Natchez Trace

Natchez Trace

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Natchez Trace is a historic site and park in the United States commemorated by the Natchez Trail Parkway stretching 444 miles (715 km) from Natchez, Mississippi, through northern Alabama, to Nashville, Tennessee, roughly adhering to a series of trails first made through the woodlands by prehistoric animals and Native Americans.

The parkway features a number of areas preserving historic sites which closely align with the prehistoric/historic paths, as does the Natchez Trace Trail, a series of hiking trails and footpaths. Both the parkway and the paths take visitors past sites that include former 'stands' (rest stops, inns, and pubs) operated by members of the Chickasaw Nation who owned the land prior to the 19th century CE.

The trace began as large animals, such as bison, made their way through the woods from the south toward the salt licks in modern-day Tennessee. The paths they forged were later followed by Native Americans hunting them, and this then developed into a trade route for the people of the Archaic Period (c. 8000-1000 BCE), the Woodland Period (c. 500 BCE - 1100 CE), and the Mississippian culture (c. 1100-1540 CE). Like the famous Silk Road between Asia and Europe, the trace was never a single path (nor was it known as a 'trace' until the 18th century CE), but a series of trails. After European contact, one of these began to be used by Euro-Americans for trade up through the 19th century, and this was eventually called the Natchez Trace, which continued in use until the popularity of the steamboat diverted trade to the Mississippi River and the trace was neglected.

Interest in the old routes was revived in the early 20th century and the group known as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) spearheaded the effort to restore the best-known path and turn it into a historic site. Restoration and preservation efforts began at this time, evolved into the concept of a parkway linking Natchez, Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee, and both the parkway was completed in 2005. Although some scholars and historians have pointed out that the parkway does not follow the original trails, the project did succeed in preserving and allowing access to a number of sites that otherwise would probably have been lost.

Early Activity & Formation

Natchez Trace is thought to have been formed thousands of years ago by wild animals moving through the woodlands.

Natchez Trace is thought to have been formed thousands of years ago by wild animals moving through the woodlands. Bison are often cited as the prime agents in blazing these trails as they are thought to have traveled from modern-day Mississippi in a general north-easterly direction toward grazing areas and salt licks in Tennessee. The paths they made through the forests were then widened and smoothed by Native American hunting and trading parties.

The path now known as the Natchez Trace Trail was only one of a network of such routes through the woodlands which different Native American communities used in trade with others. By c. 3500 BCE mound sites had already been created as the centers of such communities, and long-distance trade was established prior to c. 1700 BCE as evidenced by artifacts found at Poverty Point, Louisiana. The people of the Poverty Point culture may have used the Natchez Trace, and they may have even helped form the trails, though this is speculation. The trails were already in use by the time of the Adena culture (c. 800 BCE - 1 CE) and the Hopewell culture (c. 100 BCE - 500 CE), both of the Mississippian culture, who developed mound-building and trade along the trails.

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Communities & Trade

Long-distance trade routes were initially enlarged and extended by the people of the Hopewell culture who, according to some scholars, were the successors of the Adena. Scholar Ron Fisher comments:

In the eastern part of the continent, by AD 500, people were settling in villages and ruled by chiefs. In today’s Ohio, the people of the Adena culture…built hundreds of mounds, some inside earthen barricades. Their culture included tobacco-smoking rituals, shamans, and long-distance trade… [they were succeeded by] the Hopewell culture, also in Ohio, who built even larger mounds and had even more elaborate burial rituals than the Adena. Objects were often buried with their owners, including figurines that show how the Hopewell people dressed and wore their hair. Their trade routes extended over much of North America. (12-13)

The Hopewell culture also spread their religious beliefs and practices, whether intentionally or simply through contact in trade, and the mounds which are found today along the Natchez Trace are understood as evidence of this. The Hopewell people were prolific mound builders who influenced the mounds produced by those who came after them, such as the ancestors of the Natchez tribe of modern-day Mississippi. The Natchez were agriculturalists, growing corn, beans, and squash (among other crops) as well as hunting, fishing, and gathering their food supplies. They used their surplus in trade and used the Natchez Trace as their primary route as evidenced through artifacts and the mounds still extant along that track today.

Mounds of the Trace & Religion

The early Natchez Native Americans built their central village (known today as Grand Village) in present-day Natchez, Mississippi with the Great Sun’s Mound in the center. This flat-topped mound provided the elevated area for the residence of the chief, known as the Great Sun, and believed to be the brother of the sun, giver of life. The chief’s mound was created here, as at other mound sites, to elevate the chief closer to the sun for clearer communication and communion. Other mounds were built, some by the Natchez and some by others, to the northeast along the trace, such as Emerald Mound (built c. 1250-1600 CE), Pharr Mounds (c. 1-200 CE), Bynum Mounds (c. 100 BCE - 100 CE), Boyd Mound (c. 800-1100 CE), and Bear Creek Mound (c. 1100-1300 CE), among others. These mound sites may be visited today while many others built along the trace have disappeared either through erosion or purposefully eliminated by later settlers.

The mound sites were not all residences of chiefs or burial mounds but also served as sacred ceremonial sites where rituals were performed, either on their tops or in plazas built at their bases. The rituals were informed by the Native American belief in animism – that all things have a soul and are dependent upon each other in a great web of interconnected reciprocity – and at the heart of animism was the concept of spiritual power. Everything was imbued with the energy of the Great Spirit (whatever name a given tribe knew this Being as) who had breathed life into the world. The mounds are thought to have been constructed to harness or focus this energy in a given place for the greater benefit of the people.

As the people gave thanks and participated in rituals at the mound site, they gave energy to the spirit of the place (and, by extension, the Great Spirit) and received energy back in the form of plentiful harvests, abundant game, and nets overflowing with fish. The natives understood that all of nature was alive with spirits and that the land, therefore, needed to be respected as well as everything living in it so as not to anger the Great Spirit through ingratitude, which could cause the loss of all their livelihood.

The natives interacted with the area now known as Natchez Trace just as they did with any other and so, although paths were formed and expanded through the woods, the region remained pristine save for those spots selected for crop cultivation, villages, and mound building. At the time when most of the mounds were being built, of course, European colonization was centuries in the future but the rituals honoring the spirits of a given place were still in practice when the first Europeans first arrived in the region.

European Contact & Colonization

De Soto’s expedition recorded the ceremonies still being performed at mounds along the future Natchez Trace.

The first Europeans to arrive in the area were the Spanish under the command of the conquistador Hernando de Soto (l. c. 1500-1542) who led a small army up from Florida into the region in 1540 searching for gold. De Soto never found what he was looking for but did succeed in slaughtering a number of natives he accused of hiding the gold from him and killing many others through the spread of European diseases they had no immunity to. De Soto’s expedition recorded the ceremonies still being performed at mounds along the future Natchez Trace as well as other details of the period, including interactions with the Chickasaw Nation who would eventually come to control the trace.

The second wave of Europeans were the French. René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (l. 1643-1687) first claimed the region, which he named Louisiana, for France in 1682 but never established a settlement. Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville (l. 1661-1706) built the first fort in the region in 1699 but this was a garrisoned military site, not a residential settlement. Another fort was built at Natchez in 1716, Fort Rosalie, which – it was hoped – would provide the kind of security and stability to enable a permanent agricultural and commercial settlement. Unfortunately, the French view of the land clashed with that of the indigenous people, causing conflict. Scholar Alan Taylor comments:

An animist perspective discouraged the sort of mechanistic development practiced by Europeans. Lacking domesticated animals and metals tools and weapons, the Indians seemed a primitive people to the Europeans. The natives, however, regarded themselves as more intelligent and resourceful than the Europeans. Animism both derived from and encouraged the distinctive forms of perception and ingenuity demanded by hunting and gathering – practices essential to almost all native peoples, even those who also cultivated domesticated plants. Native peoples keenly observed the diverse forms of edible or healing life in the forest and waters, and they mastered the best times and techniques for finding and harvesting wild plants and animals. Because the Europeans lacked these skills and that knowledge, they struck the Indians as clumsy babes in the woods. From the native perspective, it seemed that the colonizers had exhausted their intelligence in making their metal and cloth goods. Preoccupied with dead matter, they appeared insensitive to living nature. (19-20)

The French, having no knowledge of the concept of a spirit of place, claimed land for Fort Rosalie which was sacred to one segment of the Natchez Nation, who attacked in 1729 and killed almost the entire garrison. The French came back in 1730, led by the Native American Choctaw, and took Grand Village. The French sold around 300 Natchez captives into slavery in the West Indies and the survivors found homes with the Creek and Cherokee nations nearby. With the Natchez tribe nearly eliminated, the Choctaw and Chickasaw established themselves more firmly in the region. The Chickasaw eventually beat out the Choctaw for trade agreements with the French and claimed the woodlands encompassing the trace.

Jefferson, Jackson, & the Chickasaw

After France lost the French and Indian War (1754-1763) to Britain, their lands along the east coast were taken by the English but those inland remained French. Once the English colonies won their independence in 1783, they began expanding further west and, in an effort to establish trade and communication routes with the American frontier, President Thomas Jefferson (served 1801-1809) ordered a path cleared between Tennessee and Mississippi and the soldiers sent to perform this task found one well-used route already opened and simply widened it further in 1801.

