Stanley Nelson

 

It was a small tavern on the outskirts of town, a stopping place for weary travelers reaching the end of the Natchez Trace and for rivermen returning from New Orleans after selling their produce and vessels.

To make it to King’s Tavern from Nashville, travelers along the Natchez Trace in the late 1700s often carried with them a pouch of dried ground corn for survival if all other food sources were exhausted or unobtainable. Mixed with water and swallowed, this cornmeal concoction provided just enough energy to keep a man from starving until he could find a decent meal.

The cornmeal also came in handy when danger arose and travelers could not build a campfire for fear of attracting notice from hostile forces, including robbers or outlaws who hid in the wilderness.

Historian J.F.H. Claiborne in his 19th century book on Mississippi said these wilderness travelers learned much from Native Americans about survival.

"The Indians have an art, common to them all," wrote Claiborne, of “subsisting on less than a man can subsist on in any other way. They take the corn when it is fit to roast, boil it in an earthen pot, take it out in the ear, barbecue (roast) it on a scaffold over a fire until it is perfectly dry and hard; they then shell the com, place it in a pot, sift ashes with it, and parch it over the fire, stirring it around all the time with a stick.

"They then take it out, sift the ashes from it with a sifter made of split cane, and pound the corn in a mortar. This parched corn flour, (generally known among the traders as 'cold meal,') keeps without spoiling as long as it is kept dry, and a man can travel a week on a quart of it. A spoonful of it in a pint of water is a delicious and sufficient meal for one man."

A few sips of this "cold meal" mixture saved Francis Baily and his small party traveling the wilderness trail in the summer of 1797. Although Baily and his companions had stocked up on supplies in Natchez before departing, they found themselves dodging villains and hostile Indians shortly after running out of food. Too afraid to light a campfire or talk above a whisper, they took their ground corn kept in a tiny pouch, mixed it with creek water, swished it between their teeth and swallowed. This sustained them until they were out of danger.

JOHN SWANEY

By the early 1800s, the chance of starving lessened once the U.S. government reached agreements with the Native Americans to create a wagon road through their lands in Tennessee and Mississippi. The agreements also created better conditions for one of the most welcomed government representatives to arrive in any community – the post rider.

The men who delivered the mail still had to use survival tactics at times when running the route between Nashville and Natchez, the two ultimate destinations along the wilderness road that ran through the lands of the Choctaw and Chickasaw. Post riders like John Swaney often became legends in their own time.

While at work, Swaney raced from rest station to rest station where he could pick up a fresh horse and maybe a quick meal. These stations were established by the U.S. government but may have been owned and operated by Native Americans or by white men with experience as traders among the Indians.

There were once as many as 50 inns along the Natchez Trace. They were

sometimes called "stands." A handful were comfortable and the food good. Some were little more than sheds with dirt floors. A few were built specifically to accommodate travelers. Others were simply the homes of frontiersmen who showed hospitality to the weary passerby.

Swaney, though, one of the first post riders, faced many dangers on his solitary ride. His deliveries, he once said, included "a few letters and government dispatches, with a few newspapers," which he carried in a deerskin mail pouch dressed in oil. He also brought along a half bushel of corn to feed his horse, food for himself and a few supplies that fit in a pack roll tied to the back of his saddle.

His traveling gear also included an overcoat in the winter and a tin trumpet, which he used to signal his arrival at the few stopping off points along the way, particularly when signaling for a ferry ride across a stream.

THE LONELY RIDE

Because a speedy delivery of the mail was crucial, Swaney's grueling ride

required that he push his horse at breakneck speed. He would complete his journey in about two weeks -- sometimes less -- from Nashville to Natchez if everything went perfectly. When Francis Baily made his trip from Natchez to Nashville -- before the government turned the wilderness road into a wagon way -- it took him 28 days.

According to Lena Jamison in an article in the "Journal of Mississippi History" in April 1939, Swaney's journey southward from Nashville to Natchez began "on Saturday night at eight o'clock and toward midnight he would reach Tom Davis' cabin on the Big Branch of the Harpeth River. This was the last white man's dwelling, and beyond lay the wilderness. "

By morning, 51 miles from Nashville, Swaney arrived at Gordon's Ferry on Duck River. At this point, Swaney ate breakfast and fed his horse, which had been pushed to a full gallop where the terrain allowed. Eighty miles farther brought Swaney to Colbert's Ferry along the Tennessee River.

