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The Natchez Trace

by Adam Miller

The Old Natchez Trace, which runs from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN, is a truly ancient North American Route. Large hoofed animals beat down game trails during their migrations from the grazing lands in the south to the salt licks of Tennessee. Over time, they found the most straightforward trajectory, which follows the ridgelines, avoiding low-lying, swampy ground and repeated climbs and descents. Although this orientation is efficient, it can also be monotonous, as a rider of this brovet may observe, but then again we can only speculate as to how much these ungulates enjoy a good view or two.

Native American peoples followed these game trails and blazed their own. Evidence of Native American use of the trace includes the Pharr Mounds near Tupelo, MS, which were built during the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E., and the Emerald Mound, ten miles from Natchez, which was built circa 1250 C.E.

The first recorded European encounter with the trace was in the mid-18th century. Later, in the early days of the United States, developing a way south from Nashville became a priority for the young nation. Daniel Boone had already marked out the Wilderness Road (more of a trail than a road) from Ft. Chiswell, VA through the Cumberland Gap to Nashville. In 1801, to establish a road for mail to travel from Nashville to Natchez, Thomas Jefferson directed the Army to begin building the Natchez Trace, which he dubbed “the Columbian Highway.” As early as 1809, wagons could navigate the entire length of the trace.

The trace was vitally important to trade in the American south in the era before steamboats enabled river travel upstream as well as downstream. The trail connected Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN, and linked the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers. “Kaintucks”—men from Kentucky and from other parts of the Ohio River valley—would transport goods on flatboats, floating down the Mississippi to Natchez or New Orleans and returning home by way of the Natchez Trace.

One estimate was that 2,000 men each year floated downriver and returned via the Natchez Trace on foot or on horseback. Another estimate has 10,000 Kaintucks traveling the Natchez Trace in 1810 alone.

By horse, Nashville could be reached in 15 to 20 days, and ponies could be purchased for 50 dollars in New Orleans or Natchez. However, this price was beyond the reach of the average boatman, who would receive only about 60 dollars for each trip down the river. Though they may have undertaken the journey on foot through necessity rather than by choice, the hardy Kaintucks boasted of being “half alligator and half horse.”

Buying a pony for the return journey was not the only way that a boatman could spend the better part of his wages: Natchez-Under-the-Hill was the river port and market for Natchez, and it was here that boatmen could spend their wages after the long journey downriver. It became notorious as a harbor for drinking, gambling, and prostitution. Echoing the riotous past of Natchez-Under-the-Hill, a visitor to present-day Natchez can discover on the banks of the Mississippi the Magnolia Bluffs Casino, “a riverfront 24-hour gaming facility.” The casino opened in 2012, in a historic building that housed a sawmill from 1828 to 1962.

As travel along the trace increased, inns (called “stands”) were built to provide travelers with food and lodging. Mount Locust, which was built in 1780, lies 15 miles from Natchez, and is the only remaining original stand. The Chamberlain family lived in the house and owned the surrounding plantation, preserving it from the neglect that enveloped the rest of the stands along the Natchez Trace.

Like the canals, which were vitally important to American commerce until they were rapidly eclipsed by railroads, the Natchez Trace faded into obscurity when steamboats came into widespread use. It was no longer necessary as a national road, and commercial activity had gravitated towards Memphis and Nashville. Use of the road remained local and sporadic until the Great Depression.

As evidence of its desuetude, an entire town of historical significance faded in parallel with the trace. Greenville, named after Gen. Nathaniel Greene, was the county seat of Jefferson County until 1825. Andrew Jackson briefly lived in Greenville, working as a slave trader.11While his fame and leadership abilities can be attributed to his military career, Jackson’s wealth came principally from trafficking in human beings. Later in life, at the Hermitage, his plantation near Nashville, he held as many as 150 slaves.  In 1825, the seat of Jefferson County was moved to Fayette (a few miles east of the Natchez Trace Parkway, on U.S. 61). No longer serving as the county seat, Greenville quickly declined, its buildings either moved to other places or simply left to rot.

This neglect made the trace ideal for a scenic road, since development in the vicinity was minimal. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps began construction of the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway, which generally follows the route of the Old Natchez Trace.

NATCHEZ, MS

Natchez, MS marks the point on the Mississippi where bringing goods upriver became easier on land than on water.
We had lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant.
It was extremely odd and not very good.

DAY ONE

Natchez to Jackson

This picture is, more or less, your view for the next 250 miles. We arbitrarily started at mile maker eight, but you should start back in Natchez.
Emerald Mound is the second-largest Pre-Columbian earthwork in the US.
The ceremonial site covers eight acres, and is 35 feet tall.
Nancy, the park ranger at Mount Locust, says 'y'all' around 150 times per minute. She is also a cat lady, and recommended breakfast at the Kiwanis in French Camp.
Port Gibson, MS. It's hot and muggy and spirits are mostly low. The Shell station has Perrier, though.
Kelli's hip is in bad shape.
Corndoggin' near the Sunken Trace, a preserved section of the Natchez Trace that was deeply eroded. (Side Note: no riding took place on the Trace.)
Kelli was forced to bail here. Cole ate shit. Hahn discovered that his rear rotor wasn't screwed in. Oops!
Climbing trees is Corndoggin' 101.
Slooooow miles. The Owens Creek Waterfall, allegedly around milepost 50, wasn't there, it was just a ledge above an empty swimming hole that a tree apparently jumped into. Cole tried to poop, but couldn't find a good spot. Then it got dark.
Cole exhibiting "side eye."
Note taken at 1:47 AM: "Mississippi highwaymen are in the woods. #dangeralongthetrace"
Hahn Rossman, Jackson, MS. 2:34 AM.
Moi Medina, Jackson, MS. 2:35 AM.
We stopped at the only late-night eating option within 1,402 miles, IHOP, in Jackson, MS. It was Friday night and the clientele at 2:30 AM was comprised mostly of Jackson State students in various states of intoxication. The staff appeared to be comprised of a inmate work release program from a nearby women's penitentiary, given the police escort serving some sort of administrative role. Side Note: the police escort knew about us because another cop had radioed to the rest of the force about the cyclists riding along the Trace in the dark.

DAY TWO

Sunrise at Ross R Barnett Reservoir. It is advisable to sleep on the soft, quiet and lovely grassy shore a few miles up the road from Jackson instead of a rocky median outside of an IHOP next to an active street racing festival.
A demonstration of the "Hobo Slap." Approaching 18 hours of full heat/humidity immersion, a swim is recommended for both mental health and overall hygiene.
The Cypress Swamp, at milepost 122.0, is a stand of water tupelo and cypress trees growing out of standing water. Alternatively, it is a breeding zone for science fiction mosquitos and flies.
#dead #youwinsomeyoulosesome
Shirts vs. Skins. Skins win.
The Station Cafe in Thomastown, MS (turn left on 429 and go up the road a few hundred meters) is cash only! But really cheap, and pretty good. Also, too bad, because take a look at a map and survey your options in the area (there are none).
Milepost 204–212 are notable for the large amount of tornado damage sustained in 2011. This is essentially the only break in the beautiful/monotonous green-walled highway for 250 miles from Natchez.
This is where everyone except Hahn Rossman bailed. Hahn Rossman did not bail. It was still exceedingly hot and uncomfortable to be alive outside.
Waiting for Hahn in a probably-contaminated river. Hahn appreciated the applause.
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