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, more work was directed toward the route Jefferson named the Columbian Highway and, after negotiation with the Chickasaw, that nation was given exclusive rights to build and operate stands along the road to serve travelers. These stands varied in size, shape, and purpose from small wooden shacks serving food and alcohol to inns to restaurants/pubs and trading posts. Whatever function they served or shape they took, the Chickasaw establishments came to be known as stands.

These stands encouraged more travelers to use the Natchez Trace as it was no longer a wilderness, and the Chickasaw maintained their own peace with the government of the United States as well as agreements made by other tribes in the area. The Natchez Trace was still well known for highwaymen, cutthroats, and confidence men, but if one could evade these, there were places along the way to find a meal, some semblance of safety, and a bed for the night. The treaty with the Chickasaw also allowed for the establishment of the Chickasaw Agency (1802-1825) which was an arm of the United States government tasked with keeping the peace along the trail. Agents were responsible for apprehending criminals and fugitives, retrieving stolen property, maintaining friendly relations with the natives, and assisting in the operation of the stands.

General Andrew Jackson (l. 1767-1845, later president 1829-1837) used part of the trace during the War of 1812, guided by his allies the Chickasaw, to move troops from Tennessee down to Louisiana to fight the British and so attracted national attention to the route. The main demographic responsible for making the trace famous, however, was the people who came to be known as Kaintucks. These were merchants originally from Kentucky (hence the name) but eventually 'Kaintucks' came to be applied to anyone coming by a flat boat down the Mississippi to trade. They would exchange their goods at the landing Natchez Under-the-Hill, and then, because there was no way to get their boats back upriver against the current, they would sell the craft and walk or ride up the Natchez Trace to Nashville. The Kaintucks were primarily responsible for putting Natchez Trace on the map and giving it the place in history, which led to its preservation in the 20th century.


Although the Chickasaw had maintained the peace in good faith and had even fought alongside Jackson in the War of 1812, they were cheated out of their land and forced west by Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Chickasaw were the last Native American tribe to leave on the Trail of Tears to the west in 1837. The stands formerly operated by Chickasaw were now taken over by white Euro-Americans and land was cleared further for the kind of settlements the French had hoped to establish over 100 years earlier.

Settlements encouraged further commerce and the trace continued in use until river travel became cheaper and easier. Although the steam engine had been invented in 1698, the steamboat was not successfully realized until 1807, and the first to travel the Mississippi was the New Orleans in 1811. As steamboats became more popular and accessible, the Natchez Trace was abandoned as a trade route until, by c. 1880, it had been almost forgotten.

In 1890, the organization known as the Daughters of the American Revolution was formed to promote civic sentiment and national pride in Americans by reminding them of their past, especially events touching on the American Revolution and figures such as the Founding Fathers. In 1906, one Elizabeth Jones (l. 1868-1949), then-president of the DAR chapter in Mississippi, spearheaded the initiative to preserve Natchez Trace with "monuments and markers to inspire a sense of national pride and patriotism" (Elliot Jr., 2). Scholar Jack D. Elliot Jr. notes "the campaign for better roads that was sweeping America took full advantage of the increased interest in heritage and history," and Jones’ campaign received significant support (2). By the 1930s, the DAR had already placed monuments at the trace which inspired developers to further push the history-and-heritage agenda in making Natchez Trace a highway. In order to preserve as much of the natural environment as possible, however, this plan was scrapped in favor of a parkway, which would not allow commercial traffic or development along the route.

The original path known as the Natchez Trace was unsuitable for this project, however, as it wound too widely and so an “approximate path” was surveyed which would allow travelers access to many of the sites once along the trace while hiking trails and paths would grant access to others. Construction of the parkway began in 1938, but, because of the difficulty in linking various sites, progress slowed – and often stopped – and the commemorative parkway was not completed until 2005.

In the present day, it is among the most popular routes of the region and a national tourist attraction allowing travel along a scenic route, with multiple pull-offs at historic spots, from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee. Among the many sites one can stop at are the mounds and historic markers memorializing long-gone Chickasaw stands, significant events and people (such as the grave of the explorer Meriwether Lewis of the famous Lewis & Clark expedition), and the ruins of once-grand structures like the Windsor Estate, burned to the ground in 1809 by a carelessly thrown cigarette or cigar. Even though one must acknowledge that the parkway does not follow the original trace, it preserves the history of the old trade route and keeps alive the memory of all those who once used it going back to the first people who followed the animal trails through the wilderness.

According to archaeological excavations, the area has been continuously inhabited by various cultures of indigenous peoples since the 8th century A.D. [1] The original site of Natchez was developed as a major village with ceremonial platform mounds, built by people of the prehistoric Plaquemine culture, part of the influential Mississippian culture and active in this area from about 700 AD. Archaeological evidence shows they began construction of the three main earthwork mounds by 1200. Additional work was done in the mid-15th century. [1]

By the late 17th and early 18th century, the Natchez (pronounced "Nochi"), descendants of the Plaquemine culture, [1] [2] occupied the site. They used it as their major ceremonial center, after leaving the area of Emerald Mound. They added to the mounds, including a residence for their chief, the "Great Sun", on Mound B, and a combined temple and charnel house for the elite on Mound C.

Many early European explorers, including Hernando de Soto, La Salle and Bienville, made contact with the Natchez at this site, called the Grand Village of the Natchez. Their accounts provided descriptions of the society and village.

The most thorough account was written by French colonists Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz, who lived near the Natchez for several years, learning their language and befriending leaders. He witnessed the 1725 funeral of the war chief, Tattooed Serpent (Serpent Piqué in French.) The Natchez maintained a hierarchical society, divided into nobles and commoners, with people affiliated according to matrilineal descent. The paramount chief, known as the "Great Sun", owed his position to the rank of his mother. His next eldest brother served as Tattooed Serpent.

The 128-acre (0.52 km 2 ) site of the Grand Village of the Natchez is preserved as a National Historic Landmark it is maintained by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The site includes a museum with artifacts from the mounds and village. A picnic pavilion and walking trails are also available on the grounds. Nearby Emerald Mound is also a National Historic Landmark of the Natchez and their ancestors.

In 1716 the French founded Fort Rosalie, to protect the trading post which had been established two years earlier in the Natchez territory. Permanent French settlements and plantations were subsequently developed a dangerous distance from the fort and too near important native locales. [3] The French inhabitants of the "Natchez colony" often came into conflict with the Natchez people over land use and resources. This was one of several Natchez settlements others lay to the northeast. The Natchez tended to become increasingly split into pro-French and pro-English factions those who were more distant had more relations with English traders, who came to the area from British colonies to the east.

After several smaller wars, the Natchez (together with the Chickasaw and Yazoo) launched a war to eliminate the French in November 1729. It became known by the Europeans as the "Natchez War" or Natchez Rebellion. The Indians destroyed the French colony at Natchez and other settlements in the area. On November 29, 1729, the Natchez Indians killed a total of 229 French colonists: 138 men, 35 women, and 56 children (the largest death toll by an Indian attack in Mississippi's history). They took most of the women and children as captives. The French with their Indian allies attacked the Natchez repeatedly over the next two years, resulting in most of the Natchez Indians being killed, enslaved, or forced to flee as refugees. After surrender of the leader and several hundred Natchez in 1731, the French took their prisoners to New Orleans, where they were forcibly sold as slaves and shipped as laborers on the Caribbean plantations of Saint-Domingue, as ordered by the French prime minister Maurepas. [4]

Many of the Natchez who escaped enslavement sought refuge with the Creek and Cherokee peoples, ultimately being absorbed into their people. [5] Descendants of the Natchez diaspora have reorganized and survive as the Natchez Nation, a treaty tribe and confederate of the federally recognized Muscogee (Creek) Nation, with a sovereign traditional government.

Following the Seven Years' War, in 1763 Fort Rosalie and the surrounding town, renamed for the defeated tribe, came under British rule.

About twenty years later, the area was under Spanish colonial rule. After defeat in the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain ceded the territory to the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1783). Spain was not a party to the treaty, and it was their forces who had taken Natchez from British troops. Although Spain had been allied with the American colonists, they were more interested in advancing their power at the expense of Britain. Once the war was over, they were not inclined to give up that which they had acquired by force.

A census of the Natchez District taken in 1784 counted 1,619 people, including 498 black slaves.

In the late 18th century, Natchez was the starting point of the Natchez Trace overland route, a Native American trail that followed a path established by migrating animals, most likely buffalo, which ran from Natchez to Nashville through what are now Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. Produce and goods were transported on the Mississippi River by the flatboatmen and keelboatmen, who usually sold their wares at Natchez or New Orleans, including their boats (as lumber). They made the long trek back north to their homes overland on the Natchez Trace. The boatmen were locally called "Kaintucks" because they were usually from Kentucky, although the entire Ohio River Valley was well-represented among their numbers. The Trace was traveled heavily until the development of steamboats in the 1820s allowed northward navigation (against the current) on the River.

