Friday, January 9, 2009

Natchez Trace
My place of birth was near Grinder's Stand where Meriwether Lewis died. Natchez Trace Parkway is a beautiful drive. The best time to travel on this scenic site is late October when all the tree leaves are in rainbow colors.

The Natchez Trace, a 440-mile-long path extending from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee, linked the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. It was a traditional Native American trail and was later also used by early European explorers as both a trade and transit route in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Today, the trail has been commemorated by 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
Largely following a geologic ridgeline, prehistoric animals followed the dry ground between the salt licks of central Tennessee to grazing lands southward and the Mississippi River. Native Americans used many early footpaths created by the foraging of bison, deer and other large game, who could break paths through undergrowth. In the case of the Trace, bison traveled 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. Early European explorers depended on the assistance of Native Americans—specifically, the Choctaw and Chickasaw. These tribes and others, collectively known as Mississippian, had long used the Trace for trade between themselves.

Development and Disappearance of the Trace
By 1800 Thomas Jefferson sought to counter growing French influence along the Mississippi Valley. To foster communication with the Southwest, he designated a postal road to be built between Daniel Boone's wilderness road, ending in Tennessee, and the Mississippi River. To emphasize American sovereignty in the area, he decided to call it the Columbian Highway. Treaties were signed with the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes. In 1801 the United States Army began blazing the trail, performing major work to prepare it as a thoroughfare. The work was first done by soldiers reassigned from West Tennessee, 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 was 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 early American settlements in Mississippi and Tennessee developed along the Natchez Trace. Some of the most prominent 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, away from the Trace. As author William C. Davis (United States) writes in his book A Way Through the Wilderness, it was "a victim of its own success." With the dawn of steamboat culture on the Mississippi, the Trace became obsolete. In 1830, the Trace was officially abandoned and began to disappear back into the wilderness.

Bushwhackers, Bibles, and Boats
Despite its brief span of use by Americans, the Trace served an essential function for years. It was the only reliable land link between the eastern States and the trading ports of Mississippi and 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 Blacks.

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 the most active of the three. They claimed converts 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.

Worse dangers lurked on the Trace itself in the wilderness outside city boundaries. 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. Suffering another bout of manic depression brought on by the state of his financial affairs, disappointment from jilted loves, frustration from editing his journals, and unsatisfied as governor of Louisiana he rested for the evening. 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, once in the head and once in the chest. He lived until the next morning when he cut his own arms and legs open with a razor and bled himself to death.

A few years after his death, rumors of murder began to spread. Conspiracy theories surrounding that night in Grinder's Stand circulated in academia. In 1996 James E. Starrs, 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.