Don José Vidal important to the history of Natchez District, Vidalia

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 18, 2010

Across the Mississippi River from Natchez is Vidalia, named for Don JoséVidal, who arrived in the Natchez area in 1789 as a Spanish official.

Spain controlled the Natchez District from 1779 to 1798 and Vidal was considered one of Spain’s ablest officials during that period. He was also instrumental in the smooth transition of the Natchez District from Spanish control to that of the United States in 1798. He moved across the river to Louisiana that year, so he could remain in Spanish territory.

However, France took control of Louisiana in 1800, and sold it to the United States in 1803. Vidal remained in Louisiana, where he became an American, and served his adoptive nation well.

Vidal was born in Cormilla, Spain on March 12, 1765, and as the title “Don” (equivalent to the English title “Sir”) indicates, his was a family of nobility. He fought with the Spanish Navy from 1779 to 1783 against the British after Spain became an ally of the United States during the American Revolution. His gravestone states that he had been a Captain of Dragoons (cavalry), but is unclear from this inscription if he held this position during that time period. In 1786, he was appointed an official in the fiscal division of the intendancy of New Orleans.

In October 1787, Vidal was appointed to the post of Royal Storekeeper for Fort San Marcos de Apalache which was located a few miles north of what is now Tallahassee, Fla. When Manuel Gayoso de Lemos became the Spanish Governor of the Natchez District in 1787, he named Vidal his secretary in 1789.

This post paid well, and Vidal acted as governor during Gayoso’s absence. In late 1797, Stephen Minor was appointed governor, and Vidal was promoted to military commandant.

That April, the Spanish made him the civil and military commander of the post, a position he later had under the French, until the area became part of the United States in 1803. On April 21, 1798, Vidal and his two sons received a large grant of land from the Spanish government across the Mississippi River from Natchez. The Spanish governor stipulated that three acres of the grant were reserved on the river to be used as a commons with town lots in the rear. Early maps of the area called this area New Concord, but in time it became identified with Vidal and his sons because they owned all the lands that surrounded the town site. This area is now known as the town of Vidalia.

Vidal did quite well as an American citizen. He ran a successful ferry business from 1803 to 1817 that ran from Vidalia to Natchez, and he was so respected that he was elected to the Louisiana Legislature in 1811.

The citizens of Natchez thought highly of him and he was elected by the Mississippi Legislature as a Trustee to the Roman Catholic Society of Natchez. Vidal was also generous, donating of a building and one acre of land, on Nov. 18, 1809, for the sole purpose of building and erecting a courthouse, jail and other public offices and buildings for benefit of Concordia Parish. Vidal died on July 22, 1828, while in New Orleans, and was buried there.

However, his remains were removed from New Orleans in January 1846 and reburied in the Natchez Cemetery. The inscriptions on his gravestone tell of his many accomplishments with the Spanish: being a captain of dragoons, a commandant and a consul. However, the greatest tribute to Vidal, who accomplished much as a Spanish citizen and as an American citizen is the Louisiana city that bears his name today.

H. Clark Burkett is a historian at Historic Jefferson College.