On October 27, 1795, the U.S. and Spanish signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo, settling their decade-long boundary dispute. All Spanish claims to Natchez were formally surrendered to the United States. More than two years passed before official orders reached the Spanish garrison there. It surrendered the fort and possession of Natchez to United States forces led by Captain Isaac Guion on March 30, 1798.

A week later, Natchez became the first capital of the new Mississippi Territory, created by the Adams administration. After it served for several years as the territorial capital, the territory built a new capital, named Washington, 6 miles (10 km) to the east, also in Adams County. After roughly 15 years, the legislature transferred the capital back to Natchez at the end of 1817, when the territory was admitted as a state. Later the capital was returned to Washington. As the state's population center shifted to the north and east with more settlers entering the area, the legislature voted to move the capital to the more centrally located city of Jackson in 1822. In 1830 the population of Natchez was 2,789. [6]

Throughout the course of the early nineteenth century, Natchez was the center of economic activity for the young state. Its strategic location on the high bluffs on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River enabled it to develop into a bustling port. At Natchez, many local plantation owners had their cotton loaded onto steamboats at the landing known as Natchez Under-the-Hill [7] to be transported downriver to New Orleans or, sometimes, upriver to St. Louis or Cincinnati. The cotton was sold and shipped to New England, New York, and European spinning and textile mills.

The Natchez District, along with the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, pioneered cotton agriculture in the United States. Until new hybridized breeds of short-staple cotton were created in the early nineteenth century, it was unprofitable to grow cotton in the United States anywhere other than those two areas. Although South Carolina had dominated the cotton plantation culture in the eighteenth century and early in the Antebellum South, it was the Natchez District which first experimented with hybridization, making the cotton boom possible. Historians attribute the major part of the expansion of cotton in the Deep South to Eli Whitney's development of the cotton gin it lowered processing costs for short-staple cotton, making this profitable for cultivation. It was the kind of cotton that could be grown on uplands and throughout the Black Belt of the Deep South. Development of cotton plantations expanded rapidly, increasing demand for slaves in the South. They were sold in the domestic slave trade chiefly from the Upper South.

The growth of the cotton industry attracted many new white settlers to Mississippi, who competed with the Choctaw for their land. Despite land cessions, the settlers continued to encroach on Choctaw territory, leading to conflict. With the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828, he pressed for Indian removal, gaining Congressional passage of an act authorizing that in 1830. Starting with the Choctaw, the government began removal of Southeastern Indians in 1831 to lands west of the Mississippi River in Indian Territory. Nearly 15,000 Choctaw left their traditional homeland over the next two years.

The terrain around Natchez on the Mississippi side of the river is hilly. The city sits on a high bluff above the Mississippi River to reach the riverbank, one must travel down a steep road to the landing called Silver Street, which is in marked contrast to the flat "delta" lowland found across the river surrounding the city of Vidalia, Louisiana. Its early planter elite built numerous antebellum mansions and estates. Many owned plantations in Louisiana but chose to locate their homes on the higher ground in Mississippi. Prior to the Civil War, Natchez had more millionaires than any other city in the United States. [8] It was frequented by notables such as Aaron Burr, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Winfield Scott, and John James Audubon. Today the city boasts that it has more antebellum homes than any other city in the U.S., as during the Civil War Natchez was spared the destruction of many other Southern cities.

The Forks of the Road Market had the highest volume of illegal slave sales in Natchez, and Natchez had the most active illegal slave trading market in Mississippi. This also stimulated the city's wealth. The market, at the intersection of two streets, became especially important after the slave traders Isaac Franklin of Tennessee and John Armfield of Virginia purchased the land in 1823. Tens of thousands of slaves passed through the market, transported from Virginia and the Upper South (many by walking overland), and destined for the plantations in the Deep South. In this forced migration, more than one million enslaved Black American were taken from their families and moved southward. All trading at the market ceased by the summer of 1863, when Union troops occupied Natchez. [9]

Prior to 1845 and the founding of the Natchez Institute, the city's elite residents were the only ones who could afford a formal education for their children. Although many parents did not have much schooling themselves, they were anxious to provide their children with a quality education. Schools opened in the city as early as 1801, but many of the wealthiest families continued to rely on private tutors or out-of-state institutions, some sending their children as far as England and Scotland. The city founded the Natchez Institute to offer free education to the rest of the white residents. Although children from a variety of economic backgrounds could obtain an education, class differences persisted among students, particularly in terms of school choice and social ties. Although it was considered illegal, black slave children were often taught the alphabet and reading the Bible by their white playmates in private homes. [10]

During the Civil War, Natchez remained largely undamaged. The city surrendered to Flag-Officer David G. Farragut after the fall of New Orleans in May 1862. [11] Two civilians, an elderly man and an eight-year-old girl named Rosalie Beekman, were killed when a Union ironclad shelled the town from the River. The man died of a heart attack and Rosalie was killed by a shell fragment. Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant occupied Natchez in 1863 Grant set up his temporary headquarters in the Natchez mansion Rosalie. [12]

Some Natchez residents remained defiant of the Federal authorities. In 1864, William Henry Elder, the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Natchez, refused to obey a Federal order to compel his parishioners to pray for the President of the United States. U.S. officials arrested Elder, jailed him briefly, and banished him across the river to Confederate-held Vidalia. Elder was eventually allowed to return to Natchez and resume his clerical duties there. He served until 1880, when he was elevated to Archbishop of Cincinnati.

Ellen Shields's memoir reveals a Southern woman's reactions to Yankee military occupation of the city. Shields' memoir portrays the upheaval of Southern society during the war. Because Southern men were absent at war, many elite women had to exercise their class-based femininity and sexual appeal to deal with the Yankees. [13]

In 1860, there were 340 planters in the Natchez region who each owned 250 or more slaves not all of these were enthusiastic Confederates. The exceptions tended to be fairly recent arrivals to the South, men who opposed secession, and some who held social and economic ties to the North. These planters lacked a strong emotional attachment to the South but when war came, many of their sons and nephews joined the Confederate army anyway. [14] Charles Dahlgren was among the recent migrants from Philadelphia, he had made his fortune before the war. He did support the Confederacy and led a brigade, but was criticized for failing to defend the Gulf Coast. When the Yankees came, he moved to Georgia for the duration of the war. He returned in 1865 but never recouped his fortune. He had to declare bankruptcy, and in 1870 he gave up and moved to New York City. [15]

Following the Union victory at the Battle of Vicksburg in July, 1863, many refugees, including former slaves, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, began moving into Natchez and the surrounding countryside. The Union Army officers claimed to be short on resources and unable to provide for the refugees. The Army planned to address the situation with a mixture of paid labor for freed slaves on government leased plantations, the enlistment of able bodied males who were willing to fight in the Union Army and the establishment of refugee camps where former slaves could be provided with education. However, as the war continued, the plan was never effectively implemented and the leased plantations were poorly managed and frequently raided by Confederate troops who controlled the surrounding territory. Hundreds of people living in Natchez during this period, including many former slaves and refugees, died of hunger, disease or were killed in the fighting during this period. [16]

White Natchez residents became much more pro-Confederate 'after' the war. The Lost Cause myth arose as a means for coming to terms with the South's defeat. It quickly became a definitive ideology, strengthened by celebratory activities, speeches, clubs, and statues. The major organizations dedicated to creating and maintaining the tradition were the United Daughters of the Confederacy and United Confederate Veterans. In Natchez and other cities, although the local newspapers and war veterans played a role in the maintenance of the Lost Cause, elite white women were particularly important—especially in establishing cemeteries and memorials, such as the Civil War monument dedicated on Memorial Day 1890. The Lost Cause enabled (white) noncombatants to lay a claim to the watershed event in the reshaping of Southern history. [17]

Natchez made a rapid economic comeback in the postwar years, with the resumption of much of the commercial shipping traffic on the Mississippi River. The cash crop was still cotton, but gang agricultural slave labor came to be largely replaced by sharecropping, in which freedmen felt they had some independence. In many families, women left field labor to care for their own people. During hard times, they might work for their family and later had to take up domestic service.

In addition to cotton, the development of local industries such as logging added to the exports through the city's wharf. In return, Natchez saw an influx of manufactured goods from northern markets such as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.

The city's prominent place in Mississippi River commerce during the nineteenth century was reflected by the naming of nine steamboats Natchez, which traveled the lower river between 1823 and 1918. Many were built for and commanded by the famous Captain Thomas P. Leathers, whom Jefferson Davis had wanted to head the Confederate defense fleet on the Mississippi River. (This appointment never was concluded.) In 1885, the Anchor Line, known for its luxury steamboats operating between St. Louis and New Orleans, launched its "brag boat", the City of Natchez. This ship operated for a year before being lost to a fire at Cairo, Illinois, on 28 December 1886. Since 1975, an excursion steamboat at New Orleans has borne the name Natchez.

