Coles Creek

TRAVLERS ALONG the Natchez Trace in the early 1800s had to pass over a number of streams including Coles Creek in Jefferson County. (Concordia Sentinel photo)

In 1798 when Congress formed the Mississippi Territory, the headquarters of this new territorial government was located in Natchez, which was separated from its nearest U.S. neighbor -- the state of Tennessee -- by a vast wilderness.

In this region of forests, streams, hills, ridges and swamps lived two Native American tribes, the Choctaw in Mississippi and the Cherokee in Tennessee and parts of Mississippi and Alabama. An old animal and Indian path that connected Natchez to Nashville ran through these lands.

The first governor of Mississippi Territory, a Massachusetts native named Winthrop Sargent, realized that the isolation of Natchez from the rest of the country made it vulnerable to attacks from foreign countries as well as by Native Americans and traveling gangs of misfits and outlaws. The region would also become the center of various land grab conspiracies where men like former vice-president Aaron Burr was believed to have pondered the formation of his own kingdom.

Sargent needed at the least reliable communication by post with the U.S. national government back east. While letters could be delivered within a matter of weeks from the nation's capital -- then at Philadelphia -- down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, delivery of Sargent's return correspondence took much longer.

While in Cincinnati on the Ohio preparing for his duties in Natchez, Sargent wrote Secretary of State Timothy Pickering: "I most ardently pray that a regular communications by Post may be established between the general government and Natchez."

Pickering agreed with Sargent, complaining: "At present, a letter is as long in traveling between Philadelphia and the Natchez, as between Philadelphia and Europe."

 

‘A WAGON WAY’

 

In 1799, Sargent put into motion what eventually resulted in the establishment of a mail route and later a crude wagon road across the old Indian and buffalo trail that would become known as the Natchez Trace. The pathway was at times easily recognizable while at other times it disappeared in the forest or was dissected by other trails. Travelers could easily take a wrong turn and get lost.

Sargent wrote Pickering: "With regard to continuing the mail from this country from Nashville as far as I have been able to inform myself it will cost thirteen hundred dollars per year {a low estimate} to receive the same monthly. The way proposed at present would be from Natchez through the Nocksaby a Choctaw Town and the residence of Mitchell the Indian Agent, to Nashville a distance of about six hundred miles."

In 1798, crews traveling downstream on the Mississippi on flatboats unloaded their goods once they reached Natchez or New Orleans, and then sold the lumber that had formed their vessel. It was impractical to attempt to paddle or tow a craft back home upstream. So they walked home in groups along the wilderness road to Nashville.

Making a wagon way out of that path was now crucial. Plus, it would provide a highway for incoming settlers where they would likely defend their homes in Mississippi Territory and defend the U.S. government in the event of domestic threats.

North of Nashville, an imperfect national highway connected that region to the east. If a route could be built from Natchez to Nashville the country would be connected by a land route from New York to Natchez. This new section of highway would come under the management of an infant U.S. which only 23 years earlier had declared its independence.

 

‘A BETTER AND SAFER ROUTE’

 

Lena Mitchell Jamison in an April 1939 article in the "Journal of Mississippi History," notes that the "general conviction in the West that the United States government was indifferent to Western needs, the attempts to set up independent governments in that region, the proposed movements in the West for foreign alliances, and the wild schemes and doubtful activities of men such as Aaron Burr and (Gen.) James Wilkinson obviously made a better means of communication between the national capital and the isolated Natchez district highly desirable.

"The steady influx of settlers, the increased production of cotton, and the growing commerce of the region emphasized the economic benefits that would result for the Southwest in the construction of such a road.

"Equally important, it would provide a better and safer route by which traders and boatmen might return from New Orleans and Natchez to their homes in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio.

"The carriage of the mails into the recently acquired territory was a matter of prime importance, for a regular communication by postal service was necessary between the national government and Natchez."

 

‘THE BANKS OF THE RIVER’

 

Treaties with the Choctaws at Fort Adams in lower Wilkinson County, Miss., and with the Chickasaws at Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis, Tenn.) resulted in the U.S. obtaining permission to build a wagon way connecting Natchez and Nashville through the wilderness path in the Indian lands. The road would become known as the Natchez Trace.

Following the treaty with the Choctaws in December 1801, Gen. James Wilkinson asked the Mississippi Territorial Legislature to appoint commissioners to mark the one section of the road from Natchez northward to Grindstone Ford on Bayou Pierre, about seven miles north of Port Gibson in Claiborne County. This location was the entrance into Choctaw Territory. There, the trail was known as the Path to the Choctaw Nation.

In July 1797, Francis Baily, a 23-year-old Englishmen traveling northward along the trace with 13 men and 30 packhorses spent the night at Grindstone Ford. There, Daniel Burnet had built a cabin on his 1,000-acre land grant in exchange for his survey work during the days of Spanish rule. He operated a ferry along Bayou Pierre where men and sometimes horses were crossed on a small flatboat.

A player in early Mississippi Territory government and the militia, Burnet provided lodging and meals for travelers along the trace at his inn -- then call a "stand" -- and a little food for their horses. His accommodations, however, were not of the four-star nature.

Baily wrote about his stay in his diary which was later published in a book  ("Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America in 1796 and 1797"): "The very house at Grindstone Ford from which I now write this, and which consists of but of one room, is filled with the bridles, saddles, and baggage of our party, as well as other lumber belonging to the family. In this, our supper ... consisting merely of mush (cornmeal boiled then simmered and thickened in water) and milk...is to be cooked; and in this (after that was over) we are to take up our abode for the night.

