The Natchez Parkway is a quiet (at least when we were on it) stretch of pristine roadway that stretches from Natchez, Miss., up the state through Jackson and Tupelo, then traverses through the northwest corner of Alabama before coming to an end in Nashville, Tenn., some 444 miles later. Without a billboard in sight, it passes through low-lying marshes, cypress swamps, forests, agriculture fields, and pastoral pastures of grazing animals. While it has been a real treat to drive along segments of this beautiful parkway at several places during our travels here in Mississippi, the interesting part of this story is how this corridor came to be.
One needs to go back centuries to find the beginnings of what is referred to as the Old Trace. [Trace means ‘path’ or ‘road’.] The Trace as we know it today began not as a single trail, but a weaving of animal and Indian paths following the quickest and easiest way through the land. Ancient Indians had the same transportation and communication needs as we do today, and over the centuries they followed the Old Trace pathways to get to where they were going.
Native cultures flourished in this region prior to European colonization. The Natchez, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other American Indians had their homes here when the Europeans came. Of special interest to us, Spanish Conquistador Hernando de Soto, whom I wrote about in a previous blog (De Soto National Memorial), made contact with the Chickasaw near the Old Trace back in 1540. Brute that de Soto was, he demanded Chickasaw slaves, but the tribe refused and attacked de Soto and his army, forcing them to flee.
Fast-forward 240 years to the late 1700s, when pioneer homesteaders were crossing the Appalachian Mountains into the Old Southwest to settle the Mississippi River Valley and points further westward. The Old Trace was most heavily used between 1785-1830. Farmers from the Ohio Valley River, called Kaintucks, built flat-bottom boats and floated them down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, carrying goods to be traded in the southern markets of Natchez and New Orleans. When their goods were sold, these Kaintucks broke apart their boats and sold the logs, then used the Old Trace to return to their homes back up north on foot.
In 1800, The Old Trace was designated as a federal post road, making mail delivery between Washington, D.C., and Natchez and the Old Southwest much faster. During the War of 1812, the Old Trace was a vital link for getting U.S. troops into position, and then back home again after the war. During these busy years, simple way stations, or "stands," were built to aid travelers on the move during this time when the Old Trace was most heavily used. Slaves often traveled the Old Trace with their owners between Natchez and Nashville. Outlaws and bandits, too, used the Old Trace, but for bad; they targeted and robbed travelers of the money they made from selling their goods at the southern markets.
Over time, other roads were built to connect bigger cities, and these were faster and safer for traveling. Then with the advent of the steamship, the Kaintucks could return to their northern homes much more quickly. By 1830, the Old Trace path was virtually abandoned.
In 1905, the Mississippi Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) wanted to preserve the slowly dying out Trace, for they recognized its value as a cultural treasure. As they set out to gain support, a Mississippi congressman proposed a road as a way to give tribute to the original Natchez Trace. Established as the Natchez Trace Parkway in 1938, and administered by the National Park Service, it was, once again, the magnificent work of the CCC who labored to build the long stretches of this two-lane road. The markers and monuments that the D.A.R. began placing along the Trace some 80 years ago are still in place today, and they identify significant features like ancient Indian burial mounds and villages, the gravesite of explorer Meriwether Lewis who died here in 1809, and beautiful picnic areas, waterfalls, and other natural elements on either side of the roadway – all the way from the southern Appalachian foothills of Tennessee to the bluffs of the lower Mississippi River.
In 1991, the Federal Government started the National Scenic Byways Program to recognize roadways with outstanding scenic views and valuable historic, cultural, natural, recreational, and archeological significance, and the Natchez Trace Parkway received this designation. The Parkway was mostly completed in the 20th century, but two gaps remained. Finally in 2005, money was appropriated to complete these two segments, and with that, this scenic roadway was finished. Grateful are we, and so, too, the other 7,500,000 people who annually drive along this old corridor with the exceptional views, that so many before us worked to preserve this national treasure.
Many sections of the original footpath are visible today, and the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, a separate national park unit, features 65 miles of the Old Trace trail. It is open for hiking, and in some places horseback riding.