Such river commerce sustained the city's economic growth until just after the turn of the twentieth century, when steamboat traffic began to be replaced by the railroads. The city's economy declined over the course of the 20th century, as did that of many Mississippi River towns bypassed by railroad traffic. Tourism has helped to compensate for the decline.

After the war and during Reconstruction, the world of domestic servants in Natchez changed somewhat in response to emancipation and freedom. After the Civil War, most domestic servants continued to be black women. Often, the women were supporting children although they were poorly paid, their domestic work produced important income for family maintenance. White employers often continued the paternalism that had characterized relations between slaveholders and slaves. They often preferred black workers to white servants. White men and women who worked as domestics generally held positions such as gardener or governess, while black servants worked as cooks, maids, and laundresses. [18]

For a short time, the women's school Stanton College in Natchez educated daughters of the white elite. It was located in Stanton Hall, built as a private mansion in 1858. During the early 20th century, the college was a site of negotiation, as daughters of the traditional planter class encountered those of the new commercial elite. Other interplay took place between traditional parents and their more modern daughters. The young women joined social clubs and literary societies, which helped to maintain relations among cousins and family friends. The coursework included classes in proper behavior and letter writing, as well as skills that might enable those suffering from genteel poverty to make a living. The girls often balked at dress codes and rules, but also replicated their parents' social values. Stanton Hall was designated as a National Historic Landmark in the late 20th century. [19]

Located on the Mississippi River, the town long had an active nightlife, featuring jazz and blues created and played by Black American musicians. On April 23, 1940, 209 people died in a fire at the Rhythm Night Club, a black dance hall in Natchez. [20] The local paper remarked that "203 black bought 50 cent tickets to eternity." [21] This fire has been noted as the fourth-deadliest fire in U.S. history. [22] Several blues songs pay tribute to this tragedy and mention the city of Natchez. [23]

Industrial companies were located in Natchez in the 1960s, bringing jobs that were important to the city. Among them was Armstrong Tire and Rubber company. Such companies tended to repeat the pattern of segregation, keeping African Americans confined to lower level jobs. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) encouraged them to end such restrictions.

In the early 1960s, as the civil rights movement gained some successes and James Meredith was admitted as the first black to the University of Mississippi, Natchez was the center of Ku Klux Klan activity opposing integration and the movement. E. L. McDaniel, the Grand Dragon of the United Klans of America, the largest Klan organization in 1965, [24] had his office in Natchez at 114 Main Street. In August 1964, McDaniel established a klavern of the UKA in Natchez, operating under the cover name of the Adams County Civic and Betterment Association.

Despite the violence, Forrest A. Johnson, Sr., a well-respected white attorney in Natchez, began to speak out and write against the Klan. From 1964 through 1965, he published an alternative newspaper called the Miss-Lou Observer, in which he weekly took on the Klan. Klansmen and their supporters conducted an economic boycott against his law practice, nearly ruining him financially. [25]

In his October 1964 report, A.E. Hopkins, an investigator for the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a tax-supported organization that sponsored surveillance of residents, wrote that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was in Adams County in force

because of the alleged burning of several churches in that area as well as several bombings and the whipping of several Negroes also, because of the murder of two Negroes from Meadville whose bodies were recovered from the Mississippi river while the murders of three civil rights workers from Philadelphia was being investigated by Federal, State and local officials. [25] [26]

By that time, more than 100 FBI agents were in the area as part of the Philadelphia investigation three civil rights workers had disappeared and that summer were found murdered and buried in an earthen dam.

The FBI was also trying to keep racial violence under control. Bill Williams, an FBI agent in Natchez for two years during that time, said in a 2005 interview that the "race wars in the area are 'a story never told.' He said that Natchez in 1964 had become the 'focal point for racial, anti-civil rights activity for the state for the next several years'." [25]

Murders of four other African-American men in this area in 1964 are attributed to Klan members. [27] Other Klan murders of activists followed in succeeding years, despite or in resistance to Congressional passage of civil rights legislation.

As Klan violence rose in the 1960s, African Americans organized an armed paramilitary group called the Deacons for Defense and Justice, borrowing from a Louisiana group. They began to accompany NAACP officers and protesters, and carried weapons openly under Mississippi law.

George Metcalf and Wharlest Jackson Sr. both worked for the Armstrong Tire and Rubber Plant, where they tried to open more positions to African Americans. They were both active in the Natchez chapter of the NAACP: Metcalf as president and Jackson as treasurer. On February 27, 1967, Jackson was killed when a car bomb went off in his truck as he drove home from work. He had recently received a raise and promotion to a position previously "reserved" for whites. A Korean War veteran, he was married with five children. His murder was never solved, and no one has been charged in the crime. [28]

In August 1967, Metcalf submitted a petition in favor of school integration to the school board. (The Supreme Court had ruled segregated public schools as unconstitutional in 1954.) He asked the board not to publish the names of signatories to the petition, but they released the list. Little more than a week later, Metcalf was seriously injured in a car bombing. It was never solved. [29]

In response to these attacks, the Natchez Deacons for Defense stepped up their visible presence. All the men were already members of the NAACP and well known to each other. They maintained secrecy about the group, evading investigation by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and others. This group was important in the community its members and numbers were kept secret, but they created a defense and warning against violent attacks of blacks. In addition to protecting activists, the Deacons helped enforce initiatives of the civil rights movement, such as a commercial boycott of white-owned stores in a successful effort to win concessions in integration from retailers and the city. Chapters of the Deacons were organized in other Mississippi areas.

In 1966, the House Un-American Activities Committee published the names of Natchez residents who were current or former members of the Klan, including more than 70 employees at the International Paper plant in the city, as well as members of the Natchez police and the Adams County Sheriff's departments. [21] HUAC found that at least four white supremacist terrorist groups were operating in Natchez during the 1960s, including the Mississippi White Caps. The MWC distributed flyers anonymously around the city, threatening "crooks and mongrelizers." The Americans for the Preservation of the White Race was founded in May 1963 by nine residents of Natchez. [21]

The Cottonmouth Moccasin Gang was founded by Claude Fuller and Natchez Klansmen Ernest Avants and James Lloyd Jones. In June 1966, they murdered Natchez resident Ben Chester White, reportedly as part of a plot to draw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Natchez in order to assassinate him. The three Klansmen were arrested and charged by the state with the murder. In each case, despite overwhelming evidence and, in Jones' case, a confession, either the charges were dismissed or the defendants were acquitted by all-white juries. [30] Blacks had been excluded from juries for decades as they had been disenfranchised since 1890 by a new state constitution and unable to vote. By 1966 the Voting Rights Act had been passed, but courts used other means to exclude them from juries while many blacks were still registering to vote.

Prosecution of civil rights cold cases Edit

James Ford Seale, one of two men arrested in November 1964 as a suspect in the kidnapping and murders of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Henry Moore, was released when the state district attorney decided evidence was insufficient. Interest in the case was revived after 2000, when FBI files from 1964 were recovered by journalists. The FBI re-opened the investigation. Seale was arrested and charged by the US Attorney. He was tried and convicted in federal court in 2007. He died in federal prison in 2011 at the age of 76.

The FBI discovered that 67-year-old Ben Chester White, murdered in June 1966, had been killed on federal land near Pretty Creek in the Homochitto National Forest of Natchez. As a result, they could establish federal jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute this case. In 1999, the case was reopened. [31] Authorities indicted Ernest Avants in 2000 for the murder. He was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison he died the following year at the age of seventy-two. [32]

In February 2011, The Injustice Files of the Investigation Discovery channel aired three TV episodes of cold case murders related to the civil rights era. The first episode was devoted to the murder of Wharlest Jackson Sr., killed in 1967, as noted above. This was part of a collaboration with the FBI, which had started an initiative in 2007 to investigate and prosecute civil rights cases. [33]

On May 7, 1840, an intense tornado struck Natchez, killing 269 people, most of whom were on flatboats in the Mississippi River. The tornado killed 317 persons in all, making it the second-deadliest tornado in United States history.

In August 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Natchez served as a refuge for coastal Mississippi and Louisiana residents, providing shelters, hotel rooms, rentals, Federal Emergency Management Agency disbursements and animal shelters. Natchez was able to keep fuel supplies open for the duration of the disaster, provide essential power to the most affected areas, receive food deliveries, and maintain law and order while assisting visitors from other areas. Many churches, including Parkway Baptist Church, were used as emergency shelters. [34] In the months after the hurricane, a majority of the available homes were purchased or rented, with some tenants making Natchez their permanent home.

Flooding in 2011 drove the Mississippi River to crest at 61.9 feet (18.9 m) on May 19, the highest recorded height of the river since the 1930s.

