Mississippi Plantation is a Haunting Reminder

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Saragossa Plantation | Adams County, MS | c. 1820s

Saragossa is on Private Property and NOT accessible by the public. The property is monitored. Do NOT trespass here.

Here along the bluffs that overlook the Mississippi River, a city called Natchez emerged in the early 1700s, home to natives who were soon under the influence of Spain and France. It was here that the voracious market for cotton in Europe fueled an economy of plantations that were vastly profitable due to the work of enslaved people who were traded in the markets of Natchez. Just a few miles from these river bluffs stands a ghostly memory of that era that helps to tell a small piece of the story of the Mississippi cotton plantations.

Illustration of the city of Natchez from the Mississippi River.

The Natchez District

The Natchez District along the east bank of the Mississippi River contains some of the oldest European settlements in the state. Here at the river bluffs and along the trade routes, Europeans first encountered the natives of Mississippi, many of whom were members of the Choctaw who had lived in this region since 1200 CE. Spanish explorers reached the Gulf of Mexico in the 1500s and by 1540, records show that Hernando DeSoto made it to the Natchez District, named after the Natchez Indian tribe. The Kingdom of Spain laid claim to the “new land” and settlements began to spring up in the Natchez District of Spanish West Florida.

Map of the early Natchez District showing the town laid out on the bluffs above the river.

Slavery in the Natchez District

After the Spanish, this territory was controlled by France who established rules in 1718 allowing the importation of enslaved humans from Africa into Mississippi, and by 1719, the first Africans were arriving in Biloxi. When the cotton gin was invented in 1793, the business of slavery in Mississippi would explode as cotton plantations clamored to produce enough cotton to supply the insatiable European market. Due to its location on the river, Natchez proved to be a profitable trade port for cotton, sugar, and other textiles but the city, also became the state’s most active in the trading of enslaved people.

Forks of the Road Slave Market

According to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History: “Natchez played a significant role in the southward movement of the existing enslaved population to the waiting cotton plantations of the Deep South. Slave sales at Natchez were held in a number of locations, but one marketplace soon eclipsed the others in the number of sales. This was the market known as “The Forks of the Road,” located at the busy intersection of Liberty Road and Washington Road about one mile east of downtown Natchez, Mississippi. [1]

Stephen Duncan

Only 6 miles away from Forks of the Road, a man named Stephen Duncan established the plantation featured here. He had built a cotton empire for himself with the labor of enslaved people, many of who had been traded at the Forks of the Road market nearby. Originally from Pennsylvania, Duncan would become one of the most affluent men in this region, at one point owning 15 plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana [2] and enslaving more than 1,000 people of African descent (some estimates put this number at 2,000).

Dr. Stephen Duncan (1787-1867) was born in Pennsylvania and graduated from medical school at Dickinson College in 1808. In 1811, he relocated to Mississippi where his planting career quickly overtook his medical practice. Duncan owned 15 plantations and enslaved more than 1,000 people, but he was a Unionist and faced backlash from his statesmen in the years leading up to and including the Civil War. At the conclusion of the war, Duncan permanently relocated to his summer home in New York and died 2 years later in 1867. He is buried in Pennsylvania.

Stephen had trained to be a doctor in Pennsylvania at Dickinson College, and in 1808, he decided to leave Pennsylvania, where he had grown up, for the Deep South and made his move to the Natchez District of Mississippi. In September 1811, the doctor married Margaret Ellis and with money from her family, he acquired lands along the Homochitto River where he began his career in planting and slave-owning. This was the first of many land acquisitions that Stephen would make over the following decades to build a land portfolio that became one of the largest of the era in Mississippi. As his land holdings expanded, he enslaved more people to work his crops, and his success as a planter soon trumped his career in medicine.

Stephen and Margaret had two children before Margaret Ellis Duncan died of yellow fever in 1815. On 25 May 1819, Stephen Duncan married Catharine A. Bingaman, whose family helped constitute the core of the Natchez elite. The same year, he acquired a property south of Natchez that would eventually be called Saragossa Plantation.

Saragossa Plantation, surrounded by ancient oaks. You can still see the steps that were once used by carriage riders.

Saragossa Plantation

This property holds mysterious energy and over the years, stories of it have been embellished- adding to that sense of mystery. The date of the building is often credited to 1823, after Stephen Duncan acquired the property, however, numerous stories about the home mention that it was built much earlier, between 1769-1787. According to one account, Saragossa, which stood along the Nashville to New Orleans Post Road, served as an early Spanish fortress, surrounded by “a brick wall for protection from natives, although no evidence of the wall exists today” [4]. Another story mentioned that a marker dating to the 1500s once stood on the property.

