Women of the Natchez Trace

Women have always played a tremendous role on the Natchez Trace Parkway. They lived and worked along the Old Trace. They saw its importance and wanted to see it preserved and protected forever. Also, there are the women who continue to preserve and protect it today for future generations to enjoy. Learn more about these women below!
 
Artwork depicting an older woman talking to three children, people travel behind her in horses and carriages.
A Chickasaw woman sharing the history of her people through storytelling

NPS Artwork, Artist Harlin

Before European introduction in the late 1500s, the primary users of the Old Trace were the American Indians that call this area their homelands: the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez. They used what would become the Natchez Trace as a trail to trade amongst themselves. All three of these tribes upheld a strong matrilineal kinship. This meant that they put heavy significance upon the females in their society. Instead of following their father’s bloodlines, like most of European descent, they followed their mother’s.

The Chickasaw and Choctaw, while two separate tribes, shared their ideals on linage. Both tribes trace their heritage through the mother’s line. This meant that children inherited from their mother, including the clan and family they belonged to. Woman managed their own resources and homes; a home was the women’s not the man’s. If separation occurred between spouses, the male would move out of her home and back with his family. Women were treated with respect and considered extremely important within society.

The Natchez people maintained a caste like system. The ruling class, the Suns, acquired their status through the female line. Interestingly, the nobility were required to marry outside of their class,a practice not done within most caste systems we know of.
 
The Old Trace was signed into a postal road by President John Adams. It became a popular place for stands, or inns,to populate along. These stands became safe havens with a place to rest and a meal to eat during the long journeyup or down the Old Trace. Many women worked at these stands, normally alongside their husbands.
 
A gravestone with the engraving "Paulina Ferguson BORN IN Brunswick Va. July 25,1768. DIED January 19, 1849 AGED 80Ys. 5Mo. 25Ds."
Paulina Ferguson Chamberlain’s gravestone located at milepost 15.5 in the Chamberlain family cemetery at Mount Locust.

NPS Photo, 2015

A formidable force along the Old Trace was Paulina “Polly” Chamberlain (1768-1847). Polly married William Ferguson in 1783, and together they purchased Mount Locust in 1784. The couple ran the farm and inn for travelers along the Old Trace and had 7 children. Ferguson passed away in 1801, leaving Polly to run the farm and inn as well as raise her surviving children. A year later she married James Chamberlain. By the time Chamberlain left in 1810, Polly was experienced at running the inn and now-plantation.

Polly was a landowner and businesswoman, who saw Mount Locust prosper under her guidance. Not a lot of women could do this in the early 1800s. She continued to reside and work the estate until 1847 when she die at the age of 80 years old. Polly was buried in the Chamberlain family cemetery.
 
Polly was not the only lady who ran her homeand business along the Old Trace. Up on the northern end, in Tennessee, there was Dolly Cross Gordon (1794-1859). Dolly, and her husband John, ran a trading post and ferry at their home. John Gordon was the leader of a scouting party for Andrew Jackson and named the “Captain of Spies". John was repeatedly called away at the request of Andrew Jackson, especially during the War of 1812. Dolly managed the family’s business dealings and oversaw the building of their brick home known today as Gordon House, which still stands at milepost 407.7.

John died soon after the war in 1819, leaving behind Dolly and their 11 children. Dolly worked the farm land with the help of her sons and enslaved people, producing cotton, cattle, and hogs. Dolly lived out the rest of her life at Gordon House, where she died in 1859. At the time of her death her son-in-law wrote,“She bore the burdens of their home, and was as brave and heroic as he (her husband) was”.
 
A brick wall stands in the woods
Only a brick wall remains today of the Elizabeth Female Academy, located at milepost 5.1

NPS Photo, 2003

From 1818-1845, Elizabeth Female Academy stood on the southern end of the Old Trace. It was the first female institution of higher learning charted by the state of Mississippi. It was one of the first institutions to offer college degrees to women in Mississippi and one of the first female colleges in the country. The Academy was named after Mrs. Elizabeth Roach Greenfield, who donated the land where the school stood. Study courses included natural philosophy, chemistry, Latin, botany, and classical subjects. For a short time in 1822, John James Audubon taught drawing there.

In 1825, the Academy experienced great success under the leadership of Caroline Thayer. Thayer had published articles on educational topics and took a great interest in educational theories and practices. Thayer’s methods attracted new students and saw an expansion of the buildings in the 1820s. Many sing her praises and all that she accomplished while charge of the school.

However, in 1845, it closed its doors. This was due to several reasons, but mostly due to the state capital changing from Natchez to Jackson. In the late 1870s, a fire reduced the site to ruins.

After the Civil War, the Old Trace laid forgotten in some areas. By the early 1900s, there was a push to preserve the Old Trace because of the tremendous amount of history the old road saw. This push was started by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), perhaps inspired by John Swan’s article in “Everybody’s Magazine” about the Old Trace.

In 1908, Elizabeth Jones, the Mississippi state regent for the DAR, started the movement to trace the route of the Old Trace and urged for the placement of monuments and markers to relate to the history. By 1933, every county the Old Trace passed through had a marker. This act gave great attention to the Old Trace, eventually leading to its designation as the Natchez Trace Parkway in 1938. You can see a lot of these markers along the Parkway today at various pull offs. Keep an eye peeled for them during your travels!
 
A woman stands in the forefront in a jacket in a field.
Roane Fleming Byrnes out exploring the Parkway

NPS Photo

Known as the ‘Queen of the Natchez Trace’, Roane Fleming Byrnes was instrumental in preserving the Old Trace and seeing it designated as a National Park Service site in 1938. Born in Natchez, MS, in 1890, Byrnes attended Stanton College. An aspiring writer of children’s stories, two of which were published, Byrnes also wrote several essays and speeches about racial harmony in the city of Natchez.

Byrnes invited national leaders to her home in Natchez, where she steered the conversation to the Natchez Trace Parkway. Guests were given a tour of her “war room” which had paintings of the complete Parkway and progress maps. The guests left fully committed to supporting the project. A friend commented that the Natchez Trace was paved with “Moonshine and meatloaf”.

In 1935, Byrnes became the president of the Natchez Trace Association, which she served on for twenty-five years. During that time, she spent countless hours writing letters and articles emphasizing the parkway’s importance. On November 9th, 1951, the first part of the Parkway opened, 65 miles from Jackson to Kosciusko. By 1968, Byrnes had traveled over 300 miles of completed Parkway.

Byrnes often said, “I want to ride on the Natchez Trace all the way before I have to ride on the golden streets”. However, the Parkway was not finished by the time of her death in 1970.

Explore More!
If you would like to learn more and find locations along the Natchez Trace Parkway where this history happened, check out our webpage Discovering Women's History on the Natchez Trace.
 

Women's Rights in Mississippi

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    Women's Marks on the Parkway

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      Last updated: June 21, 2022

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