Angels on a Bluff

Natchez City Cemetery is a beautifully haunted place.  Sitting high on the bluffs, overlooking the great Mississippi River, it was first established in 1822.  The first permanent residents of the cemetery were moved here from an earlier spot in town, near St Mary’s Basilica.  They were joined by others from nearby plantation graveyards.  Today thousands have found their final resting place here.

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There are all kinds of stories in this graveyard.  As with most cemeteries, it is the most tangible link with the past and those that helped build this small river town by the Big Muddy.  Now they are only remembered by the haunting stone angels, simple tombstones, and ornate mausoleums that dot the cemetery.

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The Learned family are here, many of them buried in a stone mausoleum.  This family was among the richest in Natchez in the late 19th century.  They got their start in lumber, but expanded their reach into banking and gold mining.  The life of Rufus F. Learned in particular is fascinating.  During his lifetime he spent time at West Point, traveled to California by way of Nicaragua, spent time in Australia, did some gold mining, sand shipped sandalwood to China from the South Sea Islands.  He was back in Natchez by the outbreak of the Civil War and served in the Confederate infantry. After the war, with only a dollar (literally) to his name, he built his fortune via a bank, a saw mill,  and cotton.  His was a fascinating life.

One of the more interesting graves was remarkable, not because of the monument in the cemetery, but because of the information on the marker.

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Don Jose Vidal, born in Spain in 1765.  He founded what is today, the city of Vidalia, Louisiana, just across the river from Natchez.  He was was secretary to the Spanish governor of the Natchez Territory at one time and later served as the Spanish Consul of Natchez after the US took control of the Mississippi Territory.  He is known for building a fort on the Louisiana side of the river after the US gained control of Natchez.  This fort became known as the Post of New Concordia and was at that time still in Spanish territory.  To this day, Don Vidal is remembered by the parish that carries his fort’s name – Concordia.

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These are just two stories of countless others.  Perhaps one of the more heartbreaking graves is shown in the picture above.  It reads: “Our Darling Beatrice died Sept 12, 1877 aged 2 month & 4 days.” Nothing more is known about this little girl, but the words chosen to memorialize her are telling.

Unlike today, tombstones were once hand carved – works of art really.  So much care went into choosing just the right words to memorialize a loved one, not to mention the time and skill involved in engraving the stone.  Perhaps that is the magic of old cemeteries – the words left behind by a grieving family once seemed much more potent and authentic, almost as if the grief and sorrow are etched into the stone itself.  It is eternal, like the stone itself and you feel it when you stand, looking down at a stranger’s grave.

Somehow that is very comforting.

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All photos by author.

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