Natchez Discoveries

Part 1. The Old Trace from Jackson to Natchez

David Smitherman
13 min readApr 13, 2024

The Natchez Trace Parkway, also known as the Old Trace, is a scenic highway that follows an ancient Native American trail for 444 miles from Nashville Tennessee, to Natchez Mississippi. The route is a two lane scenic parkway popular among history and nature enthusiasts, and its slow pace, 50 miles per hour, gentle slopes and wide turns, makes it suitable for reasonably safe excursions by bicycle. Featured along the route are numerous historical sites relevant to Native American and early Colonial history.

The Natchez Trace Parkway.

The trail, established by Native Americans centuries ago, linked the Cumberland, the Tennessee, and the Mississippi rivers along its route. Early explorers and traders from Europe used the route too, and set up trading posts, and stands, or Inns, to provide food and lodging for travelers. It was improved by the United States Army in the early 1800s such that it could be traveled full length by wagon in about 2 to 3 weeks. The route was active for Europeans through the 18th and early 19th centuries until steamboat travel on the rivers became more practical.

Natchez Trace maps full length, and from Natchez to Jackson Mississippi.

The Natchez Trace Parkway follows the approximate route of the actual trail, known as the Natchez Trace Trail. Along the parkway route are five segments of the actual Trail, about 60 miles length in total, that can be hiked, or toured by horseback. Each segment of the Natchez Trace Trail is named with specific features of interest, and can be located at mile markers labeled from south to north.

On the Trace, travelers in colonial days included Native Americans, traders, soldiers, postriders delivering mail, settlers with their slaves, preachers, and adventurers. Eventually, farmers and boatmen from the Ohio and the Mississippi river valleys, called Kaintucks, brought cargo by flatboats on the Mississippi river to sell in Natchez and New Orleans. They sold there boats too, for lumber, because they were useless for going back upstream against the current. They returned home by foot, or by horseback, on the Natchez Trace Trail. The winding route home on the trail could be 500 miles, filled with hazards, including insects, snakes, rain, mud, swamps, creeks, rivers, and thieves too.

Kaintucks with their loaded flatboats navigating the Mississippi River down stream.

Here is a quote from Reverend John Johnson.

I have this day swam my horse five times, bridged one creek, forded several others beside the swamp we had to wade through. At night we had a shower of rain. Took up my usual lodging on the ground in company with several Indians.

Year 1812.

Choctaw and Chickasaw territories, and the trail through their lands.

I entered the Trace just north of Jackson headed south to Natchez. The parkway logo is that of a Natchez Trace Post Rider, traveling the trace between Nashville and Natchez, providing needed communications to support the Mississippi Territory headquartered in Natchez.

Postal routes established on the trail in the early 1800s.

Choctaw Agency, 100.7

Along the route from north Jackson is the Choctaw Agency indicating the location of the US agency set up to negotiate and enforce agreements and settlements with the Choctaw Native Americans. It operated in this area from 1807 to 1820, through US agents like Silas Dinsmour, who lived among the Choctaw and tried to understand and communicate each others interests.

Silas Dinsmour, 1766 to 1847, had worked as an agent previously with the Cherokee in Tennessee, and then the Choctaw in Mississippi, helping to establish difficult treaties to maintain peace. Intrusion into Choctaw lands by Europeans had been ongoing since the 1500s, so establishment of the Agency was likely the right thing to do, but too late to resolve all the growing conflicts.

The Chisha Foka trail is a paved path that parallels the Trace for about 10 miles and is designed for both biking, jogging, and hiking. It is named in honor of the Choctaw village that had occupied the present day Jackson Mississippi.

Early Colonial and Civil War markers, 93.1 to 73.5

The Osburn Stand, or Inn, was one of the first to be established along the Natchez Trace in the early 1800s when the US was making improvements to the road. Noble Osburn, 1788 to 1875, is noted as having served both US and Native Americans, providing food and shelter to travelers along the route.

Cowles Mead was one of many that settled along the trace, which for his family included a tavern near Natchez and a 50 acre estate. He is noted as having held many political positions throughout his career.

The Osburns, Meads, Deans, and the Battle of Raymond.

Deans Stand was another Inn established in 1823 by William Dean and his wife Margaret. They provided lodging and food for travelers on the trace, and in 1863, that included Union General Grant after the Battle of Raymond.

