Saturday, December 8, 2012

Naughty Natchez

During the flatboat era, Natchez Under-the-Hill ranked as the rowdiest landing on the Mississippi River. The area was filled with saloons, gambling dens, and houses of ill repute. From around 1785 until about 1820 Natchez Under-the-Hill was the departure point for frontiersmen headed home to Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Western Pennsylvania. It was their last chance to "whoop it up" a little before the long hard dangerous trek home along the Natchez trace.

The invention of the steamboat curtailed traffic on the Natchez trace but it only increased the rowdiness and criminality of Natchez Under-the-Hill. Steamboats by the hundreds docked in Natchez from the early years of the nineteenth century through the years before World War Two in the twentieth century. During this period Natchez Under-the-Hill flourished. Tinhorn gamblers, thugs, murderers, conmen, swindlers, prostitutes, and traders in every illegal substance known to mankind called Natchez Under-the-Hill home.

Organized prostitution in the area survived until 1990 (the last of New Orleans famous “Storeyville” houses were closed in 1917) when Nelly Jackson’s house of ill repute (located on the SW corner of Monroe & Franklin Streets) was firebombed, killing the octogenarian Madame.

Resort of the damned

No spot on the American continent ever bore a viler name than Natchez Under-the-Hill. Early travelers described it variously as a gambler’s paradise, sinkhole of iniquity and a resort of the damned. However, this early river town was probably no more evil than any other new frontier.

At Natchez, the affluent and proper top of the hill and the decadent, sinful Natchez Under-the-Hill were inseparable. The proud city on top of the hill could never have attained its enormous wealth without its lower gateway. During the Spanish Provincial regime Natchez Under-the-Hill became a busy port of call and after the American entry, it developed into one of the most important cotton shipping markets in the world. A constant stream of supplies were unloaded, loaded on wagons and transferred to the upper city to supply the many demands. Through necessity all river travelers had to land in the slummy, lower town where they observed furious vice only to be amazed and dazzled with the upper city.

Sea-going ships

After Spain reluctantly ceded the Natchez region to the newly formed United States in 1798; Under-the-Hill began its journey of achieving great importance as the gateway to the vast, uncharted west. It soon became a supply city, a seat of learning and a melting pot of nations. As the furthermost southwestern outpost of the United States, it launched many historic expeditions. Some were composed of scientists who explored and mapped the vast acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase. Many were bona fide soldiers bound for the Texas and Mexican Wars. Others were men in search of riches and adventure.

Natchez Under-the-Hill was at the head of deep-water navigation and sea-going ships from all over the world lined her waterfront for miles as they unloaded rich cargoes. There was a constant rumble of wagon wheels and strange languages being spoken. There were numerous legitimate businesses lining the streets Under-the-Hill, but the gambling dens, saloons and houses of ill repute vastly outnumbered them. Near the landing was a slave block where New England slave traders held weekly auctions of human flesh.

One business will not let go!

Not much remains of Natchez Under-the-Hill to remind today's visitors of “the way things were”. Other than the gambling boat docked at the end of Silver Street, there are several vacant buildings, one restaurant, one gift shop and several buildings serving as office space.

However, one establishment will not let go of the past. Under-The-Hill-Saloon stands alone in preserving the past -- as the past was. The saloon is in a building that is approximately 200 years old. It is loaded with historic memorabilia and pictures hanging on its walls.

And maybe best of all it is a saloon! A saloon that's in a building that may have been a saloon back in 1800. It could very well have been witness to the wild and notorious times of old Natchez Under-the-Hill. Gamblers may have fleeced travelers with money in their pockets within its walls. Under-The-Hill-Saloon is known to have served as a brothel at one time. Perhaps it served as a brothel during the heyday of the glorious steamboat days.

Even today everyone must go to the bar to get their drink. Even today the regulars ask new faces where they're from, where are they going and what kind of business are they in. Similar questions were asked in 1800 of new faces arriving Under-the-Hill. But now the questions are innocently inquisitive. Unlike like the questions in 1800 that may have been asked to plot robbery or worse. The saloon is a must see for tourists who would like to see what's left of "Naughty Natchez".

To accent Under-the-Hill modern day steamboats, the Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen and American Queen dock at the Natchez landing providing at least a glimpse of what it must have been like in the early days of steamboats arriving at Natchez, once described as a gambler’s paradise, sinkhole of iniquity and a resort of the damned. (source: Natchez on the Mississippi)

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