Beginning just south of Nashville, Tennessee and tracking southwest for 444 miles to Natchez, Mississippi is one of America’s first superhighways – the Natchez Trace.
What began as a buffalo trail thousands of years ago, became a path for the Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw tribes. As America expanded westward, growing numbers of explorers, traders, and emigrants tramped the trail into a clearly marked path. President Thomas Jefferson made it a post road in 1801, and in the 1930s The National Park Service designated it a National Park. Today a two-lane parkway that roughly parallels the original Trace, passes through three states and thousands of years of history.
The Natchez Trace played a significant role in the development of this area, but beneath all this history are memories of the souls who trudged the long, hard, and sometimes dangerous trail. Tired, cold, and hungry, they must have constantly dreamed of a warm bed, hot food, a bit of pleasant conversation, and if the gods smiled on them, a dram of whiskey.
Industrious innkeepers seized on this opportunity and established small, comfortable inns and trading posts along the trail. These inns, called “stands,” provided food and shelter, and even though they look rustic by today’s standards, in the early 1800s, they provided a level of luxury that many travelers weren’t accustomed to.
About 15 miles north of Natchez (one day’s walk) is the Mt. Locust Stand; one of only two stands that remain on the Trace. We visited on a sunny morning, and wandering around on our own was wonderful. The well-restored house was furnished with period furniture, artifacts, and personal articles that exuded the feel of daily life in the early 1800s. We were surprised by the use of blue paint throughout, which must have been quite a luxury at the time.
The main cottage was home to the owner and his family, and visitors would have slept in outbuildings. The cozy hearth room was the main gathering point for food, drink, and conversation. And it didn’t take much imagination to hear the echoes of the travelers’ tales, and feel the heat of a blazing fire.
One of the groups that passed through on the Trace were “Kaintucks.” These midwestern farmers (near and dear to my KY heart) floated their farm goods, coal, and livestock down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to sell in Natchez or New Orleans. Once downriver, the flatboats were of little use, so they were sold or dismantled for lumber. And the the most direct route back home was usually the Natchez Trace. In fact, a teenage Abraham Lincoln made two of these river trips (Small events that would eventually send shock waves through American History: Lincoln said that his lifelong hatred of slavery was born on these voyages – especially at the slave markets in New Orleans).
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a pleasant drive on a beautiful greenbelt where billboards are replaced by trees, and glades are carpeted with wildflowers.
The Parkway is amazingly free of evidence of human habitation – a rarity in most of the US. It has Indian Mounds, historic landmarks, hiking trails, and even a cypress swamp. There’s lots to see, and if time is short, just pick a section and enjoy.
James this is a piece of American history I knew nothing about. Fascinating about the effect it had on Abraham Lincoln. Besides the learning I must say the photos of the trail, the highway and the fence really appeal to me. Makes me want to move right into the photo. Really great!
Thanks for dropping by Sue. The Natchez Trace really isn’t as well known as you might expect, and I suspect there are a number of Americans that don’t know about it. It’s a wonderful piece of history, and luckily, thanks to the Park Service, it didn’t get lost in time. As I said to Laura in another comment, I have an interest in these old trail/roads and at some point will probably do a post. You might find this link interesting;
That is interesting James and makes sense that towns would congregate along the Fall Line Road. The mills and water power…yes I am thinking a post describing that time would be a great idea 🙂
This is a nice bit of history. The inn looks really cozy.
Thanks Rajiv. This small inn was cozy, and I’m sure that for travelers in the early 1800s, it looked like heaven at the end of a long day. ~James
I can believe that. Honestly, I prefer these inns (as long as they have internet) to faceless, 5 star hotels
Thanks for this bit of history! I just returned from Taos, New Mexico where I learned more of American history. I love the old houses that have been restored to take you back in time.
Thanks Darlene. I’ve traveled a bit in the SW, and just love the Native American history there. The cliff dwellings and kiva cultures are particularly fascinating. Given the harshness of the climate, I can imagine that these dwellings made a big difference in daily life, and they certainly make for interesting history. ~James
What a beautiful stretch of road.In today’s world, someone who wanted to backpack the trail for fun, adventure and to be able to say “I did it” can only scratch to surface of the feelings of someone years ago whose only choice was to take the trail or not go. Makes me love and appreciate my Jeep even more!
