Sunday, April 3, 2016

Natchitoches and Natchez

There were three cities I visited which were all settled by the French within four years of each other – Natchitoches, Louisiana (pronounced Naketish) in 1714, Natchez, Mississippi in 1716, and New Orleans in 1718.  What stands out to me is how late this part of North America was settled.  This is 100 years after the earliest North American settlements like Plymouth, St. Augustine, and Jamestown.  Even Detroit, less than an hour away from where I grew up, was settled in 1701.  I guess I’m mostly surprised because this part of America feels older than pretty much anywhere else I’ve been in the United States.  Parts of the French quarter in New Orleans have these ram shackle buildings, like the one below, that look more like they should be part of the old world rather than the new.
First I’m going to talk about Natchitoches.  You’ve probably never heard of this place - I hadn’t until I was researching for my trip.  I was looking for places to stop between Dallas and New Orleans and read about Natchitoches in an old book published by Readers Digest that I’ve owned since I was 12 years old.  The main selling point for me of visiting this town was that it is the earliest European settlement that was included in the Louisiana Purchase.  The charm of Natchitoches is how isolated it seems.  Here are some pictures of the downtown.  It sits on the Cane River Lake – which is a remnant of the Red river – which used to pass by the town, but shifted to the east.  The shift of the river severely impacted the town’s trade, but it meant that the architecture of the town has been left untouched.  Here are some pictures.

The middle picture is of an 18th century house that is said to be of the “creole style.”  Around Natchitoches there is a strong culture of Creoles, who are a racial mix of Spanish, French, Native American and African.  The Creole culture is one of the defining features of Louisiana.  There were few other places in the current United States where races mixed as freely as in Louisiana.  However, I don’t want to overstate the size of their population – only 1.5% of the current Louisiana population identifies as multiracial.  Their importance lies less in their numbers than in how they symbolize the multicultural roots of Louisiana, which is the basis of the incredible cultural contributions that started here and eventually spread over the planet.

Natchez is similar to Natchitoches in that it seems to be stuck in time.  It is set on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.

Because of its position on the Mississippi, Natchez was an incredibly important city from its founding through the end of the 19th century.  Signs of this importance can be found in the city cemetery. 

Although the city was founded by the French, it was controlled by the British from 1763-1779, and then Spain from 1779-1798.  The Spanish laid out the plan for the city.  The grave monument above is for Jose Vidal, one of the Spanish grandees who served as a representative of the Spanish crown.  I was struck at the cemetery by how many graves were of people who were born in Europe.  Here are some of my favorites.

I like this one – not just because of where he was born – but the poem that appears to be written by his wife.
“Death called
The Sculptor’s classic chisel fell
And Lyon bade his Art and Friends farewell”

This gravestone was in the Jewish section.  It appears to be for two brothers who died at only 22 and 25 years old within days of each other.  It was erected by their brother Nathan.  It reads:
Alas this stone too truly sadly tells
How deaths unerring relentless hand
Laid low within these narrow cells
Two pilgrims for the spirit land
Farewell my Jake and Abe farewell.
May we meet to part no more
In mansions where the blessed dwell
In the vale of the sunny shore.

Too often we seem to discount the humanity of people of the past.  We see sober paintings and photos of the past and assume that means that people had less emotions or lived more boring lives.   Expressing oneself emotionally – even through poetry – was actually relatively common in the 19th century.  Even in regular letters to each other people expressed love in very emotive terms.
Another assumption that people seem to make about the past – which is completely false – is that they were more moral than we are today.  A good example of how many people actually acted can be found “under-the-hill” in Natchez. 

“Under-the-hill” was a district for the men who plied their trade on the river.  It was filled with gamblers, liquor, and prostitutes.  Pretty much any town along the river had similar districts.  This area of the country may be religious, but it sure isn’t puritanical. 
Tomorrow the Louisiana Purchase and a founding father behaving badly . . .

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