This is a question that has vexed me for many years now. A time before recorded history is almost impossible to imagine. Archaeologists look over artifacts and make educated assumptions of their purpose in proximity to where they were found. Combining these ideas a narrative is formed in order to explain a civilization, a way of life, a culture, a people with no written language to verify our understanding of who they truly were. It’s as if it was a time before time existed. For centuries we have claimed this time was primitive or uncivilized. We were taught that the complexities of humanity did not begin in this area until there was a European presence. Social structures needed to create vast cities and empires such as government, industry, education, religion, and technology were believed to be absent in this region of the world. Of course, we know this to be false today. Humanity is built upon the billions of experiences happening every moment of every day. Every perception is unique; and all of them make up our history.
These experiences were happening here long before European Powers began crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Artifacts discovered right here in Warren County have been dated as early as 4,000 BCE, almost 1,500 years before the oldest pyramids in Egypt. Materials from regions hundreds of miles away scattered among them give credit to the idea that trade networks of various tribes extended from the Great Lakes to our North to the Gulf Coast to our South, and possibly extends even further East and West. Just imagine how incredible it would have been to see such an extensive network in motion. Trails interconnecting together all across the lands we occupy today are covered in a canopy of ancient trees with the underbrush scorched to provide a clear sight of homes, farms, and wildlife all among a bustling society. What an incredible sight it must have been.
So what do we know about early Warren County and the surrounding area? Hernando de Soto’s expedition across Mississippi in 1541 is the earliest known written record of this region. His company’s report describes the Natives in this country as “fierce and implacable in war, industrious and hospitable in peace.” Villages extended beyond eyesight were made up of a vast population and cultivated fields all surrounded and defended by fortresses and barricades. De Soto himself was not among the men that first laid eyes on what would become Vicksburg. His death from a fever in 1542 just north of Vicksburg’s site along the mouth of the Arkansas River placed Luis de Moscoso Alvarado in charge of his army.
The army, badly depleted in number and mostly starving, descended south on the Mississippi River fleeing from an army of Natives. During their descent, the flat delta land rose suddenly towering over the surrounding area as the river bent sharply before the terrain. This group of about three hundred men retreating down the river caught the first glimpse of what they called Walnut Hills, present-day Vicksburg. Its name is derived from the thousands of walnut trees canopying the high bluffs. Among the walnut trees was the civilization of the ancient Natchez tribe; their cornfields extending for miles were said to be “thickly set with great towns.” Disease would be the ruin of the Natchez people.
A century later when an expedition led by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle came through this area, the Natchez civilization had vanished. The last time we hear about the Natchez tribe in this area comes from the reports from the French in the 1720s. Two French forts, Fort Rosalie and Fort St. Pierre, were attacked by the Natchez and all inhabitants within were massacred. In retaliation, the French—assisted by the Choctaw Nation—chased the remaining members of the tribe into the forests and they were never heard from again. A civilization that had existed in the Warren County area for at least a thousand years was no more, and a new saga of history was about to begin. The European era would transform the land forever for there would be many more conflicts over the control of the bluffs
of Walnut Hills.
Vicksburg & Warren County Historical Society
If you enjoyed this story about Walnut Hills and the early Natchez People and want to learn more about this area, please consider visiting the Old Court House Museum here in Vicksburg, MS. We’ve been a museum for 74 years now, and all items on display were donated by families from here. We also have vast archives in our McCardle Research Library that is accessible by appointment. Members of the Historical Society have free admission to the museum, so please also consider becoming a member. All proceeds raised through membership go directly to the preservation of the museum and its contents. For more information visit our website at www.oldcourthouse.org or give us a call at 601-636-0741. You never know what you’ll find at the Old Court House!See a typo? Report it here.