Native American Heritage
During its heyday, the Natchez Trace was a highly-used transportation route, first used by the Native Americans and then later by European settlers. In recent years, a national parkway has been constructed to help preserve and remember the historic Natchez Trace.
The Start of A Major Transportation Route
The Natchez Trace was first as a Native American footpath that extended from the Mississippi River near Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. The path was named for the Natchez tribe of Native Americans. In early times, bison would travel northward to find salt licks, creating paths through the underbrush that the Native Americans could follow. Soon, these paths had become worn into the landscape. It connected tribes in the region together and became an essential trade route. As explorers like Hernando de Soto arrived, Native Americans would use parts of the Natchez Trace to guide the explorers through the land.
In later years, traders used the path to return home after delivering supplies to Natchez and New Orleans. Since traveling up-current was almost impossible for the boats of the time, the traders would sell their boats for lumber, along with their goods. Then, they would set out on the Natchez Trace for the treacherous trip back home on foot or on donkeys and horses.
The Natchez Trace in the Muscle Shoals Region
The Natchez Trace and the Tennessee River converges in the Muscle Shoals region. The original path met the river just downstream of the shoals in a shallower area that was easier to cross for most of the year. This spot was originally located near present-day Waterloo and the place where Bear Creek and the Tennessee River met.
In 1800, the crossing was moved 10 miles upstream to a place that became known as Colbert's Ferry. George Colbert, a half-Chickasaw chief operated an inn and ferry service at the new location from 1800 to 1819. It is alleged that Colbert was a shrewd businessman, once charging Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry his army across the river.
The End of An Era – The Natchez Trace Begins to Fade
With the invention of steamboats and the increase of railroads, the Natchez Trace was no longer a prime route for traders, farmers, and others. It was easier and cheaper to move goods up and down the river by steamboat or across the land by railways. Though the trace was no longer viewed as an important national road, the route was still used by people who lived near it.
Today's Natchez Trace
Today, visitors to the area can travel near the same route the early bison and Native Americans used. In the 1930s, it was proposed that a national parkway be constructed along the historic Natchez Trace. Lack of funding later in the project kept the parkway from being completed for many decades. The remaining gaps in the route were finally constructed and the full Natchez Trace Parkway officially opened to the public on May 21, 2005.