(Editor’s Note: During the past days, behemoth tornados and ferocious winds have claimed lives, injured scores and wiped away houses and businesses across the country. The town of Mayfield in western Kentucky and others like it were flattened by a monster twister earlier this month. Two centuries ago, one of the most powerful tornadoes in the history of the country crossed the Black River in Concordia Parish and later plowed into Vidalia and Natchez, causing widespread destruction and heavy casualties. A long recovery followed.)
On Sunday, May 11, 1840 -- four days after a killer tornado flattened Natchez and Vidalia -- the Weekly Courier & Journal reported: "People are leaving Natchez every hour, and by midsummer, if the present spirit prevails, we shall have little else than a ruined, deserted city."
Two months later, the paper's prediction seemed a reality. A general gloom covered town.
William Johnson, a local barber and free man of color, wrote in his diary on Aug. 5 that there was "nothing doing at present" and highly unlikely that "business will ever revive."
For everyone in town, life had become so very hard.
"Oh, what miserable times!" Johnson lamented. "Good Heavens!"
But the community never gave up. Natchez would revive. Vidalia would too.
There was a lot to overcome. The monster tornado that visited the two towns had hit at 2 p.m. on a spring afternoon leaving at least 317 dead (of which 269 drowned) and 109 injured. The fatality rate among the enslaved population isn’t known, but it’s likely scores died.
The Weather Channel’s meteorologist Dr. Greg Forbes ranks the Natchez tornado an F-5, and says it’s the 9th worst in U.S. history based on damage costs and fatalities.
Lower Natchez was flattened. The town above the bluff and Vidalia across the river didn't fare much better. Every family suffered. In the country, the homes, barns and outbuildings in the tornado's path on plantations and small farmsteads were splintered. Bodies floated in the river. The odor of death rose from the rubble.
Never in this region has a twister so devastated property and lives. Only the Great Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925, killed more people than the Great Natchez Tornado of 1840. The Tri-State twister -- which rumbled through southeastern Missouri, southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana -- killed 695.
REPAIRING THE RUIN
But in the wake of such disasters, the human spirit is remarkable. Once the tornado passed by, scores emerged from their shelters or from the rubble and started caring for the wounded. More than 50 victims were interred the day after the storm.
A public meeting was held at the courthouse led by Col. James C. Wilkins, a cotton merchant well known for his charity.
The Natchez Free-Trader and the Weekly Courier & Journal provided comprehensive coverage of both the tornado's destruction and the community's recovery. The Courier urged citizens to rise to the occasion and not "yield to despondency" but "to remove the distress, and repair the present ruin of our once beautiful city."
Committees were appointed to lead the clean-up effort and care for those in need. They were also charged with making a record of the missing visitors who had arrived at the landing below the bluff so that relatives could be notified.
Natchez was divided into districts -- seven in all -- and in each was appointed a chairman to survey his area and itemize the damage. The greatest losses were reported under the bluff, Wall Street to the bluff and Union to Rankin.
The City Hotel on Main Street, though unroofed, survived the storm. Its owner, Noah Barlow, opened the lower floors to the injured.
The Tremont House, on the northeast corner of Main and Wall, was also used as a hospital under the direction of Dr. Pollard. Stephen Duncan, a wealthy planter and businessman and owner of the Auburn mansion, paid the rent.
There is no accurate account of the suffering of the African-American population, but it was the enslaved population brought in from nearby plantations that cleared the streets and dug the dead from the ruins. They also did the bulk of the cleanup work and buried the dead.
The name of only one slave -- Moses -- is mentioned. He was pulled from beneath debris.
News of the disaster was passed up and down the Mississippi and her tributaries by steamboat captains and spread inland. When a reporter from the New Orleans Beeinterviewed the captain of the steamer Vicksburg, he reported it was difficult to determine "how many were killed, as the streets were filled with large piles of timber, rendering them impassable, and the work of extricating the bodies from the fallen houses was not completed when the Vicksburg left ... large ox carts were uplifted and thrown hundreds of yards from the original positions ... every house under the Hill, except five or six, was blown down, and the river filled with floating fragments of houses and boats."
