Home Travelogues Local Travel Logs Ride through history on the Natchez Trace

Ride through history on the Natchez Trace

The Natchez TraceIf you had taken a trip down the Natchez Trace when it first opened, you might have been a bit frustrated. Those mastodons were real road hogs. In those days, 7,000 or so years ago, between the mastodons and the giant bison pounding out the trail, the passing lane could be a nightmare.  Later, as the game grew smaller, and the Native Americans of pre-history arrived, you'd have needed speed and stealth to just to keep up with the hunt. Later still, a few arrowheads would have stood you in good stead as the tribes formed, Chickasaw and Choctaw among them, and trading along the route picked up. But after the conquistadors came, you could forget that simple arrowhead. Hostilities between Native American raiding parties and white travelers became everyday occurrences, as did the stick-ups by robbers and thieves who preyed on the rough and tumble Kaintuck boatmen who floated down the Mississippi River to sell their goods and flatboats in New Orleans, then walked back home on the Natchez Trace. The Devil's Backbone-that's what the Trace was called back then, and for good reason.

Of course, if you'd traveled the Trace at that time, you might have met some interesting people, like John James Audubon sketching birds, or Aaron Burr hatching conspiracies. Or Andrew Jackson, whose army marched down the Trace to win the Battle of New Orleans, then marauded its way back up, when Thomas Jefferson cut off its funds. Jackson also took his new bride honeymooning on the Natchez Trace-a trip that proved scandalous when it was discovered she wasn't quite divorced from her first husband at the time!

And while it was dicey in those days to honeymoon on the Natchez Trace (Andrew and Rachel went with a party of 100 people, just for safety), if you had wanted to honeymoon on the Trace in the early part of the twentieth century, you would have found it even tougher going, since by then disuse and incorporation into local thoroughfares meant there was hardly any road to be found. The Natchez Trace might have disappeared without a trace, but thanks to legislation introduced during Franklin Roosevelt's administration, the Natchez Trace National Parkway was created, 444 miles of breathtakingly scenic road running from Natchez to Nashville. Construction wasn't easy; it took 67 years from start to finish, but then again, given the true age of the Natchez Trace, that's barely a moment in time.

Today all those eons of rich history are still in evidence along a roadway offering up mile after mile of splendid natural beauty. Forget ugly billboards and crass commercialization, the vistas here are as unspoiled as they were in centuries past-minus, of course, the mastodons and the galloping highway robbers.

Biking on the TraceWhich isn't to say that you won't meet some very interesting characters. Take a ride on the Natchez Trace Parkway through the Mississippi Hills, and you'll see the birthplaces of Oprah Winfrey, civil rights pioneer James Meredith and Elvis Presley. And that's just the beginning. The Trace has been designated as an official Scenic American Byway as well as an All American Road for its significance in no less than 6 categories: archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic.

So hop in your car, or on your bike-the Trace has also been named a Top 10 biking road-because today is absolutely the perfect day to begin your adventure on the Natchez Trace.

Why not start in the place where one of America's most famous celebrities got her start: Koskiusko, birthplace of Oprah Winfrey, namesake of Revolutionary War Hero Tadeusz Kosckiuszko, and a town so filled with quaint charm and beauty that artists and painters have dubbed it one of the Prettiest Painted Places in America.

Picture-perfect Kosciusko.

KosciuskoSet your sights and set up your easel in Kosckiusko's historic Downtown Square, where meticulously restored buildings house delightful shops and delicious eateries and where the Square's centerpiece, the Attala County Courthouse, will celebrate its 110th anniversary next year. With decorative beehives perched on the four corners of the property to symbolize Kosciusko's nickname, "The Beehive of the Hills," this stately civic masterpiece is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Mississippi Historic Landmark.

Another Mississippi Landmark you'll want to tour is the Mary Ricks Thornton Cultural Center. Housed in former Presbyterian sanctuary, an elegant gothic structure with stained glass windows and a graceful spire, the Center is also listed on the National Register.

While you're downtown, be sure to take the entire walking/driving tour and marvel at the more than 25 historic homes, all built before the turn of the century. You'll also marvel at L.V. Hull's Ethnic Yard Art, where found objects take on a surprising new purpose-Mississippiana at its most unique.

But then unique and one-of-a-kind are something of a Kosciusko trademark, as the birthplace of both Oprah Winfrey and civil rights pioneer James Meredith. No visit to Kosciusko would be complete without a pass through Oprah Winfrey Road, where you can see the Buffalo Community Church, where Oprah first attended church, the Buffalo Community Center, the Winfrey family cemetery as well as Oprah's birthplace.

From Kosciusko, the Natchez Trace takes you through forest and meadow to the simply named and simply beautiful French Camp.

Revolutionary French Camp.

French Camp Set against an unspoiled landscape, this picturesque haven carved out of the wilderness appears at first look very much the way it must have in 1812 when it was established as a trading post. In fact, a closer look into this tiny community of log cabins and historic buildings yields an engaging experience in living history. See how handmade quilts are created, or how a Revolutionary soldier once lived in a 19th century farmhouse, or how a mule is used to make molasses (very slowly!)   To say that French Camp offers a truly delicious taste of pioneer life is no exaggeration. Try the homemade soups and sandwiches and mud cake at the Council House Café, and you'll agree; an overnight stay in the B&B is the perfect antidote to modern stress.

