THE RUINS OF WINDSOR
In 1682, a French Jesuit named René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, claimed the entire basin of the Mississippi River for France. La Salle traveled from his base in Montreal, Canada all the way to the mouth of the Mississippi. About midway between the loess hills bluffs that would be the site of French Fort St. Peter and the Indian settlement at present day Natchez, Mississippi, his canoe passed a high bluff on the eastern side of the river. This prominent feature was visible for miles both up and down stream. It is unlikely that La Salle made any particular note of this promontory, but I am pretty sure he saw it.
By the late 1700’s, settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains necessitated the need to move the agricultural products to market. The river systems draining North America all eventually joined the Mississippi River and flowed to the French port of New Orleans. Flatboats from the upper stretches of the Ohio River system, as well as the upper Mississippi and Missouri, began to pass this high point on the river. In the early 1800’s, steam boats began to serve the river cities with their ability to go upstream and return manufactured goods to the farmers and merchants that flooded mid America.
This high point on the Mississippi became a reference point for river boat pilots. By the middle of the 19th Century, the area from Natchez to Vicksburg had become one of the richest and most sophisticated areas in the Deep South. In the 1860 U.S. Census, there were more millionaires in Natchez than in New York City. Cotton was king and the plantation system produced huge fortunes.
In 1849, Smith Coffee Daniell II inherited 2,600 acres bordering the Mississippi River in Claiborne County. He choose the highest point on the land to build his plantation home and headquarters, and began construction of what would become the largest Greek Revival Mansion to be built in antebellum Mississippi. The home was designed by David Shroder, a prominent architect of the time and constructed by a crew of skilled New England craftsmen. Slaves provided the manual labor. Twenty-nine brick columns, each 45 feet in height, supported the huge home which included a ground-level basement that housed the kitchen and servants quarters. Three additional floors were capped by an observation cupola.
The home was finished in 1861 at a cost of $175,000, the equivalent of $3,500,000 in today’s money. A few weeks later, Daniell died at the age of 34. The Daniell family lived in the home during the War for Southern Independence (that would be the “Civil War” to you Yankees). The home, high on the bluff, was first used as an observation post by Confederate forces and later, after the battle of Port Gibson, it was a Union hospital.
After the war, Windsor became home to Smith Coffee Daniell’s widow and her three children and by the 1880’s, the prosperity of the family farming operation had been restored. On February 17, 1890 a house guest carelessly discarded a cigarette and the ensuing fire quickly engulfed the entire structure. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the home was totally destroyed. All that remained were twenty-three of the huge columns and most of the ironwork from the balustrades and the stairs.
I first visited Windsor in the early 1960’s. Some friends and I had a hunting club just west of Port Gibson, Mississippi and I thought it would be interesting to check out the ruins of the old antebellum home, which was located about 10 miles downriver from our land. Late one afternoon, I drove on a small winding country road that paralleled the Mississippi River. The land on both sides of the little road was still under cultivation and you could see the river to the west and the large, high loess bluff to the east.
Just before reaching the turn off to Bruinsburg, the ruins of Windsor loomed high above the road on top of the bluff. You could see the remains of the stately old home as soon as you hit a straight away on the little road. There was no sign indicating a place of interest and the small road leading up to the top of the bluff was in a sad state of repair. Once I had climbed the bluff, there were no signs or fencing preventing you from walking right in among the stately old columns.
The old home had been left pretty much as it was after the fire in 1890 and thus had suffered seventy additional years of neglect and the ravages of the weather and vegetation. In many places the plaster had peeled away from the columns and the underlying slave-made bricks were exposed. The river was easily visible from ground level and it was not hard to imagine what Windsor must have looked like to passing steamboats as they made their way from New Orleans to St. Louis.
Today, things at Windsor have changed. You can no longer see either the ruins or the river from the road below the bluff. Fifty years of hardwood trees have blocked both views. The State of Mississippi has taken responsibility for the site and several attempts have been made to slow the process of deterioration. A plaster like product was sprayed on all of the exposed masonry sealing it in a gray coating. The familiar green signs of the Mississippi Department of Archives now mark the entrance to the site and several stations with explanatory material have been constructed near the ruins.
There is an effort being made to keep the site clear of rubbish and litter, but on a recent visit, the trash cans provided were overflowing and the area was a total mess. Apparently, a lot of people bring their lunch and picnic on the grounds. The detritus of their visit was everywhere. Fortunately, I managed to catch a time when there was no one else around and it was easy to imagine the grand old home in its heyday. If you find yourself driving between Vicksburg and Natchez, plan a stop to see Port Gibson with the golden finger of God topping a church steeple and make the ten-mile detour to visit Windsor. You won’t regret it.