The Mississippi River
Standing on the Bluff in Natchez, high above the Mississippi River, you can look to the right and imagine its mouth 1,300 miles to the north, or look to the left and envision those currents continuing another 250 miles to the south, where they empty into the Gulf of Mexico at the gateway to the rest of the world.
The story of the Mississippi River is one that starts long before recorded history and continues today, and anyone who’s lived along the Mississippi will tell you: the river becomes a part of who you are, a part of your story.
The Reason Natchez Exists
The Mississippi River runs through every chapter of Natchez history and is the reason Natchez was founded: in a time before railroads, the Mississippi was the great highway of North America. The French who established Fort Rosalie in what is today Natchez understood that if they controlled access to the river, they would control the land along it, as well.
Without rail or highways, Natchez became married to the Mississippi River in a way few other cities have been. Because the city marked the southern end of the Natchez Trace — the 440-mile “road” from Natchez to Nashville — it was a prime stop for trappers, farmers and others seeking to sell their goods or load them onto riverboats for shipment to other ports. The first saw mill on the Mississippi was in Natchez, and in the 1830s, ocean-sailing vessels sailed the long, upriver journey to her inland port.
Building Wealth in Natchez
Of course, the Mississippi was already the lifeblood of the city’s economy. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the river brought supplies from the North and allowed Natchez to grow rapidly and accommodate planters creating vast cotton plantations throughout the area.
The need to move that cotton efficiently led to a rapid increase in steamboat traffic after 1812. At a dollar a bale, a steamboat could earn $16,000 – $17,000 a week transporting cotton. It was a small fortune in a 5-month cotton season (to say nothing of what the planters made in sales!), but the local paper marked the historic arrival of the first steamboat with a nod to another treasure: for the first time, locals would have access to fresh oysters brought up from the Gulf Coast!
With that wealth (and those oysters) came risk. Early steamboats were made of wood. They sank from punctured hulls, and travelers like Mark Twain paid top dollar to avoid rooms above their explosion-prone boilers. The Mississippi River took a thousand boats and thousands of lives between 1816 and 1860. One explosion near Memphis took more lives than the sinking of the Titanic.
Today it’s common to find the remnants of those long lost boats, sometimes in the mud of “cut banks” where the river sheers away land opposite a sandbar, sometimes five or more miles inland.
Music & the Mississippi: From the Blues to Jenny Lind
Of course, the Mississippi River helped build another kind of wealth, as well — one that enriches the entire world: the cultural treasures of blues, jazz, ragtime, folk, country bluegrass and the music of America’s heartland.
Bands performed on many of the steamboats that carried passengers both northbound and southbound, and whether playing on the river or not, musicians made the Mississippi their musical highway, carrying constantly evolving styles and techniques from port to port.
But the Mississippi didn’t just feed the roots of American music, it helped spread opera and classical music, as well, most notably as part of the touring route of the legendary “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind.
In 1850, P.T. Barnum hyped the famous European singer to superstar status before bringing her to tour the United States — so much so that the first ticket to her first American concert sold at auction for an unprecedented $225, what would be more than $6,000 today!
After performing in New Orleans, Jenny Lind made her way up the Mississippi River in 1851. In Natchez, the toast of New York who sold out one concert hall after another performed in a small church. The next day, the Natchez Courier reported, “She opened her concert with ‘I Know that My Redeemer Liveth,’ and the audience wept from sheer rapture.”
Natchez: A City on a Shifting State Line
Like the musical genres it helped create, the Mississippi River has always been and remains today a living thing, changing its course sometimes in just a day or two, and it still continually shifts today.
As a result, the state line between Mississippi and Louisiana — defined by the river’s thalweg, the deepest continuous channel between its banks — is likewise always changing. In fact, recent disputes over rights to oil and land that technically shifts from state to state with the ever-moving river have gone as high as the U.S. Supreme Court.
In every other way, however, the Mississippi River is a constant, and the people of Natchez who grew up on her banks speak of a respect and love for Old Man River that has been with them all their lives.