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.