The Natchez Trace

THE NATCHEZ Trace, previously known as the Wilderness Road, stretched from Natchez to Nashville. (Concordia Sentinel photo)

At the end of the 18th century, the need for a wagon road connecting Natchez to the rest of the country via Nashville, Tenn., approximately 450 miles away became crucial. This issue came to forefront in 1798 after Congress created the Mississippi Territory and made Natchez the capital.

Three years later, representatives of the U.S. government met with tribal leaders of the Chickasaw in Tennessee and the Choctaw to talk about turning the wilderness road into a wagon way. The conference was held at the site of Fort Adams on the Mississippi River, located 38 miles south of Natchez in lower Wilkinson County. The U.S. fort was named in honor of President John Adams.

Flatboatmen who traversed the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Natchez to sell their goods would often follow this ancient animal and Indian trail -- actually several disconnected trails -- to Nashville on the trip back. This bridle path through the wilderness later became known as the Natchez Trace.

In the Treaty of Fort Adams in 1801, the Choctaw ceded 2.6 million acres to the U.S. Much of that land was in the Old Natchez District, which included the river counties of Wilkinson, Adams, Jefferson and Claiborne. Although the Choctaw had never really possessed this region, they claimed it by default after other tribes had left the area. In fact, by 1801, it had been settled by a fast-growing population of whites.

"The Indian conferences and treaties of 1801 were intended to re-establish U.S.-Indian relationships on the basis of the new geopolitical situation, namely the renouncement of all claims by Spain to land on the east side of the Mississippi River north of the 31st parallel of latitude," according to Mississippi historian Jack Elliott. "This land included most of present-day Alabama and Mississippi. They were designed in part to update the previous treaties signed with the major Southern tribes.

"The Treaty of Fort Adams in part was to confirm that the territory of the Natchez District was owned by the U.S. and was not part of the Indian Territory (land under U.S. jurisdiction but under tribal law.) Lands in the Indian Territory did not fall under state and territorial laws although it might lie within the boundaries of a state or territory nor could this land be sold to non-Indians. Furthermore non-Indians were not to pass through Indian territory without express permission of the proper authorities ... Choctaw claim to this land was tenuous for several reasons," including the fact that "this land was historically land claimed by the Natchez Tribe. With their dispersal in about 1730, the Choctaws apparently began to simply claim it."

The Chickasaws had days prior to the Fort Adams conference granted use of the wilderness path that ran through their territory in northern Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. Yet they did not cede any lands nor did they grant the U.S. the right to operate "stands" to be established along the road for lodging, food and rest for travelers. The Chickasaws shrewdly retained that right for themselves.




The Natchez Trace was crucial for development of the Mississippi Territory and the rest of the country because it would allow settlers from the Appalachian Region and other points to come southward along the Wilderness Road to put down their roots in the Natchez area. This was part of President Thomas Jefferson's strategy to defend U.S. interests against foreign powers that at the time controlled the lands west of the Mississippi River, including Louisiana. While foreign nations had long depended on Indian alliances to protect their interests, Jefferson knew that white American settlers would defend their own homes and thereby U.S. interests from any foreign or domestic aggressors.

Gen. James Wilkinson was appointed by Jefferson as one of the three commissioners to represent U.S. interests at the Fort Adams conference. Wilkinson County is named after the general.

The other two were Benjamin Hawkins, appointed by President George Washington in 1796 as General Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and Andrew Pickens, a Revolutionary War officer and frontiersman. Hawkins and Pickens had participated in the negotiation of the Hopewell Treaty with several southern Native American tribes on Pickens' Hopewell Plantation in South Carolina in 1785-86.

In the Hopewell Treaty, according to Elliott, "Choctaw boundaries were defined so as to exclude the Natchez District. So given their tenuous claim to the District the 'cession' of the District to the U.S. (in 1801) amounted to little more than a quit claim deed through which it was written into law that they indeed had no claim to this land."




Several Choctaw chiefs met with these U.S. officials at Fort Adams in late 1801 to discuss the Natchez to Nashville road. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn briefed the three commissioners on the goals of the conference.

Dearborn told Wilkinson, Hawkins and Pickens that the Choctaw "may be considered one of the most powerful nations of Indians within the limits of the United States; and a pacific and friendly disposition in and towards them should be cultivated." He added that it "is suggested that the Indians will oppose our request for opening roads" because some fear that "their cattle and horses will travel too far from home in such roads and be driven away and stolen by the white people who may travel on said roads."

Assure the Choctaw, Dearborn said, "that no white people shall be allowed to travel on the road to Natchez," except those with passes. Those passes "shall be countersigned by the men who may be stationed at the several houses to be established on the roads."

The three commissioners were paid $8 per day, plus travel expenses, for their work.

