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Natchez Trace

The Natchez Trace was a road winch ran, in the early days of our history, from Natchez, Mississippi, to Lexington, Kentucky, passing through Nashville, Tennessee, on its way. In a strict application of the term only that part of the road lying between Natchez and Nashville could be called the Natchez Trace, the northern half of the road from Nashville to Lexington having the name of the Tennessee Path.1

This road originated as did most of the roads of the pioneer period: it was first of all an Indian trail leading from village to village and, as such, formed a thoroughfare for occasional Indian war parties and for the more regular communication of trade that was by no means lacking among them. Between Natchez and Nashville lay the villages of the Choctaw Chickasaw nations and these two allied peoples used the road in common. The use made by the Indians of the northern half of the road was appreciably less and for reasons that are fairly obvious. There was some use made of it, however, and southern Indians went north and northern Indians went south over the entire course of the road. White travelers began to frequent the road after 1763 when the southwest passed, into British hands, and after the opening of the Mississippi in 1705 the road became one of the main traveled highways of the western country.

For the Natchez Trace owed it's Importance, as paradoxical as it may seem, to the Mississippi River, or rather to its commerce. The exports of the back country, all that country lying west of the Alleghanies, found a market in New Orleans and the highway thither was the Mississippi River and its tributaries. This down river trade to New Orleans is a part of our history too well known to need description here.2 There is 110 denying the volume of this trade or the interest taken in it by the western people. From January to July of each year the Ohio and Mississippi rivers thronged with the boats carrying the western produce to market. Barges, flat boats, keel boats, New Orleans boats and arks, all these and many more were pressed into service to carry the increasing commerce. It has been estimated that two thousand men were employed in this trade each season, some proprietors of the boats they "sailed'' on, and some laborers hired for the trip, and some professional boatmen who lived by their trade. These boatmen came from as many different regions as the cargoes did, but at New Orleans they were called Kentuckians, and the name was certainly not given as a compliment.

It is important to bear in mind that this river commerce was a one-way trade; before the coming of the steamboat there was no practicable method of up-river navigation. The consequence was that when the cargoes were sold at New Orleans, the boat had to be sold or else knocked apart and sold for lumber. As for the crew, it had to find its way back to the up-country the best way it could. There were two ways open for a return. If the crew was from Pennsylvania or the more northern tributaries of the Ohio, the easier and shorter way home was to take shipping to Baltimore or Philadelphia and then walk overland.3 But by far the more common way back north from New Orleans was by the Natchez Trace. It was a journey through the wilderness for a distance of more than eleven hundred miles and required forty or forty-five days to make the trip.

