Paths and roads that provide for the movement of people shape the development of civilizations, just as they are also products of that development. The Natchez Trace and Natchez Road influenced development of the American continent, and they were improved by historic events. Construction of bridges and other improvements on the Natchez Road began a few years prior to similar improvements on the National Road, often considered the first federal road in the U.S. The Natchez Trace Indian path is one of the oldest trails in North America, and the Natchez Road was one of the first federal roads. It may have been the first federal road improved by the U.S. government.
Animal Path to Human Path
Early humans often followed paths worn by animals through the forests. Some early nomadic peoples followed a number of paths between Central America and the northern North American continent, including one that became known as the “Natchez Trace.” Rock formations at Muscle Shoals made it one of the few places within hundreds of miles where the Tennessee River was shallow enough for people to cross it. Paths leading to the shoals became more prominent as larger numbers of people traveled them.
Unlike people today, early people chose paths that provided the best access to drinking water and to animals for food. The concept of time was less important to them. The early paths followed streams and meandered through valleys rather than following a direct line to get people quickly from one point to another. The path that became the Natchez Trace was up to 100 miles longer than the parkway today between the same terminus points, because of the circuitous route that it followed.
Human Path to Path to Nations
People eventually became less nomadic and clans or groups of people adopted areas as their home land. One group settled at the future city of Natchez and became known as the “Natchez Indians.” The Chickasaw and Choctaw people migrated from the West, divided their clans, and settled in the Mississippi area along the paths. Paths between their nations continued to remain important for hunting and trading.
The Chickasaws’ hunting area extended to what today is Kentucky, and Chickasaw hunting paths developed through Tennessee. Creek, Cherokee, Shawnee and Kickapoo people traveled through the area for hunting and trading, and some Creeks and Cherokees settled in the Muscle Shoals area.
European explorers on the American continent used portions of the path that became known as the “Natchez Trace.” Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto traveled from the Gulf Coast as far north as southern Tennessee. After De Soto’s troops gave Chickasaws the impression that he would attempt to conquer their land, they pushed his troops out of their land. De Soto was killed. Later, French explorers traveled on portions of the trace and established trading camps and fortresses. After French explorer D’Artaguette indicated an intent to conquer the Chickasaw land, the Chickasaws defeated D’Artaguette’s forces near the old trace. British settlers were welcomed to the area as they traveled on the old trace, because they indicated a desire to coexist with the Indians without taking their land. The Europeans introduced horses to the area, and some Indians began to travel on the trace by horseback.
Traders’ Path to Postal Route
The Chickasaws encouraged development of a primary path from their nation to the Cumberland Settlement in what is now Nashville to promote trade with the settlers and to encourage a partnership for defense. The Chickasaws traveled the trail to help the British and later the Americans defend their settlements in the upper Ohio River Valley. Chickasaw warriors and Tennessee militia later traveled the path together to defend each others homes. The northern half of the trace was known as “Piomingo’s Trace” (or “Mountain Leader’s Trace”) for the Chickasaw chief who reached out to the Cumberland Settlement to build a path for trade.
American settlers in the Ohio River Valley began to float their agricultural goods down the Mississippi River for sale in Natchez. In the days before the use of steam engines, the boats could not be floated north on the river, and boatmen began to walk and ride on the Natchez Trace back to their homes. Sometimes boatmen shared a horse, taking turns riding a portion of the trip and walking the remainder. The U.S. began a regular mail delivery from Nashville to Natchez along the trace in the 1790’s. Post Riders were expected to travel on horseback up to 50 miles a day and to make the journey in about 10 days. Special express riders carried mail up to 100 miles per day using prepositioned fresh riders and horses.
