The Natchez Nabobs constituted one of the largest single aggregations of wealthy and socially prominent slaveholders in the antebellum South, rivaled only by the affluent planters and merchants in the aristocratic citadel of Charleston, South Carolina. The stately mansions that still grace the picturesque streets of the Mississippi River town bear eloquent testimony to the wealth and power once enjoyed by these nabobs. Indeed, on the eve of the Civil War, the per capita wealth in Adams County was reputedly the highest of any county in the United States.
Of the seventy-one Mississippi planters who owned more than 250 slaves during the 1850s, fifty-five (71 percent) resided in Natchez and its environs. The most affluent of these planter nabobs were Francis Surget Sr., Levin R. Marshall, and Stephen Duncan. Surget, the son of a French sea captain, settled near Natchez in 1785 and eventually accumulated an estate that included a dozen plantations and thirteen hundred slaves and was valued at more than two million dollars at his death in 1856. Marshall, a true capitalistic entrepreneur, migrated to Mississippi from Virginia in 1817 to become cashier of the United States Bank in Woodville. He subsequently made a fortune in banking, mercantile, and planting enterprises, and by 1860 he owned more than a thousand slaves on plantations in three states. Similarly, Stephen Duncan, a native of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, settled in Natchez a decade before Marshall. Aided by two propitious marriages and uncommon entrepreneurial skills, Duncan ultimately amassed a fortune by exploiting the labor of more than a thousand slaves on his seven cotton plantations in the Mississippi Delta and two sugar plantations in Louisiana.
These men exemplify one of the salient characteristics of the Natchez nabobs. Nearly two-thirds of this cohort had migrated to Natchez from other parts of the country, especially from the Northeast. Nine of the nabobs were natives of that region, and nearly half of the native Mississippians had parents or spouses from that area. For example, the parents of Natchez-born William J. Minor were born in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and after attending the University of Pennsylvania, Minor married a woman from that state.
Minor and Duncan were two of the central figures in a complex family network spawned initially by marriage alliances both within the Natchez District and with other families in the Northeast. This network was subsequently enhanced by a business relationship that developed between the Natchez planters and the Leverich brothers, owners of a New York factorage house. A key element in the family and business relationships that connected the nabobs to the Northeast was the Gustine family of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Shortly before Duncan arrived in Natchez in 1808, his sister married Samuel Gustine, and the Gustines had four daughters before relocating to Natchez in the 1830s. The two youngest daughters married Natchez nabobs William C. Conner and William J. Minor, while their older sisters married brothers Charles P. and Henry S. Leverich. Numerous additional marriages bound other prominent Natchez families to this group.
Unlike their wealthy counterparts in such long-settled Atlantic seaboard states as Virginia and South Carolina, most of the Natchez elite accumulated their vast estates not through inheritance but through an assiduous application of the Protestant work ethic; the investment of capital derived initially from legal, medical, and mercantile pursuits; and the labor of slaves. These nouveau riche Natchezians were capitalists in every sense of the word, not only diversifying their economic portfolios by investing in banks, railroads, and other enterprises outside the agricultural sector but also by behaving in capitalistic ways in their exclusively agricultural pursuits. Thus, when cotton prices plummeted in the wake of the Panic of 1837, both Duncan and Minor began transferring their resources to more lucrative areas. By the 1850s both men had virtually liquidated their holdings in Adams County. Duncan shifted his huge slave force to the virgin lands of the Yazoo Delta, while Minor established a sugar empire consisting of nine thousand acres of land and six hundred slaves in the parishes of Ascension and Terrebonne, Louisiana. Indeed, by the last decade of the antebellum period, a majority of the slaves owned by the Natchez nabobs were located across the river in Concordia and adjacent Louisiana parishes.
With few exceptions, the nabobs tended to be Whiggish in their political allegiance before the Civil War and Unionists during and after the sectional crisis of 1860 erupted into bloodshed. Although many other elite slaveholders throughout the South were Whigs and Unionists before secession, most of them supported the Confederacy once the die was cast. They did so despite the fact that, like the Natchezians, many had business, educational, travel, and residential connections with the Northeast. But the nativity and familial ties with that region were stronger among the Natchez aristocrats than among their counterparts elsewhere in the slave South. Nowhere else featured such a concentration of northern-oriented planters and professional men, and nowhere else did elite slaveholders maintain such a precarious regional identity.
Because many of the nabobs had never developed a strong emotional attachment to their adopted homeland, most gave at most grudging support to the fledgling Confederacy. Indeed, five of the most prominent members of the group picked up stakes and moved to New York City during the height of the conflict. When he departed Natchez in the spring of 1863, Duncan, perhaps the wealthiest of the nabobs at that time, presented the Confederate government with a bill for $185,000 to compensate him for his wartime losses, all of which he attributed to the act of secession. Ironically, the actions of Duncan and his Unionist cohorts during the war contributed to the demise of the civilization they had struggled to build. Today only the mansions and the memories remain to mark the opulent society that once existed in Natchez.
- Martha Jane Brazy, An American Planter: Stephen Duncan of Antebellum Natchez and New York (2006)
- D. Clayton James, Antebellum Natchez (1968)
- Robert E. May, John A. Quitman: Old South Crusader (1985)
- William K. Scarborough, Journal of Mississippi History (August 1992)
- William K. Scarborough, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth Century South (2003)
- William K. Scarborough, Prologue (Winter 2004)
- Michael Wayne, The Reshaping of Plantation Society: The Natchez District, 1860–1880 (1983)