The boatmen returning from New Orleans generally organized themselves in informal groups of all sizes and composition. Fifteen or twenty was considered a view large company and as a rule the groups were much smaller, depending on the number of men ready at the time for the trip. It was a rare thing for a traveler to venture the journey alone. As for transportation, the boatmen, if they could afford it, bought at New Orleans or Natchez the Indian ponies that had been brought there for sale from Texas or New Mexico, and rode them home.4 These small roan ponies could be bought for fifty dollars each but when it is remembered that the ordinary pay of boatmen in those times was only sixty dollars a trip it will be seen why many of the crews walked back. Here at least they could justify the latter half of the boatman's proud boast that he was ''half alligator and half horse."' It is a matter of record that those who walked reached home generally about as soon as those who rode ; and if we can trust the testimony of a traveler who speaks with the fervor of personal experience not much more comfort was to be had in riding these Indian ponies than walking. Walking or riding, the boatmen always took the precaution before leaving Natchez to lay in a good stock of provisions for the trip, biscuit, flower, bacon, dried beef, rice, coffee and sugar.5 It was the custom also to take along for each man one pint of Indian corn roasted and ground to a powder; this was designed as an emergency ration in case of a delay on the road. One spoonful of this powder would enable a man to exist for a day without other food.6 To be sure provisions were to be had along the road at the Indian settlements and the plantations of the white pioneers, but there was a space of several hundred miles where no settlement of any sort was to be met with. When provisions could be obtained, they were not of a very appetizing nature, consisting for the most part of hard bread and cheese relieved occasionally by mush and milk and fried bacon. Whenever the travelers secured any food on the way, however, they were certain to pay an enormous price for it.7 Whatever else the boatmen might take along in the nature of food, there was one thing that they rarely forgot: an adequate amount of corn whisky or apple brandy.8 And not only was it necessary for the travelers to take thought of their food supply before leaving Natchez but they needed to provide themselves with suitable clothing. The journey was usually made during the summer months and so very little in the way of clothing was required: the regulation suit was one of brown overalls so coarse and thick that it would resist the action of the briers and thorns that beset the trail for much of the distance. The costume was completed by a pair of heavy shoes and any kind of a hat that the roving fancy of the boatman might select.9 Over his shoulders he slung his canteen of the capacity of two quarts and with a pair of pistols in holsters before him he might well feel himself equipped for the long journey. As for the horses, the boatmen always saw to it that they were fresh shod before leaving Natchez. Hobbles were invariably taken along for the double purpose of preventing them from straying at night and of keeping the Indians from stealing them. Corn was carried along for the horses notwithstanding the fact that they could be depended on to subsist on the wild grass along the way and were known to eat the bark of the trees with great relish.10

Thus equipped a party of boatmen could start out on the long Natchez Trace with a reasonable certainty of arriving at Nashville in fifteen or twenty days. If the party was on horseback there would generally be an extra horse taken along for every two or three persons and carrying nothing but baggage, tents and provisions and the not inconsiderable weight of silver dollars received at New Orleans in payment for their produce.11 For the first sixty miles the Trace ran roughly parallel to the Mississippi and through a country that was comparatively level. There were infrequent settlements along this part of the road and practically no danger from the Indians. The chief difficulty in travelling here was to be found in the 'dirty little creeks' that so often and so thoughtlessly crossed the Trace. These were often not fordable and as there were no, ferries or bridges the boatmen had to unload their horses of their baggage and make them swim across.12 Sixty-two miles from Natchez was the last white settlement on the road till Nashville was readied; this was Grindstone Ford over the Bayou Pierre. The remainder of the road was through Indian country and the boatmen kept a scout in advance about a quarter of a mile to observe signs of trouble. As a matter of fact, however, there was very little danger from Indians on the Trace unless they were met with when they were drunk. This was quite likely to occur, for both Chickasaw and Choctaw were inordinately fond of the flowing bowl and were in the habit of dedicating themselves to inebriety with a scientific fervor now quite lost to the world.13

Not far beyond Grindstone Ford lay the ''Forks of the Road". Here a trail ran off to the right to the Choctaw villages while the Trace bore to the left through the Chickasaw country. The "big town" of these Indians was a five days journey over a road that grew constantly worse every mile of the way. It was a ridge road, as Indian trails most always were, and followed along the divide between the Yazoo and the Tombigbee rivers.14 Briers and thorny bushes grew close to it on both sides making it necessary for the travelers to go in single file. Fallen trees were quite often found across the road so that progress was very slow; boatmen felt that they were making good time if they averaged thirty miles a day. If there were moonlight nights the party would be likely to do much of their travelling by night and stay in camp during the heat of the day. Abandoned Indian camps were numerous along the road and the boatmen tried to make their camps in these places whenever possible because they were generally open sites and situated near the water, a commodity which it was difficult to find anywhere along the Trace from Natchez to Nashville. If the party was fortunate enough to have tents, they slept under them; if not, they slept under the open sky with their saddles or perhaps their knapsacks for their pillows. Corn was fed to the horses, hobbles were put on them and they were turned loose for the night. The members of the party took turns in preparing the meals and also in standing watch, for though the Indians were not bloodthirsty they were experts at robbery. Scouts by day and watches by night were needed, however, not so much for protection against the Indians as against the outlaws of all colors who operated along the Trace. The most notorious of these outlaws was Samuel Mason, who carried on his depredation along the Natchez Trace from 1801-1803 after a particularly malodorous career on the Ohio River.15

