Monday, January 14, 2008

Natchez Trace
Noah's note: I was born and raised within miles of where Meriwether Lewis died.

The Natchez Trace, a 440-mile-long path extending from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee, linked the Cumberland, the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. It was used extensively by Native Americans and early European explorers as both a trade and transit route in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Today, the trail has been commemorated with the 444-mile-long Natchez Trace Parkway which follows the approximate path of the trace. The trail itself has a long and rich history, filled with brave explorers, dastardly outlaws and daring settlers. Parts of the original trail are still accessible.

Origins of the Natchez Trace
Many early footpaths were created by the wanderings of bison, deer and other game. In the case of the Trace, bison travelled north to find salt licks in the Nashville area. After Native Americans first began to settle the land, they began to blaze the trail further, until it became a relatively (for the time) well-worn path traversable by horse in single-file.

The first recorded European Explorer to travel the Trace in its entirety was an unnamed Frenchman in 1742, who wrote of the trail and its "miserable conditions", though it may have been traveled in part before, particularly by famed Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. For early European explorers the assistance of Native Americans -- specifically, the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw— proved vital. These tribes had used the Trace for trade among themselves.

Development and Disappearance of the Trace
d Disappearance It was not until 1801, when the United States Armed Forces began blazing the trail for use as a postal route, that major work was performed on the Trace to prepare it as a thoroughfare for travelers. Treaties were signed with the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes, and work began. First it was done by soldiers reassigned from West Tennessee, and then later by civilian contract. By 1809, the trail was fully navigable by wagon. Critical to the success of the Trace as a trade route were the development of inns and trading posts, referred to at the time as "stands." For the most part, the stands developed southbound from the head of the trail in Nashville.

Many of the first settlements in Mississippi and Tennessee developed along the Natchez Trace. Some of the most prominent of these were Washington, the old capital of Mississippi; "old Greenville", where Andrew Jackson plied his occupation as a slave trader; and Port Gibson, among others.

By 1816, the continued development of both Memphis and Jackson's Military Road, a direct line to New Orleans, Louisiana from Nashville, began shifting trade both east and west. The Trace entered a steady decline. As as author William C. Davis writes in his book A Way Through the Wilderness, it was "a victim of its own success." It had highlighted the benefits of trade with the mouth of the Mississippi. Because of the improved ease of water-bound trade, particularly with the dawn of steamboat culture, the Trace became obsolete. In 1830, the Trace was officially abandoned as an official road. It began to disappear back into the wilderness.

Bushwhackers, Bibles, and Boats
Despite its brief lifespan, the Trace served an essential function in the years it was in existence. It was the only reliable and most expedient link between the goods of the North and the trading ports of Louisiana. This brought all sorts of people down the Trace: itinerant preachers, highwaymen and traders were just a few.

The circuit preachers were some of the most notable of the lot. Unlike its physical development, the "spiritual development" of the Trace started from the Natchez end and moved up. Several Methodist preachers began working a circuit along the Trace as early as 1800. By 1812 they claimed a membership of 1,067 Caucasians and 267 African-Americans.

The Methodists were soon joined in Natchez by other Protestant religions, including the Baptists and Presbyterians. The Presbyterians and their offshoot, the Cumberland Presbyterians, were more active than the Methodists or Baptists in procuring converts along the Trace itself. Converts were made among Native Americans, too. The Presbyterians started working from the south; the Cumberland Presbyterians worked from the north, as they had migrated into Tennessee from Kentucky.

As with much of the unsettled West, banditry freely occurred along the Trace. Much of it centered around Natchez Under-The-Hill, as compared with the tame sister of Natchez atop the river bluff (the current Natchez). Under-the-Hill, where Mississippi River steamboats docked, was a hotbed for gamblers, prostitutes and drunkenness. The rowdiest of them all were the Kaintucks, the wild frontiersmen from upriver who came in on the steamboats and flatboats loaded with goods. They left the goods in Natchez in exchange for pockets full of cash, and summarily treated Natchez Under-the-Hill as what could be generously called an early 1800s Las Vegas, Nevada or Amsterdam.

Still worse dangers lurked in the wilderness outside the city boundaries on the Trace itself. Highwaymen such as John Murrell and Samuel Mason terrorized travelers along the road. They operated large gangs of organized brigands in one of the first examples of land-based American organized crime.

The Mystery of Meriwether Lewis
Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition fame, met his mysterious end while traveling on the Trace. Lewis had stopped at Grinder's Stand near current-day Hohenwald, Tennessee for rest. Extremely depressed by the state of his financial affairs (he was deeply in debt), he became drunk as he had many times during the trip. He asked the owner of the stand for gunpowder. Intimidated by his behavior, she gave it to him. A few hours later, two shots rang out in the night -- Lewis had apparently shot himself twice (highly improbable, given the difficulty of [re]loading muzzle-loading firearms, especially after being wounded), once in the head and once in the chest. He lived until the next morning.

His death went unquestioned as a suicide for many years. As time passed, more details and questions emerged -- had he also been stabbed? Had one of his rivals, particularly Robert Grinder, owner of the stand, killed and robbed him? Or was it a more politically motivated killing, an assassination against the governor of the Louisiana Territory?

In 1996 James E. Starr, a professor at George Washington University, attempted to procure permission to exhume Lewis' remains for study, to put the mystery to rest. Although his efforts were supported by several researchers and 160 descendants of Lewis, the National Park Service (NPS), which oversees the grave site in Hohenwald, denied permission. A court later ruled that the exhumation was justified, but the NPS has successfully resisted pressure to exhume Lewis.

Today, Grinder's Stand and the city of Hohenwald lie in Lewis County, Tennessee.