Following the footsteps of mammoths, squirrels and Presidents. The Natchez Trace Parkway. By John Moran
It’s been said that before the Europeans showed up in America a squirrel could hop from tree to tree from Maine to East Texas. I’m not too sure how they got across the major rivers on the way, but as Dave Barry knows, squirrels are both brilliant and diabolical. All those great forests have been turned into boards, fuel, farms, house, cities and roads. Most of the magnificent old growth is gone forever. For the last 500-600 years the off spring of those mighty forest have attempted to carry on business of becoming an old growth forest again. Their efforts have been defeated at every turn by the ever- increasing demand for their timber and cleared land, to farm, subdivided, and expand the cities with our ever-increasing population.
Enter the Daughters of the American Revolution in the early 1900’s. They recognized that there was a strip of land that ran through the South that has been in almost continuous use for thousands of years. First by the great prehistoric beasts that wandered along this vague ridgeline that let them keep their feet dry as they migrated from the salt licks in Middle Tennessee to the Mighty Mississippi grazing lands long before the early paleo Indians showed up. About 12,000 years ago these paleo Indians and their descendants used this same ridgeline to keep their feet dry as they expanded their culture with trade and communications routes through the heart of the country to develop complex societies of Mississippi Era Mound Builders. That was until 1540 then this guy named Desoto (yup the car was named after him) ran into them. This encounter was pretty much the beginning of the end of the well-established life of the Native Americans who have been living in this area for about 12,000 years or more. In the vacuum left by these early tribes dying off and being killed the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez Tribes moved in. Fast forward to the early expansion U.S. to the west which brought conflict and cooperation with these Tribes. Expanded agriculture and manufacturing of the young U.S. needed the markets on the Western frontiers of the country in the 1800’s. Moving these goods down the great rivers of the Mid West provided the perfect highway to markets in Natchez and New Orleans. The only problem was, it was only a one-way highway. So, all these guys who had hauled their goods down river and turned a nice profit from selling their products and the wooden planks their boats were made of, had to find a way home. Thus, was born the “Old Natchez Trace.” A loose system of Indian trails wove through the forest to follow this ancient ridgeline that managed to miss most but not all the swamps, bogs, and creeks. With more and more use over the years this path became more formalized and less easy to lose in the vastness of the forests. The tromping of countless feet, wagons, and horses had cause the land to subside in some areas that left the travelers walking and riding a path 20-30 feet below the surrounding land.
With all this traffic on “The Trace” there were several people who recognized that this was an opportunity. About 50 “Stands” and trading post sprung up along the Trace to provide food, shelter, and supplies for the travelers on their 35-day 500 mile walk home. This 35-day stroll was no walk in the park. Even though most of the Trace ran along the ridgeline there will still heat, humidity, rain, wind, downed trees, mudholes, bogs, swamps, creeks, and rivers that they had to contend with. Not to mention snakes, ticks, mosquitoes, highwaymen, and unruly fellow travelers. Various treaties were made with the Native Tribes along the Trace to ease the passage and that worked well until the government decided they Tribes had to move to a new land called Oklahoma in 1830 on the “Trail of Tears.”
Around the 1820’s steamers started to show up on the rivers and alleviate most of the need to stomp back 500 miles. However, from 1830 to Civil War the Trace was used to march thousands of slaves from Maryland to Florida down to “The Forks in the Road” a slave market. It’s just outside Natchez and was used to provide slave labor to the plantations in Alabama and Mississippi. During the Civil War a few battles were fought near and along the Trace. After the Civil War the use of steam increased on the rivers and rails and the Natchez Trace started falling into obscurity as an identifiable path. It morphed into roads, farms, and some forest. Things were starting to look up for the squirrel with an urge to travel.
In 1903 Mrs. Elizabeth Jones of the Daughters of the American Revolution, got together with her sisters in the D.A.R. in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee to start a program of establishing monuments along the Old Natchez Trace. As the years passed their movement picked up steam that got local and National politicians involved. These politicians envisioned opportunities for their states to get Federal funds to build a road to provide lots of money and jobs for their states and enrich their campaign chest for decades to come and those of their followers. They didn’t want to spend a dime of State monies and the only way they could get the Feds to pay for it all was to have the National Park Service build it. In January of 1934 Representative Jeff Busby introduced a bill to provide $50,000 to survey a road named the “Natchez Trace Parkway” and latter that year a bill to provide $25,000,000 to build the road. The first bill passed the second went down in flames.
Busby and his supporters envisioned a road that would run in and out of the numerous small towns, that had few if any connecting roads, thus increasing the commerce and wealth of those small burgs. However, the survey of the “Old Natchez Trace” found that It was a meandering, everchanging pathway and much of it had been taken over by state and county roads. The reality of what was envisioned by the politicians and those from the NPS were in conflict. In clever use of semantics of “memorializing” the “Old Natchez Trace”, the Park Service worked out a route that would provide the least difficulties in construction, knit together various historic sites on the on the route, and still fit the Federal definition of “Parkway.” In 1938 a bill to fund building the Natchez Trace Parkway was passed by Congress allocating $1,286,866. Over the next 67 years funding kept trickling into the Parkway construction till it was finally completed in 2005. Despite the best efforts of the Politicians the Park Service built a road that is an artful compromise between where the actual “Old Natchez Trace” was and where the Parkway ended up. What they finished with is 442 miles long by 800’ wide section of road and surrounding land that weaves a rich tapestry of the history of the land and inhabitants for the last 12,000 years. Most of the Natchez Trace Parkway has a 50-mph speed limit, little traffic, few if any street lights, tasteful brown and white signs at various intersections, hand sculpted wooden signs denoting pull offs for various historic sites, buildings, and hikes. All on a very nice, fully paved, peaceful two-lane road. I have traveled all over the country on all manner or highways and byways have not had such a relaxing enjoyable drive in my life.
We took 25 days to travel the 442 miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway. We were faster than those who walked but slower than most of those who travel it now. We always camped with in 15 miles of the Trace and took the time to see the history of the area from the Mississippian Era Mound Builders, to local Music of the surrounding country, and everything in between. We stopped at the sites carefully knit together by the National Park Service to stay within the bounds of the definitions of “Parkway.” These sites encompassed the natural beauty of the area, historic sites and structures with lots of information, and the opportunity to hike several sections of the original Trace. To follow the foot steps the early Native Americans, Andrew Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, and thousands of “Kaintucks” walking back from Natchez to their homes in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee was amazing. But the real winners are the squirrels. They still can’t hop from tree to tree from Maine to East Texas, but they have 442 miles 800’ wide to get warmed up and wait.