Prominent families in Natchez have used the Natchez Pilgrimage, an annual tour of the antebellum mansions, to portray a nostalgic vision of its antebellum slaveholding society. [35] Since the Civil Rights Movement, however, this version has been increasingly challenged by blacks who have sought to add the black experience in Natchez to its public history. [36] According to the author Paul Hendrickson, "Blacks are not a part of the Natchez Pilgrimage." [21]

Natchez Trace Bandits: Little Harpe & Sam Mason, A Vintage Vignette

The Natchez Trace was the way home for pioneers who took goods to New Orleans or Natchez on riverboats. Beginning in 1811, steamboats became an alternate method of upstream journeys, with common usage by the late 1830s. The early history of the Natchez Trace was a bloody one, with many murdering bandits accosting travelers to take their produce or money from downstream sales. America's first serial killers, Big and Little Harpe, had terrorized the northern parts of the river system and the upper Trace around Nashville, as well as the Kentucky Wilderness Road. Big Harpe was killed by a posse in 1799, but Little Harpe disappeared for several years before he was seen again. When he resurfaced, Little Harpe was part of the Mason gang of river and Trace pirates.

Sam Mason was born in Virginia in 1750. He fought with honor as a patriot in the Revolutionary War. After the war, he settled in Kentucky. By 1790 he was a man of prominence, commissioned as a Justice of the Peace, with a daughter and three sons. At that time, a fugitive from crimes committed in the Carolinas came to visit and eloped with Mason's daughter. After a few weeks, Mason sent word that reconciliation should be accomplished with a party for them at his house. As the dancing progressed, Mason and his sons took the son-in-law outside into the forest and killed him. Mason and his sons then fled to escape justice, along the way killing Captain John Dunn, “the only recognized officer of the law in all of the territory”. Mason proceeded to develop a loose organization of criminals along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for about a decade.

By 1801 Mason was reported to have robbed and killed several travelers along the southern portions of the Trace, mostly men leaving Natchez to return home with piles of gold coins. Since almost all of the victims were dead, there were few witnesses to fear in event of capture. Victims who did survive were generally unavailable, scattered even into Georgia. When Mason and one of his sons rode into Natchez, they were recognized as the robbers who had accosted three men along the Trace a few months earlier. Mason and his son were arrested only for robbery, with no witnesses to actual murders around to testify. The Masons received a public flogging of 39 lashes each and turned loose. As crimes continued along the travel routes, often the name “Mason” was written with the victims' blood at the scene. Evidence increased that Wiley (“Little”) Harpe was a part of the gang, and $2000 was offered for the capture of Harpe and Mason. News came that the hideout of the gang was only 40 miles north of Natchez along the Trace, but they escaped capture.

Increasing crime levels got the attention of the Spanish authorities on the west bank of the Mississippi River. In January of 1803, reports came that some of the Mason gang were living about 20 miles downstream of New Madrid, Missouri. A party of militia was sent to investigate and found Mason there, with three of his sons and one other member of the gang. Arrested and tried, they were sent to New Orleans, where the Spanish officials decided to send them to Natchez for American courts. Along the way they escaped when the boat was beached for repairs. The gang eluded capture for months, and Mason encamped in swamps around Lake Concordia, just west of Natchez. Before the year was out, he was killed there by two men called Mays and Setton, who were actually members of his gang using aliases. They cut off Mason's head and brought it back to Natchez for the reward, but Wiley Harpe (alias Setton) was recognized by two men in town, one of whom had wounded Wiley during a knife fight in Knoxville years earlier. The scar confirmed the identification of Setton as Little Harpe. Both men were hanged in Natchez on February 8, 1804, ending for a time part of the violence along the Trace, but the next article will tell of a more sinister criminal of later years on the pioneer road.

Natchez Trace - History

The Natchez Trace Parkway

The idea for the Natchez Trace Parkway was conceived back in the 1930s by Mississippi Congressman Thomas Jeff Busby. The route was to follow the old Natchez Trace as closely as possible. The Trace had been an important foot trail back in the late 1700s before it evolved into one of America’s first National Roads in the early 1800s. It linked Nashville with Natchez, a town of strategic importance that was founded by the French in 1716. Both cities were major hubs of commerce at the time.

In 1699, France controlled most of the land bounded by the Rocky Mountains in the west and the Appalachian Mountains in the east. The exceptions were parts of modern day Texas and New Mexico, which were controlled by the Spanish. The territory was called Louisiana in honor of King Louis the 14th. Despite constant wars with the local Indians, France maintained the territory up through 1763, when it lost the Seven Years War (aka French and Indian War) to England.

During the tail end of the Seven Years War, England also fought against Spain—which had allied with France— in what is known as the Anglo-Spanish War (January 1762 until February 1763). This war ended at the same time as the Seven Years War. Terms were negotiated under the 1763 Treaty of Paris. All French land east of the Mississippi was ceded to England. Spain gave up Florida to England in exchange for Cuba, which England had taken during the war. To compensate the Spanish for helping them in the war, France gave the remainder of its North American land to Spain, which included the important port city of New Orleans. The Mississippi River was now the border between English and Spanish colonies. It was agreed that the river was open to navigation by both countries.

The political division of North America would again change following the American Revolution, which began in 1775 and ended in 1783 with the signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Spain, which had also fought the British during the war, took control of Florida. It had conquered the area of Natchez during the fighting and kept this land as well, thus enlarging its holdings east of the Mississippi (Natchez was on the eastern bank of the Mississippi).

Natchez was of vital strategic importance. Sitting on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the country that controlled it controlled traffic on the river. The French had built and maintained a fort at Natchez starting in 1716. By the time the Spanish took control, the the town had grown into a center of commerce. Goods traveling down the Mississippi River were either unloaded here or farther down at New Orleans.

The problem with transporting goods down the Mississippi in the era before steam power was that while barges loaded with merchandise could easily float down the river, they couldn’t travel upstream against the current. Thus, boatmen built makeshift keelboats and flatboats to carry goods, and then sold them for scrap once they reached their destination. The only way back home was to walk, and the trail of choice was the Natchez Trace.

The Trace began as a series of disjointed Indian trails that connected the Natchez area to what would become Nashville. Animals traveled the corridor from the Mississippi River to the salt licks in the Nashville area, and thus the Indians soon followed suit as they hunted the animals for food. When commerce on the Mississippi started to boom after the American Revolution, and more and more boatmen used the Trace to travel back to Nashville, the Indian paths became one well worn, continuous trail. It took about six weeks to travel to Nashville on foot, or four by horse.

After the Revolution, Americans began encroaching into Spain’s Florida territory. The Florida border was never well defined, and with very little Spanish presence in the area, Americans saw no reason to stay out. In response, Spain took control of the Mississippi River and began taxing American goods, plus it closed the port of New Orleans to American goods, which effectively put an end to American exports through the Gulf of Mexico. It took until 1795 for the dispute to be resolved by the Treaty of Madrid (aka Treaty of San Lorenzo or Pinckney’s Treaty).

In 1794, the U. S. had aligned itself with England against France with the signing of the Jay Treaty. Though France had just fought with the Americans during the Revolution, and while this alliance was in fact the reason America was victorious, the Americans had been allied with France under Louis the 16th, and he had just been executed in 1793 after a revolution. Thus, America had no problem turning its back on the new French government. Because of this, Spain feared a possible threat of a war against a U. S.-British alliance and found it prudent to reestablish friendly relations with the United States.

Under the 1795 Treaty of Madrid, the Florida border was surveyed and agreed upon by both countries, the Mississippi was once again open to tax free travel by American merchants, and the Natchez area was ceded to the United States. In 1798 the area was organized into what was called the Mississippi Territory, with Natchez as its capital.

In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of France. The following year he signed the Treaty of Sal Ildefonzo with Spain, which returned the Louisiana Territory—a huge swath of land west of the Mississippi River all the way to the Canadian border—back to France in exchange for placing Charles IV’s (king of Spain) son on the throne of the newly formed kingdom of Etruria in northern Italy. With the land now back in French control, the freedom to transport and sell goods unhindered to New Orleans was revoked. U. S. politicians began to throw around the idea of seizing the land and starting a war with France, but cooler heads prevailed. President Thomas Jefferson offered to buy the southern portion of the territory. Napoleon, who was going broke as a result of his war with England, upped the deal by offering to sell everything, and the United States got the entire Louisiana Territory for around $11 million. The deal was signed on May 2, 1803, and became known as the Louisiana Purchase.

With the entire region now in U. S. hands, the government decided to expand the Natchez Trace into a National Road. Treaties with the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians were signed and expansion of the Trace began. In addition to boatmen traffic, the road was used for troop movements, a postal service, and general travel between Natchez and Nashville. However, the road was never comfortable to travel on, and it was also quite dangerous. Boatmen with pocketfuls of money after selling their boats and delivering their goods were easy prey for bandits and angry Indians. To defend themselves, they took up the practice of banding together for trips back home, but this did little to combat the deep mud that could be found on much of the trail, or the mosquitoes, poison ivy, and poisonous snakes that thrived in the swampier areas.

From the start, both white and Indian businessmen saw an opportunity to make money by setting up what were called “stands,” or inns, along the Trace. Money was made by renting out rooms or a spot on the porch or yard to weary travelers. Meals were provided for an extra fee. The stands were usually about twenty miles apart, the distance a person could cover during a day’s travel. Only one stand remains today, that at Mount Locust (mile post 15.5 on the Natchez Trace Parkwy), though many stops along the Natchez Trace Parkway mark sites of former stands.

