Natchez Under the Hill, Mississippi

from The New Encyclopedia of the American West

Mississippi River port. Natchez has always had two sections. Above the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River lies the more prosaic section of town, though it has had its moments of violence. Below the bluff in a narrow strip about three quarters of a mile long is the once-raucous waterfront district known as Natchez-under-the-Hill. Along Silver Street, its main stem, were the wild taverns, gambling dens, and brothels that as early as the 1790s were giving Natchez-under-the-Hill an infamous reputation. American and foreign visitors were shocked by what they saw. Typical was the reaction of traveler John Brad bury, who in 1810 observed that “for the size of it there is not perhaps in the world a more profligate place” Giving Natchez-under-the-Hill its roistering, violent ambience were the thousands of boatmen who passed through, as well as the gamblers, prostitutes, wagoners, fishermen, and frontier adventurers. Among the most colorful leaders of the lowlife were the tough tavern proprietor Jim Girty and his legendary paramour Marie Dufour, a bluff, tall blonde who ran a high-class house of prostitution. The two were are doubtable pair: the bearded Girty reputedly was so rugged that he had no ribs but an all-bone chest that was impenetrable to knife or bullet; Dufour was a crack shot and famed for her ability to open a bottle with her teeth. Yet they proved merely mortal when Girty—who had ribs after all—was killed in an ambush and Dufour, out of grief for her fallen man, did away with herself by a gunshot in the mouth.

At the center of social and economic life was the boat trade. In 1808, for example, as many as 150 New Orleans-bound flatboats and keelboats could be found at the port on peak days of river commerce. In 1824 a total of 229 steamboats and 542 flatboats tied up at the town. By the 1830s, Natchez-under-the-Hill bars and whorehouses were giving way to an increasing number of storage and commercial facilities. In 1835, Natchez followed the example of its sister city Vicksburg, Mississippi, and by vigilante action expelled the professional gamblers who were such a prominent part of the scene. In time the gamblers returned; but after 1840 gambling was muted.

Violence and immorality were Natchez’ plague from human vices, but the town as a whole suffered repeated natural disasters that were much more costly in terms of human life. Yellow fever epidemics were common in late summer and early fall, and from 1823 to 1853 five bad epidemics took 1,654 lives. Mississippi River floods were a menace to the lower town, with the worst overflows occurring in 1811, 1815, 1828, and 1840. A tornado in 1840 left 300 fatalities along its path. By 1860, with the Civil War and the waning of the steamboat era both at hand, Natchez-under-the-Hill had seen its wildest years.

In the violent temper of its life, old Natchez-under-the-Hill had much in common with such famous American frontier boomtowns as Dodge City, Deadwood, and Tombstone, but more precisely, it represented the marine frontier of bustling river, lake, and ocean ports. It flourished in the lively, lethal tradition of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, Memphis’ Pinch Gut, and the Swamp of New Orleans.

See D. Clayton James, Antebellum Natchez (1968); and Harnett T. Kane, Natchez on the Mississippi (1947).

Richard Maxwell Brown
Yale University Press Copyright © 1998 by Yale University

The New Encyclopedia of the American West

This authoritative, comprehensive encyclopedia is a rich source of information about the American West, real and imaginary, old and new, stretching from coast to coast and throughout the country’s history and culture.

Editor(s): Howard R. Lamar
Edition: 1st
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From: Natchez – under- the- Hill, Mississippi | The New Encyclopedia of the American West – Credo Reference