When Tennessee citizens learned of the disaster, they collected $1,500 for "the sufferers" in Natchez. Horatio Eustis, a visitor at Somerset, Henry Chotard's home east of Natchez, said contributions "are arriving for the relief of the distressed, but years must pass before the town can be rebuilt as before."
Relief teams came from many places, including Grand Gulf, Rodney and 100 volunteers from Vicksburg. New Orleans sent money and a team of surgeons. Merchants donated building supplies, carpenters and mechanics.
Twenty days after the tornado, the 26th Congress passed a joint resolution to assist Natchez in the "calamity" by backing up to $300,000 in loans at three percent interest. A committee was appointed to scrutinize the applications for approval and included the U.S. Marshal, District Attorney, the mayor of Natchez and the president of two of the town’s banks.
Total economic losses to Natchez in residential and commercial property, merchandise, etc., was estimated at $5 million, which would amount to tens of millions in today's dollars.
"There is no telling how widespread has been the ruin," wrote the Free Trader. "Reports have come in from plantations 20 miles distant in Louisiana, and the rage of the tempest was terrible. Hundreds of (slaves) killed, dwellings swept like chaff from their foundations, the forest uprooted, and the crops beaten down and destroyed. Never, never, never, was there such desolation and ruin."
In Vidalia, the courthouse was "utterly torn down," as were the homes of Dr. McWhorter, the banker W.A. Dunlap and attorney David Stacy. The parish jail was "partly torn down." The twister claimed the life of Judge George Keeton, but Stacy, who was dining with the judge, crawled out of the rubble alive. There were many such stories.
Forming over Concordia Parish in the vicinity of New Era at Black River, the twister hit the Mississippi at Natchez Island, just below Peter Lapice's Whitehall plantation, crossing over into the Mississippi at the point opposite the plantation of David Barland on the Adams County side at a location now known as Carthage Point.
The economic destruction to Concordia, which at that time included present day Tensas Parish, isn't known. At this time the Concordia/Tensas region, with a population of 9,416, mostly enslaved people, produced about 40,000-plus bales of cotton a year. Some 60,000 acres were under cultivation with cotton, corn, oats and potatoes. Livestock production included 4,321 horses, 13,613 hogs, 14,681 horned cattle, and numerous sheep, poultry and dairy operations. Lumber was a big business, too, with nine sawmills in operation, many utilized to rebuild those homes, cabins, fences and other structures destroyed by the tornado.
Concordia plantation owners like Stephen Duncan from Natchez, which had a population of 4,800, didn't recover from the disaster over night. His cotton and business losses were so great that he was forced to sell some of his Pennsylvania property to pick up more than $12,000 in much needed cash as the Natchez economy was wrecked (thanks to a national depression as well).
In the days after, a Free-Trader reporter walked along the bluff near the location of the light-house, destroyed in the disaster, and looked across the river, observing, "The deep and heavy woods which shaded ... Vidalia ... now resemble a stubble field — twisted, torn, bent, wrested and splintered."
According to the Courier, most of the fatalities were on the river, an estimated 269, including 200 flatboatmen. Most drowned. There were 47 deaths in upper Natchez and one in Vidalia.
The Courier reported that 74 persons were injured in Natchez and 35 aboard boats on the landing and river were hurt.
In an F5 tornado, strong frame houses are lifted off foundations and disintegrate. The Free-Trader gave an excellent description of tornado's strength by noting it had the "explosive power of gunpowder." The storm was so fierce it picked up small boats on the river and launched them through the air like missiles, some carried more than 300 feet.
Horatio Eustis said the "force of the wind was incredible. Iron spikes were borne by the blast with such force and direction as to be driven up to their heads into the walls of houses ... Men who were able to clutch hold of something ... were stripped perfectly naked."
Dr. Henry Tooley, a meteorologist from Natchez and instructor at Jefferson College, said the tornado sucked moisture from leaves, herbs and grass, leaving them "crisped" and withered.
A flatboat hand told a newspaper that lead shot from a store above the bluff was propelled and scattered by the wind to a boat on the river where it "lodged in the bacon hams ... with so much force that they were imbedded out of sight."
The Free Trader advised survivors to respect and accept the great forces of nature and the uselessness of questioning why. "Twas the voice of the Almighty that spoke," said the paper, adding, "All have suffered."