In the early 1780s, inventors in various countries began working on steam powered boats. Once perfected, ships no longer would have to rely on winds or float with the current. In the United States, Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston began operating a steamboat on the Hudson River in 1807. By the 1820s the steamboat phenomenon had come to the Mississippi, and the days of floating down the river and walking back on the Trace came to an end.

Boatman did not account for all of the traffic on the Trace, so it would stand to reason that the Trace, now a National Road, would still see plenty of use. However, newer and better roads were constructed. By 1830 you could travel between Columbia, Tennessee, and Madison, Louisiana, on Jackson’s Military Road, and by 1840 on the Robinson Road that ran between Columbus and Jackson. The railroads were coming through the area as well, so there were better alternatives to the Natchez Trace. It was used by some troops during the Civil War and for local travel, but the road fell into disuse by the end of the 1800s. Today, many modern roads include paved portions of the Trace.

In its hey-day the Natchez Trace was so highly traveled that gullies as deep as ten feet were worn into the ground by men, horses, and wagons. Stands and trading posts along the route had made businessmen, both white and Indian, wealthy. There is a lot of history along the Trace, which is why concerned citizens in the area did not want to see it fade completely from memory. It is from this longing to preserve a part of early American history that the idea for a commemorative parkway came into being.

Construction on the Natchez Trace Parkway began in 1937 after the plan was approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, it was not completed in its entirety until 2005. It became part of the National Park System in 1938. The route follows the original Trace as much as possible, and along the way you will find historical markers, historical buildings, Indian burial and ceremonial mounds, unique bridges, picnic areas, hiking trails, campgrounds, lakes, rivers, and scenic overlooks. Nearly two dozen short segments of the original Trace have been cleared by the National Park Service so that you can walk on them and experience what travelers from the early 1800s experienced—minus the bandits and angry Indians.

The Parkway also gets you to within range of many other National Parks, all of which you can read more about here at National Park Planner. Be sure to check them out as you travel your way up or down the Parkway.

What the hell is a Scalawag?

Ending the myth of the historic Natchez Trace

In 1811, 17 years before his election as president, Andrew Jackson was intercepted by a federal agent while driving a group of enslaved people south. Jackson was marching his coffle along the Natchez Trace from Tennessee toward what was then the southwestern frontier, where burgeoning cotton fields were demanding ever more labor. Federal agent Silas Dinsmoor stopped Jackson to ask for documentation that he and his chattel had a pass to be in the area. Jackson, affronted, pulled out either a copy of the U.S. Constitution or a pair of pistols, depending on who's telling the story. "Here's my permission," he is supposed to have said. "I always carry it with me."

He was allowed to continue on his slaving mission, recounts historian Greg Grandin in The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. But Jackson could not move past the encounter, which he considered undue infringement on his liberty. He began writing to the federal government, suggesting that citizens might pursue vigilante justice if the agent were not fired. "My God, is it come to this?" Jackson wrote. "Are we freemen or are we slaves? Is this real or is it a dream?" He was successful: The state's lawmakers pressed their federal representatives to remove Dinsmore from office. The enslaved were sold. "Freedom" had its day.

Hundreds of years of foot traffic carved 'sunken' sections into the Trace.

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Jackson looms large over the Natchez Trace: He made his fortune as a frontier lawyer, land speculator, horse-breeder, and slaver in Nashville, the route's northern terminus. As a military officer and later statesman, he was instrumental in expanding the nation's territory down its route. Jackson traversed the road to expel the British from New Orleans in the War of 1812 as president, he oversaw the removal of the Chickasaw and Choctaw from their Trace-adjacent ancestral homelands. Into the newly emptied lands—as with those from which Jackson expelled the Creek and Cherokee further east, and the Spanish and Seminoles further south—rushed the barbarous white-supremacist regime that Jackson both championed and embodied.

The evolution of the Natchez Trace parallels the evolution of the South more broadly.

While Jackson is the only president known to have himself driven coffles across the South, he had plenty of nonpresidential company. The years from 1830 to 1860 saw a forced migration of slaves from the tobacco South—Virginia and the Carolinas—to the cotton South, a migration unparalleled in early American history: one million souls sold southward in what writer Edward Ball calls the "Slave Trail of Tears." Fearing the potential of revolt thanks to growing numbers of the enslaved across the South, the United States banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 (although illicit traders managed to work their way around the ban). At the same time, cotton was beginning its ascent to become the United States' largest export, demanding laborers working in brutal heat to harvest the crops. While traveling by boat was faster and safer than the arduous trek down the Trace, it was also more expensive. The Trace became King Cotton's lifeline.

The Trace crosses the Tennessee River in Northwest Alabama in the fading light. George Colbert, a Chickasaw tribal leader and military colonel under George Washington, ran a ferry across the river from this site in the early 1800s, and he is said to have charged Andrew Jackson $75,000 to carry his men back across the Tennessee on their victorious march home from the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

The evolution of the Natchez Trace parallels the evolution of the South more broadly. It began life as a Native trading route, part of a larger system of Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez paths through the area's relentless forests. When white American settlement started to creep upward from the mouth of the Mississippi—in the aftermath of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and the War of 1812 soon after—the fledgling country needed a way to connect its new provinces with its centers of power to the northeast, and the path to what was then the country's "Southwest" was built out. Before steam power, "Kaintuck" traders from Kentucky and Tennessee would float down the Mississippi with a boatful of goods, sell their boats for lumber, and wind their way back up the Trace by land. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the road fell into disrepair. Now, thanks to preservationists during the last century, it is a National Scenic Trail winding 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, and is especially popular with cyclists. Much of the original footpath—the Old Trace, as the Park Service calls it—snakes alongside.

The Trace became King Cotton's lifeline.

I first traveled down the roadway two summers ago and was beguiled. Turnout by turnout, it reveals a comprehensible social and ecological history of the region: tupelo swamps and Appalachian foothills, temple and burial mounds built millennia apart, Confederate cemeteries and bygone blues meccas. Signs along the way offer visitors a guide to these many past lives. Each landscape is an epoch. The Trace captures something of the soul of the region, a patchwork of its brutal depravity its rich musicality its explosive, horrible flora and ultimately its head-shaking moments of grace. Toward the Trace's southern terminus, 23 stone columns jut skyward in a forest clearing, their connected mansion having survived the Civil War only to be burned down by an errant cigarette 25 years later. Farther north, waterfalls splash down horseshoe-shaped grottos in a cool shade.

The Pharr Mounds in northern Mississippi were built between 100 and 200 A.D. as burial sites, predating other burial mounds along the Trace by more than a millennia. The Trace hints at a deep human history of the area, in flux for many centuries before European contact.

But the site that has played through my mind ever since my first visit is the humble Pharr Mounds in northern Mississippi, just short of the Alabama line. Built nearly two millennia ago to house the dead and their belongings, the nine gentle humps now sit scattered in an open field amid waist-high grasses. A baking sun offers a distraction from the fire ants underfoot, until the sharp pinch of their bites demands attention. Sturdy as the land itself, the mounds have borne witness to centuries of the region's human history. They were already ancient at earliest colonial contact. Amid the crescendoing drone of insects and occasional distant gunshots in the surrounding woods, their quietude invites contemplation, whispering of a timescale far beyond this nation's. We are here but a moment some larger story endures. In hopes of parsing the Trace's role in that story, I returned to the trail last September, the wet air still buzzing with late-summer heat and the earth sheathed in layers of green.

Sturdy as the land itself, the [Pharr] mounds have borne witness to centuries of the region's human history.

Natchez itself, where the Trace spills into the Mississippi, showcases the wealth squeezed from the Slave Trail of Tears. From the 1830s until the Civil War, the city's Forks of the Road slave market was the second busiest in the region. As the cotton flowed through Natchez, the merchant class there grew fat: In the 1850s, the city was home to half of the country's millionaires. Many of their grand estates survived the Civil War and act today as a major tourist draw. Isaac Franklin, one of the region's chief merchants of human chattel, used his immense profits to buy six plantations across Louisiana and Tennessee. One he named Angola—it lives on as Louisiana's infamous Angola Prison Farm today.

"Remember I told you my great-grandfather had gotten some land after the War? It's different when it's your own."

The Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture occupies a stately stone building downtown. Founded in 1990 by local Mary Lee Davis Toles, the museum is filled with documents and artifacts donated by locals, with books on Black liberation, photographs from Natchez native Richard Wright's trip to Ghana, and a life-sized mannequin picking cotton. The docent I spoke with, Viola, recounted that her great-grandfather, who was enslaved, acquired his own plot of land in nearby Fayette in the aftermath of the Civil War. Her grandfather, she said, was the last of her family born into bondage. She herself had grown up picking cotton: She offered to take a photograph in front of the mannequin, but I worried that might be too uncomfortable. Still, she said, "Remember I told you my great-grandfather had gotten some land after the War? It's different when it's your own."

Viola is a docent in the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture.

