The Natchez Trace was a series of ancient paths that connected the Lower Mississippi River Valley to the Cumberland River Basin. The trail predates human occupation of the areas and may have been started by bison and other large animals that followed a small ridge that led to salt licks along the Cumberland River. One of the earliest sites of human occupation along the Natchez Trace is found in the Bear Creek Village site, which dates to about 8000 BC. Other evidence of human occupation can be seen along the Old Trace in the form of mounds. During the Woodland (2000 BC to AD 1000) and Mississippian (AD 900 to 1700) periods, Mound Builders occupied the area and constructed burial and ceremonial mounds that remain visible today.
The first Europeans to see any part of the Natchez Trace were Hernando de Soto and his band of explorers. They camped during the winter of 1540–41 among the Chickasaw, along the Natchez Trace in what is now Mississippi. More than a century passed before the next European encounter occurred. In 1682 French explorers led by La Salle sailed into the region via the Mississippi River. A decade later, British traders from the Carolinas were trading with the Chickasaw. For the next century England, France, and Spain allied and competed with the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and each other to colonize the region known as the Old Southwest. The trail was known by a number of names, including the Chickasaw Trace, the Choctaw Trace, and the Nashville Road. (Trace is the French word for “track.”)
In 1783 a new contender sought control of the Natchez Trace—the United States. The years from the 1780s to the 1820s, known as the boatmen period, saw the heaviest use of and fastest change along the path. Owners of agricultural products, livestock, coal, and other materials from the Ohio River Valley shipped their goods down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers on flatboats and keelboats to the port cities of Natchez and New Orleans. The sailors who accompanied the goods were known as “Kaintuck” boatmen. Once the goods were sold, the boat itself was often sold for the lumber it contained, and the boatmen traveled home overland by the Natchez Trace.
By the boatmen period the Natchez Trace did not simply connect the Lower Mississippi River to salt licks. Instead, it had become a five-hundred-mile series of trails that connected Natchez to Nashville, Tennessee, and could be traversed by horseback in three to four weeks. Established roads from Nashville connected the boatmen back to their homes to the northeast. Near the end of the boatmen period, the name Natchez Trace became popular.
Traveling the Natchez Trace during this period was dangerous. Outlaws quickly learned that boatmen carried large sums of money as they traveled through the wilderness, and horses and weapons were highly sought after by the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other boatmen. Traveling in groups provided an effective defense against some of these dangers, but crossing the Tennessee River and other waterways was treacherous for all travelers. Though the threat of robbery was real, some stories of bandits on the Old Trace were embellished through oral history and literature. Stories about Sam Mason and the Harp brothers, for example, took on mythic qualities over the years.
Beginning in 1800 significant changes took place along the Natchez Trace. That year, the federal government designated it a National Post Road. Soon thereafter, Pres. Thomas Jefferson, seeing the importance of improving the defense of the Mississippi Territory and newly acquired Louisiana, began widening the Trace. Also during this time, with permission from the Choctaw and Chickasaw, small and primitive “stands” were established to provide basic food and shelter for travelers.
During the War of 1812. Gen. Andrew Jackson used the Natchez Trace to march some of his troops to and from the January 1815 Battle of New Orleans. By this time, though, the future of the Natchez Trace was in jeopardy. Steamboats began to appear on the Mississippi in the 1810s and by the following decade offered boatmen safer and quicker passage back north. In addition, other federal roads siphoned traffic off the Natchez Trace, and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians were removed to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma during the 1830s. By this time much of the Natchez Trace was abandoned. Though some local communities adopted sections of the Trace into more modern road systems, others were left to nature. The National Park Service has preserved numerous portions of the old Natchez Trace as part of the Natchez Trace Parkway.
- Timothy Davis et al., Paving the Way: A Bibliography of the Modern Natchez Trace Parkway (1999)
- William C. Davis, A Way through the Wilderness: The Natchez Trace and the Civilization of the Southern Frontier (1995)
- Natchez Trace Parkway, National Park Service website, www.nps.gov/natr/
- Dawson A. Phelps, Tennessee Historical Quarterly (September 1962)