This is the story of people on the move, of the age-old need to get from one place to another. It is the story of Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Indians following traditional ways of life, of French and Spanish people venturing into a world new to them, and of people building a new nation. At first the trace was probably a series of hunters’ paths that slowly came to form a trail from the Mississippi over the low hills into the valley of the Tennessee.
By 1733 the French knew the land well enough to map it and showed an Indian trail running from Natchez to the northeast. By 1785 Ohio River Valley farmers searching for markets had begun floating their crops and products down the rivers to Natchez or New Orleans. Because they sold their flatboats for lumber, returning home meant either riding or walking. The trail from Natchez was the most direct. Growing numbers of travelers tramped the crude trail into a clearly marked path.
By 1810 many years of improvements had made the trace an important wilderness road, the most heavily traveled in the Old Southwest. As the road was being improved other comforts, relatively speaking, were coming to the trace. Many inns—locally called stands—were built. By 1820 more than 20 stands were in operation. Most provided no more than shelter and plain food, although the stands at Mount Locust and Red Bluff were substantial, well-known establishments.
Even with these developments the trace was not free of discomforts. Thieves added an element of danger to a catalog of hazards that included swamps, floods, disease-carrying insects, and sometimes unfriendly Indians.
A new chapter in transportation dawned in January 1812 when the steamer New Orleans arrived in Natchez. Within a few years steamboats were calling regularly at St. Louis, Nashville, and Louisville. Travelers liked the speed and comparative safety of steamboat travel more than the slow pace of going overland. Soon the bustle of the trace had quieted to the peacefulness of a forest lane.
The parklands of the Natchez Trace Parkway preserve important examples of out nation’s natural and cultural heritage. Since the late 1930s the National Park Service has been constructing a modern parkway that closely follows the course of the original trace. Today more than 90 percent of the parkway is completed, giving present-day travelers an unhurried route from Natchez to Nashville.