As the Trace winds northeast, it transitions from tourist-genteel into Southern Gothic, not yet reconstrued by tourist dollars. At the end of my first day on the Trace, I pulled in late to Port Gibson, Mississippi, a town Ulysses S. Grant spared on his way to Vicksburg as it was reportedly "too beautiful to burn," its grandeur now crumbling. Kudzu gulps buildings left alone too long. In the lone establishment whose sign blinked "OPEN," I met a duo who assured me that the town's fortunes were soon to change. CJ King, owner of the Royalty Lounge and Bistro, relayed that upon moving to town he began receiving divine visions, among them that he would soon meet a man who would "change Port Gibson forever."

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That man turned out to be Alderman Scott Davis, to King's and to Davis' own surprise. And here he was: Wearing an oversized black shirt advertising his office, drinking Coronas, and puffing away at an e-cigarette. Davis had moved to Port Gibson some years back with his mother to refurbish a local estate they called Idlewild. In 2018, the federal government designated a portion of Port Gibson's Claiborne County an "Opportunity Zone," providing incentives for private investment as part of a program designed to boost impoverished areas. Now, Davis was working to broker a deal to bring a natural gas pipeline from Vicksburg southwest to Port Gibson, where the gas will be pressurized into liquid natural gas and sold further afield. As he told me this, he suggested that there was more stimulus to come, thanks to his roots in an international fruit company whose remaining assets still spill across the hemisphere. He dragged his vape pen. "It really feels like a higher power brought us all here together for a special reason."

Left: Sunset at the Windsor Ruins. An errant cigarette burned down the antebellum mansion in 1890, leaving a skeleton in the woods.
Right: The reclamation of an abandoned old house in southern Mississippi.

Daniella Shorter, the county district attorney and King's spouse, shook her head as talk of the grander economic visions—intercontinental in scope, seemingly harebrained, unverifiable, and very possibly real—drifted through the room. She joked that she might prosecute Davis if he overstepped the boundaries of his office. Good luck, he told her. "I'm undefeated this year, Scott." He, confident in the midst of his election season, shot back: "I'm undefeated too."

The pipeline project may well provide jobs in an area that could use them it also comes with environmental risks, as does any such pipeline. Already, Port Gibson is home to the state's only nuclear power plant, one whose construction led to charges of environmental racism from the get-go. In the first two years after it came online, reports the Nation, infant deaths in the surrounding five counties increased by 35 percent, miscarriages by 58 percent. A reworking of the taxation structure in 1986 meant that locals only get a paltry portion of the taxes levied on consumers for the power produced, despite shouldering the risk. They filed suit in 2009 to redress the taxation structure, claiming the policy—passed by the state—was racist. That suit was dismissed. Now, in the poor region, another risky energy project beckons.

Foliage looms over the road, hefty oaks and leafy beeches dappling the sunlight.

As the Trace winds north past Jackson, Mississippi, the kudzu relents a bit, and the hillocks give way to hills. Named for the plantation-owning president who empowered the white everyman at the expense of everyone else, Mississippi's capital city is now administered by Chokwe Antar Lumumba, profiled by The Nation as possibly "the most radical mayor in America." His lineage is more radical yet: Lumumba's late father, the former mayor of Jackson, was before his time in office a leader with the Republic of New Afrika, a Black nationalist movement that pushed for reparations in the form of a nation for Black descendants of the enslaved in the Deep South. I met a group of schoolkids on a field trip from Jackson's Michelle Obama Early College High School and asked them about the younger Lumumba. "I got a lot of pictures with him," one told me. "He actually cut the ribbon at our school. People say he looks like Drake."

Jackson is 10 miles off the Trace, its ramshackle urbanity a world apart. Throughout Mississippi, the green along the Trace is hypnotic, primordial. Foliage looms over the road, hefty oaks and leafy beeches dappling the sunlight. Fields of cotton, corn, and grass open to either side bales of hay loll serenely. North of Jackson, a "Cypress Swamp" turnoff offers a short walk around a grove of cypresses and tupelos, dropping their seeds with irregular kerplunks into the tea-colored water below. Alligators hide somewhere in that timeless soup. The greedy forest threatens to swallow anything the alligators do not.

After cutting briefly through Northwest Alabama, the Trace spills past cutesy mountain towns into Nashville. Just to the city's west is Andrew Jackson's old plantation, the Hermitage, today a National Historic Landmark. In his old age, Jackson, having become rich, held about 150 humans in bondage. He died before seeing them emancipated. Beside the rotunda of Jackson's tomb, interpreters at the Hermitage tell a story to visitors who linger. Alfred, Jackson's personal servant, lived to become a freedman. By farming, he made enough money to buy some of the family's affairs in an estate sale when the family decided to turn the Hermitage into a museum, he had some leverage. I'll sell you back these artifacts, he offered. But in return, I want to be buried in the family plot. And I want to give the tours of the estate. Alfred got both his wishes. Now, his grave lies beside Jackson's rotunda, and the interpreters who lead visitors through Jackson's estate tell a story based on the ur-interpretation Alfred himself gave.

"Sometimes," Maddy told me, "on weekends, when I'm not doing nothing, I go down there and just listen."

Having reached the end of the road, I left the Hermitage to pick my way back toward the Mississippi, watching the blurring stretches of leafiness deepen as high noon gave way to dusk. On my way, I stopped in Tupelo, in northern Mississippi: the birthplace of Elvis, another turnout where aging myths lure in passers-by. Tourists flock to his childhood home, now a museum and giftshop. Maddy, a local barista, directed me elsewhere, toward an enormous freestanding guitar that had recently been erected south of downtown. I found it in a parking lot beside a machine warehouse. All day, the guitar plays Elvis songs. "Sometimes," Maddy told me, "on weekends, when I'm not doing nothing, I go down there and just listen." Ghosts are excellent company, after all.

Mississippi Civil War History Sites located along or near the Natchez Trace Parkway

This "summary preview" of each Mississippi Civil War History site includes the site name and directions from the Natchez Trace Parkway.

In Corinth, MS. If you are traveling north on the Trace, exit onto Mississippi Highway 145 near Tupelo, then go north on US 45 to Corinth.

If you are traveling south on the Trace, exit onto US 72 at milepost 320 and travel west to Corinth.

Near Baldwyn, MS. If traveling south, exit the Trace at milepost 282 onto Mississippi Highway 370 and travel west 11 miles to Baldwyn and then 5 more miles west to the battlefield site.

If traveling north, access US 45 north of Tupelo and travel north 12 miles to highway 370 and go west 1 mile.

On the parkway at milepost 269.4 - Old Trace, Top 30 Site

In Tupelo, MS. Exit the Trace at milepost 259.7 onto Mississippi Highway 6 (Main Street in Tupelo) and travel east 1 mile.

Near Raymond, MS. Exit the Trace at milepost 79 onto Mississippi Highway 467 and travel east to the town of Raymond. Continue through Raymond to Mississippi Highway 18. Turn right (west) on highway 18 and the Raymond Military Park will be on your right a couple of miles down the road.

Located west of the Natchez Trace Parkway in Vicksburg, Mississippi. I-20, Mississippi Highway 27 and U.S. 61 connect travelers from the Trace to Vicksburg.

Near Port Gibson, MS. Exit the Trace at milepost 41 onto Mississippi Highway 18. Turn left (south) on US 61 and drive into Port Gibson. From the courthouse area in Port Gibson take Anthony Street out of town heading northwest. Anthony Street becomes Oil Mill Road. Oil Mill Road dead-ends into Grand Gulf Road. Turn left on Grand Gulf Road and follow the road to the park.

Located between Port Gibson and Windsor Ruins.

Note: for your convenience the National Park Service displays a milepost on the east side of the parkway. Mileposts start at 0 on the southern end of the Trace near Natchez and end at 444 at the northern terminus (The Natchez Trace Parkway is 444 miles long.). Throughout this website, mileposts are used to help you locate attractions along the trace and exits on/off the Trace to help you find towns, attractions and bed and breakfasts located just off the Trace.

Exploring the history and natural beauty of the Natchez Trace — once the most important travel route between Mississippi and Tennessee

Meriwether Lewis died here. Aaron Burr did not, but 2½ years after slaying Alexander Hamilton in a duel, he surrendered here. And thousands of Native Americans collectively left their mark when they trekked across this Southern locale during their forced resettlement march along the Trail of Tears.

This historic spot is the Natchez Trace, once the most important travel route in the Old Southwest. While only a smattering of the original path exists today, the trail and its rich history are preserved via the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway. Built between 1938 and 2005, the parkway follows the path of the original Trace, winding northeast from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee.

More than 6 million people drive, cycle or hike along this undulating parkway each year, making it the National Park Service’s seventh most-visited site. They come partly for its picturesque and diverse landscape, which features bayous and swamps in the south, and forestland, rocky outcrops and remnant prairies in the north. But they also come to learn its colorful history.

Dozens of interpretive sites dot the parkway, explaining the Old Trace’s past and showcasing notable remains, such as the 1818 red-brick home of the Gordon family, who once ran a trading post and ferry. You can also see impressive Native American mounds, most notably Emerald Mound, a 35-foot-high earthwork and National Historic Landmark that’s the second-largest Mississippian Period ceremonial mound in the nation.