Foot Path and Horse Trail to Federal Wagon Road
In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson authorized the U.S. army to build a wagon road along the old trace. Wagon wheels required bridges to cross streams and causeways dug to drain wet areas. The army was to clear a path sixteen feet wide and to make the center eight feet smooth enough for wagon travel. The new road was to be built as one Natchez man said, “so that we may drive our chariots to wilderness.” A French visitor wrote that when the road was completed, travelers could ride in a carriage from Boston to New Orleans. An abandonment of construction after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 made that prediction seem too optimistic. Nevertheless, Choctaw Agent Silas Dinsmoor was able to travel on the road from Nashville to the Choctaw Agency just a hundred miles north of Natchez in a buggy in 1805. The army built ferry operations for travelers to cross the Duck River and Tennessee River. Inns were also built to accommodate travelers. The inns provided shelter, food, drink, supplies and often the services of a blacksmith. At first, the Indians reserved the right to operate the inns and ferries through their nations, though George Colbert said that the government requested that he “move to the highway” to operate the ferry. The Natchez Road was officially called the “Columbian Highway” and appeared under that name in early official documents; however, people who lived along the northern section continued to call it the “Natchez Road,” “Nashville to Natchez Road,” or “Old Natchez Trace Road.” Some people who lived along the southern section called it the “Natchez to Nashville Trace:”, the “Nashville Trace,” or the “Natchez Trace.”
The road accomplished its military mission during the War of 1812 as troops marched along it from the settled areas of Tennessee and Kentucky to the Gulf Coast. General Andrew Jackson used eleven baggage wagons to return sick soldiers from Natchez to Nashville in 1813. Over 5,000 Tennessee and Kentucky troops were ferried across the rivers at the end of the war, and oxen pulled their supply wagons.
The road also became a significant immigration route as settlers moved from Virginia, New York and other areas in the east to begin new lives in what would become the American South. So many settlers traveled the road in the early 1800′s looking for land that traffic at Gordon Ferry was described as a “land rush.” Immigration put pressure on the Indians to surrender even larger areas of land, until the 1820′s and 1830′s when the government insisted that the Indians be removed from their lands to new lands west of the Mississippi River. New towns were built along the road. In some towns, the Natchez Road served as a main street.
Federal Road to County Roads
The Natchez Road continued to develop. By the 1820’s, mail was carried on sections of the road in horse-drawn stages, which travelers could purchase tickets to ride. Mile markers were required to be placed along portions of the road, along with directional signs to the nearest towns. The road was used again for military purposes in the War for Mexican Independence and in the Civil War. However, with the introduction of steamboats on the Mississippi River and the construction of the Jackson Military Highway to the east, interstate traffic on the Natchez Road declined. As other roads connected to the Natchez Road, it lost its significance as a national road. Much of the old road continued to be used as county roads, which would eventually accommodate automobile traffic. Gordon Ferry, first constructed by the U.S. Army around 1802, continued in operation until it was replaced by a bridge in 1899.. Though much of the Natchez Trace Indian path and some portions of the military road were eventually abandoned, and can be seen along the parkway today, about 70% of the Natchez Road was still in use in 1940. Portions of the old trace, therefore, witnessed the evolution of transportation in North America from walking, to horseback riding, to wagon and carriage travel to the automobile.
Federal Road to Federal Parkway
In 1938, construction began on a federal parkway to commemorate both the Natchez Trace and Natchez Road, under the older name “Natchez Trace.” In the late 1800′s, that name began to be used generically for both the Indian path and the military road. It was determined that building a modern parkway over either old route would destroy the historical integrity of the resource; therefore, the compromise was to build a road to accommodate modern automobiles generally along the old routes. Rather than upgrading the old road, the parkway was to provide a means to connect visitors to many Natchez Trace historic sites along a scenic route. Though the parkway route more closely approximates the more direct route of the Natchez Road, it interprets the history of both, as the Natchez Road was a progression of the Natchez Trace.
The parkway has been given the distinction of an ”All American Road,” by the National Scenic Byways program of the U.S. Department of Transportation, certifying that visitors can experience unparalleled scenic beauty along the route. Because the parkway was not built directly over the Natchez Trace or Natchez Road, some historic sites related to the history of both are located just off the parkway. The Association is developing a listing of off-parkway historic Natchez Trace sites.
We will also continue to develop this section to tell the stories of the Natchez Trace and Natchez Road and the people who traveled them.