The Battle of Raymond fought near this location during the Civil War, occurred when Union forces encountered Confederates and drove them back into Jackson.

Lower Choctaw Boundary, mile 61.0

The Red Bluff Stand was an Inn at the Lower Choctaw Boundary, where to the north in 1802 the Choctaw lands spread up to about Tupelo, with the Mississippi River to the west, and the Tombigbee River to the east.

Choctaw land boundaries.

Rocky Springs Trail, mile 52.4 to 59

Just beyond the Choctaw lands the Natchez Trace trail continued on to the town of Rocky Springs, named after a spring that helped sustain the town.

The Natchez Trace Trail at Rocky Springs.

Here a section of the Natchez Trace Trail is visible with about 7 miles open for hiking.

Rocky Springs Town Site, mile 54.8

The town of Rocky Springs grew from the 1790s up until the Civil War, where in 1860 it is noted to have had about 2,600 residents, that included merchants, teachers, physicians, clergy, and artisans, plus another 2,000 slaves that worked the surrounding fields planted primarily with cotton.

The town of Rocky Springs.

The Civil War, yellow fever, boll weevils, poor land management, and a dried up spring, destroyed the community, such that by the early 1900s, there was little left of the town.

Rocky Springs, and the Rocky Springs Methodist Church, 1837.

Today there are a few artifacts in the woods, with only one church and cemetery to indicate that the town once existed. The Rocky Springs Methodist Church, built in 1837, still meets periodically. The membership has maintained the church, and a cemetery, supported by circuit riding preachers that come through the area once or twice a month for Sunday services.

Owens Creek, mile 52.4

Owens Creek, south of Rocky Springs, flows after rains but can dry up due primarily to a lowered water table in the area.

Owens Creek, Grindstone Ford, and the Mangum Mound.

Grindstone Ford, mile 45.7

Here at Grindstone Ford was a mill, Daniel Burnett’s Stand, and a small community that supported troops from 1801 to 1802, that were working to clear and upgrade the Natchez Trace trail so it could support wagon traffic. Prior to this time the trail was rough and could only support travelers on foot or horseback.

The earliest explorer thought to have traveled the entire length of the trail was in 1742, by an unnamed Frenchman. His writings described a rough route with need of a guide to keep on track. Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes occupied the region at that time, but the earliest inhabitants date back several thousand years to a prehistoric people known as the Mississippian culture.

Mangum Mound, mile 45.7

The Mangum Mound is located nearby indicating the existence of a prehistoric people that were the ancestors to the Choctaw and Native Americans in the Louisiana and Mississippi region.

Mangum Mound site.

The Magnum Mound is thought to date back to about the year 900CE with other mounds along the Mississippi River dating back to 100BCE, or about 2,200 years ago.

Choctaw native molding copper, and porcelain sculpture by Choctaw artisan Marsha Hedrick, 2013.

Excavations of burials at this site indicate that the early civilization had a high infant mortality rate, and that customs included the slaying and burial of the chief’s retainers when he died.

Sunken Trace, mile 41.5

At the Sunken Trace site is a section of the Natchez Trace trail that is sunk deep in the earth. This is due to constant traffic and erosion over the years, making some parts easy to follow, but difficult to pass through.

The Natchez Trace Trail is sunken in many places today.

The soils here are known as Loess, a sandy clay mix that is soft and washes away easily, making some sections of the Trace up to 20 feet deep.

Loess Bluff, mile 12.4

Loess Bluff is a geological site that helps to explain the soil conditions of this region. The length of the trace from Jackson to Natchez consists of large flat fields and low rolling hills covered in forests.

Loess Bluff geological site.

The soil is a wind blown topsoil called Loess, formed during the last Ice Age when glaciers covered the north, and continuous windstorms carried dust from the western plains that built up over time to depths of 90 feet.

Potkopinu trail, mile 17 to 20

Another section of the trail that can be hiked today is a 3 mile section called the Potkopinu trail. There are dirt and gravel roads to this trail site, which I did not venture onto for this trip.

Route to the Potkopinu trailhead.

Mount Locust Historic House, mile 15.5

The Mount Locust Stand or Inn, is a historic house site, which was closed and not accessible or visible on this visit.

Mount Locust and the Chamberlain house and Inn.