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One story passed down by the family that occupied the home longest was that it was actually built by David Williams (more on the Williams Family later) and when he died, his young widow had her second wedding here when she married Mississippi Governor Winthrop Sargent in 1798.

All of these stories are fascinating, but without more evidence, they’re just some of the rumors that swirl around the property. I make mention of them in case a reader here might be able to give more information about any of them- but each should be taken with a grain of salt. Luckily, there are many facts about the property that I was able to confirm, shared following this paragraph.

After his marriage to Catherine Bingaman in 1820, Duncan acquired the property where Saragossa stands. But when Duncan took ownership of the property, it isn’t clear if this building was already standing or not. Records of Duncan’s plantation here date to 1823, so the home is often attributed to being built in the 1820s- although it is very possible that it dates to the 1767-1787 date that is often cited but not yet proven.

Saragossa Plantation, c. 1936. Photographer James Butters created this image on October 9, 1936- shared with the Historic American Building Survey. The brick step in the foreground was once used as a step to load and unload carriages that came up the drive. Also, notice the bed on the sleeping porch. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

By this point in his career, Duncan was part of an elite group of planters who had massive plantation operations in the countryside but lived in grand homes in town at Natchez. Saragossa was one such property that was run for Duncan by an overseer, and the main home that is still standing would’ve been the ‘big house’ where the overseer lived. The one-story brick house, which is set upon a basement, originally had only two large rooms, although it was expanded in later years.

You can read the full architectural notes from the National Register of Historic Places Application here.

Photo showing the portion of the main floor gallery which is partially floored with metal bars that separate the floor on the exterior gallery. Photo courtesy of Jessica W.
Photo showing the portion of the main floor gallery which is partially floored with metal bars that separate the floor on the exterior gallery. Photo courtesy of Jessica W.

Saragossa has some peculiar parts that add to the intrigue of the story here. When I visited, I noticed bars on the porch gallery floor separating the first and second floors. According to the National Register application, “the main floor gallery is partially unfloored on the northeast side of the house and partially floored with metal bars on the southwest side to provide light in the basement gallery moats.” [5]

Although missing today, another interesting and unique feature of the home can be seen in the photo below from the 1930s. If you examine this photo closely, you will notice chains hanging around the porch. These were used in place of a balustrade on the U-shaped porch. The chains have all been stolen over time. Former resident, Kitty Will, said that no one ever fell off of the porch because their faithful dog would growl if anyone got too close to the porch’s edge.

Side and rear view of Saragossa Plantation, c. 1936. Notice the chains hanging across the porch in place of a balustrade. The wooden gutter you see running from the house leads to the cistern beside the remaining enslaved cabin. Photo created by James Butters on October 9, 1936 for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Enslaved History at Saragossa

By the time a plantation was established here in 1823, there were already 32,814 enslaved persons in the state of Mississippi, but this number would quickly balloon as the South became the center of worldwide cotton production, reaching 426,631 enslaved people by 1860 [6]. Stephen Duncan himself reported that he enslaved over 1,000 people across his plantations. A sadly unsurprising number considering that just a few miles from his home was the 2nd largest slave market in the world, Forks of the Road. We don’t have an exact number of how many of those 1,000 were enslaved here at Saragossa Plantation, but I was able to track down some of the tax records from 1827 where Duncan reported that he was enslaving 71 people on this property. According to a deed map from 1826, there were 8 houses arranged in a square directly behind the main house where enslaved people lived.

Deed map from 1849 shows the ‘big house’ at Saragossa Plantation, with 2 rows of 8 enslaved cabins behind the home. Adams County, MS deed book: 1849, pg. 71.

