Back in 1806 when the Nation was still young and rapidly growing westward, a horse path for postal riders was opened through the Creek Nation stretching from middle Georgia to coastal Alabama. As the likelihood of another battle with Britain increased, the crucial need to quickly move troops to protect the American Gulf Coast was becoming more evident. In June 1810, Fort Stoddert's commanding officer Col. Richard Sparks was ordered by Secretary of War William Eustis to inspect and document these horse paths in order to mark a military road so that troops and supplies could be sent to defend the Gulf Coast. A second scouting party from Fort Stoddert was led by 1st Lt. John Roger Nelson Luckett. Luckett made the first significant survey for road construction in land that would later become Alabama. In addition to being charged to keep journal notes of each day of his trip, Luckett’s party carved Roman numerals into trees marking each mile along their journey. On July 11, 1811, Brigadier General Wade Hampton was directed to immediately begin construction of three wagon roads through the Creek Nation - the second of these roads became known as the Federal Road.
With construction at last beginning in 1811, the “Old Federal Road,” was built from west to east connecting Fort Stoddert, Alabama, to Fort Wilkinson, Georgia. (Several spelling variations include Stoddert, Stoddart, etc.) Constructed in 1799, Fort Stoddert was named for the Acting Secretary of War Benjamin Stoddert. Fort Stoddert was located at the Mount Vernon Landing on the Mobile River in Mobile County east of current day Mount Vernon. Located at the Federal Road's other end, Fort Wilkinson was near Milledgeville on the Oconee River in Baldwin County, Georgia. At that time, Milledgeville was the capital of Georgia.
The Old Federal Road successfully connected Fort Stoddert to the Chattahoochee River. At that point, the Federal Road merged with the earlier postal riders’ horse path that linked Athens, Georgia, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Unlike the old horse path, the Federal Road went eastward making a connection with lands ripe for the recruitment of soldiers and obtaining supplies for the military. This path quickly became a major travel route for pioneers to the area once known as the Old Southwest.
From its start as a narrow horse path used to carry the mails, the Old Federal Road underwent great development and became a major military road connecting early American forts in the Creek Lands and the Mississippi Territory. Acting as the interstate highway of its day, when “Alabama Fever” raged through the Carolinas and Georgia, the Old Federal Road carried thousands of pioneers to the Old Southwest. As such, the Federal Road directly contributed to the dramatic increase in Alabama’s population between 1810 and 1820 - with Alabama’s population growing far faster than that of either Mississippi or Louisiana during this time. Alabama continued out-distancing both Mississippi and Louisiana in population growth through 1850.
The Federal Road became a well traveled stagecoach route for those going through Alabama. In 1824, Adam Hodgson wrote Letters from North America Written During a Tour in the United States and Canada wherein he described his 1820 travel along the Federal Road from Chattahoochee to Mobile. Hodgson found adequate over-night lodgings and described one stop as having three beds in a log building with a clay floor. Noting the ground formed a “perpetual undulation,” Hodgson concluded that “[t]he road, which is called the Federal Road, though tolerable for horses, would with us be considered impossible for wheels.”
Nearly two centuries later, the Federal Road remains visible. For those interested in making a modern daytrip along this important historical path, the Monroe County Heritage Museums has marked the portion of the Federal Road through Monroe County with eight monuments along its route from Price’s Hotel near the Monroe and Butler County lines through Mac David’s Hotel where the Federal Road continues through Escambia County, Alabama.
The Federal Road through Georgia, the Creek Nation, and Alabama, 1806 - 1836.
- Henry DeLeon Southerland, Jr. and Jerry Elijah Brown. Tuscaloosa, Alabama University of Alabama Press, 1989.
- The Very Worst Road: Travellers’ Accounts of Crossing Alabama’s Old Creek Indian Territory, 1820-1847. Jeffrey C. Benton, compiler.
- Eufaula, Alabama: Historic Chattahoochee Commission, 1998.
- History of Alabama and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period by Albert James Pickett. A well-researched standard history of early Alabama.
- Monroe County Heritage Museums
- History of the Battle of Burnt Creek in Monroe County, Alabama.
One of the oldest roads in the world is in the southeastern part of the United States, and crosses Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. It is the 450 mile long Natchez Trace Parkway. The Natchez Trace has Indian temple mounds and Indian village sites that existed as long ago as 8000 B.C. Some of these sites were occupied by human beings long before the building of the ancient pyramids of Egypt. Emerald Mound, located on the Natchez Trace near Natchez, Mississippi, is the second largest ceremonial earthwork in the U.S. It was built over two centuries before Columbus, by Native Americans known as Mississippians. The Natchez Trace is the story of the people who used it ~ from the Indians who traded and hunted along it, to the "Kaintuck" boatmen who stomped it into a rough wilderness road on their way back from trading their farm goods in Spanish Natchez and New Orleans; to the post riders, government officials, and soldiers who made it a link between the Mississippi Territory and the newly formed United States from 1800 to 1830. The Trace during its busiest time carried settlers, pioneers, preachers, travelers, warriors, highwaymen, and armies.
The Trace flourished and grew before the time of steamboats, but with their arrival, the Trace gradually withered and died. Today only a few sections of the original old historic trace remain.
The Old Natchez Trace, one of the oldest roadways in the world, saw its beginnings as a trail cut through the wilderness by herds of buffalo and other animals. It was later used by America's First People, the native tribes of Mississippi, who connected these series of trails to use as hunting and trade routes. The three major tribes that the Natchez Trace was once home to were the Choctaw, Natchez and the Chickasaw. The Choctaws lived in central Mississippi. The Chickasaws lived in Northern Mississippi, close to Tupelo, Mississippi. Their village consisted of huts - not tepees. The Natchez is an extinct tribe today, but in the 1600's, they lived in southern Mississippi.