On Tuesday, October 27, 1801, after reaching an agreement with the Chickasaws concerning the northern portion of the Natchez-Nashville trail, Wilkinson wrote Dearborn from Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis, Tenn.), that "we expect to be in conference with the Choctaws ... at Loftus' Heights (Fort Adams), our barrier post on this river; and should they accede to the proposition for opening the road, of which I have no doubt, six companies will be put to work at the outskirts of the settlements of Natchez, under the command of Colonel Gaither."




At Fort Adams on Saturday, December 12, 1801, Choctaw chiefs and the commissioners passed the calumet to open the conference.

Jim Barnett of Natchez, who has written extensively about the Native Americans of Mississippi in two books ("The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735," and "Mississippi's American Indians"), says that in 1801 the chiefs of the Chickasaws involved in the treaty talks were primarily of mixed blood -- the sons of white fathers and Indian mothers. He said at the Fort Adams conference, one mixed blood chief was among the signers -- Robert McClure. These mixed blood chiefs were sons of white traders who had taken up residence with the tribes and married Indian women.

Barnett noted, too, that the treaties "were amazingly condescending to the Indians. The Indians weren't the ones who wrote the language."




Wilkinson opened the Fort Adams conference with these welcoming remarks:

"You have all heard of the death of your father, the great (President George) Washington, and you have, no doubt, wept for the loss. Since we experienced that heavy misfortune, the people of the Sixteen Fires (16 states), assembled in their great national council house, have thought proper to select our beloved chief, Thomas Jefferson, to be President of the United States.

"Brothers: Open your ears, and listen well. Your new father, Jefferson, who is the friend of all the red people, and of humanity, finding himself at the head of the white people of the Sixteen Fires, immediately turned his thoughts to the condition of his red children, who stand most in need of his care, and whom he regards with the affection of a father."

Wilkinson informed the Choctaw chiefs that the Chickasaws had previously consented to the opening of the northern portion of the road through their lands. For this concession, the Chickasaws received rifles and rifle powder, lead, gun flints, blankets, shirts, rifles, axes, hoes, black silk handkerchiefs, calico, scalping knives, 50 gallons and five kegs of whiskey, and 200 pounds of tobacco.

Wilkinson said "we now ask your (Choctaw) consent, that we may continue the same road through your lands, to the settlements of this territory. We propose, for the accommodation of travelers, and for your own interests, that houses of entertainment and ferries, should be established on the road, and that they may be rented by you to such persons" approved by the American government. "The ground, the houses, and the money, arising from the rents, to be for the use of your nation, and subject to its disposal."




Six Choctaw chiefs spoke on this day, including Tuskonahopia, Too-te-hoomuh, Mingo-poose-eoos, Oak-chume, Puck-shum-ubbee and E-lau-tau-lau-hoo-muh. All granted permission to build the road, but each expressed various concerns and some made specific requests.

Tuskonahopia granted his permission for the U.S. to build "a white road, as a path of peace, not as a path of war; one which is never to be stained."

Puck-shum-ubbee: "From the information I have received from my forefathers, the Natchez country belonged to red people; the whole of it, which is now settled by white people. But you Americans were not the first people who got this country from the red people. We sold our lands, but never got any value of it; this I speak from the information of old men."

Puck-shum-ubbee asked that "our young women, and half breeds" be given spinning wheels and "somebody to be sent among them to teach them to spin."

On Tuesday, December 15, 1801, more chiefs testified, including:

Buc-shun-abbe: "There are a number of people wanting to trade, from this quarter. We do not wish the people of Bayou Pierre, and Big Black, and Walnut Hills (Vicksburg), to purchase skins from the red people. We do not apply for that trade; 'tis a trade interfering with ours, and stealing our property, who trade from other places. These people may introduce a trade of liquor amongst us, and that may cause the death of red people, which has happened lately, at Natchez, for which we are sorry. I want our father to send us iron wedges, and hand-saws and augers."

Mingo Hom-massatubley: "I want people qualified well to teach our women, not people that know nothing" He asked "that ploughs may be sent us, welding hoes, grubbing hoes, axes, hand-saw, augers, iron wedges and a man to make wheels and a small set of blacksmith's tools for a red man."

Hoche Homo: "I have granted permission to the commissioners to open the white road of peace ... I hope you will hold it fast; the chain of friendship, like an iron chain, should never be broken."




On Wednesday, March 10, 1802, President Jefferson presented to the Senate for ratification "a treaty (totaling six articles) entered into by the commissioners of the United States, with the Choctaw nation of Indians."

Article 2 of the Treaty of Fort Adams stated that the "Mingoes, principal men, and warriors, of the Choctaw nation of Indians, do hereby give their free consent, that a convenient and durable wagon way may be explored, marked, opened and made, under the orders and instructions of the President of the United States through their lands to commence at the northern extremity of the settlements of the Mississippi Territory ... until it shall strike the lands claimed by the Chickasaw Nation."

Article 5 provided that the Choctaw receive "goods and merchandise" valued at $2,000 in "consideration" of their "concessions."

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