None of the original houses for enslaved people still stand today, but reports from field studies that were done here in the 1990s recorded that “the slave houses were two-room, wooden framed structures resting on brick piers with central brick chimneys. Each slave house had a porch across the front. From archaeological evidence, we can surmise that each two-room housed two families, for a total of 16 families in 8 buildings.” [7]

This is the last remaining enslaved house at Saragossa of the 8 buildings that once stood directly behind the ‘big house.’ There were two entrances into each of the enslaved houses that led to a separate living space that would be shared by up to 6 people, or 8-12 people per house. Notice the well in the background and the carriage on the porch. Photo created October 9, 1936, by James Butters for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

A fascinating piece of the story of those who were enslaved here comes from military records. On January 1, 1863- President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and by the Summer of 1863, Union Troops were in Mississippi. Although enslavers in Mississippi did not recognize Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863, some enslaved individuals risked their lives to escape their captors. But with nowhere to go, joining the Union cause was an opportunity out. On July 1, 1863, Thomas Watson (age 22) enlisted in the Union Navy, and on July 11, 1863, Buckner Watson (age 16) joined him. Both young men reported their place of birth as Saragossa Plantation where they were field laborers. [8] (Thanks to Ser Heter-Boxley for contributing this piece of information about the people of Saragossa.) On July 13, 1863, Union troops landed at Natchez and took over the city, freeing many enslaved persons.

Saragossa Plantation Site Plan showing where enslaved houses stood from a 1998 study conducted by Amy Young. Courtesy of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Studies have been conducted here to learn more about the lives of enslaved individuals at Saragossa Plantation by the University of Southern Mississippi. You can read their full reports here and here.

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Saragossa and its People are Sold

In 1835, Stephen Duncan sold Saragossa Plantation to William St. John Elliott, a planter who declared that he enslaved 69 people here in 1839. When Elliott sold the property to William G. Conner in 1849, the sale included the transfer of 23 enslaved people, who were already living on the plantation. In 1852, Conner sold the property back to Elliott and this sale included 18 enslaved people in the transfer. Over the following years, the property changed hands from Elliott to Winfield Gibson (in 1852), then from Gibson to Mrs. Caroline Routh Williams (in 1855).

Mrs. Caroline Routh Williams (1798-1863).

The Williams and Smith Families

In the 1850s, Mrs. Caroline Williams bequeathed the home to her daughter, Mrs. Anna Williams Smith, and her son-in-law, Walton Pembroke Smith. Anna and Walton had previously lived across the Mississippi River on a Louisiana Plantation that was destroyed by a tornado in 1840. To make Saragossa suitable for a family, the former overseer’s house was greatly modified and enlarged so that Anna and Walton could move in, and in the Smith Family, the property would stay for the next 100+ years.

Portrait of Mrs. Anna Elizabeth Williams Smith (1820-1889). According to a journal of Anna’s Reverend, Rev. Joseph Buck Stratton Journal dated Oct 4, 1889,
“Mrs. Anna E. Smith, died at her residence ‘Saragosso’ today a little after 12 o’clock. She has just completed her 69th year.  She was unselfish & affectionate to the last degree. Her life has been a sacrifice for others. Her gentle spirit passed away from the worn out body without a pang or struggle.” Rev. Stratton conducted her funeral on Oct 6, 1889 at the Routh Family burying ground.

The ‘big house’ was originally a two-room, two-story brick structure with end chimneys, but when the Smith family acquired it in the 1850s, they remodeled and added a U-shaped porch with simple Greek-Revival style box columns. This gives the house a most unique appearance. The inside of the house was also modified with the addition of large pocket doors that separated the large upstairs room, creating double parlors. The second-story ceilings were also raised. An architectural survey noted that the doors and other features of the 1850s renovation were salvaged from other homes. It’s possible that they came from their house that was destroyed by the tornado in Louisiana.

These giant pocket doors were added in the 1850s when the Smith Family adapted the house. The doors are believed to have been salvaged from other properties in the area. Photo courtesy of Jessica W.

After they moved in, the Smith Family also built a one-room schoolhouse for the Smith children and other white children in the area. In the years before Emancipation, the Smith Family also relied on the labor of enslaved people here, reporting in the 1860 census that they enslaved 20 people at Saragossa, serving the family in various capacities.

Corporal Austin W. Smith, son of Anna Williams Smith of Saragossa Plantation. Austin served in the Confederate Army as a Corporal, Company E, 4th Louisiana Infantry.

As the Civil War broke out, 4 of the Smith sons enlisted and on June 1, 1861, one son, Austin W. Smith, left his studies at Oakland College and joined the Confederate Army in Louisiana’s 4th Infantry. Austin eventually earned the rank of 2nd Lieutenant after he had received wounds in 4 different battles. The bullet-ridden battle flag that he carried during his service hung on the wall in the main parlor of Saragossa for many years after he passed.

