tant center ofsettlement in the Old Southwest. Once again, thisabundant land of rich, black soil became thickly peopled, butthis time with cotton planters and their African American slaves.Under-the-Hill gained renown as the last stop for boatmenbefore New Orleans. Minstrel performers sang oftheir 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 todissipation as sailors who have long been out ofport.” There wereoften as many as 150 boats drawn up at the wharves. The crowdsalong the riverfront, noted John James Audubon, who visited inthe 1820s, “formed a medley which it is beyond my power todescribe.”Mingling among American rivermen ofall descriptionswere trappers and hunters in fur caps, Spanish shopkeepers inbright smocks, French gentlemen from New Orleans in velvetcoats, Indians wrapped in their trade blankets, African Americansboth free and slave—a pageant of nations and races. Clapboardshacks and flatboats dragged on shore and converted into store-fronts served as grog shops, card rooms, dance halls, and hotels.Brothels with women of every age and color abounded.On the bluffs, meanwhile, the town ofNatchez had becomethe winter home to the southwestern planter elite. They built theirmansions with commanding views ofthe river. A visitor attend-ing a ball at one of these homes was dazzled by the display:“Myriads of wax candles burning in wall sconces, sparklingchandeliers, entrancing music, the scent of jasmine, rose andsweet olive, the sparkle of wine mellowed by age, the flow ofwit and brilliant repartee, all were there.”Sustaining this Americanaristocracy was the labor of thousands of enslaved men andwomen, who lived in the squalid quarters behind the great houseand worked the endless fields ofcotton.
The Natchez planters, their wealth and confidence growingwith cotton’s growing dominance of the local economy, foundUnder-the-Hill an increasing irritant. “A gentleman may gamewith a gambler by the hour,” one resident remembered, “and yetdespise him and refuse to recognize him afterward.” The Under-the-Hill elite, however—gamblers, saloon keepers, and pimps—disturbed this social boundary when they began staying at hotelsand even building town houses in Natchez town. And in the wakeofthe slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831, in whichfifty-five white people were killed, the planters began to feelincreasingly threatened by the racial mingling of the riverfront.In the late 1830s, rumors that their slaves were conspiring tomurder them during Fourth of July celebrations while Under-the-Hill desperadoes looted their mansions reinforced the Natchezelite’s growing conviction that they could no longer tolerate thepolyglot community ofthe riverfront. The measures that ultimatelyprovoked the flatboatmen’s threats in November 1837 soon followed.