In early March 1807, two tourists from Tennessee visited Natchez.
Dr. John Bedford and his friend, Dr. Thomas Claiborne -- in route down the Mississippi – first stopped at the home of Judge Peter Bryan Bruin at Bayou Pierre in Claiborne County, Miss., located across the river from Lake Bruin in Tensas Parish.
Bedford and Claiborne were on their way to Natchez and New Orleans. Dr. Claiborne’s brothers were important men in Mississippi and Louisiana. One, Col. Ferdinand Claiborne, was a military leader and a Natchez merchant. The other, Gov. William Charles Cole Claiborne, had been the second territorial government of Mississippi and was now the first governor of Orleans Territory in Louisiana.
The doctors had experienced a difficult and life-threatening journey down the Mississippi during one of the coldest winters on record. Along the Missouri shore, they were stranded for days and exposed to record cold. In his journal (recounted in “A Tour in 1807 Down the Cumberland, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Nashville to New Orleans,” Tennessee Historical Magazine, 1919), Bedford wrote: “The Mississippi was blocked up from bank to bank with thick and extensive flakes of floating ice — which rendered the river impassable by crafts of any kind, great or small.”
By the time the men arrived in Natchez country, they were more than ready for some recreation and relaxation.
At Bayou Pierre, Bruin updated the two doctors on the biggest news event in the country at the time -- the recent arrest of former Vice-President Aaron Burr near Bruin’s home. The judge also told the men about a grand jury’s decision at the territorial capital of Washington not to indict Burr for treason, of Burr’s escape in February from Natchez while still under bond, and his subsequent capture on the Tombigbee River in present day Alabama.
The next day, Drs. Bedford and Claiborne arose early and headed south, arriving at Natchez in mid-afternoon. Here, Bedford would go sightseeing and over the next five days enjoy food, drink and conversation. This early Natchez tourist noted in his journal that a military barge was “stationed about two hundred paces above the upper end of the town and twice that distance above (were) the naval forces stationed there in the river to guard the pass, and prevent the conveyance of arms or ammunition below, for the vile purposes of the Burrites. Immediately after landing throwed off our very dirty clothes, that had not been in contact with water since Nashville, except when we were wet with rain or by an accidental tumble into the river — dressed in the best and cleanest we had, barely then reaching common decency and tripped up into the town.”
During his visit, Bedford talked with local residents and educated himself about Natchez and the region. He reported there were 2000 residents and many wealthy merchants and rich planters.
TOO MUCH WINE
Bedford joined Dr. Claiborne for a visit at the home of Claiborne’s brother, Col. Ferdinand Claiborne, at Soldiers Retreat (located on Palestine Road east of town). In the absence of the colonel, his wife, Magdaline, the daughter of Natchez pioneers Anthony and Ann Hutchins, received Bedford and her brother-in-law with open arms. Legendary in Natchez for her hospitality, Magdaline insisted both men stay the night in her home, where three local doctors came by to visit that evening.
The next day, the five doctors enjoyed a hearty breakfast and two hours later visited two other Nashville men before returning to the Claibornes for “a sumptuous and grateful dinner — after quaffing a great deal of the best of Madeira, almost to inebriety and gulping down of three courses at table. 1st, meats and salads of every kind, most delicious in quality. 2d, sweetmeats of the finest flavor and 3d, pastry, apples, cheese...I felt constrained to abscond the company rather abruptly, with Mr. George Bell, whose disposition at this moment happened to be similar to my own.”
The two men were drunk.
They “strolled about the suburbs” of Natchez “viewing the scenery as attentively and correctly as our deranged faculties would permit until somewhat restored.” That night Bedford and his friends attended a party.
On the dance floor, Bedford did his best to flirt with the girls, but they paid him little attention. He felt neglected and thought a few folks had been a bit snooty to him. Shortly after midnight, a meal was served. The women ate first. Afterward, the men “flocked like hungry shoats to a sty — little and big — young and old, without distinction.” The doctor sipped coffee until 4 a.m. when a heavy rain subsided. He and his Tennessee friends spent the rest of the night at Mickie’s Tavern in town.
On Saturday, March 7, Bedford visited with his new acquaintances over breakfast, and at “the dusk of the evening” returned to Mrs. Claiborne’s home where the colonel had arrived. They were up until past midnight gossiping and discussing the various events dominating the news on the Natchez frontier -- Burr, Gen. James Wilkinson, the Legislature and the expanding cotton market.
Bedford didn’t sleep well that night nor the next and attributed his sleeplessness to eating too much and drinking too much.
On the morning of Monday, March 9, he mailed some letters from the post office at Claiborne’s general store. Later, Bedford and a few others boarded a skiff for the trip downriver. But before their departure, Navy officers boarded the vessel to examine their possessions and “to ascertain whether we were the party of Burr.” The military had been on alert up and down the Mississippi -- from Natchez to New Orleans -- during Burr’s trip down river in December and January.
The Naval officers who inspected Bedford’s skiff were in a vessel “which was more of the resemblance to a terrapin’s shell than to anything else.” Bedford’s party was given clearance to leave and headed out.
“We passed then near half a mile, and heard the report of a musket. The ball whistled over head,” wrote Bedford, who thought the Navy was simply “amusing themselves only with the implements of their profession.” But a short time afterward, another “fired ball whistled over head.”
The men aboard the skiff cursed the Navy, but continued onward until “soon after off went a cannon with a sound that seemed as great as the rending of earth and Heaven, and the ball buzzed over head and struck the water two hundred yards beyond the bow of the boat.”
Soon officers from Naval vessels boarded Bedford’s skiff “without a scrap of permission from the commander, which could not be obtained without returning to the fleet near two miles back.” Detained, Bedford said they were “in the presence of men, guns and bayonets, like prisoners of war.”
They boarded the schooner Revenge, one of the gunboats on the river at Natchez. The vessel had a 70-foot gun deck housing 12 six-pounders. A few minutes later they were visited by Captain Reid: “We were therefore received with great politeness and apparent cordiality, with an apology for their previous military salute...” The captain invited the men under deck where they “partook of two bottles of excellent Madeira and entertained with much politeness...After one and a half hours’ stay, when the bottom of the two bottles were uncovered,” the men were released and headed on their way.
On Tuesday, March 10, Bedford’s skiff arrived at Fort Adams in Wilkinson County on a day when disaster was averted after “escaping a dangerous sawyer that nearly touched the stern.” There, he saw soldiers and “a store of considerable importance kept by a Mr. Evans & Co.”
Bedford recorded in his diary: “The neighborhood of this place is wealthy, producing much cotton. It is remarkable for being one of the loftiest pinnacles on the whole of the Mississippi. A bottom extends up and down the river a long way and off about 100 yards, then commences a bluff similar to that at Natchez, rising and falling in an undulating manner, but in a sudden freak bounded and formed the pinnacle called Loftus Height, two hundred feet above water mark, on which stands a block house only, under which is the barracks and arsenal in the bottom.”
At Fort Adams, Bedford “sauntered about here 2 or 3 hours...and set out...about 11 o’clock a.m.”
Sixteen miles down river, Bedford’s skiff “passed the mouth of Red River, emptying in on the west or Louisiana side so much celebrated latterly for the fertility of its soil and salubrity of its climate.”
THIS BIGGEST of the flatboats, also known as a barge, were used to carry cargo both up and down the river. The barge came into major play during the era of the steamboat when it could be towed upstream with a full load. (Credit: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1888)