Tennessee Mountain Stories

The Natchez Trace

This will be our final installment from Harry Lane’s Tennessee Memories. I sure hope you’ve enjoyed it as I have certainly loved sharing it with you.

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One of the most famous highways in U.S. history is the Natchez Trace, that extended from Nashville, Tennessee across the western part of the state, thence across the northwestern tip of Alabama and across the heart of Mississippi to a terminus at Natchez, on the Mississippi River.  The Natchez Trace was the oldest land route of significance in the Trans-Appalachian South.  Between 1785 and 1825, it was also the most heavily traveled road in the part of the South that lay west of the Appalachians.  Several other names were applied to the Trace at various times:  Government Road, Robinson Road, Nashville – Natchez Road.

The Natchez Trace began as an Indian trail (as did spo many American roads) of the Chickasaws and Choctaws.  White traders began to use the trail as they entered the area, and as boat traffic developed in the Cumberland – Ohio – Mississippi system, boatmen began to use the Trace for their return journey overland to Nashville, having gone downriver to New Orleans or Natchez.  Many of these travelers returned on foot, for horses were expensive:  one could cost a month’s pay for a river man.  In 1801, the federal government opened a mail route between Nashville and Natchez; a treaty was effected with the Chickasaws to keep them from molesting travelers on the Trace, and to provide ferries at river crossings.  Various improvements and protective arrangements sprang from these beginnings, and the Natchez Trace soon became the main overland thoroughfare between the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee Valleys on the north, and Natchez and New Orleans in the south.

Despite the importance of the Natchez Trace in the commerce of frontier Tennessee and nearby states, the route was not easy and it remained dangerous in places through its history.  Robbers were so troublesome on the Trace that at times, federal troops were dispatched there for the protection of travelers.

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, river-boating increased, as for a while, so did Natchez Trace traffic; but the advent of the steamboat on the Mississippi River about 1820, with its capability of upstream navigation, reduced the use of the Trace, and it ceased to exist within a few years.  IN 1937, a federal parkway was begun along the route of the Old Natchez Trace, and part of this historic road has been open to automobile traffic for most of the subsequent years.

One of the interesting but sad stories of the heyday of the Natchez Trace involves the famed American explorer, Merriweather Lewis.  This famous man gained lasting renown as one of the leaders of the Lewis-Clark Expedition to the Northwest, following the Louisiana Purchase.  A U.S. Army captain who was once President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary, Lewis was killed on the Trace in Tennessee, near present-day Hohenwald.  The county in which he was killed now bears his name.