Residing on the east side of the Mississippi River in present-day Adams County, the Natchez Indians played a significant role in colonial history, interacting with the French and English as well as with the region’s other Native American groups. Documentation gathered before the breakup of the Natchez group in the mid-1730s reveals a matrilineal society supported by maize horticulture, fishing, hunting, and gathering. Once considered a ranked society split between what the French called “nobles” and “commoners,” the Natchez ranks have more recently been interpreted as moieties, with one moiety having an elder-brother status in relation to the other moiety. French descriptions of elaborate tribal ceremonial activities serve as ethnographic examples for the interpretation of late prehistoric southeastern societies known only through archaeology.
The Natchez have been tentatively linked to the powerful sixteenth-century chiefdom known as Quigualtam, whose warriors harassed the de Soto expedition with a fleet of enormous wooden dugout canoes, some capable of transporting up to one hundred warriors. After de Soto’s death in 1542 and the departure of his companions, no Europeans entered the Lower Mississippi Valley for more than a century. During this interval the Indian populations of the region experienced a severe demographic decline that continues to puzzle archaeologists. When the La Salle expedition traveled through this same area less than 150 years later, the populous mound-building chiefdoms of de Soto’s time were gone. In their place were a few relatively small tribal groups such as the Natchez, Taensa, Tunica, and Quapaw.
Archaeology in southwestern Mississippi securely links the Natchez Indians of the French colonial era with the local prehistoric population that occupied ceremonial centers such as Emerald Mound and the Fatherland site, also known as the Grand Village of the Natchez. However, colonial accounts present a picture of a native society that was probably altered in significant ways from its prehistoric counterpart. The people the colonial writers called the Natchez were not a single ethnic group but a confederation representing speakers of two or more different languages. Attached to the core Natchez-speaking community during the 1720s were two small tribes, the Tiou and Grigra. Both of these groups probably spoke languages in the Tunican family, named for the Tunica group living on the Lower Yazoo River in the late seventeenth century. French colonists learned to differentiate between Natchez and the Tunican languages because the latter had the r sound, which was missing from Natchez languages. Another probable Tunican-speaking group, the Koroa, had a village a few miles downriver from the Natchez in La Salle’s time, though the settlement was later abandoned. It is not known whether this Koroa group was temporarily part of the Natchez confederation. By forming confederacies, small tribal groups increased their odds of survival during the violent period of the English-driven Indian slave trade, Indian population depletion from European diseases such as smallpox, and the fierce eighteenth-century client warfare between pro-French and pro-English tribes.
The French observed the Great Sun, a Natchez chief, in his role as ceremonial leader and assumed that he was the ruler of the Natchez nation. In fact, however, political power in the Natchez confederacy was distributed among the chiefs of five villages or settlement districts: Flour, Tiou, Grigra, White Apple, and Jenzenaque. In response to the conflicting demands on the Natchez by French and English interests, the district chiefs negotiated autonomously with both colonial powers. By 1716, when the French established Fort Rosalie on the Natchez bluff, the Natchez group was divided in its allegiance to the two European nations.
Because of its distance from French ports at New Orleans and Mobile, the colony that grew up around Fort Rosalie depended on the Natchez Indians for food and other necessities, which the Natchez exchanged for guns, blankets, iron tools, and other European goods. As the local colony expanded to include two tobacco plantations, friction between the Natchez and French helped to sway the Natchez settlement districts toward alliances with the English. Assured by English traders of a reliable supply of merchandise to replace that coming from the French, the Natchez attacked the French colony on 28 November 1729. With the help of Indian allies, the French retaliated early the following year. In the war that followed, the Natchez people abandoned their homeland for refuge with pro-English groups including the Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee. Today, groups of Natchez descendants are recognized in South Carolina and Oklahoma.
- James F. Barnett Jr., The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735 (2007)
- Antoine-Simone Le Page du Pratz, The History of Louisiana or of the Western Parts of Virginia and Carolina (1774)
- John R. Swanton, Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico (1911; reprint, 1998)