Safety in numbers on the Trace

THE NATCHEZ Trace was mostly a narrow trail that stretched from Natchez to Nashville. Many traveled in numbers along the lonely route for safety reasons. Some who survived the journey wrote about their experiences.


Methodist preachers traveling the Natchez Trace during the early 1800s almost always traveled in groups of three to five, relying on the safety of numbers.

On his way to Nashville in the early 1800s, Lorenzo Dow delivered the sermon for the funeral of Tobias Gibson's niece near Port Gibson. Because the party of men he planned to travel with had left the day before, Dow had to push his horse at full speed and attempt to overtake the party.

His horse was packed with a minimum amount of supplies for the 500-mile journey to Nashville. At that time, news had spread that a Kentuckian had killed a Choctaw, but found not guilty in a trial. The Indians complained to the governor, but to no avail.

Dow wrote in his autobiography that "according to their custom," the Choctaw "were determined to kill somebody, as they must have life for life; and they had now become saucy, and had shot at and wounded several on the road, but had not killed any one yet."

Ten miles into his journey, Dow spotted a party of Choctaw. He hoped they would pass by him, but instead one "seized my horse by the bridle, and the others surrounded me ... I thought I was a gone case."

Determining not to give up his horse without a fight, Dow noticed that "the Indians had ramrods in the muzzles of their guns as well as their stocks, so it would take some time to pull out the ramrods, and get the gun cocked and prepared ... to shoot." At that moment Dow’s horse "started and jumped sideways" forcing the bridle from the Indian's hands while another jumped to avoid the horse's feet.

Instinctively, Dow gave his “horse the switch and leaned down on the saddle, so that if they shot I would give them as narrow a chance as I could to hit me ... I did not look behind me until I had got out of sight and hearing of the Indians." Fifteen miles to the north he caught up with his traveling party.

Two days later, Dow said another group -- about 25 in all -- was "attacked by some ruffians, driven from their camp, and plundered of some thousands of dollars, and some of them came near starving before they got in." For several years, outlaws and renegades terrorized travelers along the trace.




The flatboatmen who journeyed down the Mississippi from the Ohio River Valley with produce and other goods to sell in Natchez or New Orleans also traveled in groups up the trace in route to their homes. They collected their pay, disassembled the flatboats to sell the lumber, stocked up on a few supplies and headed out.

Until the steamboat provided a powerful and reliable way to travel upstream on the Mississippi, the speed of a man’s legs or of his horse was the fastest way to travel on land.

During the summer of 1797, a 23-year-old Englishman named Francis Baily and his 12 traveling companions headed north along the trace.

Baily's group loaded supplies on 30 packhorses at Natchez in preparation for the long wilderness trail journey to Nashville. Although most of the men did not know one other, they traveled together to endure the hazards as a team.

A well-educated Englishman, Bailey recorded his adventures in a book called "Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America in 1796 and 1797."

Months earlier on his journey south by flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Baily had met the world famous Kentucky frontiersmen Daniel Boone. He had spotted Boone traveling the Ohio in his canoe with his dog and his .29 caliber long rifle he called "Tick Licker" (so named because Boone according to legend could shoot a tick off a deer without hurting the animal).

Baily's record of his roundtrip journey south on water and return to the northeast by land offers a vivid snapshot of early America and of the final days of Spanish rule in this region of the world. As a side note, Bailey returned to England where he became quite wealthy as a member of the London Stock Exchange and in the insurance field.  He also became a noted astronomer.




For trace travelers like Baily, the journey was hazardous, exhausting and often life-threatening. Travelers sometimes met murderous outlaws or were caught between warring Native Americans. Sometimes the journey was made worse simply by rubbing against a vine growing along the path.

Contact with poison ivy suffered Baily great pain and discomfort along the way, causing his legs to swell "to a very considerable size, and to break out in open ulcers." He couldn't wear his boots because of his swollen feet and had to cut open his trousers and bind his legs with a handkerchief. Due to the occasional steep terrain and small, jagged stones, Baily frequently had to dismount his horse and walk. He wore a pair of moccasins he made himself from the leather of his worn out boots, but they offered little protection.

In the end, he learned an old Indian cure for his ailment when a guide "pointed out some herbs to me which he recommended me to boil and lay as a poultice on the part affected. This I did every night, and found my leg very much relieved by it."




Northward along the trace, the Baily party came upon a small Chickasaw settlement in northern Mississippi where a tribal elder greeted them with a handshake. Though the white men and Native Americans were often unable to communicate by language, the use of signs or other means was successful.