Some thirty miles before the ''big town" of the Chickasaws was reached, the travelers on the Trace passed through a smaller settlement of the same people. It was made up of only three or four huts along a little creek at the foot of a hill with a little tobacco plantation behind them and some com fields surrounded by a bush fence. From this place on to the "big town' there were along the Trace many Indian plantations abandoned for the most part by the owners but with the orchards of peach trees and apple trees still standing. The ''big town" itself was the principal village of the Chickasaw.16 It was situated in a large open valley and consisted of the wood huts of the Indians straggling along both sides of the Trace. There were extensive cornfields around it as well as tobacco fields and the inevitable orchards of apples and peaches. Here the travelers could with confidence expect hospitality such as the Indians were able to give. More often than not, however, they would be more in need of food them-selves than able to supply other people with it.

Forty miles from the Chickasaw village the Trace crossed the Tennessee River. The river at this place was deep with a very rapid current and it was impossible to ford it. A ferry boat was operated here by a half breed named Colbert and if he was in a good humor he would ferry the travelers across charging them one dollar a head. Some indication of the amount of travel on the road is to be seen in the fact that Colbert had a steady income of two thousand dollars a year from his ferry boat alone. By the treaty that the United States made with the Chickasaws and Choctaws in 1801 the right of establishing ferries and taverns along the Trace was expressly reserved to the Indians, and this in practice meant the half breeds.17

The seventy-five miles of road between the Tennessee and Duck rivers ran through a country that was even more exasperating than that to the south of the river. When it ran along the ridges it was inconceivably rough and when it crossed the bottom lands it sometimes disappeared almost altogether in the swampy canebrakes. Sometimes the road bed would turn to thin mud so deep that the horses would have to swim through it. It was such places as these that Lorenzo Dow, once travelling over the Trace dubbed with true ministerial unction "hell holes."18 Every traveler over this section of the road bore fervid testimony to the strength and ambition of the mosquitoes. Duck River was fordable and once over it the Trace struck boldly into the mountains that made up most of the fifty nines to Nashville. Generally the travelers had to dismount at this stage and get along the best they could on foot through a sandy soil that played sad havoc with their feet if they had not been careful in their choice of shoes before leaving Natchez. Ten miles from Nashville the Trace crossed Harpeth River and the widening road as well as the tracks of cows and horses announced the nearness of a settlement. Five miles from Nashville lay the plantation of Mr. Joslin, the first house of a white man since Grindstone Ford was left five hundred miles behind.

At Nashville the parties of boatmen and other travelers generally broke up. The worst part of the road was behind them now and there was no longer any need of travelling together for the sake of protection: along the Kentucky trail nothing more fearful was to be met with than solitude. Some of the travelers would go off east on the Knoxville trail and very many others would want to linger for a while amid the metropolitan pleasures of Nashville after fifteen days exclusive communion with nature. For all these reasons the trail to Kentucky was quite generally travelled singly or in small groups; the preparation for the journey and the routine of travelling was much the same as on the southern section of the road.