Terri and I have done a bit of backpacking Laura, and it’s one thing to do it for a few days, just for fun. But weeks on end would be a different matter altogether. There are a number of these old trails in the Eastern US that later became highways. They started along the east coast, and wandered inland as America moved west. I find these old roads interesting and at some point, I will probably do a post. You might find this article on old trail/roads interesting:
Interesting article. I’m sure traveling those trails would provide you with plenty of post material!
I had no idea! What a wonderful piece of history, brought to life by you words and photos. Thanks for the tour!
Thanks Martha. I’m sure there are some of these old trail/roads up in your neck of the woods as well (probably much older than 1800s). I love to read the history of these old trails, and think about the quiet contribution they made to American History. ~James
We’ve driven the Natchez Trace but you’ve shown me some pics of places we missed — you’re good at that, you know! Love the word “Kaintucks” and the next to last picture. Did you stand on top of the car to take it??? Great shot. And that last one is downright artsy! Thanks for another great post.
Thanks Rusha. I haven’t driven the Trace on the Nashville end. Is it as cool as the Mississippi end? And I can’t take credit for the road shot. I took a bunch of photos, but none seemed to capture the feel of the Trace the way this one does (wikicommons, public domain). I shot the split rail fence at the Emerald Mound site, just north of Natchez (mile marker 10.3). ~James the Kaintuck
It’s all cool. It just took a little adjusting at first to drive so long without any billboards, convenient marts, etc. I really didn’t know what to expect the first time.
What a beautiful history lesson and I want to drive the Natchez Trace. Thanks you two.
Thanks Joyce. We’ve only done the Mississippi end, but the Nashville end would be an easy day trip for you and Dascal. It really is fun, and there’s lots of “ol’ timey” stuff to see. Love, JH
This is an enticing post. I want to pack my bags and get on the trail. Sad, in my young(er) days, nothing seemed as boring as ‘history’. Now I love it. Thank you for an informative read. would love to hand my coonskin cap in one of those stands. 🙂
Thanks Tess. The Park Service has done a nice job of furnishing the house, and it had such a warm, comfortable feel. Do you know of any of these types of old trails in your neck of the woods? ~James
Can’t say I do. I haven’t been out and about much in the past 20 years. Ha ha.
As usual you have delivered some great photos and interesting history!!
Thanks Joanne. A story like this is for all those folks that think history is boring. I find that if I look hard enough, I can find something interesting just about anywhere. ~James
I drove the whole of the NTP, north to south, back in 2002. I enjoyed it, but have to admit I prefer the Blue Ridge Parkway… Did you know the NTP was nicknamed “the Devil’s Backbone” because of the robbers and murderers who frequented it? So much quieter now… And that Lewis, of Lewis and Clark, was found shot to death just off the trail?
After visiting Belle Meade Plantation I spent one night in a lovely B&B just south of Nashville, one night on the grounds of a Christian academy (you don’t have to be a Christian) – http://www.frenchcamp.org/frenchcamp/ – and in complete contrast, one night in a casino – http://www.pearlriverresort.com/resort.html – with a view over the gaming floor. Then I arrived in Nashville in time for Spring Pilgrimage
Thanks for the additional info Kathy. I didn’t know that it was called the Devils Backbone, but I did know that it was a wild, woolly, and dangerous trail. In fact, supposedly, one of the gangs of cutthroats that operated on the trail was the first case of organized crime in America. Also, I did read about the death of Meriwether Lewis, and there were rumors that he had committed suicide after a night of very heavy drinking. Bad booze I guess. ~James
Been meaning to take the time to turn off the freeway onto the Trace on one of my trips home to TN. Thanks for the nudge! Lot of history there.
Thanks Kaye. I’m sure that you’d find this a wonderful detour on your way to TN. One thing that you will appreciate (as a California resident) is the absence of billboards and other signs along the roadway. It took a few miles before I noticed, and it’s amazing what a difference it makes for the drive. Also, plan some time for a few stops. ~James
i always loved driving the trace between natchez and jackson – unless i was in a hurry!
thanks for taking me back – i’ve had a cyber trip to the deep south without breaking a bank account on airline tickets!!!
am on my way home to the riverhouse via bus in about fifteen minutes.. i’d best scram to the bus stop!
