Sunset in the Coconino National Forest, looking northeast toward Sedona, AZ, 4/17/15

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Natchez Trace National Parkway, July 1-3

Melrose House's Kitchen
The Natchez Trace is a National Parkway.  It is, at once, a beautiful park-like drive of 444 miles with 3 nice (free) campgrounds, a story of an ancient trail, the tale of early American ingenuity, and an accounting of some hard times -- frontiersmen's difficult south-to-north trek, the loss of Native American homelands, and the sites of some bloody civil war battles.  The parkway runs diagonally through Mississippi (SW to NE), takes a little corner of Alabama, then ends just south of Nashville, Tennessee.
Worn trace from use
I started in the deep south, in Natchez, Mississippi.  While there, I visited the Melrose House, part of the Natchez National Historic Park.  The Melrose Mansion's architecture is Greek-Revival and was being restored while I was there.  Even with the scaffolding, it is an impressive structure.  It stands as an example of pre-Civil War "Cotton Kingdom" prosperity.  The grounds and the many out buildings are also very handsome.  The largest building in the first picture's foreground is the kitchen (now Visitors Center).
Prehistoric Burial Mounds

The Natchez Trace is an ancient trail that runs roughly parallel to the modern parkway.  It has been used by prehistoric people, Native Americans, buffalo, and other animals for north-south transit.  As the picture shows, this trail has been worn down in many places to over 10 feet below the natural surface level due to it's use ... amazing.

View from Natchez Trace
Along the Parkway are seven sites of ancient mounds of prehistoric people.  After some excavation, researchers discovered that some of these mounds were used for burial purposes, and others also had ceremonial structures built on top of them.  I included a picture of a couple of the smaller burial mounds.

The interpretive signs along the Parkway told of the gradual loss of homeland for the Choctaw and Chickasaw.  I drove from south to north, reading treaty date after treaty date, seeing boundary lines drawn further and further northward, making their homelands smaller and smaller.  The final sign indicated that these native peoples were totally displaced to a reservation that is now in Oklahoma.
Dense Mixed-Hardwood

Simultaneous with the Native American's loss of homeland, early pioneers were moving westward.  The president was worried that the southwest (i.e., Mississippi and Louisiana) would feel so cut off from the rest of the US that they would try to form a country of their own.  So, starting with the ancient Natchez Trace, the government "modernized" it for use by ox drawn wagons, mail carriers on horseback, etc.  For farmers and merchants who wanted to sell their goods to the populated areas of the south, they used the rivers to raft their goods down to Natchez and New Orleans, then used the Natchez Trace to hike back home.   For these "Kaintucks" it wasn't an easy trek, the hike home included swamps full of mosquitoes, unsanitary conditions, humidity and heat. 
Mushrooms / Fungus near a
Bald Cypress Swamp

"Stands" were set up a day's hike apart, providing a place to sleep, food, medicine, etc.  My favorite stand name is "SheBoss."  Legend has that it was owned by an indian husband and white wife.  The indian couldn't speak English, so, whenever anyone asked him for something, he pointed to her and said "she boss."  Once steamboats were invented and used for going north up river, the Natchez Trace stopped being used.
Other historic points along the trace included sites of Civil War battles where the south fought to "preserve their way of life" -- Vicksburg National Military Park (MS), Tupelo National Battlefield (MS), Brices Crossroads National Battlefield Site (MS), and Shiloh National Military Park (TN).  These sites represent a such a sad and difficult time in our country's past when humans were bought and sold as slave property, and family members killed family members.

The dense mixed-hardwood forests, some with southern pine, and the bald cypress swaps were all amazing to me.  When camping on the Parkway in the hardwood forests, I was sure that I was going to see Little Red Riding Hood or the Big Bad Wolf any minute ... LOL.  As dense as the mixed-hardwood forests are today, they were much more dense and expansive before the pioneers started cutting them down to plant crops.  In fact, they were so expansive that a squirrel could have gone from tree to tree, without touching the ground, from Maine to Mississippi.  We've lost several species due to this extensive loss of forest, including north America's only parrot.

My favorite tree growth on the Natchez Trace Parkway were the Bald cypress swamps.  Beautiful, other worldly.  Alligators live here.

originally posted 7/27/10

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