Archived Story

Let’s do a little Pilgrimage myth busting

Published 12:03am Friday, March 8, 2013

It is hard to kill a good story, even if it isn’t the truth. A one-hour class Friday showed me how hard.

There is a little secret most Natchezians know about Spring Pilgrimage house tours — chances are not every word spoken is the truth.

When I first visited Natchez long before I moved here to work for the newspaper, I fell victim to some of these tall tales.

I learned of how women used to check their dresses to make sure their petticoats were not showing in specially designed petticoat tables. I discovered that most houses had no closets and bathrooms because those particular items were subject to a specific tax. I heard about and saw those infamous fire screens used to shield women and their wax makeup from the heat of the fire in many of the houses I toured back in the early 1990s.

Turns out those stories, and even a few I can’t remember, were fabrications — colorful tales to explain the unexplainable. Some people call them myths.

It’s not anybody’s fault. Misinformation spreads faster than the truth and has been since the very first Spring Pilgrimage back in the 1930s.

The 1934 Spring Pilgrimage guide waxed a little too poetically about the house Richmond’s Spanish origins. The writer of the brochure described the oldest portion of the house as “a rendezvous of pirates.” How the pirates got their Spanish galleon up the Mississippi River was not explained.

Many of the myths told to tourists these days may have a kernel of truth about them or they may not. It’s just so hard to give up such juicy, colorful stories.

Aaron Burr, the man who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel, was arraigned in Washington, just north of Natchez. That much is true.

The stories of Burr participating in secret enclaves at Connelly’s Tavern or being hung to death in one of the oak trees at Historic Jefferson College are myths passed down for many years.

Research shows that Connelly’s Tavern, now known as the House on Ellicott Hill, was never a tavern and the oaks at Jefferson College were planted years after Burr died.

Mimi Miller and other historians have been working to dispel some of these myths for years. Last week Miller, who is the executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, hosted three classes for tour guides, house owners and other interested residents to help shed light on the colorful myths that continue to be told.

Twenty-five people attended Friday’s class. Laughter, animated discussion and many questions filled the hour-long session. It was refreshing to see so many people having fun and showing active interest in Natchez history.

In recent years, many house museums have expanded their offerings. Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., offers tours of the Vanderbilt home, including the peek into the life of their servants.

Listening to Miller, I wondered if there might be something in her class that could be bottled and sold to tourists seeking more than the standard hoopskirt and carriage ride fare currently available.

You might call it the Spring Pilgrimage Myths Busters Tour — a behind-the-scenes tour that refutes the many Pilgrimage myths. If the Discovery Channel can do it with its wildly popular television series, why can’t Natchez?

After all, the myths — especially the ones that are specific to Natchez — reveal our history as a tourist town just as much as the regular Spring Pilgrimage tours reveal about our 19th-century past.

And if the area’s tour guides, house owners and residents showed enthusiasm listening to the tales, imagine how much they would enjoy telling them.

 

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.