It was November 1837, and the Natchez town council had just enacted a restrictive tax of $10 per flatboat. This measure was designed to rid the wharf district known as Natchez Under-the-Hill, the home of the most impoverished and disreputable of the riverboat men. The council had made its first confiscation of cargo after nine captains refused to pay the $10 tax.
In the center of Natchez the wharf master had just opened the public auction of confiscated cargoes when a great cry was heard. All present turned to see an angry crowd of flatboat men, Bowie knives in hand, storming up the bluffs from the Mississippi shouting, as the local newspaper reported, "threats of violence and death upon all who attempted to sell and buy their property."
As the boatmen approached, merchants and onlookers shrank back in fear. But the local authorities had taken the precaution of calling out the militia, and a company of farmers and planters now came marching into the square with their rifles primed and lowered. "The cold and sullen bayonets of the Guards were too hard meat for the Arkansas toothpicks," reported the local press, and "there was no fight." The boatmen sullenly turned back down the bluffs. It was the first confrontation of the "Flatboat Wars" that erupted as Mississippi River ports tried to bring their troublesome riverfronts under regulation.
This was the beginning of the end of the rough and tumble days at Natchez Under-the-Hill.
How it started
In the 1730's the French established a trading post, in what was later to be called Natchez, and the river port here became a major Mississippi River trading center. Based at Fort Rosalie the French conducted an extensive frontier trade that brought peoples of different races into contact with one another, leading ultimately to considerable intermarriage and the growth of a mixed race population.
When the Spanish took possession of the territory from France in 1763 they laid out the new town of Natchez high on the bluffs, safe from Mississippi River flooding. Fort Rosalie, re-christened Natchez-under-the-hill, continued to flourish as the produce grown by American farmers in Kentucky and Tennessee moved downriver on flatboats.
When America took possession of Mississippi in 1798, the district surrounding the port became the most important center of settlement in the Old Southwest. This abundant land of rich, black soil became thickly populated, but this time with cotton planters and their African American slaves.
Under-the-Hill became renowned as the last stop for boatmen before New Orleans. Minstrel performers sang of their exploits:
Den dance de boatmen dance,
O dance de boatmen dance,
O dance all night till broad daylight,
An go home wid de gals in de morning.
According to one traveler, "They feel the same inclination to dissipation as sailors who have long been out of port and generally remain there a day or two to indulge it."
Mixture of cultures
There were often as many as 150 boats drawn up at the wharves. The crowds along the riverfront noted John James Audubon, who visited Natchez-Under-the-Hill in the 1820s, "formed a medley which it is beyond my power to describe."
Natchez-Under-the-Hil was a mingling of American river men of all descriptions, trappers and hunters in fur caps, Spanish shopkeepers in bright smocks, French gentlemen from New Orleans in velvet coats, Indians wrapped in their trade blankets, African Americans both free and slave. Natchez Under-The- Hill was a pageant of nations and races.
Flatboats were dragged on shore and converted into storefronts that served as grog shops, card rooms, dance halls, and hotels, as well as plenty of whorehouses with women of every age and color.
On the bluffs, meanwhile, the town of Natchez had become the winter home to the southwestern planter elite. As the Natchez planters grew wealthier and more confident, and as the trade in cotton came to dominate the local economy, they found Under-the-Hill an increasing irritant. But the elite of the riverfront community - gamblers, saloonkeepers, and pimps - also prospered greatly and began to appear in Natchez on top-of-the-hill, staying at the hotels and even building town houses.
In 1831 when Nat Turner led a slave revolt in Virginia in which many white people were killed, all southerners began to adopt a more militant defense of slave society. The racial mingling that went on down at the riverfront began to feel threatening to the planters.
In the late 1830s the district was jolted by rumors that a group of African Americans and Under-the-Hill desperadoes were conspiring to rebel against the Natchez elite on a Fourth of July. The planters were to be murdered by their slaves as they gathered for the celebration, and the Under-the-Hill crowd would loot the mansions.
It is unlikely there was any conspiracy, but the rumors illustrated the growing conviction among planters that they could no longer tolerate the polyglot community of the riverfront.
Get out of town
In response to the flatboat men's threats at the auction of confiscated cargo in November 1837, the planters issued an extralegal order giving all the gamblers, pimps, and whores of Under-the-Hill twenty-four hours to evacuate the district. Panic swept the wharves as the farmers and planters militia sharpened their bayonets, and that night dozens of flatboats loaded with a motley human cargo headed for the more tolerant community of New Orleans. But there were similar orders of expulsion in other river ports. Thus, one resident remembered, "the towns on the river became purified from a moral pestilence which the law could not cure."
The boatmen and traders of Natchez-Under-the-Hill were a vital part of the plantersí prosperity, for they carried cotton and other products of slave labor to market. But the slave owners' system of control over slavery, built on a rigid distinction between free white people and enslaved black people, was threatened by the more open community formed in the polyglot racial and social mixing of Natchez-Under-the-Hill. Because the slave owners could not control the boatmen, they expelled them.
Three years later a great tornado hit Under-the -Hill, claiming nearly all the shacks that had served so long as a rendezvous for the river men, and gradually the Mississippi River reclaimed the bottom. These two communities - Natchez, home to the rich slave-owning elite, and Natchez-Under-the-Hill, the bustling polyglot trading community - epitomize the paradox of the American South in the early nineteenth century.
Source: Gary Rutledge.com