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Melrose: A Cotton Kingdom Estate

John McMurran was a man on the rise when he moved from Pennsylvania to Natchez in the mid-1820s. Within a brief span of time he established a profitable law practice, won a seat in the Mississippi legislature, married into a respected local family, and acquired the first of five cotton plantations he would ultimately come to own. By 1841 he had amassed such an immense fortune from his slavery fueled cotton empire that he purchased 132 acres of land on the outskirts of Natchez on which to construct a country estate befitting a man of his status. Over the next eight years a labor force of free whites and enslaved blacks (which McMurran owned in abundance) toiled on the buildings of the estate until finally, in 1849, John, his wife, and their two children moved into their magnificent new home.

The Greek Revival Mansion

Melrose was considered by many to be the finest home in all of the Natchez region. The Greek Revival-style main house with immaculate brickwork featured a full-height front entry porch with four massive Doric columns. A two-story colonnaded porch spanned the entire rear elevation. Atop the building's hipped slate roof rested a balustraded clerestory.

The McMurrans furnished their home with "all that fine taste and a full purse" could provide. Carved Ionic columns flanked oak-grained pocket doors connecting two parlors and a personal library housing many volumes.

Ornate Rococco-style chairs and marble-topped tables, wall-to-wall carpets and painted oilcloth, silk-trimmed wooden Venetian blinds, and fine silk drapes filled the main house. Over the dining room table hung a magnificent mahogany "punkah" that, when operated by a slave, shooed flies away from the food. Most rooms were connected to bells hanging on the back of the house by rope pulls or small cranks. These bells summoned the domestic slaves quartered in the upper floors of the two brick dependency buildings just behind the main house. A hidden hallway in the rear of the first floor provided for discrete movement of house slaves.

Behind the Big House

The grounds behind the main house presented quite a different picture. Here, the McMurrans constructed the brick or wooden buildings, which housed a kitchen, livestock, carriages, tools, and the estate's slaves. The Melrose slaves tended vegetable gardens and an orchard of fruit trees planted behind each of the large brick dependency buildings. Trees were planted near the rear slave quarters to shade them. The back yards were little more than open spaces broken only by fences, dog and poultry pens, and dirt roads or paths. Later, in the years following the Civil War, the white owners of Melrose leased fields to newly freed African American families to plant cotton. The families of Reuben and Alice Sims, and Jane Johnson, were among the former slaves who took on new roles as sharecroppers, returning some of the land at Melrose to commercial agricultural use.

The Melrose Slaves

Enslaved men, women, and children were integral to daily operations at Melrose. Between 1841 and 1861 estate's labor force rose from eight to twenty-five. Rachel cooked the McMurran family's meals, which were served by Marcellus the table waiter. William drove the cart to town to pick up supplies or a visiting relative's luggage. Others tended gardens and yards, cared for livestock, drove the carriage that took master and mistress to town or to visit neighbors, and generally kept the estate's buildings and grounds in good order.

The ideal wealthy household was one in which the slaves were rarely seen but always ready to serve. Training began early with children as young as six often tasked with watching the infants and toddlers of other slaves while parents worked. By the age of eight, children spent their day working with their parents and others to learn the skills required to serve their master.

In the quarters, after the labors of the day were done, the slaves could relax and have a few hours of something resembling leisure. Here the men could sit in a doorway and enjoy a chew of tobacco or the smoke of a pipe while the women mended clothes and worked on quilts. In the background, the noise of children could be heard, playing marbles, arguing, laughing, singing....all evidence of the resilience of the human spirit.

The Melrose Landscape

When John and Mary Louisa McMurran purchased the Melrose tract, it consisted of little more than gently rolling hills covered with former cotton fields. The property was bounded on three sides by deep eroded ravines, locally called "bayous."

The McMurrans built their new home on the highest point of land near the center of the property. This site not only signified the importance of the main house, it also allowed the breezes to flow from the west-facing entrance through open corridors to the rear galleries.

The Melrose landscape evolved as a mixture of ornamental grounds, natural settings, and work areas defined by fences and native cherry laurel hedges. A long, winding drive lined with trees stretched from the cypress pond at the main gate up to the stately mansion. The lawn seemed to go on forever looking like a vast green carpet. Each spring this vast expanse became covered with wildflowers. On both sides of the main house cultivated flowers and hedges intermingled with nooks of wildflowers, as well as native trees and shrubs, to give the estate the look of an English park. Just south of the main house, west of the orchard, stands the preserved remains of a brick "parterre" within a carefully laid out formal garden full of ornemental shrubs, such as, camellias, azaleas, and gardenias.

The History of the Estate

Following the death of their daughter and two grandchildren from disease during the Civil War, John and Mary Louisa McMurran decided to sell Melrose and move in with Mrs. McMurran's widowed mother in a similar estate called Woodlands, which was located just across the bayou along the west boundary of Melrose. Elizabeth and George Malin Davis purchased Melrose from the McMurrans in 1865. Melrose remained with the Davis family descendents, the G. M. D. Kelly family, until 1976 when it was sold to Natchez residents John and Betty Callon.