Baily said the elderly Indian, "pointing to the sun, and to his cornfield, gave us to understand that it was time to stop and refresh ourselves; and as we longed very much for some of the old man's roasting ears, we were not very backward in comprehending his meaning."

Curiosity soon delivered the Indian's extended family "to the spot. Some children were immediately dispatched into the field to fetch us some ears of corn, and which were laid over the fire before the house in order to roast."

The old man's dwelling, said Baily, was situated on high ground that provided a view of the surrounding opening in the forest where a cornfield was planted "irregularity through a kind of natural meadow." This small settlement was occupied during the growing season, but by winter it was abandoned when the Indians journeyed "far in the woods in search of game, traversing the continent (region) with his family from one extreme to the other."




After feasting with the Chickasaw family, Baily and his companions "went round to view all the particulars of this Indian settlement." Baily said it consisted of "three principal huts" -- one for winter, one for summer and one for storage. The storage hut was particularly crudely built, said Baily. Kept there were many items such as "skins, furs, gun, powder, tobacco, tomahawk, dancing bells, and a few implements of husbandry."

The winter hut "consisted of a few stakes irregularly placed in the ground, and plastered up on all sides with mud, so that there were only two openings -- the one to enter, and the other at the top for emission of smoke ... In cold weather the family all assemble in this place, and shutting the door and kindling a fire in the middle, pass away days and nights."

The summer hut appeared "much more comfortable," wrote Baily, "and well adapted to the climate. It is built a few paces from the other, and consists of nothing more than four upright posts, on which is supported a kind of thatched roof formed of the husks and leaves of the Indian corn." It was built primarily to provide "protection from the heat of the sun by day, and a shelter from rain in the night."

A layer of cane-stalks was used for a single bed on which "they all lie down." Chairs were "nothing more than stumps of trees," while drinking vessels were made from "the hollow of a gourd."

While Baily found this settlement quite primitive, he also found larger villages beautifully developed and thriving with activity.

Women, said Baily, tended to the cornfields and they "may be truly called the slaves of men, performing all the laborious parts of life, and which in other countries are committed to the most menial servants." The women also cultivated tobacco.




As they arrived near the present day town of Pontotoc, Miss., about 18 miles west of Tupelo, they learned that a band of warring Creeks were in the Chickasaw lands. This information was provided from a man named John McIntosh, who lived on this Chickasaw ground by their permission and was in the process of "fortifying his plantation with a regular stockade, raised about twelve feet high, and formed of thick plants." The distance between the stockade and McIntosh's home in the center provided some "free room for the besieged within."

Macintosh's father had come to this area more than a quarter century earlier as an agent amongst the Chickasaws for the British government. Young John adapted to the Indian lifestyle and stayed.

Baily called the setup a "sorry place, little better than an Indian hut." Macintosh sold Baily some dried venison and "Indian bread" for $2. Baily declined to purchase some "cheeses" of Macintosh's "own making," which Baily said were "miserable."




In 1813, a decade and a half after Baily's journey up the trace, Martha Phillips Martin, traveling with her husband, baby daughter Jane and a small party, stopped at a cabin not far from Nashville hoping to stay all night. Instead they were spooked when they found that all the doors were open giving "every appearance of being left in a hurry." Two miles farther they set up camp in the woods.

While they were making a fire, one of the post riders delivering mail between Nashville and Natchez rode up on his horse. His name was Joplin.

"Mr. Joplin ... got down & took his coffey, ham and crackers with us. He told us we were fortunate in not being along two days before, as a party of Creek Indians had past along killing everyone they met." That's why, he said, no one was in the house the Martin family had passed earlier on their route. The owners had fled.

At a place not far from Nashville in Tennessee, the Martins found Chickasaw warriors gathering in preparation to fight the Creeks. The Martins observed the graves of five flatboatmen who while traveling from Natchez to Nashville had reportedly been murdered by the Creeks three days earlier.

The Chickasaw provided Martha and family with a supper of "turkey, corn & potatoes. Mr. Martin asked an old Indian if he would let me & my child sleep in his house but (he) would not consent. It is their custom not to allow strangers to sleep in the house with their family." While Martha slept, her husband and two other men "sat up all night" while nearby were approximately 50 Chickasaw camped for the night.

Oftentimes, the Choctaw and Chickasaw welcomed wilderness travelers, fed them and gave them directions, sometimes guiding them along part of the route.

Martha's remembrances of her journey were recalled in an article in the "Tennessee Historical Quarterly," in 1902, edited by Harriet C. Owsley, and entitled: "Travel Through the Indian Country in the Early 1800's, The Memoirs of Martha Philips Martin."


(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.