The north bound traveler followed the road out of Nashville through Mansker's Lick, and stopped for his first night, if he could, at Major Sharpe's plantation twenty-nine miles from Nashville and just across the Kentucky line.19 For thirty-three miles after leaving Major Sharpe's the road ran through an uninhabited country till Big Barren River was reached. There was a ferry over this river operated by an Irishman named McFadden who was in the habit not only of setting the traveler across the river but also of providing, for a consideration, food and lodging overnight for man and "baste." North and south of this river lay the notorious "Barrens" of Kentucky concerning the desolation and danger of which every returning boatmen had doleful stories to tell. It was thinly populated, the house of McFadden being the only one for seventy-five miles on the road. There were no trees here as along the other sections of the road and the trail ran through grass that grew three or four feet high. Straggling bushes showed their heads above the grass, matted over quite often with wild grape vines. The Barrens derived its name from the absence of trees and every traveler had his own theory of why the Barrens were barren. As good as any, perhaps, is 'that of Michaux who thought that the Indians had cleared the land in order to tempt the buffaloes to come in and eat the grass. The chief objection to this theory is that it credits the Indian with some one hundred per cent greater aptitude for manual labor than he ever actually displayed. In March and April there were apt to be grass fires over the Barrens and these were real dangers to travelers on the road. In case they were caught in one of them there was nothing to do but start one of their own, exactly as the hero of the Prairie did.

Forty-three miles of travelling through such a country as this brought the traveler to Little Barren River where there was a single house occupied by the ferryman. Thence the road ran on in a northeast fashion across Green River and the Rolling Fork and finally came to Danville. If the boatmen were from Ohio they would in all probability follow the Maysville road to the Ohio River and thence home. At Danville, too, they could connect with the Wilderness Road. In any event, their journey through the southern wilderness was at an end when they reached central Kentucky.

The importance to Kentucky of the Natchez Trace lay in the fact that it was the favorite way home for the boatmen; returning from New Orleans and Natchez. Its value was the value of the New Orleans trade. From 1795 when the navigation of the Mississippi was opened, until the coming of the steamboat around 1812, was the period of its greatest prominence. Then it was the great highway of the west from south to north. It was over the Natchez Trace that within this period the western country drew in its supply of currency from the outside world, most of which it passed on in due season to Baltimore and Philadelphia. Some little commerce, there was southward over the road; Lexington sent to Tennessee by this route the surplus goods she received from the east but such a trade would never have justified the existence of the road. We find, however, Kentucky's interest in the road persisting far down in the century. In 1812 there is a resolution adopted by the Kentucky legislature instructing their senators and representatives to work for the opening of a connecting road from the trail at Duck River directly to New Orleans. In 1828 we have another resolution asking Congress to extend the National Road through Kentucky to connect with the Natchez Trace.20 Several acts of the legislature deal with the improvement of the Kentucky end of the road. It would seem that Muldrough's Hill was the stumbling block on the road for in 1821 the legislature appropriated $1000 for its improvement; ten years later a company is incorporated to build a road over the Hill; in 1839 the legislature solemnly closes the road at this point, it evidently having gotten beyond the reach of redemption.

For the more southern countries the Natchez Trace was not only a boatman's road but an immigrant road as well. Much of the immigration into the interior of Alabama and Mississippi found its way along this road. It was perhaps with an eye to this coming immigration as well as to the convenience of the boatmen that in 1801 Jefferson sent James Wilkinson, Benjamin Hawkins and Andrew Pickens as commissioners to negotiate with the Indians for the improving of the old trace through their lands. In two separate treaties the Indians were induced to cede the road provided they keep the ferries and tavern under their own control.21 The government more than once appropriated money to keep the road repaired but with very little effect. As was to be expected, it was along the Natchez Trace that the first settlements grew up in Mississippi and Tennessee. Some of the most prominent of these were Washington, six miles from Natchez and the old capital of Mississippi; Greenville, twenty-four miles from Natchez where Jefferson Davis went to school and Andrew Jackson plied his occupation as a Negro trader; Port Gibson at the old Grindstone Food and many another.22

In olden times it was somewhat the fashion for European tourists to extend their travels through the back country and to publish accounts of their wanderings. From these sources we have many accounts of the road and of the adventures to be met on it. It was the ambition, too, of every normal boy in the west in those early days to take a trip on a boat to New Orleans and then walk home over the Trace, and thousands of people made the journey for the adventure of it. Jefferson Davis came over it to Kentucky when he was a boy. Old Hickory led his army over it to Natchez in 1812 and led it back again. Lorenzo Dow travelled it many times from Lexington southward in his revival campaigns in the west and classified it as one of the trials of the adversary. Meriwether Lewis died on it as he was returning home from his western expedition and has his monument standing there now in the middle of a county named for himself.23 Last but by no means least the fast riding John Morgan rode up and down it throughout the Civil War.