Melrose opened for public tours in 1932 with the first Natchez Spring Pilgrimage. The resident families of Melrose continued this tradition until the property was acquired by the National Park Service in 1990. Melrose is one of two units of the Natchez National Historical Park open to the public. It represents one of the most completely preserved antebellum estates in Natchez with many original furnishings and outbuildings.

Your Visit to Melrose

The Melrose estate is easily accessed from U.S. highways 84, 98, and 61. Daily tours are available on the hour between 10 am and 4 pm. There is a limit of 20 visitors per tour. Advance reservations are recommended for large groups. Assisted listening devices and tactile models available for interpretive programs. Some buildings are wheelchair accessible.

Special group and education tours can be arranged by appointment.

Hours: Gates open daily 8:30 am to 5 pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

Tour fees:*

Adults 18-61
Groups of 13 or more
Children 6-17
U.S. Citizens 62 or over
Children Under 6


Source: NPS Brochure (2019)

William Johnson House: The "Barber of Natchez"

In the mid-1800s, the commercial district of antebellum Natchez bustled with activity. The sounds of carriages, villagers, steamboats, and livestock created a constant clamor. Streets that were alternately muddy or dusty were lined with hotels, churches, shops, and houses. The town was peopled by about 3,000 whites, 1,600 black slaves, and 200 free blacks who were mostly mulatto (mixed-race). Prominent among the free people of color was William Johnson, who owned a brick-structured building on State Street, which contained both rented retail shop space and the family's home. William Johnson, born a slave, was freed at age eleven and became a successful businessman, slaveholder, and diarist during the heyday of the cotton kingdom economic boom. Although Johnson reaped the material benefits of his economic success, he still walked a fine line between the full rights of a white citizen and the bondage of slavery.

From Slave to Master

In 1809, William Johnson was born the son of a mulatto slave woman in Natchez. At the age of eleven, William was emancipated by his white slave owner, also named William Johnson, who is presumed to be his father. The boy's mother Amy and sister Adelia had been freed at an earlier date. James Miller, a free black barber and husband to Adelia, trained young William as an apprentice.

Following completion of his training, Johnson purchased his first barbershop in Natchez in 1830. He would eventually own and operate three barbershops and a bath house in the city. Clients received services from Johnson himself, from free blacks hired by Johnson, from apprentices, and from slaves owned by Johnson.

State laws concerning property ownership did not prohibit any free person from owning slaves, even if that person had formerly been a slave. Slave ownership was a signal of economic and social status. By reaching a certain level of financial success, Johnson was able to purchase slaves and profit from slave labor in his business, in his farmlands, and in his family's home. By the 1840s, he had acquired substantial land holdings and established himself as a farmer as well as an urban businessman.

A Record of Daily Life The diaries of William Johnson cover sixteen years of his life beginning in 1835 and ending with his death in 1851. In addition to managing his business affairs, Johnson spent free time enjoying hunting and fishing trips, buying and selling goods at local auctions, gambling at horse races, and raising his family. All of these activities provided opportunities for entries into Johnson's journals.

Reports of parades, fires, natural disasters, and political rallies nestle among the humdrum accounts of business and jottings of daily events. In his diaries, Johnson also spins lively tales of fistfights, horse races, and town gossip. He creates comical characterizations of local townsfolk sometimes identified only as "Mr. McA," "the Dutchman," or even "the Snob."

Personal Reflections

Little in William Johnson's diary provides the reader with insight into his personal feelings about warm family relationships, why he wrote a diary, or even his thoughts about slavery or race. An exception is Johnson's discourse about "poor Steven," a young, alcoholic slave who caused Johnson considerable strife. Steven's disorderly behavior and frequent escapes caused Johnson to become increasingly harsh in doling out punishments. Eventually, under much distress, Johnson sold Steven. His diary entry about the matter reveals Johnson's conflicted feelings:

I rested bad Last night. I had much Care On my mind, the night appeared very Long—I got up this morning early and took Steven with me down to the Ferry Boat and gave him up to the Overseer of Young & Cannon...I felt hurt but Liquor is the Cause of his troubles; I would not have parted with Him if he had Only have let Liquor alone but he Cannot do it I believe.

January 1, 1844

The Johnson House

William Johnson constructed a three-story brick structure on his mother-in-law's State Street property after an 1840 tornado destroyed much of downtown Natchez. In March 1841, Johnson moved his family into their new home upstairs above the commercial space at street level.

The Johnsons had a large household including William and his wife Ann, his mother-in-law Harriet Battles, ten growing children, and a handful of house slaves. Behind the home stood a two-story dependency (no longer standing), which probably contained the family kitchen and dining rooms, as well as quarters for the slaves. The current kitchen building was built by Johnson's children in the 1890s.

