Inside the Natchez Trace Collection: New Sources for Southern History

By Whitley, Bland | Journal of the Early Republic, April 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Inside the Natchez Trace Collection: New Sources for Southern History


Whitley, Bland, Journal of the Early Republic


Inside the Natchez Trace Collection: New Sources for Southern History. Edited by Katherine J. Adams and Lewis L. Gould. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. Pp. x, 207. Illustrations, appendix. $35.00.)

Recently opened by the University of Texas at Austin, the Natchez Trace Collection represents a substantial storehouse of information on the Lower Mississippi Valley, one of the foremost slaveholding regions of the United States. This concise, ably-edited volume offers six views of topics that should invite the interests of students of southern history from a wide range of perspectives. Whether or not the collection will help produce significant revisions of southern history is unclear, but at the very least the contributors indicate ways that the NTC will enable scholars to create more nuanced portraits of the Natchez district.

In his introduction, Lewis L. Gould sums up the volume's goal as a guided tour through the NTC's contents "in the context of existing scholarly research on southern history" (5). Some readers might have preferred a more actively speculative strategy, which would have encouraged the contributors to use their discussions as a means of proffering new interpretations of the southern past. On the whole, however, the editors' choice seems a sound one. In any event the suggested alternative was probably not possible, as the NTC appears to contain mainly the kinds of documents that southern historians have traditionally mined and thus seems most appropriate for engaging in prevailing debates and interpretations.

Students interested in the southern frontier, slavery in the Natchez district, the lives of women, and sectionalism should find the volume particularly useful. As John Guice's contribution "Windows on the Old Southwest" makes clear, the NTC holds a wealth of information on the region during its earliest stages of development. Provincial and Territorial Records illuminate aspects of the Natchez district's French and Spanish past as well as the significance of cattle ranching to the earliest white settlers. Unfortunately, few documents appear to touch on the powerful Indian presence in the region. This disappointing lacuna results primarily from the collection's neglect of the Natchez Trace itself. The current archivists are certainly not to blame for this circumstance, but they may be faulted for assigning a misleading name to the collection. Several of the contributors comment on the relatively poor sources for studying women. Yet as Katherine Adams deftly shows, analyses of women are quite possible. In particular, the NTC appears to shed much light on how women handled health care and the education of elite children. Although most of the documents pertain to elite women, Adams cites enough scattered information on slave women and white working women to spark the interest of concerned students. Not surprisingly, slavery draws the attention of all the contributors. Randolph Campbell's essay offers the most focused analysis of the NTC's information on the peculiar institution. …

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