the bustling town it once was during the days of cotton and steamboats, but it’s now a top tourist destination, attracting visitors for romantic weekends, history and architecture buffs and those seeking special venues for weddings and special events.
“We’re the bed-and-breakfast capital of the South,” says Jessica Cauthen, public relations director of Visit Natchez. “We’re also the biscuit capital of the world.”
Put all those elements together and you’ve got a year of unending events and entertainment. Planners began with Natchez’s annual events, compiling a list that was quite impressive, Combs says.
“It was stunning how much we have happening here,” she says.
Then the Tricentennial committee began adding special conventions, historic commemoratives and other events directly tied to the anniversary. But everything had to connect with the residents of Natchez, offering economic development and growth in addition to tourism, Combs explained.
“We constantly asked ourselves, how do we use this anniversary to positively impact our community for the long-term,” Combs says. “It’s not just about the history commemorative.”
And it’s not just about parties either, Combs adds. There have been revitalizations of historic areas in town, continued expansion of the Natchez Bluff Trails Project and development of Fort Rosalie, the site of the original French fort, and the Forks of the Road site, the former second-largest slave market in the U.S.
Here are some of the varied events happening in Natchez this year:
The annual Spring Pilgrimage March 5 through April 5 will feature 24 antebellum mansions among flowering azaleas open to the public. New this year is the Confederate Pageant, updated and made more historically balanced by Natchez native, best-selling author Greg Isles.
The Euro Fest Classic European Auto & Motorcycle Show heads to Natchez for its inaugural automotive and motorcycle event on April 9. The free, family-friendly event will take place on the grounds of Rosalie Plantation with awards presented in 13 categories. This year’s show will start with the Natchez Rally Drives, starting April 8 from Memphis and New Orleans.
The Natchez Festival of Music, a month-long celebration in May, will include a visit by Glen Ballard, a six-time Grammy winner for co-writing songs such as Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” and Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”
The National Park Service turns 100 this year, so the Natchez Tricentennial will dovetail with the Park Service’s anniversary at its historical sites throughout town. The official anniversary date of the French fort being established at Natchez is Aug. 3 and The National Park Service will dedicate the Fort Rosalie site as a green space park with walking trails and historical markers, in addition to other events commemorating the date.
Find out what the fuss is about at the two-day Natchez Biscuit Festival Sept. 23-24, held during National Biscuit Month of course. The event features music, food, cook-offs and those famous Natchez biscuits.
The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race spreads color against the sky Oct. 16-18 and festivities such as balloon glows, food, music and more happen on the grounds of Rosalie Plantation and on Broadway Street downtown. New this year is the Blufftoberfest beer festival selling craft beers and offering Oktoberfest-style games and contests. Five breweries from Mississippi and Louisiana are participating in this event, including the local Natchez Brewing Company.
Closing out the year will be the annual Christmas parade, which will become the Heritage Parade this year, expanding to include representations of the town’s history, such as Native American dancers and African drummers.
And that’s just the tip of the 300th birthday cake. For information on Natchez and a complete list of events, visit visitnatchez.org. For information on the Tricentennial, visit natchezms300.com.