Winding through historic countryside that has witnessed many years of human settlement, the Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile drive from Natchez, Mississippi to just a few miles south of Nashville, Tennessee. The parkway is a trip through fine scenery and 10,000 years of human history on the Old Trace, which was used by American Indians, “Kaintucks,” settlers, and others who played a role in American history. Today, visitors can learn about America’s first inhabitants and the founding and settlement of this country through the people and places of the Natchez Trace and also enjoy hiking, biking, horseback riding, and camping.
American Indians settled along animal trails they followed through the forest. The original Natchez Trace connected the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez tribes. Europeans mapped the trace as early as the 1730s. A narrow ribbon winding along ridgelines through wooded and open areas, the trace connected neighboring villages with each other and with communities further away. As European settlements grew, the role of the trace changed as it became a major north-south trade route. In the 1800s, traders and merchants began to look for opportunities to sell their goods and services to those living on the frontier of the new United States.
The Natchez Trace was part of an expanding Euro-American trade network that served States such as Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Traders called Kaintucks transported agricultural products, coal, and livestock down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from the north to the south. When they reached New Orleans or Natchez, they sold the boats that carried the goods for lumber. The Kaintucks then walked or rode back approximately 500 miles on the Natchez Trace to Nashville and on to other cities north. At its peak, more than 10,000 Kaintucks traveled the Natchez Trace annually. By foot, the trip took roughly 35 days.
Crossing lands sometimes called the “Old Southwest,” the Natchez Trace cut through the historic homelands of the Chickasaw and Choctaw. The Chickasaw remained on their homeland until the 1830s when a treaty with the U.S. government forced them to move west--along with Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. Approximately 5,000 Chickasaw endured a forced march west to Oklahoma along a series of trails they named the "Trail of Tears" for the hundreds who died during the march. The Choctaw also walked west as part of this migration, though some have returned to the area. Forced to abandon their homelands for white settlements, thousands of American Indians traveled and perished along the Trail of Tears, which is included in this travel itinerary.
The ancestors of today’s American Indians first arrived in the area of the Natchez Trace around 12,000 years ago. Between 2100 years ago and the 1700s, these first peoples constructed mounds. The earliest mounds were burial mounds; later mounds were temple sites or possibly the residences of important persons. Built by the complex societies of the Mississippi area, these mounds were part of a network of settlements throughout the region. Diseases introduced by Europeans in the 1500s wiped out much of the indigenous population, thus ending the mound-building tradition.
The first mound-builders lived between 100 B.C. and 200 A.D., which archeologists call the Middle Woodland period. Peoples of this time were primarily semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers. Mounds from this period tended to be the burial places of prominent tribal members. The later mound-builders lived between 1000 and 1700 A.D. Unlike earlier mounds, which had rounded domes, the mounds these people constructed were flat earth platforms. The society of these later mound-builders was significantly more socially complex.
When Europeans arrived, they found the mounds and the trails of these first peoples. These ancient routes formed the beginnings of the Natchez Trace. What had once been the paths of animals and hunting trails soon became a major long-distance trade route until new technology, like the steamboat in the 1820s, made the long journey by foot unnecessary.
Today, the parkway offers many opportunities to explore the history, culture, and peoples of the Old Southwest. Miles are measured from zero, beginning at Natchez. Between Natchez and Jackson at mile marker 10.3, visitors can view Emerald Mound, a very large temple mound. Boyd Mounds Site is at mile marker 106.9, Bynum Mound and Village Site at 232.4, Bynum Mound and Village Site at 232.4, Pharr Mounds at 286.7, and Bear Creek Mound and Village Site at mile marker 303.8. The Tupelo Visitor Center provides information on these sites.
Also between Natchez and Jackson, Mount Locust at mile marker 15.5 is the last of approximately 50 inns (also known as “stands”) that once dotted the roadside between Natchez and Nashville. Visitors can walk the grounds of the property, see the house, and tour the graveyard of the family that operated the inn and their slaves. The property is open seasonally, with guided tours available. At mile marker 41.5, visitors can walk along a short trail on the old Trace and view a rut worn into the soil by the steady trampling of thousands of feet.
Between Jackson and Tupelo, visitors can explore the natural setting of the trail at sites like Ross Barnett Reservoir (105.6) or Cypress Swamp (122.0). The Bynum Mounds site encompasses two restored mounds and interpretive exhibits on the earliest residents of the area. The Chickasaw Village Site (261.8) is a recreated village. This site also provides access to the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. The main visitor center at Tupelo( 266.0) offers an orientation film and exhibits highlighting the natural and cultural history of the parkway. From Tupelo, through Alabama, to Tennessee, visitors can walk along the original Trace (Old Trace, (269.4) or visit Pharr Mounds, (286.7). At the mound site, wayside exhibits describe the lively village life of the site 2,000 years ago. A seasonal visitor center is at the former landing site of the Colbert Ferry (327.3). A bridge now crosses the Tennessee River at this spot.
In Tennessee, visitors can stop at the gravesite of Meriwether Lewis, who, with William Clark, led the first United States expedition (1804–1806) to the Pacific Coast. Lewis died under mysterious circumstances near mile 385.9. A reconstructed cabin at the site is similar in style to the inn where Lewis was staying when he died. The site also has a campground, picnic area, and hiking trails. The Tobacco Farm and Old Trace Drive (401.4) interpret the cultivation and curing of tobacco, an important agricultural crop that continues to support the South. Visitors may also drive along the original Trace route (southbound only).
Natchez Trace Parkway, a unit of the National Park System, runs from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN. The main park visitor center is located at 2680 Natchez Trace Parkway in Tupelo, MS. The Emerald Mound Site, part of the Natchez Trace Parkway, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Approximately two dozen sites along the Parkway have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. There is no fee to visit sites along the Parkway. The main visitor center is open from 8:00am to 5:00pm daily, except for December 25. For more information, visit the National Park Service Natchez Trace Parkwaywebsite or call 1-800-305-7417.
The Parkway has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Engineering Record. Natchez Trace Parkway is also featured in the National Park Service Indian Mounds of Mississippi Travel Itinerary. The Natchez Trace is an All-American Road and a National Scenic Trail. Locations along the parkway are also part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.