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[photo] The Natchez Trace Parkway goes through Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi
Photo from National Park Service digital archive

The importance of the Old Natchez Trace as a road of national significance cannot be overestimated. The existence of the trail, and its subsequent use by travelers during America's history, brought about the opening of the Western frontier. The Trace's use was a major factor contributing to the development of the nation's interior. The vast network of trails, which we now know as the Natchez Trace, was used by American Indians in prehistoric times, and later as a road of commerce between many American Indian nations. The Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto and his expedition force are believed to be the first Europeans to have used part of the Trace on their 1540 journey across the southeastern United States.

The French, traveling from their settlements in the St. Lawrence Valley, also used the Trace. Among the Frenchmen known to have traveled through Tennessee, probably via the Trace, were Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliett (1673), Robert Cavelier de la Salle (1682), Martin Chartier (1692) and Jean Couture (1696). The arrival of the English in the region strained relations with the French, and during the Revolutionary War both Loyalists and Rebels moved into eastern Tennessee. For the new United States, the Old Southwest, stretching from the Mississippi River on the west to present Georgia on the east to the present Kentucky-Tennessee border on the north, was faced with communication and transportation difficulties. The capital of the southern territory was Natchez and it was removed from the nearest outpost, Nashville, by 600 miles of American Indian territory.

Winthrop Sargent, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and the first governor of the Natchez District, attempted to solve the problem of insufficient communications between settlements by encouraging the use of the Trace for travel to Natchez. Communicating with Washington D.C., more than 1200 miles from Natchez, required a long and dangerous journey over the Trace to Nashville where the trail connected with the Wilderness Road. Those traveling southward from Nashville had the choice of riding or walking over the Trace or guiding wooden flatboats and barges over the waterways, but the return trip north always required following the Trace. Boatmen, itinerant preachers, slave traders, land speculators, gamblers and merchants all followed the trail, as did men who would later gain renown: Jim Bowie, Sam Houston, John J. Audubon, Andrew Jackson, Meriwether Lewis and Aaron Burr. The trail was designated the official U.S. mail route in 1800 and postriders were allowed two weeks to make the trip from Nashville to Natchez. Postriders continued to use the Trace for mail until almost 1830, in spite of competition from the steamboats introduced in 1820. Between 1801 and 1803 the Trace was cleared by Federal troops, and in the War of 1812 the Americans used the Trace returning from the defense of New Orleans in 1815. The Natchez Trace ceased to be the main highway leading to the riverport cities of Natchez and New Orleans after the introduction of the steamboat in 1820, when river travel replaced the use of the Old Natchez Trace.

Ross Barnet Reservoir Mississippi, Natchez Trace Parkway
National Park Service photo by Katherine Brock

Meriwether Lewis traveled the Natchez Trace during his final trip in 1809, when he was governor of the Louisiana Territory. Lewis opted against taking a sea route, for British ships were pressing Americans into the British Navy against their will to fight in the Napoleonic Wars--a course of action that led to the War of 1812. Packing the journals, which he did not want to fall into British hands, Lewis traveled the Natchez Trace, then the most heavily traveled road of the region. The party, consisting of Lewis, Major James Neelly, John Pernier, and Neelly's servant, reached the Chickasaw Agency, some six miles north of the present location of Houston, Mississippi, where Lewis asked Neelly, in the event that anything fatal were to occur to him, that the trunks with the expedition journals would be sent to "the President." Stephen Ambrose records in Undaunted Courage that "Neelly assumed Lewis meant Jefferson, not Madison," then the current President. On October 11, at Grinder's Inn, 72 miles short of Nashville, most historians believe that Lewis, suffering from depression and anxiety, shot himself in the head and died the following morning. Thomas Jefferson had much earlier noted Lewis's depressions, when he served as the President's secretary, and believed that they ran in the Lewis family. The Meriwether Lewis Monument and grave in Lewis County, Tennessee, are located about 100 yards from the site of Grinder's Inn. The Inn was located on the Old Trace, near the crossing of Little Swan Creek, and was said to border American Indian territory.

The Natchez Trace Parkway, administered by the National Park Service, follows an historic Indian trace, or trail, between Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi. Of the 444 miles of Parkway, 423 are completed. Meriwether Lewis's grave is in Meriwether Lewis Park, near where old Natchez Trace crosses Tennessee State Hwy. 20, on an upland ridge between the Tennessee and Duck rivers. For more information on travel, camping, lodging, activities, fees and permits visit the Natchez Trace Parkway website.

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