Almost every day of this year, Natchez is celebrating its 300th birthday.
Tricentennial event organizers present a range of perspectives on Natchez history — from guided cemetery tours to the Black and Blue Civil War Living History re-enactment and display Oct. 22 showing the African-American experience during the war to a weekly lecture series, Natchez Legends & Lore. The Raise the Roots Genealogy Conference July 16 focuses on American-Indian and African-American genealogy.
And some events are just for fun. The Natchez Food and Wine Festival featuring regional restaurants takes place July 29-30. The first Natchez Biscuit Capital Festival Sept. 23-24 hosts a biscuit cook-off at different skill levels, demonstrations on how to make biscuits and specialty biscuits to eat from local restaurants. The Great Mississippi River Balloon Race lifts off Oct. 14-16.
Natchez, one of Mississippi’s oldest cities, was founded on Aug. 3, 1716, by the French at the site called Fort Rosalie, which was built on the Mississippi River in an area occupied by an American Indian tribe known as the Natchez.
On Aug. 3 this year, Natchez’s birthday celebration will include an opening ceremony and presentation from the principal chief of the Natchez nation, plus a dedication and ribbon cutting for Fort Rosalie, which is under renovation.
Natchez is expected to host about 150,000 to 200,000 more visitors compared to its annual 648,000 guests, organizers say. Natchez’s population estimate in mid-2014 was 15,269, according to census data.
Funding for the events has come from sponsors, grants and in-kind gifts.
The city is well-known for its numerous antebellum mansions and estates, such as Rosalie Mansion, Longwood, Stanton Hall and Melrose. Some of them will be open for visitors during the Fall Pilgrimage Tour of Homes in September and October.
Before the American Civil War, Natchez had the most millionaires per capita of any city in the United States, making it arguably the wealthiest city in the nation at the time, according to the Mississippi Historical Society.
It also was chosen as the first capital when the Mississippi Territory was created in 1798 since it was already a substantial settlement on the Mississippi River, though no official capitol was built.
Natchez was also the state’s most active slave trading city in the decades before the Civil War, according to the Historical Society.
Tricentennial events also will acknowledge the Civil Rights Era, when activists suffered violent repercussions to their work. Civil Rights activists told the Natchez Democrat that the tragic events sparked a local movement that helped open doors for African-American leadership in Natchez and helped shape a better community.
“(A Tricentennial event) has to be inclusive of people, have a historical element and can’t be exclusive to any certain group,” said Kelin Hendricks, Natchez Tricentennial Liaison. “It’s a very wide range of events appealing to a broad range of people. A lot of the events we plan are free to the public.”
While the events will boost Natchez’ tourism economy this year, the anniversary also has inspired projects that will last for subsequent years.
These include the restoration of an old railroad depot and historic fire trucks to be put on display. Natchez Mayor Larry “Butch” Brown said legacy projects also will include improvements to parks, trails and golf courses.
“Without this year, we probably wouldn’t have done that many in such a short time,” Brown said. “We may have gotten to that as a city over a period of 25 years.”
Mimi Miller, executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, said the goals of the Tricentennial are to commemorate the past, both the good and bad, celebrate and use these events to create a better tomorrow.
“It’s a great time to celebrate because we’re all one city now in terms of our diversity, our age, (and) our tourism,” Miller said. “All are welcome.”