1801 - THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE
Nashville was the edge of the American frontier in 1801. Only 22 years earlier, the Donelson party had landed on the banks of the Cumberland River and built Fort Nashborough as the first settlement. American settlers were not allowed to move south of Nashville beyond the Duck River — that land belonged to the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee tribes. The cities of New Orleans and Natchez about 500 miles south were growing in Spanish and French territory. Both countries threatened to claim more territory in America and planted spies in areas that had contact with Americans. President Thomas Jefferson understood the importance of contact with those cities, as they controlled access to the Mississippi River. He negotiated a treaty with the Native Americans to build a federal road from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi, along a series of existing trails between the Indian Nations. The Natchez Trace as a major national road was born. The trails are some of the oldest in North America.
Ohio Valley farmers, such as Abraham Lincoln's father, traveled north on the Trace after floating goods to market in Natchez or New Orleans. The Natchez Trace had little or no law enforcement, and travelers carrying money attracted ruthless highway-men. These bandits hid in caves and coves along the route, robbing travelers at gunpoint and knifepoint. Some highwaymen learned to disguise themselves as gentlemen to win the trust of travelers before robbing them. Outlaws such as the Harpe brothers, Samuel Mason and John Murrell, struck terror just at the mention of their names. The Natchez Trace earned the name “Devil’s Backbone. ”Travelers needed shelter to sleep and to eat. The Native Americans kept the right to operate taverns and inns known as stands along the Trace, often as partners with American settlers. The inns were spaced about 20 miles apart, or about the distance slow travelers would travel in a day’s journey. The buildings were often rough log cabins with few rooms. Several travelers slept on the floor or shared a bed made of straw or feather ticking. After seeing the accommodations, some preferred to sleep outside. Where the Trace crossed the deep Duck River, John Gordon operated a ferry to transport travelers across the river and a trading post to sell them supplies for their trip. A sandbar in the Buffalo River allowed travelers to cross in shallow water.
1801-1830 - COMMUNITIES ON THE CORRIDOR
Nashville’s Trace is the story of the people who traveled south on the Trace from Nashville, taking with them a piece of Nashville’s culture as they formed towns in what would become the Mid-South. When an 1806 treaty with the Chickasaw opened up settlement south of the Duck River, the South saw a land rush similar to the famous Oklahoma land rush of the late 1800s. The people who flooded down the Trace to settle southern Tennessee and the Mississippi Territory (Mississippi and Alabama) created the central portion of the South. As these settlers traveled together in groups down the road for protection, the Trace bound them together as neighbors and communities. Many of the small towns you can visit along the Trace today began as settlements connected to the Trace. One of the most famous travelers of the Trace was Meriwether Lewis, captain of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Making his way back to Washington, D.C., he died at Grinder’s Stand near Hohenwald in 1809. The void in established authority produced strong heroes such as Andrew Jackson.
Jackson traveled the Trace often and even took his new bride Rachel down the Trace on their honeymoon. During the War of 1812, Jackson marched a group of volunteer soldiers down the Natchez Trace to defeat the British in the Battle of New Orleans. Most of Jackson’s volunteer soldiers came from the state of Tennessee. Because of their quick willingness to volunteer for military service, Tennessee has since been known as the “Volunteer State.” Jackson was later elected the 7th President of the United States. Jackson played a role in increasing the significance of the Trace and he inadvertently caused its decline. Jackson proposed the construction of a new road several miles east of the Trace in 1815, creating a shorter and improved route between Nashville and Natchez.
Around the same time, the invention of the steamboat allowed boatmen to ride home on a boat rather than walk or ride up the Trace. Between 1820 and 1830, the original Trace lost significance as a national road, but much of it continued to be used by local communities and remains in use in Tennessee today.
1861-1865 - FARMS & FIGHTING
Nashville grew to become the leading economic power in the Upper South by the mid-1800s. Towns south of Nashville such as Franklin, Spring Hill and Columbia developed strong agricultural industries from the phosphate-rich soil and slave labor. Antebellum mansions in those communities showed the wealth that was flowing into the Nashville area from the plantation system. Slave ownership fueled strong Confederacy support during the Civil War of the early 1860s and the Old Trace provided important supply routes for Confederate and Union soldiers alike. A detachment of Confederate General Hood’s forces even tore down a portion of the fence around Meriwether Lewis’ grave to convert the iron to horseshoes. When the Civil War ended, Nashville’s economy revealed the devastation the Civil War had brought to the South. The isolation following the war actually helped preserve the early Tennessee culture, which became ingrained over several generations and can still be seen in the small communities.
1930 to today - TODAY’S TRACE
Though Franklin D. Roosevelt approved construction in 1938, the Natchez Trace Parkway as we know it was built over many years as federal funding became available. Today’s Trace follows loosely along the original network of trails stretching from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi. Finally completed in 2005, the route is preserved and operated by the National Park Service. The Trace holds the designation of being both a National Scenic Byway and an All American Road, based on its scenic qualities and historic significance. Each year, millions of hikers, cyclists, horseback riders, families, motorcyclists, tourists, and folks simply out for a drive enjoy these 444 miles. Though the colorful characters that once frequented the old wagon trails are long gone, the forest-fringed highway is a reminder of what was once known as America’s Southwest. Southern culture emerged here, as settlers turned fresh produce and home-cured meats into what we now know as “Southern cookin’.” American music played on dulcimers and banjos sprang from the hills and valleys and found its way to the town squares on Saturday nights, and eventually made its way to Nashville for the world to hear. The hospitality and friendliness the Trace’s early residents showed their neighbors and all those traveling the Trace are now Southern trademarks.