A final bonus: 65 miles of hiking trail along the parkway are collectively designated the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, an elite classification shared by the famed Appalachian Trail and nine other standouts.

“The Natchez Trace can’t really be considered the region’s best-kept secret,” says Mandi Toy, the parkway’s acting chief of interpretation. “But people don’t really realize what’s all here until they stumble upon us.”

The Natchez Trace’s origins stretch back thousands of years, when prehistoric native peoples lived and traveled in the area. The pathways they trod became more firmly entrenched in the soil when the modern-day Natchez, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations settled here and added their footprints. Then, in the 1700s and early 1800s, after Europeans arrived and began moving westward, the footpath became an important highway of sorts, connecting the state of Tennessee with land that eventually became the Mississippi Territory.

But the Trace’s heyday began in 1801, when President Thomas Jefferson ordered the U.S. Army to turn the rustic path into a federal road. Development of the road was ostensibly to allow mail delivery between Nashville and Natchez, and to provide safe passage home for the Kaintucks — boatmen who regularly sailed down the Mississippi to the port cities of Natchez and New Orleans to sell their goods, then walked back home, the river being too difficult to navigate upstream. The improved road did help the post riders and Kaintucks, but it also served as a critical route for the movement of soldiers during the War of 1812 and other conflicts — possibly its intended purpose.

From roughly 1800 to the mid-1830s, the Natchez Trace saw heavy traffic from soldiers, Kaintucks, animals, wagons and more. Stands, or inns, sprang up to serve the travelers, along with ferries, stores and other services. Yet a trip along the heavily used federal road was far from a pleasant stroll. “Hardships of journeying on the Old Trace included heat, mosquitoes, poor food, hard beds (if any), disease, swollen rivers, and sucking swamps,” reads one interpretive sign, noting that “a broken leg or arm could spell death for the lone traveler.”

Eventually, this critical-yet-challenging highway fell out of use when steamboats began plying the nation’s waterways. By the Civil War, it was largely abandoned and soon forgotten. Then, new life. In 1938, the National Park Service took control of the land to save the final remnants of the Old Trace and build a parkway alongside them. This would ensure the Trace — and the stories of those whose lives depended upon it — would live on.

Intrigued? Then start planning your trip. Spring and fall are prime seasons to visit. The temperatures are moderate, and the landscape dazzles with colorful spring wildflowers or blazing fall foliage. Don’t plan a tight itinerary, as the parkway is designed to encourage leisurely exploration. Commercial traffic is banned, and the roadway is free of billboards and traffic lights. All you have to do is enjoy the scenery and find the interpretive pullouts that match your interests: history, nature, Native American life and more.

“The great thing about the parkway is that there really is something here for everyone,” Toy says.

While many of the interpretive spots make quick stops, consisting of explanatory signs and short trails, others are more in-depth. Rocky Springs, for example, used to be a thriving town of 2,600. Today you can explore its scattered remains, plus hike a section of both the Old Trace and the National Scenic Trail. At Mount Locust, a restored plantation and historic stand, there are house tours and exhibits.

Toy says one of the more popular stops is the Meriwether Lewis National Monument. Lewis is best known as the senior commander of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06) sent to find a commercial water route to the Pacific Ocean. In 1809, Lewis left his home in St. Louis for Washington, D.C., to secure payment for some federal vouchers he’d submitted. His route led him along the Trace, where he mysteriously died of gunshot wounds while staying overnight at Grinder’s Stand. While historians largely agree he committed suicide, due to a history of depression and other issues, some believe he was murdered. In addition to Lewis’ grave and monument, the spacious site includes hiking paths, the remains of Grinder’s Stand and a campground.

No matter your interests, make sure to check out the Potkopinu section of the National Scenic Trail. This 3-mile path near Natchez features impressive pieces of what’s known as the Sunken Trace — areas filled with soft, loess soil that was greatly compacted by decades of constant traffic. In some spots, the trail here has sunk as much as 20 feet below the surrounding terrain, exposing tangled tree roots overhead.

Although Potkopinu can be a challenging hike, try it anyway. Experiencing a slice of what the Kaintucks and other Trace-goers once faced may be the best history lesson of all.

Tracing History on the Natchez Trace Parkway

For a visit to a byway rich in history, drive the Natchez Trace Parkway, established to commemorate the historical significance of the Old Natchez Trace. Originally a primitive trail that stretched 500 miles through the wilderness from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, throughout the years it has gained a rich history that continues to fascinate visitors who travel in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before.

Home » Tracing History on the Natchez Trace Parkway

For a visit to a byway rich in history, drive the Natchez Trace Parkway, established to commemorate the historical significance of the Old Natchez Trace. Originally a series of trails that stretched 500 miles through the Chickasaw and Choctaw lands from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee, throughout the years it has gained a rich history that continues to fascinate visitors who travel in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before.

History has witnessed several phases in the development of the Natchez Trace, each with a distinct origin and purpose. Residents of Fort Nashborough in Tennessee (a city now known as ‘Nashville’) named the first part of the trail Chickasaw Trace because it led to the lands of the Chickasaw Nation. The trails heading southwest were controlled by the Choctaw Nation and then led onward toward Natchez. Eighteenth-century British maps labeled the trail as the “Path to the Choctaw Nation.” Discover the history of the Indian tribe that once resided there at several places along the trail, such as Buzzard Roost in Alabama, which tells the story of the Chickasaw chief Levi Colbert, or the Chickasaw Village in Mississippi, which shows of the life of the Chickasaw Indians. Visitors can go to what was once the center of activities for the Natchez Indians, or visit Mississippi’s Emerald Mound, one of the largest ceremonial mounds in the United States. Finally, no trip is complete without visiting sites on the Trail of Tears Historic Trail (which runs through several states, including Alabama and Tennessee), where in 1838 the United States government forced more than 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homelands and sent them to Indian Territory.

The South has many places with stories about the Civil War and the battlefields along the way. The Natchez Trace Parkway is no exception. Be sure to stop by Shiloh National Military Park near Savannah, Tennessee, which was the site of a two-day battle involving 65,000 Union and 44,000 Confederate troops. The Stones River National Battlefield near Nashville, Tennessee provided a decisive moral boost for Union troops. The Tupelo National Battlefield in Mississippi is a one-acre site that commemorates the last major Civil War battle in Mississippi. There the Union Army utilized their USCT’s (United States Colored Troops) to engage in battle. Pay your respects to those who lost their lives in battle at the memorials at Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site north of Tupelo, Mississippi, and Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg contains museums, monuments, and many artifacts, so be sure to spend some time perusing the local historical attractions.

After Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, he marched his troops home along the path — an event that signaled not only the war’s end, but also the decline of the importance of the road as a transportation corridor. In the years following 1820, this road was finally referred to as the “Natchez Trace.”

Civil War history here is prevalent and, exploring the Natchez Trace Parkway of today is a great way to truly experience this American history.

The market closes

Franklin, who had formed a separate partnership with another Virginia slave trader, Rice Ballard, continued to do business as Ballard, Franklin and Company at the Forks of the Road market until late 1845. Subsequent owners of the lucrative market spaces leased their property to interstate traders such as Griffin & Pullum and Thomas G. James, who proclaimed in newspaper advertisements in the early 1850s that their leases at the Forks of the Road were “for a term of years.” In January 1853, the Forks of the Road intersection was especially busy, with James and Griffin & Pullum sharing market space with another longtime interstate slave trader, R. H. Elam. Business at the market continued to boom during the 1850s. In 1858, advertisements by Kentucky trader Tarlton Auterburn implied an endless supply of slaves for Mississippi:

“Negroes for Sale. I have arrived at my old stand (Forks of the Road) near Natchez, with a Lot of No. 1 Negroes, which I will sell as low, and on as good terms as any other Trader. I will also receive new lots of Negroes, and keep up a good supply during the trading season. Tarlton Auterburn.”

The last newspaper advertisements for slave sales at the Forks of the Road appeared in the Natchez Daily Courier during the early months of 1863. All slave trading had ceased in Natchez by the summer of 1863 when Union troops occupied the town. Today, the historic intersection, with its familiar “Y” configuration, remains to mark the location of the once-flourishing slave markets at the Forks of the Road.

Jim Barnett is director of the Historic Properties Division, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Clark Burkett is historian II at Historic Jefferson College, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. This article is condensed from an article originally published in The Journal of Mississippi History, Volume LXIII, Fall 2001, No. 3.

Selected references:

Claiborne, J.F.H. Mississippi as a Province, Territory, and State . Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1978, reprint of the first edition, 1880.

Harper, Glenn A. “Preserving the National Road Landscape,” in Karl Raitz (ed.) The National Road . Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Hunter, Ann Arnold. A Century of Service: The Story of the DAR . Washington, D.C.: National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, 1991.

Sullivan, Charles L. Building the “Old Spanish Trail”: The Story of a Modern American Highway . Jackson, Miss.: Mississippi Department of Transportation, 2003.

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