AUSTIN, Texas—It was like a moment out of a William Faulkner novel. In 1984, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin first saw an immense archive of southern history at the home of its owner in Mississippi. In room after room, and in outlying buildings, were original letters and documents of Southern history, unseen by scholars since they were first written. Faulkner evoked something of the experience in his novel Absalom, Absalom!: “The paper old and faded and falling to pieces, the writing faded, almost indecipherable, yet meaningful, familiar in shape and sense, the name and presence of volatile sentient forces.”
The University acquired the collection in 1986, and it rests at the Center for American History where historians have been exploring it for more than a decade.
Now the riches of the Natchez Trace Collection have been examined in a new book, edited by Katherine J. Adams and Lewis L. Gould of UT Austin, entitled Inside the Natchez Trace Collection: New Sources for Southern History, published by the Louisiana State University Press.
“The publication of Inside the Natchez Trace Collection is very important to the Center for American History,” said director Dr. Don E. Carleton. “The book not only promotes the use of this great treasure trove documenting the Natchez region; it will also bring new attention to the center’s extensive holdings in southern history.”
Adams and Gould asked distinguished scholars of the 19th Century South to look into the Natchez Trace Collection and report on what they found. The result is a book of six fascinating essays that explore what the collection reveals about the Old Southwest, slavery, the role of women, business and enterprise, the impact of the Civil War, and the era of planter capitalism during the “flush times” of Mississippi’s early development.
The distinguished roster of authors include Adams herself, John D.W. Guice (University of Southern Mississippi), Randolph B. Campbell (University of North Texas), Morton Rothstein (University of California, Davis), Shearer Davis Bowman (UT Austin), and William G. Shade (Lehigh University). Each one of the scholars delves into the issues that the collection poses and the ways in which researchers on any subject may use the Natchez Trace materials with profit.
The book also contains 14 illustrations of documents from the collection. They range from a page of the ledger that recorded “Slaves Assigned to Road Duty in Adams County, Mississippi” in the 1850s to the grade report of a student at Washington College in 1868 signed by the College’s president, Robert E. Lee. Both the essays and the illustrations enable the reader to journey back in time to the formative era of the Old South and see why the Natchez Trace Collection provides such an alluring window into a vanished time and place.
Katherine J. Adams is associate director of the Center for American History at the University, and Lewis L. Gould is the Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor in American History emeritus at UT. The book, which costs $35, can be purchased from the Louisiana State University Press in Baton Rouge, and at local bookstores. Copies autographed by the editors are available at the Center for American History (512-495-4915).
UT’s Center for American History is a special collections library, archive, and museum that facilitates research and sponsors programs in the historical development of the United States. The Natchez Trace Collection is one of the major research collections in the Center’s Littlefield South History Collections, one of the nation’s principal resources for research on topics related to the 11 states that seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861.