The Natchez Trace was originally an animal trail. Bison and other animals would travel from the Mississippi River up through the area following a geologic ridgeline to the salt licks in present day Tennessee.
When the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes found these trails, the continued to use them and did, in fact, widen the trail so that horseback riders could follow the trail single file. Members of these tribes used the trails to trade with one another during peaceful periods.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson sought a means to counter the French influence along the Mississippi and established a post route that followed the trail. Post riders complained about the dangers along the trail and in 1801, the US Army was commissioned to widen the trail for almost a 450-mile stretch. Stands were established where travellers could eat, rest and stop for the evening. These inns and trading routes were critical to the success of the Natchez Trace. Some of these "stands" evolved into thriving communities. Later, some of these communities vanished. By 1809, the trail was fully navigable.
The Natchez Trace was used by many. Trappers and farmers would build or purchase flatboats to go down the Ohio, Cumberland and Mississippi Rivers laden with their produce or pelts. Once they arrived at Natchez, they would sell their products and either sell the boat, sell the lumber or abandon the boat, as it was difficult to return the boat against the river's flow. Then these men would forge their way home along the Natchez Trace.
Because many of these people had sold something and had money to return with, another means of living also thrived. Highwaymen abounded. John Murrell and Samuel Mason set up what is rightly called the first wave of "organized crime" in the US on land. Travel was dangerous and many lost their lives without a trace, having their bodies consumed by the swampy areas along the Natchez Trace.
Another type of frequent traveller along the Trace is the minister. There were many preachers who made their way along the Natchez Trace to convert Tribal Members as well as offer comfort for other travellers. The circuit preachers began at the south end of the trail and worked their way north, unlike the development of the Trace, which started at Nashville and worked its way south.
Some of the communities which sprung up as a result of the Natchez Trace are Washington, which was the old capital of Mississippi; Old Greenville, where Andrew Jackson plied his slave trade; and Port Gibson. By 1818, there were 50 Stands between Nashville and Natchez. Many of these were run by both Indians and whites.
Some communities failed after the Natchez Trace era came to an end. Rocky Springs was a thriving rural community which built up along the Natchez Trace. In 1860, the town had more than 2600 members. However, a small pox epidemic killed most of the residents and the town is little more than a memory today.
Meriweather Lewis, of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, died while serving as the Governor of Louisiana at Grinder's Stand (near present day Hohenwald, Tennessee). He had stopped there for the night. During the night, two shots were heard, and the next day he died. A memorial is built near the site. Even today, there is much curiosity about how he met his untimely death at the age of 35. It is not known if it was murder or suicide.
In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the National Park Service to restore portions of the Natchez Trace. They have restored some of the "stands" and created walkways and other means to teach travellers about the history of the Natchez Trace. Seven segments of the Natchez Trace are listed on the National Register of Historic Places under the name Old Natchez Trace. In Mississippi, the name is also followed by a second place identifier.
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