The Natchez-Jackson stretch is exactly what we drove Lisa, and it was very nice. We were headed east so we had to get off the Trace, but at some point we’ll definitely return to drive the rest. I hope all is well at the riverhouse. ~James
A nice follow up, James. I felt very ignorant until I read your comment that some Americans might not even have heard of the Natchez Trace. Happy to have found it and its history. Isn’t it beautiful? I love the old painting of Lincoln on the river too. 🙂
Thanks Jo. I find these old trail/roads very interesting, and this one in particular played a large part in the development and history of this part of the US. I’m sure there are old trails like this all over England. Here’s a quiz for you. (I had to look this up on wiki, so feel free to cheat.) In the Canterbury Tales, the pilgrim’s journey was from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Is this old trail a highway today? ~James
Just guessing I’d say yes, James. I’ll check it out later 🙂
I loved the history lesson and photos. We drove the Trace from Vicksburg to Natchez to New Iberia last year but didn’t study its history like you did. With family in Memphis now, we’ll probably have more opportunities.
Thanks Lynne. Try to get your hands on the National Park’s brochure and you can pick and choose what you want to see. Since there’s 450 miles, narrowing down choices will help. Enjoy. ~James
Good idea. I’ll get one in Nov.
Looks like a great place to visit, James.
Thanks for sharing the photos.
The fence looks so different to our early 1800s fences. This is one of the reasons I love reading travel blogs. I get to see history as well as other cultures. I agree with you about the use of blue paint. I wonder if such a vivid colour was used much.
Thanks Vicki. These split-rail fences were common in the area. Like most construction at the time, it depended on available materials and technology. Farther north around Lexington, KY, field stones were readily available – so low stone walls were built. Your comment has me curious. What are 1800 fences like in your area in Australia? ~James
Post and rail straight fences in the country, James. Not dissimilar to country properties today (only rougher and less evenly cut). Today, most country fences are thick round posts about 15feet apart with 3-4 rows of barbed wire stretched taunt in between (in the countryside). In the cities, cast iron fences in the 1800s (as well as restored old houses today). Modern fences might be brick or palings (depending on the style). There’s a 3 part series on my own blog of a historic restored mansion which shows an original farm managers bluestone cottage at the link below.
Thanks for the detailed info Vicki. Your post helps to understand all the terminology and types of fences. Very nice photos BTW, especially in a gale. The fences in your post are more sophisticated than the split rail fences at the Natchez Stand, which is understandable. A country manor would have had many more tools available to work the wood. A split rail fence is about as basic as it gets. ~James
I am delighted with this story of some early U.S. history made more vivid with your photos. I will have to add the Trace to our someday travels list of places we must see. It seems as though you are still blazing trails for those of us adventuresome enough to one day follow your lead. Happy trails! – Mike
Thanks Mike. Definitely put the NT on your list. It’s loaded with early American history, and is a real pleasure to drive. Kathy, another commenter, said of the Trace: “Did you know the NTP was nicknamed “the Devil’s Backbone” because of the robbers and murderers who frequented it? So much quieter now… And that Lewis, of Lewis and Clark, was found shot to death just off the trail?”
Lots of interesting (an notorious) people walked the path, and Emerald Mound (second largest Indian mound in the US) is near the southern end. It’s true Americana, and I’m sure that you and Florence would enjoy it. ~James
Yes, quite a few splashes of blue – though I suppose they did alright for themselves.
Interesting Lincoln connection. I can’t imagine those slave markets were terribly comforting places to hang out.
Bronwyn, I read that stands which were closer to towns were better supplied and equipped (which makes sense). This particular stand was only 15 miles from Natchez, which was a booming river town at the time. So, it would have been a “high end” place. ~James
A fascinating post James, especially for one not too familiar with American history. The drive through that gorgeous landscape itself seems worth the visit.
Thanks for the comment Madhu. The history of the Trace is very interesting, but the drive is equally as impressive. In the US, particularly in the eastern part, there are few areas that are devoid of signs of human habitation – signs, houses, fences, roads, etc. This isn’t something that I thought too much about until the drive on the trace. It helps to give a feel for what it must have been to be a traveler in the 19th Century, and truly be in nature. ~James
Thanks James! Love seeing something both new to me, as well as beautiful!
The Natchez Trace is off the beaten path Chris, but it’s a unique part of early American history. If you travel through the area I’m sure that you’d enjoy it. ~James