THE LOWER RIVER 105 T wo decades before Mississippi was established in 1817 as the twentieth state in the Union, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin had greatly sped up the process of removing seeds from raw cotton fiber, making large-scale cotton plantations financially lucrative endeavors. By 1814, Robert Fulton and Edward Livingston were offering regular steamboat and freight service between New Orleans and Natchez, facilitating the transport of tons of cotton bales down the Mississippi River to New Orleans for export to textile mills along the Eastern Seaboard in Great Britain which eagerly bought all the white fiber the new southern territories could grow. And, although the steam train engine “Mississippi” would not arrive in Natchez by steamboat until 1836, the rapid expansion of rail lines connecting the Mississippi River to Jackson and other inland communities facilitated overland transportation of cotton, other agricultural products, and manufactured goods from the Lower River counties to scattered markets throughout the United States. Slavery was phasing out in other parts of the nation by the early 1800s, but not in cotton country where Whitney’s gin led to an increased demand for field laborers. When a federal law passed in 1807 prohibited the importation of additional slaves from Africa, Mississippi cotton planters turned to the existing slave labor force in Virginia, Maryland, and other older slave states where agricultural productivity was beginning to decline. By 1833, the largest slave market in the southeastern United States was located at Forks of the Road, now the intersection of Liberty and Washington Road just one mile east of downtown Natchez. Straddling what was then the city’s easternmost boundary, the market site occupied a prominent knoll. It was at this crossroads that the last element in the social and economic development of the Lower River counties fell into place—an abundance of manpower needed to produce and harvest the region’s rapidly expanding cotton crop. FORKS OF THE ROAD MAP Downtown Natchez contained one of Mississippi’s most active markets where enslaved people, livestock, and other goods were bought and sold. The slave market, a courtyard surrounded by low buildings, was located at a Y-shaped fork in the road. There are no remnants of the market left after Union troops completely disbanded and destroyed it during the Civil War. The area was also used briefly as a contraband market and a refuge for slaves freed after the abolition of slavery in 1865.