The Old Natchez Trace

The Old Natchez Trace is a 440-mile forest trail that beings at Natchez, Mississippi and runs to Nashville. Native Americans created the first trail roughly along prehistoric animal trails and used it for hundreds of years before being used by Europeans and Americans in 18th and early 19th centuries. Portions of the old trail are accessible to history buffs, and it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

A number of prehistoric Native American towns, in what is now Mississippi, lined Natchez Trace, including the 2,000-year-old Pharr Mounds near Tupelo. In 1801 the U.S. Army began work on the Trace. Soldiers initially provided the labor, but then the government switched to civilian contractors. Wagons were allowed to travel the trace by 1809, and it was fully navigable with inns and trading posts established along the way.

Towns that started and grew along the trace include the old capital, Washington, Mississippi, Greenville and Port Gibson, Mississippi were also started and grew on the old trace. The Natchez Trace was critical in the War of 1812 as a way to move soldiers and supplies to New Orleans. Andrew Jackson traveled the Trace often.

Mississippi River steamboats superseded the Trace as a national road for moving goods and supplies. But, the Trace was still used by those living along it with large sections turned into to county roads that are still in use today by local residents.

A number of religious preachers started a circuit along the Trace at the turn of the 19th century and claimed they converted numerous Native Americans to Christianity. However, there was still a lot of highway robbery along the Trace, especially around a river landing called Natchez Under-The-Hill. Under-the-Hill was the seedy side of Natchez, and the settlement was full of gamblers, prostitutes, and drunks. Many of the troublemakers were rough and tumble Kentucky frontiersmen who operated river flatboats delivering cash goods to Natchez and then gambling in Natchez Under-the-Hill. They floated their boats down the Mississippi from Nashville and then walked or rode horseback on the Trace some 450 miles to Nashville. These people provided massive traffic for the Trace.

Meriwether Lewis, from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, died while traveling on the Trace. He was the governor of the Louisiana Territory and was traveling to Washington, D.C., from St. Louis. He rested overnight at Grinder’s Stand in October 1809 and was distraught and could have been abusing opium. Many think he killed himself with a gun at that location, but some claimed it wasn’t suicide. For instance, his mother thought he was murdered, and potential killers were named. Thomas Jefferson and William Clark believed he committed suicide, however.

Lewis was interred near the Grinder’s Stand inn and the State of Tennessee built a monument on that location in 1858. On the bicentennial of his death, a memorial service honoring Lewis was held as the last celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Bicentennial year. There is now a bronze bust of Lewis at his grave location.

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