"For my own part, rather than be poisoned with the effluvia of the living, I walked on the banks of the river till supper-time; and that over, I spread my blanket out on a grassplat in the garden, and there laid me down till morning; yet, even for this rough fare, they had the impudence to charge us a quarter of a dollar apiece."

The trip from Natchez to Nashville, after many hardships, illnesses, confrontations with Indians and runaway horses, took 28 days.

 

‘A CLEAR WAGON PATH’

 

This national road was built by the military. The Secretary of War recommended "a regular succession of parties of thirty men each, to be relieved once a month, and that the road be opened, not exceeding sixteen feet in width and not more than eight feet of the sixteen to be cut close to the ground, and smoothed for passengers."

Lena Jamison said "the great object was to have a comfortable road for horses and foot passengers, and instead of the expense of cutting a wide road, it was much more important that the swamps and streams should be causewayed and bridged."

As President Thomas Jefferson and Postmaster General Gideon Granger corresponded on the construction of the road, they shared notes on how it should be built. Together, they came up with these ideas:

"Note 1. The road is to be cleared of all trees, logs and brush, twelve feet in width and made passable for a wagon. All streams not over forty feet are to be bridged, and the banks of other streams are to be shelved or sloped down so that they may be passable for a wagon.

"Note 2. The bridges are to be twelve feet broad supported by proper abutments, the bridge part to be composed of four pieces of timber not less than 10 inches in diameter at the smallest end, and covered with halved logs whose original diameter was not less that 8 inches, the piers or supports of the bridge not to be more than twenty feet apart.

"Note 3. Some parts of the road will require causewaying, these will be pointed out by the Post Master General's agent. The causewaying is to be done with logs, 10 feet in length and not less than 6 nor over 9 inches in diameter, earth is to be thrown upon them to render them passable, and where the places to be causewayed are subject to be overflowed the causeway is to have a rider on each side keyed down by forked stakes or stones and gravel.

"Note 4. It is supposed that there is already a cleared wagon path on some part of the distance, no clearing is to be done where that is the case. The work is to be completed by the first day of October, 1807. Reasonable advances will be made at the commencement of the work, and the balance paid as soon as the work is completed. Mr. R.J. Meigs, and Mr. Thomas Wright are to decide whether it be executed conformable to contract.

"Note 5. The proposals should state the price by the mile for clearing, the price by the yard in length for causewaying, the price by the foot in length for the bridgework, and the price by the cubic yard for sloping and shelving the banks of watercourses." 

 

RESTING STATIONS

 

In 1818, Natchez newspaper publisher Andrew Marschalk printed an almanac listing the distances between each stand -- or inn -- along the Trace from Natchez northward to Nashville. At these locations, travelers could rest, feed themselves and their animals and sleep. In some cases, perfect strangers were assigned the same bed if there was one. Some would sleep in the barn (if there was one) Or like Baily, some would choose the ground.

According to Marschalk, the stands and miles between them, included:

Washington, 6; Seltzertown (Emerald Mound), 6; Uniontown, 6; Greenville (due west of Fayette), 6; Vaughan's, 5; Gibson's Port, 17; Mrs. Woodridge, 9; Choctaw line (Grindstone Ford), 16; Fourteen Mile Creek, 14; Indian House, 18; Osbornes, 6; Agency, 8; Brashiers, 4; Wards, 8; McCurty's, 4; Dokes, 16; Irishman's, 26; Shoates, 5; Michael Lafloures, 11; Lewis Lafloures, 14; Mitchells, 12; Blacks, 8; Fulsoms, 5; Beam's, 5; Wall's, 7; James Perry's, 15; Mr.. Pettigrove's, 8; McKey's, or Agency, 8; Allen's, 8; James Colbert, 1; Levi Kemp, 7; Big town, 15; Old Factors, 5; John Brown's, 28; The Clean House, 6; The Good Spring, 8; Bear Creek, 12; Carters, 5; Tennessee River (Colbert's Ferry), 8; Duck River, 75; Nashville, 50.

Mrs. Dunbar Rowland explained in a 1902 article -- "Marking the Natchez Trace" -- in the "Journal of Mississippi History" that through "change of proprietorship, or other reasons, these stations were known at different times by different names, and as spelling, especially proper names, was not at that date an exact science, the lists of stopping-places along the old route, made at various dates, differ greatly."

 

‘OVERGROWN WITH BRUSH’

 

This first federal highway in Mississippi and first post road in this region of the country held great national importance for only about three decades. By then, its worth had been greatly reduced. The advent of the steamboat, which provided reliable travel upriver, was the major reason.

By 1823, other post roads had been built in this region, but the Natchez Trace, wrote Jamison, "still remained the main source of communication between Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, places northward in Virginia, and the lower reaches of the Mississippi."

The last report from the Postmaster General was November 24, 1829. Jamison noted that "the money appropriated for the Nashville and Natchez road had been mingled with the general funds of the Department, out of which expenses of the road were defrayed, and ... there was still a balance on the books of $1,946.65."

Jamison wrote that by "1830 the Trace had begun to decline in its importance as a Federal highway and thereafter served only for local conveniences. Disuse soon transformed sections of it into dim ruts and in places it became effaced and overgrown with brush."

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