a lot of things to a lot of people over as much as 2,000 years and counting. Native Americans used it first and longest. It much later became commercially important to our young nation as a haul road, then fell into disuse to be re-discovered and celebrated.
The Trace’s history goes back, way back. I read something a week or two ago about early settlers in the 1800s into some part of the U.S. and caught myself thinking, “they mean European settlers, right?”How do we seem to forget we weren’t the first peoples here? So it goes with The Natchez Trace — native Americans probably used this natural travel corridor in their migrations and buried their dead at places along the Trace like the Pharr Mounds, dating to over 2,000 years ago.
Early native American settlers (the real settlers) lived, farmed, and traded in this area 800 to 1,000 years ago, according to archeologists. The Choctaw, Chickamauga, and Natchez lived here and traipsed the paths of the Trace.
The old road was an important trade route from the early 1800s for farmers and other producers. They could load freight onto barges and follow the river’s current south to markets. They would follow the Trace home from Natchez north to as far as Nashville.
The mail carriers used the Trace too — President Thomas Jefferson in 1801 designated it as a national postal road. But by the mid-1880s steam-powered paddle boats were in use to haul cargo up the might Mississippi River. The paddle boats could make the trip far faster than oxen or horses drawing a wagon along the Natchez Trace.
The Natchez Trace became a cause célèbre after the September 1905 publication of an article by John Swain in Everybody’s Magazine. Swain wrote, “The Natchez Trace itself, even if it were not so picturesque and delightful in its whole length, has played so great a part in our country’s history that it by right demands attention and a visit from us.”
Swain’s magazine article awakened historical interest in certain circles, notably Daughters of the American Revolution. They successfully campaigned for legislation to restore and protect the Trace. Some years later President Roosevelt approved inclusion into the National Parks System in 1938. The National Park Service’s current brochure states the Parkway was “officially completed in 2005” and that it “commemorates the most significant highway of the Old Southwest.”
The Natchez Trace is 444 miles in length, from Natchez MS to Nashville TN. The Trace has six bicycle-only campgrounds, thirty-four picnic areas, thirty-six history exhibits, three Parkway campgrounds (no hook-ups) and at least nine more public campgrounds including state parks and Corps of Engineers.If you’ve driven parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway, driving this may seem very familiar. The road has no shoulders, the speed limit is a relaxing 50 mph, there are no billboards, no businesses are fronting the Parkway. The Natchez Trace Parkway is a scenic two-lane highway and is only for non-commercial uses. We had a big surprise soon after turning onto the Natchez Trace Parkway. We saw a tremendous amount of deadfall for perhaps ten or twelve miles along both sides of the Parkway. Trees were variously broken off ten to twenty feet above the ground or were uprooted and heaved over, roots and all. A sign explained, “Tornado damage April 2011”. Do you remember the tremendous tornadoes that assaulted Tuscaloosa AL just last year? They apparently traveled for miles up this Parkway, leaving an ugly autograph. We stopped awhile at the Visitor Center near mile 264 (north of Tupelo). They provided us a brochure and map, a long listing of campgrounds private and public, and helpful inside info about three nearby campgrounds we might try for tonight. Their recommendation was excellent — we chose Tishomingo State Park for the nice views around the lake. The state park is directly along side the Parkway, access is easy, and the sites are nicely laid out. Except for one detail — they missed on the elevations! Our pad, and apparently many others, drops off on three sides by a foot or more. There’s not room for anything but the trailer on the pad. Not a huge deal but you sure would hate to back up a little bit crooked and . . . fall off.
Another time we can survey the entire 444 miles from Nashville to Natchez for an enjoyable two weeks. This trip we are grateful to take in the scenic road, interesting historic markers along the way, and have an entire afternoon’s driving along at 50 mph without any zoomy trucks, without any stop signs or traffic signals, without any hurry. “Destination unknown” was just fine with us — we enjoyed the drive.