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4. Natchez Trace Prehistoric Highway

The Natchez Trace is the oldest man-made feature in all of Williamson County.TraceMap-LgDetail

Really, it has been here longer than humans.

It was originally a game trail, that bison, deer and other animals broke to get to distant salt licks near Nashville. Native Americans, realizing its use as a hunting trail, developed it further and began using it for trade also.

In the early 19th century, after the Lousiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson sent men to turn it into one of the first-ever national roads. He wanted to connect the rest of the country to its new “south west.”

It spurred the development of the surrounding areas, and brought everything from circuit preachers to highway bandits.

That development led to the Trace losing its importance. As Memphis grew to the west and Andrew Jackson’s Military Road straight-south of Nashville grew to the east, the Trace suffered. It still stayed important as a road for locals, but its use as access to the Mississippi river and its ports ended.

The Story

The Natchez Trace, or Old Natchez Trace, stretches about 440 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville. Its original importance to Americans was its linking of the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers.

Today the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway roughly follows its path, as does the Natchez Trace Trail. Parts of the original Trace are still accessible and some are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It follows a ridgeline. That feature made it the easiest place for prehistoric animals to forge a dry path to far away grazing lands, like the salt licks of central Tennessee or the Mississippi River.

Naturally, when Native Americans realized what it was, and more importantly the game that used it, they began hunting along it and improving it as an accessible trail.

Later the well-established path became a conduit for trade and travel among Native Americans. There are documented Indian mounds in Williamson County and all along the Trace. One of the most well known are the 2000-year old Pharr Mounds near Tupelo. The Choctaw and Chickasaw used the Trace, as did many tribes of the Mississippian culture.

Enter Westerners

As the American frontier expanded, westerners began heading, well, west. Early Caucasian explorers saw the same advantages in the Trace that the Indians did.

The Lousiana Purchase and Thomas Jefferson brought change to the Trace.

Jefferson wanted to connect the Mississippi frontier with the rest of the country. He set out to create a postal road that would connect Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road- which had its southern terminus at Nashville- to the Mississippi River. Treaties were signed with the Chickasaw and Choctow, and the U.S. Army entered the area and began preparing a route along the Trace.

The “Columbian Highway” as it was officially named, or the “Devil’s Backbone” as it came to be called, was open to wagon traffic by 1809. It was remote, rough and rife with danger. And it took two to three weeks to traverse. But it opened up the area to settlement. Washington, Mississippe. Greenville, Mississippi, Port Gibson Mississippi. None would have existed without the road.

But by 1817, Memphis- on the Mississippi- and Jackson’s Military Road provided more direct routes to New Orelans, the most important port in the south, and probably the country (except for possibly New York).

Furthermore, steamboats- with the power to go upstream- moved traffic from land to water, and away from the Trace.

It continued to be used locally, but the glory days of the Trace were past.

As the centuries past, parts of it began to be named state parks, to preserve the memory of what once was.

Today, the Natchez Trace Parkway follows much of the path of the Trace. It is maintained by the National Park Service and has the locally-famous Natchez Trace Bridge at its northern terminus.

 

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