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Established by French colonists in 1716, Natchez is one of the oldest and most important European settlements in the lower Mississippi River Valley, and served as the capital of the Mississippi Territory and then the state of Mississippi. It predates Jackson, which replaced Natchez as the capital in 1822, by more than a century. The strategic location of Natchez, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, ensured that it would become a pivotal center of trade, commerce, and the interchange of Native American, European, and African-American cultures in the region for the first two centuries of its existence. In U. S. history, it is recognized particularly for its role in the development of the Old Southwest during the first half of the nineteenth century. It was the southern terminus of the historic Natchez Trace, which provided many pilots of flatboats and keelboats a road back to their homes in the Ohio River Valley after unloading their cargo in the city. Today Natchez serves in the same capacity for the modern Natchez Trace Parkway, which commemorates this route.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the city became the home of a collection of extremely wealthy Southern planters, who owned vast tracts of land in the surrounding lowlands of Mississippi and Louisiana where they grew huge crops of cotton and sugar cane using slave labor. Natchez became the principal port from which these crops were exported, both upriver to Northern cities and downriver to New Orleans, where much of the cargo was exported to Europe. The planters' fortunes allowed them to build huge mansions in Natchez before 1860, many of which survive to this day and form a major part of the city's architecture and identity. Agriculture remained the primary economic sustenance for the region until well into the twentieth century.