Swaney said that it was crucial to arrive there before nightfall. The reason was that the chief of the Chickasaws, hired by the mail contractor to boat the post riders across the river, would not provide the service after dark. Often Swaney would spend the night with the chief.

From there, says Jamison, "Swaney had to ride one hundred and twenty

miles ... before he would see a house or even an Indian hut, and he would have to stay out one night in the woods or canebrakes." If the weather was cold, Swaney made a fire with a "tinder-box."

From Choctaw territory in northern Mississippi to Port Gibson in Claiborne

County, Swaney would occasionally run into the outlaw Sam Mason, who often liked to visit with the mail carriers. A Virginia native, Mason never bothered Swaney, but he often robbed and terrorized trace travelers.

‘MONEY HE MUST HAVE’

In 1813, Swaney told the "Gallatin (Tenn.) Examiner" that Sam Mason's band of outlaws included his two sons and "six or eight other men." A big man who weighed 200 pounds, Mason was in his early 60s when he and Swaney crossed paths.

The outlaw had once lived a respectable life, having fought in the Revolutionary War, and having served as an elected justice of the peace and judge in Pennsylvania. By the 1790s he was living in Kentucky and had turned to a life of crime, leading a gang of pirates from his base in a cave along the Ohio River. He also operated as a highwayman, hiding out along the trace and robbing cash carrying flatboatmen who were returning to their homes from Natchez or New Orleans after being paid for their labor and/or goods.

Swaney found Mason to be "modest" and completely without bravado, "but

"always anxious to hear what was said of him. He often told me not to be afraid of him as he was after money and not letters, and that he did not wish to hurt anyone, but money he must have."

Mason "was the terror of every trader," who "in those days went down the river in flats, sold their produce for dollars or doubloons, which they packed on ponies and came through on foot, in gangs of five or ten men. Before leaving Natchez, they had to supply themselves with provisions, as there was then no accommodations on the road, in the Choctaw country, except at the Agency."

On one of Swaney's trips from Natchez to Nashville with mail, he ran into the wife of one of Mason's sons. She was, said Swaney, "carrying a baby and a small sack of provision in her arms" heading northward. "She begged me to help her on her way, which I did by placing her on my horse. I did this for a day, and made up the lost time by traveling all night."

While some claim that Mason died a short period after being shot in the head while escaping from law enforcement, others claim he was murdered and beheaded. That's what a jury in Mississippi Territory believed.

Accused of his murder were two members of his own gang. They had delivered Mason's head to authorities hoping to claim a reward. Both were hung in Greenville, a community along the trace that was then the county seat of Jefferson County. Greenville faded into obscurity when in 1825 a commission named the newly-formed town of Fayette, located six miles to the east, as the new county seat.

‘HAVEN FOR WEARY TRAVELERS’

When John Swaney reached King's Tavern on the outskirts of Natchez, he and his tired horse could finally rest. He had reached his destination. Here, locals picked up their mail.

According to research in 1971 by Carl A. Ray, the senior historian for the

Mississippi Department of Archives and History Division of Historic Sites and

Archaeology, the tavern "became a haven for the weary travelers who had traveled the dangerous Natchez Trace ... The taproom served as a gathering place where stories of the Harpe brothers, Sam Mason and John Murrell (all outlaws), who had all acquired fame along the Trace, were told."

King's Tavern would in later years be known for generations as Bledsoe House, but the original owner of the tavern was a man named Richard King, a New York state native, whose brother Prosper King first owned the grounds on which the tavern was built. The tavern building is believed to one of the oldest, if not the oldest, buildings in Natchez. It is believed to have been constructed during the late 1790s or early 1800s.

George Willey, whose family immigrated to Spanish Natchez from Kentucky in 1788, recalled the early history of Natchez in Claiborne's book on Mississippi. Willey said the oldest house in Natchez was also the destination for  returning home from New Orleans before heading out northward on the trace. He identified the house as King's Tavern, calling it "the stopping place of Western men on their return from New Orleans, after selling out their flatboats of produce."

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