Natchez: The “Robert E. Lee” Arriving at Natchez “Under the Hill” in 1882


Excerpts taken from the “table talk” of George Willey, a venerable and much-respected citizen of Natchez who died in 1874, from Mississippi as a Province, Territory and State, a collection of papers published by Governor C. C. Claiborne (Jackson, Mississippi, 1888):

Eighty-three years have I spent in Natchez and its vicinity. I was born at Kaskaskia, Illinois, on Christmas Day, 1787, and on Christmas Day, 1788, my father landed with his family at Natchez. At that time, there were but two or three houses on the hill, the whole town being under the hill, which was then quite an extensive tract.

I once witnessed an Indian execution which took place about where the gas house stands. The man was condemned to death and the day fixed for his execution. But he was not confined in the meantime, but suffered to go where he pleased, and he used the time in going from house to house and begging for whiskey, and inviting everyone to come and see him die. On the appointed day he was promptly at the place; assisted in digging his own grave, which was done with knives and hatchets, and from time to time he would lay himself down in it to see if it would fit him, and when it was completed to his satisfaction, he took a parting drink with all around, and then stood with the most stoical indifference to the end.

During Mr. Willey’s life this river town experienced many economic ups and downs. Beginning around 1796, Natchez enjoyed a so-called Golden Age when “cotton was king.” The colorful parade of steamboats arrived around 1819 to give Natchez an important position in the Mississippi river trade.

Fortunes were made, and huge mansions were erected of imported marble; what had been a rough frontier town became a center fro wealthy traders and planters. When the price of cotton fell, the area just “Under the Hill” teemed with vice and gambling and served as a barometer of the town’s morale and its fortunes.

The Civil War devastated what was left of the Natchez economy, and the fine old homes with the high column slipped into various stages of decay. Gradually, however, through careful restoration, the town has taken on new life and new pride, becoming a historic monument to a bygone era.

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