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History of the Natchez Indians

The Natchez Indians once inhabited the region along the Mississippi River in what is now southwest Mississippi. Despite their significant influence on the region and their rich cultural heritage, the Natchez people are often overlooked in the pages of history.

Evidence of human occupation in the region dates to as early as the Archaic Period (6500-2500 B.C.). The ancestors of the historic Natchez people can be seen in the archaeological record of the Coles Creek cultural phase (700-1200 A.D.), followed by the Plaquemine Mississippian cultural phase (1200-1700 A.D.). By the time French colonists began settling along the Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi River Valley in the late 17th century, the Natchez inhabited up to nine villages in the Natchez Bluffs area. 

The Natchez Indians were known for their agricultural prowess, particularly their cultivation of corn, beans, and squash. With abundant wildlife in their territory, they also engaged in hunting and fishing to supplement their diet. Deer, turkey, and even buffalo were popular food sources.

The Natchez Indians were among the few Native American tribes in the southeastern United States that retained a centralized political system well into the historic period. Their society was hierarchical, with the Great Sun serving as the tribe’s supreme leader. The Great Sun was believed to be a divine ruler who held immense power over his people. However, the Natchez had a strong matrilineal society, so, for instance, the Great Sun was the son of the Female Sun. Her daughter would be the mother of the next Great Sun.

The Mounds

The Natchez, like most tribes of the Mississippian civilization, utilized mounds as civic and religious centers. One of the largest mounds in North America has ties to the Natchez people. Just north of the city of Natchez and not far off the Natchez Trace Parkway is Emerald Mound, covering eight acres. This impressive structure measures 770 x 435 feet at its base and is 35 feet high. Two smaller mounds sit atop the plateau of the primary mound.

Emerald Mound’s builders were ancestors of the Natchez, and they used the structure until the late 1600s when they abandoned the site and established their capital at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians about 12 miles to the southwest. This National Historic Landmark is definitely worth a visit. Exit the parkway at Rte. 553 intersection (milepost 10.3) and follow signs to the mound, about 1 mile away. It’s open to the public daily, free of charge.

Conflict with the French

Despite their advanced society, the Natchez Indians were not immune to the forces of colonialism. In the early 18th century, the tribe found themselves caught up in the conflicts between the French and English empires, both of whom sought to expand their territorial holdings in North America.

The Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle expedition arrived in Natchez territory in 1682 via the Mississippi River. Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville established the first French colony on the Gulf Coast in 1699. In 1716, the French established a fort in the heart of Natchez territory called Fort Rosalie. This led to an influx of French settlers into the region, who began to encroach on the Natchez Indians’ land and resources. Relations between the two groups quickly deteriorated, and in 1729, the Natchez launched a violent uprising against the French, who, along with their Choctaw allies, retaliated against the Natchez.

Following a siege battle at the Grand Village in 1730, the Natchez people left their ancestral homeland but continued to war against the French. While a number of Natchez were captured and shipped to Santo Domingo as enslaved people following a 1731 battle, many Natchez did find refuge among other tribal groups, notably the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Muscogee Creek. Natchez descendants live in Oklahoma within the Cherokee Nation and Muscogee Nation, as well as in state-recognized groups in South Carolina.

Keeping History Alive

The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, administered by the Mississippi Department of Archive and History and located at 400 Jefferson Davis Blvd., Natchez, MS, is dedicated to telling the story of the Natchez people. Visitors can experience a 128-acre park featuring three prehistoric Native American mounds, a museum with a gift shop, and a nature trail. The site has an active program schedule that can be viewed at Admission and parking are free.

One of the most visible efforts to celebrate the Natchez Indians is the annual Natchez Indian Association Powwow, which takes place annually at the Grand Village site. The Powwow features traditional dances, music, and crafts and attracts participants and spectators from around the country.

In recent years, there has also been a push to recognize the Natchez Indians’ role in shaping the history of the southeastern United States. In 2019, a marker was erected in Natchez to commemorate the site of Fort Rosalie and its significance in the Natchez War. The marker was a collaborative effort between the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the Natchez Indian Association, and the local community.

In addition, efforts are underway to preserve and protect the Natchez Indians’ burial mounds, which are some of the most significant archaeological sites in the southeastern United States. The Natchez Trace Parkway passes by several of these mounds, giving visitors a glimpse into the Natchez Indians’ rich cultural heritage.