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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading


Explorers and Settlers
Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings


Location: Traverses the States of Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, from Natchez to Nashville; address, 2680 Natchez Trace Parkway, Tupelo, MS 38804-9715.

Early inland explorers and settlers in the Southeastern part of the present United States discovered a network of animal trails and Indian paths that formed a wilderness road between present Natchez and Nashville. During the 18th century, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Spaniards, and Americans used the road. French explorers, missionaries, soldiers, and traders called it a "trace" a French word for "trail." Shortly after arriving at the gulf coast in 1699, the French first explored the trace area; in 1716, they established Fort Rosalie at the site of Natchez. In 1763, the French ceded the region to the English, who occupied it until 1779. The English who used the trace mainly for the purpose of trading with the Natchez, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes, called it the "Path to the Choctaw Nation."

Natchez Trace Parkway
Scenic Natchez Trace Parkway generally follows the route of the old Natchez Trace. Indians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Englishmen, and Americans used the trace. For several centuries, it was an important trade route and emigrant road in the old Southwest.

At the end of the War for Independence, in 1783, Spain claimed the territory between the Mississippi and Chattahoochee Rivers, as far north as Memphis, as a reward for her wartime aid to the colonies. This territory included Natchez, at the southern end of the trace, which remained under Spanish control until it passed to the United States in 1798, though in the interim the population had remained predominantly English-speaking. The United States immediately organized the Mississippi Territory. At the northern end of the trace, beginning about 1780, American settlers were populating Nashville. Kentucky traders and other frontiersmen rafted their goods downriver to Natchez or New Orleans, but used the trace—which they sometimes called the Chickasaw Trace—returning home. Frequently, they brought back Spanish silver. By 1800, about 1,000 made the trip each year, and mail service was initiated along the trace.

From 1800 to 1820, the trace was the most traveled road in the old Southwest. Over it passed a variety of colorful frontier characters: Missionaries, boatmen, Indian hunting parties, mounted postmen, and U.S. soldiers. A vital economic and social artery, it bound the old Southwest to the rest of the Nation. It was used for frontier defense in the "cold war" with Spain, until she abandoned all claims to Florida in 1819, and became a valuable military and post road. At the beginning of the War of 1812, between the United States and England, Andrew Jackson and his Tennessee Militia used it to travel to Natchez and after the war returned over it in triumph.

Natchez Trace Parkway
Natchez Trace Parkway.

By 1820, the trace was no longer needed for frontier defense. Rivalries with Spain and England had ended, and the Indians were being forced westward. The new steamboat traffic robbed the trace of its trade. As Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee became more populous, sections were abandoned and others incorporated into local road systems. The trace lost its frontier character.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is still under construction and follows roughly—crossing, recrossing, and at times paralleling—the route of the old Natchez Trace. When completed, it will make possible a leisurely 450-mile drive through a protected zone of forest, meadow, and field that is rich in prehistoric and historic associations. Evidences of the aboriginal Indian inhabitants abound along the trace. Markers indicate historic sites, and interpretive exhibits point out their significance. The main visitor center is at Tupelo, Miss.

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005