The site includes the Chamberlain family home owned by Pauline Chamberlain, and with her 11 children and 51 slaves she maintained the Inn and worked the surrounding plantation lands.

Emerald Mound, mile 10.3

Emerald Mound is the second largest mound along the Mississippi River valley, with Monks Mound in Cahokia Illinois being the largest.

Emerald Mound.

It was constructed beginning around 1350 CE, and has a large flat top plaza on top surrounded by 8 smaller mounds, each believed to have had building construction on top.

Emerald Mound site.
Emerald Mound architectural conception.

The open plaza on top was likely used for ceremonial and sporting events, and the surrounding mounds around the edges provided raised platforms for viewing the events and the surrounding lands, and included temple construction, ceremonial structures, and burials sites for their leaders.

The mound was explored by archeologists in 1949, and appeared to have been built in three phases. First there was and existing hill that was leveled off to form the plaza level. Then earth was brought in to expand the plaza and build up a step pyramid at each end. And finally the stepped pyramids at each end were enlarged, and three more mounds were added along each side.

Step pyramid construction.
Plaza and possible temple construction on Emerald Mound.

The plaza level is about 35 feet above the surrounding land area, and covers about 8 acres, and the two mounds on top at each end extend about another 30 feet high.

The royal families were known as the Suns, and their leader at the highest rank was known as the Great Sun. The illustration below shows the Suns overseeing this sporting event from the Temple Mound. Ceremonial events are still held on Emerald Mound today, by the ancestors of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez people.

Possible sporting and ceremonial events, and the Great Sun.
Current ceremonial events, and some of the known mounds east of the Mississippi River.

The mound builders across the region from the Mississippi River to the east indicate the development of a well organized society dating back perhaps more than 2000 years. All were linked by networks of trade using rivers and trails like the Natchez Trace.

Elizabeth Female Academy, mile 5.1

The Elizabeth Female Academy became the first women’s college in the United States, when in 1819 it was chartered in Washington, the first capitol of the new state of Mississippi.

First female college in the United States, 1819.

It was the first college to confer degrees on women, and was utilized until 1845 when the population center of the state had shifted to Jackson. The college was named after its primary benefactor, Elizabeth Roach.

Remains of Elizabeth Academy today.

Little remains of the college building today, but its ruins are preserved in remembrance.

The Natchez Trace Parkway ends southeast of downtown Natchez, but the actual Trail continued on to the Natchez Bluffs. There it ends, or begins, and winds its way through the downtown streets.

At the Natchez Bluff Park is a marker noting that in 1909, the Daughters of the American Revolution, along with other groups, began advocating for the establishment of the Natchez Trace. There advocacy eventually led to the establishment of the Natchez Trace Parkway, Trail, and historic sites along this Native American route from Nashville Tennessee, through northeast Alabama, to Natchez Mississippi.

Travel Notes

For this trip, the rain and wet conditions made exploring the actual trails and side trips on gravel and dirt roads more difficult, so I stuck primarily to the main exhibits along the Natchez Trace. I stayed at a Holiday Inn, in Jackson and Natchez, both were very nice and relatively new, and they both had Tesla and J-1772 charging stations for overnight charging, an important consideration given that there are not yet any superchargers in the Natchez area.

The Natchez Trace from north Jackson to Natchez.

It had rained overnight, so you can see the muddy Coles Creek behind me. This is not unusual, because this entire region is covered in the fine soils described at Loess Bluff.

The author at Coles Creek.

There were two rest stops along this section of the Natchez Trace, at Rocky Springs and Coles Creek. The restroom facility at Rocky Springs was closed, but Coles Creek was open. Also, the facilities at Mount Locust were closed, so check the National Park Service website for closure information.

I am planning to add to this story with future travels from Jackson to Tupelo, and Tupelo to Nashville, on the Natchez Trace Parkway. In the meantime, check out Part 2 of this story on the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians in Natchez Mississippi.

Notes and References

Story and photographs by David Smitherman, with data collected from on site inscriptions, Wikipedia, and Google Maps. Site visits were made in March 2024.

Maps and artist conceptions are from on site inscriptions by the National Park Service, with artists referenced where available.

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David Smitherman

Retired architect and space architect from NASA. Married with a growing family. Currently into travel, historical architecture, photography and genealogy.