The Battle Flag of Louisiana’s 4th Infantry, carried by Austin W. Smith. According to family and locals who visited, this flag hung on the wall of Saragossa Plantation while the Smith Family lived there. It was donated to the Louisiana Archives where it is displayed today.

This flag is on display at the Louisiana Archives and according to an analysis of the flag: “it was the Civil War standard of the 4th Louisiana Battalion (Gibon’s Brigade). It was purportedly brought home from the war to the Saragossa plantation near Natchez, MS, by Austin W. Smith. The flag is constructed in the pattern of a Confederate battle flag of the army of Tennessee. An analysis of the flag revealed the presence of residue from the combustion of gunpowder leading to the conclusion that the flag is an authentic Civil War artifact and was used in battle.”

This information card is on display with the flag that used to hang at Saragossa.

Walton Pembroke Smith sent 4 sons to fight, but didn’t participate himself in the Civil War. However according to family legend, Mr. Smith was reading a book on the upper porch of Saragossa when a Union soldier fired on him. The bullet tore through the book, saving Mr. Smith from being shot. The damaged book, “History of the Jews,” was held in the family as an heirloom for many years. Today, a memorial to the Smith Family stands on the property behind Saragossa.

Mrs. ‘Kitty Will’ Wickcliffe

Members of the Smith Family continued to live here through the 1970s, when it was home to Mrs. Kitty Wills Wickliffe- a Smith Family descendant. when the Wickliffe Family moved in. Mrs. Kitty Wills Wickcliffe, was born in 1910 in one of the cabins at Saragossa with the help of ‘Mammy’. Kitty spent the rest of her life on the property. She raised her sons here and was known locally for her love of the property. After she passed away in 2010, a marker was placed on the property in her memory.

Memorial to Kitty Will who lived at Saragossa throughout her life. Photo courtesy of Jessica W.


In 1980, Saragossa Plantation was added to the National Register of Historic Places and in 1987, Michael and Elizabeth Foster purchased Saragossa for their home with hopes to someday create a retreat center. Michael grew up in Natchez and had visited Saragossa when he was 18 to thrash pecan trees at Saragossa for Mrs. Mamie Smith. After making good progress on the renovation, Michael and Elizabeth had a financial disaster that halted their efforts. In 1996, they were forced to sell, and a new, out-of-state owner stepped up to purchase it. At this point, one of the original enslaved cabins still stood behind the main house, but the new owner tore it down and replaced it with a newer, more modern getaway cottage on the spot where it stood. Bricks from the original cabin were reused in the new build.

View of the rear of Saragossa, including the new cottage in place of the last standing enslaved house. Photo courtesy of Jessica W.

In the 1990s, an archaeological study was conducted here by the University of Southern Mississippi.

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In 2008, Saragossa was vandalized and thieves removed all of the copper wiring. You can still see the scars on the walls today from the robbery.

Photo of the inside of Saragossa showing the damage to the walls where plaster was ripped out during a robbery where thieves pulled out all of the copper wiring. Photo courtesy of Jessica W.
Rear view of Saragossa, c. 2018.

In 2018, local interest was ignited by Michael Foster to try and do something to save the structure, but the out-of-state owner wasn’t interested in selling it. As of 2023, it isn’t clear what they plan to do with the property if anything but the building is still in saveable condition so I am hopeful that someone with the ability to restore it will step up with a convincing offer.

View from the exterior gallery, looking at the old carriage path and steps that riders would use to get in and out of the carriage. Photo courtesy of Jessica W.

Today, it is difficult to imagine the life that used to happen here, and no one is left to tell us the stories. But each Fall, a new batch of spider lilies crops up in the front yard, and standing there surrounded by ancient oaks and an old carriage path, it feels like I’ve stepped back in time for a moment. After I visited, I felt compelled to tell the story of this place in the most complete way that I could, so if you have anything to contribute, please email me: kelly@theforgottensouth.com.

Saragossa is on Private Property and NOT accessible by the public. The property is monitored. Do NOT trespass here.


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  1. This is a beautiful piece and I enjoyed it so much. It breaks your heart to read about these lovely deserted places BUT it also breaks your heart to read about the enslaved people kept there.

  2. Thank you Kelly. That was beautifully written. Lovely pictures too. It’s such a unique place. I hope someone can save this piece of American history.

  3. I love to read about our history, good and bad, it is our heritage. Reading about our past helps us understand how we can improve ourselves so that we won’t fall back into that lifestyle.
    Thanks so much for sharing.
    Brenda Mcguire

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