November 21, 2010

Natchez Trace National Parkway, Mississippi

Sunken Trace
The Natchez Trace National Parkway, is a 444-mile road that runs from Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS roughly paralleling the original Natchez Trace. The Natchez Trace was a trail that dates back thousands of years. Originally a trade and transportation route for Natchez and Choctaw Indians, it was later used by white settlers accessing the region in the mid-1700's and then became an important route for merchants and traders from the Ohio Valley selling their goods in New Orleans.

Loess Bluffs
The landscape in western Mississippi are of rolling hills of soft loess soils blown into the area during the last Ice Age. This has resulted in well-drained soils and was a suitable surface for walking without the water-logged swamps and marshes so prevalent on the other side of the Mississippi.

Without a rocky bedrock to reach into the creeks just flow over flat sand
The Trace saw maximum usage between 1790 and 1820. During this time, these traders would acquire goods from farmers and tradesmen in Kentucky and Ohio and then float their flatboats down the Mississippi to New Orleans or Natchez to sell the goods. Because this was prior to steam power, these boats could not go back upstream. So, they would simply sell their boats for lumber and then walk back home.

Sunken Trace from above
Now, when I say walk back, I mean they would walk 500 miles home! That was over a month at 15 miles per day! We're not talking Appalachian Trail hiking, with modern gore-tex boots and rainjackets. We're talking walking with crude and uncomfortable leather boots and getting rained on constantly. At night, it usually meant sleeping on the ground where venomous snakes and spiders lurked. You might be lucky to find an inn where they might get some corn mush and salt pork for dinner, but they were always under the constant assault of mosquitoes and at risk for getting malaria. They had little in the way of changes in clothes or socks, but with a year's worth of wages in their pockets, they were always hoping they would not be robbed on the way back.

Mount Locust Inn
To avoid the constant risk of trail robbers, the men would walk in packs up to 30 strong. But, don't sleep too late or you might find yourself walking alone. Nonetheless, injury and illness was always a risk and 2-3 out of 30 wouldn't survive the trek back. When I asked the park rangers what would happen to their money in such event, they didn't really know, but suspected sometimes people would agree to take it to their waiting families and sometimes they simply said "more for me".
The Trace as it reaches Mount Locust Inn
About 15 miles from Natchez, there was the Mount Locust Inn, built in 1790 which was the first of up to 50 inns they would encounter along the way. It is the only remaining structure on the Natchez Trace and one of the oldest buildings in Mississippi. The family who owned the land grew cotton, but when hundreds of men with pockets full of money started walking through their farm, they realized it would be profitable to turn their house into a hotel.  The cost to stay overnight and get a meal of corn mush and salted pork was 25 cents.

The National Park Service is restoring and painting the old inn
It is absolutely amazing when you think about what people did not-so-long ago to make a living and what we think of hardship today! This was a yearly ritual for many people and it was just what you had to do to survive. As an avid hiker, I am exhausted after one 15-mile hike and I won't even hike if the weather and conditions are not to my liking. Do you think I am going to hike if it is 90 degrees and humid? Rain? Heck no. Yet, these men did this day after day for over a month!!!! It makes me feel like such a wimp!

Speaking of wimp, I can't believe I let my own daughter strangle me!
She was a hunting velociraptor and I her "meat"
We drove about 42 miles up the Natchez Tace until we reached the Sunken Trace. This part of the trail goes across soft loess soils that are easily eroded. So, thousands of men and horses carved a ditch some 20 feet deep into the land. On the way back, we did several other stops, including the aforementioned Mount Locust Inn at mile 15, as well as the Bullen Creek at mile 18, Coles Creek at mile 17, Loess Bluffs at mile 12, and the Emerald Mound at mile 10.

At Bullen Creek, there is a short interpretive trail discussing the successional stages of the forest following its recovery once a farmer's field goes fallow
Emerald Mound is a must see! It is the second largest Indian Mound in the United States after Cahokia Mound in Illinois. We'd seen other mounds before, but nothing like this! These pictures can not do it justice. But, this mound is 8 acres across and 70 feet high! It was built basket-by-basket with dirt and would have taken something like 5 million man hours to make.

Climbing to the ceremonial mound, the high point of the complex
The flat platform you see there below the stairs is not the level ground, it is the top of the mound platform, some 40 feet above the surrounding landscape!
Linda and Hilina on top of the ceremonial mound above the main platform
This mound complex was built by the Mississippian peoples who dominated the area between 800-1400 AD. They were the predecessors of the Choctaw and Natchez people who were encountered by the French in the 1700's. In fact, the Natchez Tribe was the last mound building culture still in existance at the time of European encounters. I'll discuss the Grand Village of the Natchez in another post.

A view from the mound platform to the landscape below
Anyways, the Natchez Trace Parkway is definitely an interesting cross-section of history, in beautiful scenary and a relaxing drive to do. Being only a 2-lane road with a 50 mph speed limit and no cross-traffic, it is also an excellent route to bike ride and promoted as such. We saw lots of bike riders along the way and it contains numerous camping options for bikers.
The Crossroads

1 comment:

Randy Fought said...

Love your pictures taken along the southern section of the Natchez Trace Parkway. Hope you have the opportunity to travel the rest of the Trace.