Roadtrip 2020 Day 8: The Prehistoric American Trail

Imagine driving down a highway with virtually no other vehicles in sight, no billboards, no gas stations, no hotels or businesses for several hours.

Now visualize this as a two-lane paved road, with origins of being a trail during prehistoric times, now twisting and curving through dense tall forests and beautiful countryside.

A quick, short detour led into beautiful Dennis, Mississippi–just in case my ancestors had something to do with the name.

We took this journey, rich in miles of history, from Tupelo, Mississippi through the northwest corner of Alabama, to just shy of Nashville, Tennessee.

The Natchez Trace Parkway was an opportunity to slowdown–the maximum speed limit is 50 mph–enjoy casual observations and relish historical treasures along the way. No eyesores, trucks, or commercial vehicles are allowed.

The Parkway, we learned, was first a Native American pathway, with archaeological evidence dating back 10,000 years.

In the early 1800s, it served a vital role as a road home for Kaintucks, men who floated down the Mississippi with goods to sell, sold their boats as lumber and then walked hundreds of miles back north. The average walk back home was over 35 days.

The advent of the steamboat would change all this, but in the meantime, “stands” were developed up and down the Natchez Trace to put a one-night roof over travelers’ weary heads.

Slaves were sold, soldiers were buried, a nationally-known explorer killed himself, all surrounded by the most beautiful landscape and natural formations…and some not-so-natural formations.

In total, the Parkway begins in Natchez at Mile Marker 0 and ends at 444. We joined the last 180 miles at about Marker 260.

Highlights along the way, with Mile Markers given, are:

261.8 Chickasaw Village Site with multiple dwelling places and a fort. This small archaeological site has outlines of a winter home, summer home and the fort on the ground. Trailheads for a short nature trail and the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail are here.

269.4 Confederate Gravesites Thirteen unknown Confederate soldiers lie buried here, on the “Old Trace,” the trail before asphalt.  A short stroll under a canopy of aged trees offered time to reflect on our nation’s history and imagine what life was like then.

286.7 Pharr Mounds was one of our favorite stop offs. There are eight man-made burial hills laid out across the sprawling field. These mounds are older than Emerald Mound, built between 1 and 200 A.D.

327.3 Colbert Ferry Just before the bridge crossing the wide Tennessee River, this site provided a nice respite and photo opportunity.

We took Mr. Beefy for a peaceful walk and noticed a family picnicking by the river, and others fishing and boating.

It was at that moment, it hit me that Dodie and my dreams are coming true. Our lifestyle is allowing us to make memories we never would have otherwise.

Beefy along Tennessee River.

“Colbert’s Stand – George Colbert operated a ferry across the Tennessee River from 1800 to 1819,” some literature from the National Park Service (they maintain the Trace) explained. “His stand, or inn, offered travelers a warm meal and shelter during their journey on the Old Trace.”

“Colbert looked after his own well being and once charged Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry his Tennessee Army across the river…After a venison supper, one guest at Colbert’s Stand spent the night in an outbuilding (Wilderness Haven) with ‘not less than 50 Indians, many of them drunk.’ Here and about 20 other stands along the Trace, Kaintuck riverboatmen, money-laden businessmen, Indians and outlaws shared a spot of fellowship on a long hazardous road.”

“‘Shrewd, talented and wicked’ thus a traveling preacher characterized George Colbert, the half-Scot half-Chickasaw chief. But for more than 30 years he helped negotiate with the U.S. for Chickasaw rights as the tide of settlement advanced from the east. His successful farm showed his people the way of the future.”

385.9. Meriwether Lewis Death and Gravesite.Remember Lewis and Clark?

Lewis lived from 1774 to 1809. A marker states:

“Beneath the monument erected under the legislative act by the State of Tennessee A.D. 1848, reposes the dust of Meriwether Lewis, captain in The United States Army, Private Secretary to President Jefferson, senior Commander of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and Governor of the Territory of Louisiana.

Meriweather Lewis gravesite.

In the Grinder House, the ruins of which are still discernible 230 yards south of this spot, his life of romantic endeavor and lasting achievement came tragically and mysteriously to its close on the night of October 11, 1809. The report of the committee appointed to carry out the provisions of the Monument Act contained these significant statements: “Great care was taken to identify the grave. George Nixon, Esq., an old surveyor, had become very early acquainted with the locality.” He pointed out the place; but to make assurance doubly sure the grave was reopened and the upper portion of his skeleton examined and such evidence found as to leave no doubt this was the place of interment.”

Over this section of the Trace passed part of the Andrew Jackson army in his campaign against the Creek Indians in 1813 and again on his return from the battle field of New Orleans in 1815.

But before Talladega and New Orleans – before the soldiers of Jackson had given renown to the Natchez Trace, it received its immortal touch of melancholy fame when Meriwether Lewis journeying over it on his way to Philadelphia to edit the story of his great expedition, met here his untimely death on the night of October 11, 1809.

Grinder House – Site and ruins of the Grinder House in which Meriwether Lewis met his death on the night of October 11, 1809.”

“Lewis led an amazing life, completing a two-year expedition through wilderness to the Pacific Northwest by the time he was 32 years old. When he returned, he was made governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory.

Unfortunately, Lewis died along the Natchez Trace Parkway three years later, under mysterious conditions. Most historians have concluded that his gunshot wounds were self-inflicted, for reasons we can only guess at now.”

Dodie exploring Old Trace.

391.9. Fall Hollow Waterfall is just off the Parkway just north of the US 412 intersection. As soon as we were out of the car we could here it.

A very short path and two wooden bridges took us across the small creeks before they begin their tumbling descent. The easy part of the path ends at an observation deck where we looked down at the largest waterfall. Past this point the path becomes very rocky and steep.

401.4 Tobacco Farm displays a tobacco farm from the early 1900s. A short trail leads to an old barn where tobacco hangs from the timbers.

404.7 Jackson Falls The trail here is one of the most popular along the parkway, but rain kept us from the
moderately strenuous hike. Jackson Falls is named after Andrew Jackson.

Although we left the Parkway at this point to travel to Murfreesboro, we did get a view of the Double Arch Bridge at 438.

Completed in 1994, the double arch bridge that spans Birdsong Hollow received the Presidential Award for Design Excellence in 1995 for its innovative design that rises 155 feet above the valley. The bridge carries Trace travelers 1,648 feet across the valley and Tennessee Highway 96.

Chickasaw and Kaintucks


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