Mississippians generally love or hate the Natchez Trace Parkway. For some the road is a chance to add some delightful scenery to a trip. For others, it is a slow (50 mph speed limit) and annoying highway only to be taken when it is the only option for reaching a destination in reasonable time. In both cases though, the Trace's past is worthy of remembrance.
The Trace, historically, was a frontier road from Natchez to Nashville. During its heyday, a lot of history came down that old pike. Philip Nolan (whose name was later immortalized in the classic story, "The Man Without A Country") and Aaron Burr intrigued along the Trace; Andrew Jackson and his Rachel were married at one end of the road and made their home at the other; Meriwether Lewis, who along with William Clark, explored the Louisiana purchase, died under mysterious circumstances at Grinder's Stand (“stand” was a pioneer term for the rustic inns along the Trace) near the Trace's northern terminus.
A common misconception about the Trace is that it evolved from a single trail tramped out by Indians. Actually, it was made up of many separate paths linked together by the old “Kaintucks,” the Kentucky and Tennessee flatboatmen who, beginning in the 1700s, returned home overland after floating their boats and cargoes down from the Cumberland or Ohio Rivers and to the Mississippi and points southward. By 1800, the Trace was a single, well-defined road from Natchez to Nashville.
Most of the trace passed through the heart of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, a perilous wilderness inhabited only by members of those tribes, a handful of white stand operators, and gangs of roving outlaws. Among that latter group were the infamous Harpe Brothers, one of whom once tomahawked a fellow lodger for snoring too loudly – a crime with which many who have spent the night in a deer camp can appreciate. Little wonder that frontiersmen referred to the 500 mile footpath as “The Devil's Backbone.”
When steamboats came into common use in the 1830s, the Ohio and Kentucky boatmen quickly abandoned the Trace, no doubt preferring to spend part of their earnings on a riverboat ticket for home rather than to risk it all on the highwayman-infested Trace.
As it fell out of common use, the Trace quickly reverted to the broken series of smaller thoroughfares it had been before the coming of the white man. A few of these bits and pieces of what once was the Natchez Trace are still in use. In some areas, they survive as seldom-used, county roads. In other places (Highway 15, south of Pontotoc, for instance), they have been paved and incorporated into modern highway systems.
The present Natchez Trace National Parkway is not intended to follow the exact route of the original path. Rather, its purpose is to commemorate that road and the pioneers who traveled it. The Trace also leads through some beautiful and unique scenery. From the Loess Bluffs near Natchez, to the choppy hills and flatwoods of central and north Mississippi, to the rocky ridges and hollows of the Freedom Hills and the Highland Rim of the Tennessee River Valley, it is a drive worth making.
Now, when the leaves are off the trees, is also an excellent time to see the many lovely streams and rugged scenery abounding along the way – especially between Natchez and Jackson, around Kosciusko and French Camp, and from the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway on to Nashville. Keep an eye open for deer, turkeys, coyotes, and other birds and fur-bearers along the way. You almost certainly will see some of them.
There is much to experience along the Trace – museums, festivals, and bed-and-breakfast inns can be found in the many small towns the byway passes. By and large, it is a safe trip, too. No one has been tomahawked along the Trace now for a number of years now.
There is plenty of information on the Natchez Trace National Parkway on the web. Enjoy your trip.
James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website: www.canebrakes.com.
Copyright 2018 James T. McCafferty