But the glory of the Trace departed with the coming of the steamboat. There was no further need, now, for the boatmen or any others to walk or ride overland through the wilderness and the Barrens. The steamboat was a better and not less romantic way of traveling. And so although the old road continued to be used it disappeared from the western consciousness as an essential highway. Like many another old road it still exists in parts. In some places the modem macadam road has been built over its course; and often the Trace itself still winds through the forests and is in use every day by people who know nothing and care nothing for its history.

Footnotes:
1. For a consideration of the Natchez Trace from Natchez to Nashville see a Thesis Offered for the Degree of Master of Arts, University of Wisconsin, 1914, by R. G. Hall.
2. Transportation and Traffic on the Ohio and Mississippi before the Steamboat" in Mississippi Valley Historical Review. June, 1920.

3. These sea trips that the boatman made in returning home perhaps furnished the inspiration that eventually brought about the building of ocean going ships by the people along the Ohio and its tributaries.
4. Michaux, F. A. Travels to the West of the Alleghany Mountains, 1801-1803. Volume III of Thwaites' Early Western Travels.
5. Baily, Francis. Journal of a Tour in the Unsettled Parts of North America ill 1796 and 1797 by (London, 1856.) This is by far the best account of travel over the Natchez Trace in the early days.
6. ibid.
7. The American Pioneer (Cincinnati, 1842) I, No. IV. Ch. viii. At the crossing of the Tennessee River the half breed ferryman sold corn to the travelers at three dollars a bushel.
8. Ibid.
9. Baily, Journal of a Tour.
10. Mules were quite often used by the returning boatmen for the carrying of the luggage.
11. This money was commonly sewed up in raw hide bags and thrown in with the other baggage. Practically every returning party carried considerable sums of money back with them and the securing of this money was the particular purpose of the robbers along the path. For this reason it was always closely guarded when the party was encamped for the night.
12. Baily, Journal of a Tour.
13. Practically every traveler who went over the Trace had some story to tell of meetings with drunken Indians. The Indians had the customs of importing whisky at appointed times and calling the entire tribe together for huge drinking bouts.
14. Vivid descriptions of this road are to be found in Baily, Michaux and Lorenzo Dow.
15. The career of Samuel Mason and the other outlaws of the West is the theme of a book on the subject soon to be published by Otto A. Rothert, Secretary of the Filson Club of Louisville.
16. This Big Town was situated on the headwaters of the Tombigbee and trails Jed from it in every direction to Memphis, to Mobile, to Charleston. The last named was perhaps the most famous of all the Southern trails.
17. This Colbert was a descendant of the Scotchman who had joined the Chickasaw and had become a chief among them. He had left four sons, all of whom became chiefs. The romantic story of the Colbert's is told by Mrs. Dunbar Rowland. "Marking the Natchez Trace" in publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Vol. XI.
18. This eccentric missionary travelled the Natchez Trace and the other Southern Trails repeatedly in his revival campaigns and tells the story of his wanderings in The History of a Cosmopolite.
19. Andre Michaux. Travels into Kentucky, 1793-1796 in Thwaites* Early Western Travels.
20. Acts of the General Assembly of Kentucky.
21. American State Papers, Indian Affairs, I, 652 and 658.
22. Publication of the Mississippi Historical Society. XI.
23. Swain, John. "The Natchez Trace" in Everybody's Magazine, September, 1905.

AHGP Tennessee

Source: Tennessee Historical Magazine, Volume 7, The Tennessee Historical Society, 1921

 

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