Parkway offers glimpse into history for travelers

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 31, 2005

TUPELO &045; Like a piece of braided rope, the Old Trace of the 1800s and today’s modern-day parkway wind back and forth as they make their way toward the Mississippi River.

Woven in between are the strands of history that make the Natchez Trace rich and complex.

Few places in the world can a visitor be transported back 9,000 years to the time of ancient Native American civilizations, walk along paths trod by soldiers of the Civil War, sense what it may have been like for travelers to brave robbers, disease and fatal injury along the Old Trace and view modern day park conservation techniques.

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And nowhere is this more evident on the Trace than the portion from the Tennessee River through Tupelo, Miss., to Jackson.

The origins of the Natchez Trace reach back to what Lynne Bachleda in her book &uot;Guide to the Natchez Trace Parkway&uot; calls &uot;ancient animal trails worn by creatures heading toward the salt springs in what is now Nashville.&uot;

Driving into Mississippi from the Tennessee, travelers can begin to see the first signs of ancient civilizations that built mounds along the Trace.

Archeological evidence from the National Park Service shows that some of these mounds date back over 9,000 years.

From Pharr Mounds north of Tupelo to the mounds of the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, Native Americans set up their villages along what James Crutchfield in his book, &uot;The Natchez Trace: A Pictorial History&uot; calls a &uot;forerunner to the Natchez Trace.&uot;

Villages loosely strung along a path from Natchez to Nashville may have used the trail as part of a larger &uot;highway system&uot; throughout the eastern United States.

Along today’s Natchez Trace, travelers can visit Pharr Mounds and Bynum Mounds south of Tupelo to get a better understanding of how these civilizations once lived.

When explorer Hernando Desoto traveled through what is now the Natchez Trace he found a very different population of Native Americans. By the 1600’s the Chickasaws, the Choctaws and the Natchez Indians were well established in the area.

According to Crutchfield, the Chickasaw nation established it capital on a natural prairie in and Tupelo. Although they claimed most of northern Mississippi as their territory, their towns were confined to a small area in and around the trace.

Today visitors can visualize what these villages were like at a site near milepost 262. With a little imagination, tourists can build walls out of the lines traced in the field of what remains of this Chickasaw village and can walk in the footsteps of these Native Americans.

For those interested in a another part of American history, one has to travel about two miles north of this village to find the graves of 13 unknown Confederate soldier lining the over 200 year-old trace.

How these soldiers died, no one is sure. But their final resting place along the old trail points to one of the many chapters of Natchez Trace history.

Whether it is the lore of American Indians, the struggle of the civil war or the solitary journeys of boatmen trying to reach home, tourists along the trace can read the rich and varied history of America.

Walking along the Old Trace through many diverse environments, from the foothills of Tennessee through the swamps of the Pearl River to the pine forest of southwest Mississippi, travelers can begin to imagine the lives of settlers long ago.

And that is what makes this parkway so unique. Layer upon layer of history overlaps to create a beautiful and complex tapestry known as the Natchez Trace Parkway.