Natchez (năchˈĭz) [key], indigenous North American people who lived along St. Catherine's Creek east of the present-day city of Natchez in Mississippi. At the time of contact with the French in 1682, they numbered about 4,000 and were the most powerful chiefdom on the lower Mississippi. Typical of the Mississippian cultural area, they were sedentary, agricultural people who cultivated corn, beans, and squash and hunted deer, turkey, and buffalo. They worshiped the sun, and had an elaborate form of social ranking governed by rules of marriage and descent. A chief ruled over two classes: commoners, who could marry within their own class, and rulers, who were further divided into "suns,""nobles," and "honored people," and were required to marry commoners. Since they were matrilineal, the children of a female ruler and a male commoner would keep the rank of the mother; children of a male ruler and a female commoner would have a lesser rank than that of the father. Upon the death of a chief, his wives, guards, and retainers were strangled to death, in the belief that they would accompany him to the afterlife.
The French established a mission among the Natchez in 1700 and a trading post in 1713, and there were initially friendly relations between the two groups. Peace was maintained for a number of years, but skirmishes in 1716, 1723, and 1729—when the Natchez massacred the encroaching French at Fort Rosalie—proved disastrous for the tribe. The French, aided by the Choctaw, retaliated for the Fort Rosalie massacre by attacking Natchez villages and scattering the inhabitants. Some crossed the Mississippi River into Louisiana, where they were again attacked (1731) by the French, who killed many Natchez and sold captives into slavery. About 700 others sought refuge with their Chickasaw allies; they later divided into two groups and settled among the Upper Creeks and among the Cherokee. They eventually moved west of the Mississippi with their hosts, and by the 19th cent. they had all but disappeared as a distinct group. However, some Natchez living in Oklahoma maintained their language into the 20th cent.