Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Natchez Trace

The Natchez Trace (a word that means trail or road in French) was originally a network of Native American trails. By the late 1700's when the United States was just beginning to expand into the area along the southern Mississippi, what became the Natchez Trace developed in prominence. It was designated as our first National Highway by Thomas Jefferson.

You can read the story about the Trace on Wikipedia or you can read my condensed version here.

The Trace ran from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN, thus joining the lower Mississippi with Daniel Boone's Wilderness Road that ended in Nashville. Its original use was by boatmen and entrepreneurs who built flat bottom boats on the Ohio River, loaded them with goods, and floated them down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Natchez where they sold the goods and the lumber from the boats. At the time, Natchez was the most important city on the Mississippi. They then had no choice but to walk back north. Steamboats had not yet been invented, so there was no way to go up river by boat.

The trip from Natchez to Nashville was about 450 miles through wilderness and Indian Country. Eventually some very hardy individuals built and operated "stands" about a day's walk apart. So every 15 miles or so there would be a small cabin where the travelers could stop for the night and get a meal. The trip took about a month to complete.

The Trace was in use for only about 30 to 40 years. During that time it was very important, both as a route for commerce, and in later years as a postal route when the US was attempting to lay the claim to the lands in what was then the west. When the steamboat was developed, it eliminated the need for the Trace. It fell into disrepair and might have disappeared from history if not for the Mississippi chapter of the DAR which took on the project of restoring the Trace in about 1930. They sold their idea to the government and in 1938 the Natchez Trace became a unit of the National Park Service. The road was finally completed in 2005.

The Natchez Trace is essentially a 444 mile long National Park. They have done as much as possible to follow the route of the original trace, and to give the feel of the wilderness. If you have ever driven on roads in National Parks, you know what this looks like. There are no billboards, power lines, fences or other signs of civilization; at least to the the greatest extent possible. There are no stop signs from beginning to end, and the road crosses over or under all major highways. Many small roads do intersect with the Trace, but the Trace always has the right of way, and all access to the Trace is through ramps that camouflage the other road as much as possible.

The road itself is in excellent condition. The speed limit is 50 MPH, and we saw only very few people driving over 55. There are a lot of motorcycles on the Trace, so we were right at home. We started from Tupelo since it is approximately in the middle of the Trace. We used the trunk on the back of our scooter as our "suitcase" and filled the underseat storage with cold weather and rain gear. Unfortunately, our delay in getting the trailer painted meant that the weather was not nearly as nice as we had hoped for. We encountered no rain, but it sure was cold. With snowmobile suits and our heaviest insulated gear, we managed, and left on our adventure on Wednesday.

We first went south towards Natchez. It was only in the upper 40's as we left, and the sun came out for only brief periods throughout the day. There are exhibits, nature trails, signs and things to see every few miles, and we stopped at just about every one of them. We saw cypress swamps, hardwood forests, remnants of the old Trace, Indian burial mounds, sites of treaties, Indian villages, boundaries, geological formations, sites of old stands, and ferries. Below is a photo I took in one of the cypress swamps near Jackson, and a picture of Dianna standing in the old trace with her cold weather gear on.

It was getting late, and we were getting saddle sore by the time we reached Jackson, MS, so we stopped for the night. The next morning we continued on south toward Natchez, about 80 miles away. The entire trip from Tupelo was mostly over flat land. The elevation did not change more than 200 feet from beginning to end. About 15 miles north of Natchez we stopped at the only restored stand on the Trace. It was also one of the most luxurious due to its proximity to Natchez. It also served as a working plantation, and it was owned by the original family until the 1940's when it was taken over by the National Park Service. It has been restored to its 1810 appearance, and approximately 25 percent of it is original.

We then continued into Natchez where we visited the "Under Hill" area. It is where the steamboats tied up. Natchez itself is located on the highest bluffs anywhere along the lower Mississippi, which was the reason it was settled in the first place. We then toured the Natchez Visitor Center, and finally we toured Melrose, a plantation that was built in 1841.

By now it was late in the day, so we spent the night at a Day's Inn. It was somewhat unusual in that not only was breakfast included, but also dinner. They served red beans and sausage over rice, with cornbread. I thought it was pretty good. Dianna does not like sausage so she was not as impressed as I was.

The next day, Friday, we rode all the way back to our trailer in Tupelo. Since we didn't have to stop many places, it took a lot less time getting home. Saturday we rested, did laundry, and prepared for the trip toward the northern end of the Trace.

It wasn't quite as cold on Sunday, but we were still bundled up. As we rode north the terrain began to change, and there were fewer leaves on the trees, although beautiful fall colors were on display everywhere. Again we stopped at all the exhibits, overlooks and falls, tobacco farms, ferries, fords, Indian mounds and other sites to see. As we neared Nashville we got into much more mountainous country, but the Trace followed mostly along the ridge tops, which provided great views.

Near the northern end of the trace, yet still well into the wilderness, is the burial place of Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. He died there under "mysterious circumstances" at one of the stands while traveling the Trace in 1809, three years after returning from the famous expedition. By then Jefferson had appointed him as the Governor of Northern Louisiana. He was only 35 years old.

We continued on to the end of the Trace and found ourselves in a major city, Nashville, with Interstate highways and lots of traffic. I had used Travelocity's "secret hotel" feature to find a place to stay. It was described as a 4 star hotel for only $59. It turned out to be the Sheraton Music City, and it indeed was a very nice place. We paid less than half the normal rate. We had a nice dinner at the hotel after soaking our aching bones in their hot tub. By the way, our dinner cost a lot more than the hotel room.

Monday we headed back. We retraced our route across Nashville to the start of the Trace, then south for about 40 miles until we turned off toward Columbia, TN. It was the home of President James Knox Polk, also a relative of Dianna's. We toured the house his parents built, which is now a museum that contains most of the artifacts of his presidency. He did live in the home for a short time, but it was his parents home. It is the only house he lived in that is still in existence, except for the White House.

The video and tour lasted quite a while, so it was getting late by the time we had something to eat and left Columbia. We rode south to Lawrenceburg, where Davy Crockett lived from 1817 to 1821. He served as a state representative while living there, but had moved further west when elected to congress. Of course, he died at the Alamo in 1836.

From there we continued west to the Trace again, and then south to Tupelo, arriving about 6:30 last night. It was well past dark by then since DST is no longer in effect, and we are near the eastern edge of the central time zone. We were happy to be home, but we have great memories of our adventure. We rode just about 1,000 miles in total, saw some great scenery, and learned a lot of history. Next year, maybe the Blue Ridge Parkway.


  1. Finally, blogs--and well worth waiting for. I'm so glad that you are able to visit so much of our great land; what a variety of scenery.
    It seemed as though I was traveling with you. I'm not surprised that you write such great articles; just another of my five talented offspring. Thanks very much.

  2. I knew nothing of any of this. Thanks for the history lesson!