Before you leave French Camp, be sure to buy a loaf of French Camp Academy bread, a heavenly treat that supports the work of this faith-based collective, which is revolutionary in more than simply its look. For well over a century, this caring community has been providing a home and school for troubled children from broken homes. French Camp's welcome is just that warm. Enjoy.

From French Camp, the Trace takes you to the Jeff Busby Overlook on Little Mountain, one of the highest points in Mississippi. And you'll find more high ground ahead, at the Bynum Mounds, Native American burial grounds that archeologists date between 1800 and 2100 years old.

A place to go native.

Natchez Trace Visitors CenterAbout thirty miles from Bynum Mounds, you'll want to explore the Chickasaw Village, once known as Long Town, where the Chickasaws defeated the French at the Battle of Ackia. The Village is a fascinating doorway into the Chickasaw culture; there's even a nature trail grown with the indigenous plants the tribe used for food and medicine. Just a few miles away, the Chickasaw Council House is located on the site of Pontatok, the capital of the Chickasaw nation during the 1820s.

It isn't only the opportunities the Trace provides for visitors to see sites like the Council House and the Chickasaw Village, it's also the context and interpretation the Trace provides that makes for such a memorable and compelling experience. At the Natchez Trace Headquarters, located just outside Tupelo, a newly revamped historical exhibit has become a must-see attraction for the more than 50,000 visitors who pass through the facility every year. Organized through 9 major subjects, from the mound builders to the Kaintuck boatmen to military affairs to flora and fauna, the exhibit goes deep and wide, and will carry you to the heart of what the Natchez Trace means to America.

Afterwards, you'll want to head into the city. Tupelo means "lodging place" in Chickasaw, but you'll want to leave behind the moccasins. Time to put on your blue suede shoes. First stop: The Birthplace.

Royally entertaining Tupelo.

Elvis Presley BirthplaceHere is what it is: A tiny "shotgun" house built by Vernon Presley with his own hands.  Here is what it is not: What many people expect. The Birthplace Encounter tends to take people by surprise. Face to face with this poetically spare structure, how, they wonder, could one of the largest talents of the 20th century come from a beginning so humble? 

The explanation-to the degree that any genius can be explained-can be found at the Elvis Museum, which like the Birthplace itself, is located in the 15-acre Birthplace center. The exhibit steeps visitors in the sites (and sights), sounds, and beliefs that shaped young Elvis. The gospel he absorbed from his mother's Pentacostal church, the blues he soaked up from Shakerag, Tupelo's now legendary African American community, the blue grass and country music he loved from hearing local celebrity DJ Mississippi Slim. Trains and garment factories, a deadly twister and a stillborn twin brother-cataclysmic events that helped shape an earth shaking talent.

Explore the statuary, "story wall" and commemorative walkway also at the center before you strike out on the self-guided Early Years Driving Tour that will take you to other important Elvis sites. At the Tupelo Hardware Store, listen to the sound of your steps across the wide plank floor, and see the glass case that held guitars on the day Elvis and Gladys came to buy his birthday gift. He wanted a shotgun; Gladys convinced him to get the guitar instead.

Oren Dunn City MuseumBefore you leave Tupelo, be sure to see the old-fashioned diner that was once a Memphis streetcar, and now entertains visitors as one of the more than 3,000 artifacts dating back nearly 150 years, at the Oren Dunn City Museum. Other must-see museum attractions: the African American Historical and Cultural Society Museum, the World War II museum, and the Tupelo Automobile Museum. See the largest herd of buffalo east of the Mississippi River at the Tupelo Buffalo Park.

In nearby Baldwyn, you can roam at what Wikipedia calls "one of the most beautiful preserved battlefields of the Civil War." The Battle of Brice's Crossroads was a dramatic 11th hour victory for Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the battlefield set amidst undeveloped land offers panoramic views and an authentic atmosphere, complemented by a first-rate interpretive center.

From the battleground, it's back to the Trace, and on to higher ground.

Mountain time.

Tishomingo State ParkExpect to be awed at Pharr Mounds, a 90-acre complex of eight different burial mounds built around 2,000 years ago. While they are not tall mounds, their number and sheer size are magnificent.

After the mounds, travel over the Jamie L Whitten Bridge crossing the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway. You may want to take some time to explore the Tenn-Tom-but that's another story. The story here on the Trace, you'll notice, is growing more dramatic, hills giving way to sharper peaks. You're in the foothills of the Appalachians now, and it shows. It also captivates, at the Tishomingo State Park.

Constructed by Civilian Conservation Corps around the same time as the Parkway itself, Tishomingo State Park offers scenery unlike any other in the state. Canyons, boulders, sandstone ledges make an arresting backdrop for canoeing, hiking, picnicking, fishing, swimming and camping. There's even a swinging bridge. The early Native tribes came here to quarry the rock for tools, and park buildings constructed by the CCC with local sandstone are both nostalgic yet also timeless.

After all the fun and excitement of Tishomingo State Park, there are only a few more miles of Mississippi Hills. Enjoy them, and please, come back anytime. The Natchez Trace will always be here, and we will, too.

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