The Death of William Johnson

In early 1851, Johnson brought surveyors to determine the boundary of his property at Ellis Cliffs south of Natchez. His neighbor Baylor Winn, who had been selling timber from the disputed area, was displeased with the survey and threatened Johnson on several occasions. Johnson filed suit against Winn and the two agreed on a settlement before the case went to trial; however, on June 16, 1851 Baylor Winn ambushed William Johnson and shot him in the back, fatally wounding him. Prior to his death the next morning, he identified his murderer and authorities arrested Winn. Under Mississippi law, a black man, slave or free, could not testify in court against a white man, and the only witnesses to the crime were his son, a slave, and a mulatto boy. After three mistrials in the attempt to prove Baylor Winn was mulatto, he was freed two years after the crime.

Johnson's Story Lives On

Even though William Johnson is no longer living, his life, as well as the rich history of Natchez during the heyday of the cotton kingdom lives on through his carefully preserved diaries located at Louisiana State University and through the Johnson family home preserved in Natchez.

The diaries were preserved by Johnson's descendents in the family home on State Street for decades. Finally, LSU purchased the diaries in 1938 and published them in 1951, allowing a rare glimpse into the life of a free person of color through his own words. In addition to his diaries, a collection of family photos, business papers, account books, sheet music, books, and periodicals are preserved at the university.

In 1976, the house was purchased from the Johnson family heirs by the Preservation Society of Ellicott Hill, who performed initial preservation and archeological study. The National Park Service acquired the Johnson property and the adjacent McCallum residence in 1990. The National Park Service conducted extensive historical research into the construction and original finishes as a guide to the restoration of the structure.

Your Visit to the William Johnson House

The William Johnson House site features a visitor center, public restrooms, and a first-floor exhibit room with interactive programs and universally accessible displays. The wheelchair-accessible second-floor living quarters are restored and furnished with many of the Johnson family's original pieces.

Special group and education tours can be arranged by appointment.

Hours: Open daily, 9 am to 5 pm Closed, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Free Admission

Source: NPS Brochure (2019)


Natchez National Historical Park — October 7, 1988

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Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards expand section


Cultural Landscape Report: Melrose Estate, Natchez National Historical Park (Ann Beha Associates, 1997)

Cultural Landscape Report: William Johnson House, Natchez National Historical Park (Laura L. Knott, January 2022)

Cultural Landscapes Inventory: Forks of the Road, Natchez National Historical Park (2022)

Cultural Landscapes Inventory: Fort Rosalie, Natchez National Historical Park (September 2019)

Final General Management Plan/Development Concept Plan/Environmental Impact Statement, Natchez National Historical Park, Natchez, Mississippi (January 1994)

Finishes Analysis: The William Robert Johnson House, Natchez, Mississippi (Peggy A. Albee, 1994)

Foundation Document, Natchez National Historical Park, Mississippi (November 2013)

Foundation Document Overview, Natchez National Historical Park, Mississippi (December 2013)

Foundation Document Overview, Natchez National Historical Park, Mississippi (January 2017)

Historic Furnishings Report: Melrose, Natchez National Historical Park (Carol Petravage, 2004)

Historic Furnishings Report: The William Johnson House, Natchez National Historical Park (Carol Petravage, 2004)

Historic Natchez Design Guidelines (1997)

Historic Resource Study: Natchez National Historical Park (Ann Beha Associates, 1997)

Historic Structure Report: Forks of the Road Bridge, Natchez National Historical Park, Natchez, Mississippi (Panamerican Consultants, Inc., Wiss, Janey, Elstner Associates, Inc. and WFT Architects, January 2020)

Historic Structure Report: Melrose Servants' Barn, Natchez National Historical Park, Natchez, Mississippi (Panamerican Consultants, Inc., Wiss, Janey, Elstner Associates, Inc. and WFT Architects, January 2020)

Historic Structures Report: Melrose Estate, Volume I, (Ann Beha Associates, 2004)

Historic Structures Report: Melrose Estate, Volume II: Paint and Concrete Analysis, Natchez National Historic Park (Ann Beha Associates, 2004)

Historic Structures Report: Melrose Estate, Volume III: Appendix, Natchez National Historic Park (Ann Beha Associates, 2004)

Historic Structures Report: Old Fort Rosalie Gift Shop, Natchez National Historical Park (June 2006)

Historic Structures Report: William Johnson House, Natchez National Historical Park (Ann Beha Associates, 1997)

Junior Ranger Program, Natchez National Historical Park (Date Unknown)

Long-Range Interpretive Plan, Natchez National Historical Park (January 2001)

The Black Experience in Natchez 1720-1880: Special History Study (Ronald L.F. Davis, April 1993)

Handbooks ◆ Books expand section


Melrose at Natchez National Historic Park, Natchez, MS

Last Updated: 25-Mar-2022