Natchez Trace Parkway
A Historic Route
From the first buffalo trampling through the wilderness, to the Native Americans, settlers, soldiers, ministers and bandits who followed, the Natchez Trace was a 444-mile pathway for a colorful procession of America’s frontier history.
Even today, a drive along the Natchez Trace Parkway from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi intertwines legends and historical accounts of the old Southwest.
The first national highway of what was then the Southwest part of America, the Natchez Trace served as a buffalo and Native American trail until French and Spanish settlers arrived in the 18th century and began using the path. The path was named for the Natchez tribe of Native Americans. The name “Trace” is French for “trek” or “track” meaning a line of footprints.
By 1801, the U.S. government ordered its clearance, and the Trace became the most important thoroughfare from Nashville to Natchez for the next two decades as it was traveled by settlers, frontiersmen, postmen, boatmen and soldiers. Many of these travelers brought their musical traditions with them. In particular, Scots-Irish music filled the air with the sounds of fiddles and folksongs that became a part of the culture of Alabama and surrounding states and later contributed to the emergence of bluegrass, country and folk music. Additionally, the songs of African slaves telling of hardship and spiritual hope grew into the blues by the early 20th century. (Link to Music History section.)
In its early days, traveling the Trace was always hazardous, and many travelers fell victim to disease or bandits. The Trace served as a military road several times, most notably in 1813 when Andrew Jackson’s army marched on a campaign against the Creek Indians and again in 1815 on the return from the Battle of New Orleans.
By the early 1820s, the steady stream of travelers who followed the Natchez Trace for decades vanished as steamboats offered safer and faster transportation. By the end of the decade, the once busy Trace was used only as a path between communities.
Constructing the Natchez Trace Parkway
Interest in the historic route was renewed in the early 1900s when a garden club in Mississippi began marking the path. In the 1930s, construction of the parkway began as a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Through construction began in 1939, the parkway took more than 60 years to complete, with the final segments completed in Mississippi in 2005.
Today the Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile route, stretching from Nashville, through the northwest corner of Alabama and one to Natchez, Mississippi. The parkway is a designated All American Road and is managed by the National Park Service. The two-lane road closely follows the old Natchez Trace with markers and exhibits depicting the hardships of early travelers. A highlight of any trip along the Trace is a chance to stop and walk the original portions of the Trace that have been preserved.
The Natchez Trace in the Muscle Shoals Region
The middle part of the original Natchez Trace and the Natchez Trace Parkway travels through northwest Alabama. The Alabama section is 33 miles long and crosses over the Tennessee River.
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 from 1800 to 1819. Colbert’s inn, one of 20 stops along the Trace known as “stands,” offered travelers a warm meal and shelter during their journey. It is alleged that Colbert was a shrewd businessman, once charging Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry his army across the river.
The site of Colbert’s stand is 50 yards up the path from the parkway’s parking area. An additional 20 minute walk follows the Old Trace to the bluff overlook and back. The site is located at Natchez Trace Parkway Milepost 327.3.
The National Park Service displays a milepost on the east side of the parkway. Mileposts start at 1 on the southern end of the Trace near Natchez, Mississippi and end at 444 at the northern terminus in Nashville, Tennessee.
In Alabama, the Trace mileposts start at 308 at the Mississippi state line and end at 341 at the Tennessee state line.