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.