A Little Bit of History along the Natchez Trace
The Natchez Trace is a 444-mile long national park stretching from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee, the Natchez Trace Parkway attracts tens of thousands of people each year. It spans three states – Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee – and passes some of the most significant landmarks and historic sites in the nation.
The original Natchez Trace was a roadway that connected frontier settlements in Tennessee, Kentucky and the Ohio Valley with the lower Mississippi River. Sections of the original road followed ancient Native American trails that had been in use for thousands of years before European explorers arrived in North America.
Traces of the prehistoric Indians of the South can be found along the modern parkway at such locations as Emerald Mound, Owl Creek Mounds and Bynum Mounds. Emerald Mound, in fact, is one of the largest Native American earthworks in the nation.
Other sites along the Trace interpret the years when these original civilizations collided with Europeans as they explored and spread their settlements into the Mississippi Valley. One exhibit, for example, interprets the passage of the Hernando de Soto expedition, while another preserves the scene of a village and fort built by Chickasaw Indians in the Tupelo area to resist French attack.
The Natchez Trace became a major roadway when American frontiersmen pushed their way west from the Atlantic seaboard into the valleys of the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. These early farmers and fur trappers would carry their products down the Mississippi River to New Orleans on boats that floated
along with the current of the great river.
Steamboats, however, had not yet been invented so getting back home was a major ordeal. To make things a bit easier, the Natchez Trace was opened across the modern states of Mississippi, Alabama and
Tennessee. The early boatmen, called “Kaintucks,” would travel downstream by water and then leave Natchez on foot or horseback for the trip home.
The Natchez Trace was in use by the time of the American Revolution and historic sites dating from the 1700s can be found along the modern parkway. One of the most fascinating is Mount Locust, a plantation established along the Trace during the 18th century.
Now an interpretive center and historic site near the southern end of the parkway, Mount Locust preserves one of the oldest homes in Mississippi. This plantation was an operating farm, but also functioned as a “stand” or overnight stop for travelers along the Natchez Trace.
From roughly 1800 to 1825, the time of heaviest use of the Trace, thousands of farmers, traders and boatmen traveled the Natchez Trace. Andrew Jackson earned his famed nickname “Old Hickory” when he led an army up the Trace from Natchez at his own expense after the government refused to supply his men.
The Natchez Trace remained a vital roadway until the 1820s, when the development of steamboat travel on the Mississippi River ended the need for the overland route. Steam power allowed boats to turn around at New Orleans and make their way back upstream. The birth of the great floating palaces of the
riverboat era ended the earlier age of the “Kaintucks” and the Natchez Trace.
Sections of the old roadway, of course, remained in use over the years that followed. The army of General Ulysses S. Grant marched along a section of the Trace during his 1863 Vicksburg Campaign and battles were fought at numerous spots on and near the Natchez Trace at locations including Port
Gibson, Grand Gulf, Vicksburg, Raymond, Jackson, Tupelo, Brices Cross Roads, Corinth, Shiloh, Franklin and Nashville.
In more modern times, Elvis Presley was born and spent his boyhood years just off the Natchez Trace in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis’ birthplace and boyhood home is now the center of a park and memorial complex in the city.
The Natchez Trace Parkway was built by the National Park Service to commemorate the original road. It does not follow the exact route, but crosses it numerous times. You can visit the National Park Service website for further information about the Trace.
Credit: Explore Southern History