Exploring the trail of American history Roadway: The Natchez Trace Parkway, following a 200-year-old route, takes you on a 434.2-mile journey through times and cultures.

June 14, 1998|By Harry Shattuck | Harry Shattuck,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

As one progresses north at 50 mph - careful, not a smidgen faster - along the immaculately maintained Natchez Trace Parkway, beside densely wooded forests in southern Mississippi and over the rolling hills of Alabama and Tennessee, the primary sensation is serenity.

Could there possibly be a more soothing travel experience? And is there any wonder that this 434.2-mile, two-lane connection between Natchez, Miss., and Nashville, Tenn. - introducing an ever-changing panorama of scenic, recreational and cultural treasures - was selected as one of the first six All-American roadways by the Department of Transportation?

At milepost 350.5, etchings on a signpost in Tennessee describe the same basic route as it existed two centuries ago: "This early interstate road building venture produced a snake-infested, mosquito-beset, robber-haunted, Indian-pestered forest path. Lamented by the pious, cussed by the impious, it tried everyone's strength and patience."

Thus, a tale of two paths. And two eras.

No, a tale of many eras.

The stories all are woven together beautifully along the Natchez Trace Parkway, created by an Act of Congress on May 18, 1938, to roughly follow the route of the original trail; it is supervised by the National Parks Service.

Traverse the parkway today, pausing at any or all of more than 100 designated landmarks, and you'll witness a microcosm of American history - a saga, as assessed in the main Parks Service guide, "of human beings on the move; of the age-old need to get from one place to another; of Natchez, Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians following traditional lifeways; of French and Spanish settlers venturing into a new world; and of Americans building a new nation."

The forerunner of this two-lane parkway was a crude dirt path carved through the wilderness by buffalo and other wild animals and by the Choctaw and Chickasaw.

We know it today as the Old Trace, and 184 segments of varying length remain. Many intersect the parkway. Several sections, including one 24.5-mile trail near the northern terminus, are maintained by the Parks Service and accessible to hikers and/or equestrians. Two short segments in Tennessee are open to motorists.

Why is it called "trace"? It's a French word for "trek" or "track," signifying a line of footprints, and the footprints run deep here.

Evidence exists that one village beside the Old Trace was occupied by hunters as early as 8000 B.C. Artifacts recently recovered from the Pharr Indian Mounds in northern Mississippi may date to 100 A.D.

The real heyday of the Old Trace began when English-speaking settlers in Natchez revolted against Spain in 1781 and when the 1783 Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution, establishing the Mississippi River as the western boundary of the United States.

For the next 30 years, the Old Trace represented the most important thoroughfare from Natchez to Washington, and other points north.

During this period, thousands of boatmen floated merchandise down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers toward New Orleans. Though known as "Kaintucks," because many hailed from Kentucky, they came from Pennsylvania and Virginia and all over the fledgling nation.

Traveling south with the current was no problem. But returning ++ on the river was impossible. So the boatmen would not only unload the iron and flour and tobacco and other goods they had brought, but also tear apart their flatboats and sell the lumber.

The trace offered the most direct route home on foot or horseback from Natchez, situated along the river in southwest Mississippi. But the journey was fraught with danger: Travelers endured killer insects, swamps, floods and other natural adversaries; and when the trail became too water-logged to continue, they cut new paths through nearby woods.

Indians didn't take kindly to trespassers on their lands, and as word spread of individuals carrying huge sums of money obtained in exchange for goods, bandits known as highwaymen found new prey.

The U.S. government recognized the importance of the trace, however. In 1801, both the Chickasaw and Choctaw agreed to allow operation of a road through their lands. Additional clearance was ordered, and inns - called stands - were built to provide overnight shelter along the route.

Soon thousands more joined the boatmen on their journey. Some treks became legendary.

And while Andrew Jackson "took a little trip down the mighty Mississip" to fight the Battle of New Orleans, he returned to Nashville with his troops along the Old Trace, where he accrued the nickname "Old Hickory."

By the 1820s, steamboats were plying the rivers. These vessels were strong enough to overcome the current and make round trips, replacing the trace as the usual method of travel to the North.

But during the Civil War, the trace regained prominence and practicality as troops from both the Union and Confederacy marched along the old path.

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