Lesson Plan

America’s Earliest Highway: The Natchez Trace

The Birdsong Hollow Bridge, Near Milepost 438

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Grade Level:
High School: Ninth Grade through Twelfth Grade
Science,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.1, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.10
State Standards:
Mississippi State
8th grade: 1, 1b, 1f, 4, 4a, 4b
Secondary: 9th-12th: MS Studies: 1, 1a, 1e, 3a, 3e, 3f, 4, 4a
Local Culture: 1, 1a, 1b, 2, 2b, 3, 3b, 4, 4a, 4b
Local Resources Studies: 1, 1b, 1c, 3, 3b, 4, 4a, 4b
Additional Standards:
U.S. History 5-12: NSS-USH.5012.3
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.


Enduring Understanding: Both the physical characteristics and human inhabitants of regions change over time.
Essential Question: What are some essential engineering aspects that go into making a travel corridor more functional?


A historical narrative and four independent lesson activities including mapping, persuasive letter writing, research, and “bridge building” are provided to teach students about the physical evolution of the Natchez Trace. This lesson will teach about the history of the building of the road now known as the Natchez Trace Parkway. Four separate activities are provided, including plotting the Trace on a blank map, writing a letter, learning about engineering, and building a bridge with cards.

The students will:

1.) Be able to recognize the Natchez Trace as a road that began in Nashville, Tennessee, and ends in Natchez Mississippi

2.) Identify the how and why the Natchez Trace was improved, and concerns regarding the development of the Natchez Trace to the new nation

3.) Practice the art of civil engineering and test the building of a bridge over a road.

For the complete lesson plan, please email natr_education@nps.gov or call 1-800-305-7417. Please indicate whether or not you need an accessible lesson plan.



1.) Historical Narrative (5 Pages)

2.) Critical Load Student Worksheet #1

3.) Critical Load Student Worksheet #2

4.) Resources used for this lesson

5.) Map of Tennessee

6.) Map of Mississippi and Alabama

7.) Blank map of United States

8.) Bridge making materials

For Each Student:

1.) Playing cards

2.) 4 coins

For Each Team:

1.) 2 quart cardboard juice/mild container (base only)

2.) Objects to build weight of base from 4-10 pounds (ex: coins, marbles, sand)

Lesson Hook/Preview

It was a dirt trail under their feet, but it was one of America's earliest highways!



Student Task: The teacher will have the students read the Historic Narrative. The teacher will choose one or more activities for the students to complete.

Student Instruction:

Activity #1: On a blank map of the United States, the students will map the Natchez Trace from its beginning in Nashville, Tennessee, through northwest Alabama, and then terminating at Natchez, Mississippi. On the Samuel Lewis 1817 maps (no trace), the students will map the Natchez Trace from Natchez in the Mississippi Territory to Nashville, TN. The may overlap or trim the maps to make them join. The scale of the two maps may not be exact but will be fairly close.

Activity #2: Based on the information in this lesson, the student will write a letter to President James Monroe in 1816 regarding why the Natchez Trace should be improved. The student will cite reasons with bullet points. One bullet should address who should pay for the road - the U.S. government, the private American citizen, or the state of Mississippi and give reasons why.

Activity #3: While the Second U.S. Army unit did a great deal of work on the Natchez Trace, civil engineers generally design and build roads in the modern world. Learn more about the job of civil engineering by contacting a local civil engineer to talk with your class. Also, by contacting an archeologist or historian, your class can learn about roads and road-building in early American history!

Activity #4: Bridges or causeways were built along the Natchez Trace to support the weight of travelers over swamps or bodies of water. This activity focuses on issues civil engineers face, including critical load and how to reinforce the design of a structure to hold more weight. Students learn about how to test structures for maximum load by designing prototypes of bridges out of cards. Topics examined include problem solving, teamwork, and the engineering design process. Students work first individually to build a structure, and then combine materials in student teams to design the strongest structure, evaluate the load capacity and critical load, and discuss why the strongest design worked best.

1) Learn more about the structures of civil engineers by accessing these web sites:

  • Try Engineering: www.tryengineering.org (accessed June 2010).
  • Bryan Burg Cardstacker: www.cardstacker.com/index2.html (accessed June 2010).
  • Great Structures of the World: http://greatstructures.info (accessed June 2010).

2) Provide each student team with materials listed at the beginning of the lesson and ask them to devise a structure that will hold the most weight. They are to plan out their structure, and build a prototype for testing. Allow 10 minutes for planning and execution.

3) Instructor places weights on each team's prototype increasing the weight until the structure fails. Students chart the maximum load each prototype successfully held (the amount just prior to failure).

4) Each student group presents their vision for their design, and explains why they think their design did well or failed. Ask students how would they adjust the design if they could do it again?

5) Write an essay or a paragraph describing a recognizable building in your town. Include the history, interesting challenges to the building's engineering, and challenges that the engineers faced in design and construction.


human migration, early settlers, settlers, Old Trace, Natchez Trace, Old Southwest, Roads, engineering, critical load,

Additional Resources

Suggested Resources: http://memory.loc.gov to search the Library of Congress for historic photographs and documentation of engineering projects.

See attached resources document or main lesson plan.

Related Lessons or Education Materials

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Last updated: January 8, 2018