The Natchez Trace

By John Swain
Illustrated with photographs by the author

"This Natchez Trace itself, even if it were not so picturesque and
delightful in its whole length, has played so great a part in our country's
history that it by right demands attention and a visit from us."

Reprint from Everybody's Magazine, September 1905
Public Domain Material - May be freely copied for personal use only

Read the Article

Other Sites of Interest:

Grave of Meriwether Lewis - Contemporary

Andrew Jackson - "Old Hickory"

The Natchez Trace

By John Swain

December and May
    It was on a cool, delightful afternoon in June that I stumbled down a disappearing road over the end of a spur-ridge in middle Tennessee, into the rocky bed of a musical little branch which here usurped the functions of a highway. With stockings and shoes in hand, I waded and limped over the sharp stones, back and forth as the wagon-tracks led into and out of the stream, and at last, sighting a cabin on the hill at my left, mounted slowly up to the fence before it and hailed the man who sat on the tiny doorstep.

“Hello,” said I, and waited for him to look up; “am I on the Natchez Trace?”

He looked at me with doubt and distrust in his eyes.

“Huh? On the Trace Road? Are you on the Trace Road? Why, no, sir, I don't rightly reckon you are. No, sir, I should say for sure you ain’t. No, sir. Why, the Trace Road—that’s the Ridge Road. That's back there ten miles or more. On the Trace Road? Why, no, I should say you was ten miles off the Trace, mister.”

In humility my mind went back to the advice I had received from an old woman at She Boss (expressively named hamlet!) some four hours earlier.

“You're going a mighty crooked road,” she had said, “and maybe you'll keep to it all right.  But I reckon you'll find the Natchez Trace easy to travel and hard to foller. You better ask everybody you see if you're on it.”

Easy to travel and hard to follow I had found it, indeed, for I must have taken the wrong turn not more than a mile down the road from She Boss. After that I had not scorned to follow the old woman's advice, but I had met no one to ask. I had plodded ten miles or more along the crest of a beautiful ridge, hundreds of feet above the bordering valleys, winding in and out around coves and hollows, traveling a fading roadway through an open oak forest; and in all that ten miles I had heard no more human voice than the distant murmur of the lonely cow-bell, and had seen no more friendly countenance than that of a half-wild heifer calf which had stopped for a momentary glance before crashing away into the timber. I should have asked her, had she waited.

He took me in to share the comfort of his big living room
Time was when the traveler by the Natchez Trace was not so easily lost; for a century ago the winding trail on the Tennessee ridges, from Nashville on the Cumberland to Natchez and Fort Adams, was the only wagon-road to the Mississippi, the only overland route to New Orleans and the New Louisiana Territory, and the main artery of travel for the whole Southwest. Soldiers, settlers, Indians, freebooters, fine ladies in carriages, lawyers and merchants on the mail stage, all traveled over it, and not an event in what was then the most interesting part of the continent failed to have its connection with this thoroughfare.

Down this historic way I was on pilgrimage. Camera in hand, I had set out from Nashville to follow the footsteps of Old Hickory, of Claiborne and of Mason the Robber, and of countless others who had gone to make history in the lower valley; but most of all, to visit a shrine which should be ever sacred to lovers of adventure and of the wilderness—the tomb of the intrepid young explorer, Meriwether Lewis. With the whole nation busily preparing to celebrate the centennial of the purchase of the territory which he explored, and of his wonderful journey to the Oregon, it seemed to me, who am by nature a tramp, a welcome duty to give a little time to the memory of the unfortunate youth, and to bring back to a careless people the picture of his lonely gravestone on its wooded hilltop, uncared for, unvisited, and forgotten.

This Natchez Trace itself, even if it were not so picturesque and delightful in its whole length, has played so great a part in our country's history that it by right demands attention and a visit from us.

For our roads are such intimate factors in our lives, they are so filled with the romance and with the character of the people who make them, whom they make, that we cannot give too much thought to them. If it be true that after death our souls as our bodies become again part of the world in which we dwell, I like to think that as his dust has become the dust, so the soul of Lewis has become the spirit, of this ancient roadway, which leads over hills and across valleys, far from crowded cities, under the sun and the stars, shaded by oak and elm and chestnut and the sweet scented yellow pine, and which bears on its surface the tread of common, true-hearted, humble people. Such a road I love. There is for me no greater charm in outdoor life than to wander along it, trying to absorb something not only of its external, instantly apparent beauty, but of its subtler essence, that intangible, spiritual beauty which it has for those who know it familiarly, who have been born, have gone to school, have fought, and loved, and courted, and come to old age, beside it.


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