But these 3 Indian tribes were not the first humans to settle in this region. Archeological evidence has found in the many ceremonial mounds and village sites on the Trace, human habitation and remains which date back as long ago as 8000 years. Indian burial grounds called mounds still exist along the Trace. Indians were buried in these hill shaped graves, often a whole tribe together. Pottery, beads, and weapons were also buried in the graves.
These tribes continued to use the trail up until the time that the white European settlers of the new United States began forging west to claim the lands. Between 1699, when the French first arrived on the Mississippi gulf coast, to 1733, they had explored the area well enough to draw a map. The map showed an Indian trail running from Natchez to the Choctaw villages near present day Jackson, Mississippi, and then on to the Chickasaw villages in the northeastern part of the state. At this time the southern portion of the Natchez Trace was known as the "Path to the Choctaw Nation", while the northern part of the Trace was called "Chickasaw Trace". The word "trace" is an old French word which meant a line of footprints or animal tracks. This is the first known use of the word "trace" being used to describe the trail. French traders, missionaries, and soldiers traveled over the old Indian trade route during this time.
During the mid 1700's, men known as the Long Hunters explored and hunted in the Middle Tennessee region. They were usually gone from their home for more than a year at a time, to hunt and collect pelts and other animal products, then they would go to Natchez to sell their goods. It is known that the Long Hunters used the Mississippi River system to get their products to Natchez, but it is undocumented how they got back to their homes in the Tennessee country. But it is widely assumed that the Long Hunters marched back overland along the Trace. If this is true, they would have been the first Americans to use the Natchez Trace as a road for business.
The earliest documented American travelers of the trace were the people of the Kentucky and Tennessee river valleys known as "Kaintucks" or flatboatmen. At this time, the only market place for the mountain settlers of Tennessee and Kentucky to sell their goods was Natchez, the oldest city on the Mississippi River. To get to market, the farmer or mountainman had to build a flatboat, load it with his produce and pelts, and float it down the Ohio, Cumberland and Mississippi rivers. Once there, and the goods sold, the Kaintucks would break up their flatboat, sell it for lumber or even abandon it if necessary, since it was impractical to try returning by the river against its flow. If the farmer or mountainmen had made a good sale, they might buy a horse for their return trip. If the sale was bad, they would return on foot. In any case, in those early years, the return route home used most often was the old Natchez Road as the Trace was known at this time.
The 450 mile journey from Natchez to Nashville took fifteen to twenty days. It was these return trips that later made the Natchez Trace famous (or rather infamous would better describe it). Robbers, and outlaws, known as highwaymen, were common on the Natchez Trace. Since the Mississippi Territory was where travelers with money were, the highwaymen ended up there also. The Trace attracted large numbers of the lawless who survived by stealing and killing boatmen and other travelers. There are many stories of murders along the Natchez Trace. Tales of travelers being robbed, killed, then disemboweled, their body cavities filled with stones, and then the bodies submerged in some nameless creek were heard throughout the area.
Natchez was an important military and economic site in the early 1800's, so communication between Natchez and Washington, DC, was needed, and necessary for all. In 1800 Congress extended mail service to Natchez. The Postmaster General complained that it was a bad road, no more than an Indian footpath, and too treacherous to used. In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson ordered the army to clear the road for the new postal route. Army troops cleared underbrush and built bridges. In 1806, Congress gave the Postmaster General $6000 to contract outside the army for improvements, and within a short time the old Indian trail became an important frontier road. Inns, or "stands", as they were called, began popping up every few miles along the Trace. Stands were operated by both Indians and whites, and offered food and lodging to the weary traveler. By 1818, there were 50 stands and trading posts along the Trace from Natchez to Bear Creek on the Alabama border.
Our seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, traveled the Trace many times in the early 1800's, from his home in Nashville to Natchez to be with his loved one, Rachel Donelson Robards, the daughter of John Donelson, the co-founder of Nashville, Tennessee. Rachel was married at an early age to Lewis Robards from Kentucky, but she was very unhappy and so she moved to Natchez, to be away from her husband, Lewis. Believing that Mr. Robards had obtained a divorce, Andrew and Rachel were married in 1791. Two years later they found that the divorce had just then become final. A second marriage ceremony had to be performed. Political opponents used this gossip to attempt to make a scandal out of the Jacksons's happy marriage. A lot of controversy surrounded this affair. Mrs. Jackson suffered in silence from the gossip and rumors, but Jackson used dueling pistols to avenge his wife's honor. Andrew Jackson built his white mansion, the Hermitage, in 1819 near Nashville, Tennessee, for his wife, Rachel. (Large plantations were given names by their owners ~ Hermitage, Beauvoir, Montpier, etc.) Rachel died of a heart attack less than a month before her husband was inaugurated in 1828 as President. Jackson was convinced that her death had been caused by grief over the scandal made against her during the presidental campaign.
Other famous frontier people known to have traveled on the Trace were: Pushmataha, Tecumseh, Indian chiefs; Louis LeFleur, French trader; Marquis deLafayette; Henry Clay; the young boy Jefferson Davis; Jim Bowie; Aaron Burr; John James Audubon; and Captain Merriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. Captain Lewis lost his life on the Trace when he was mysteriously shot at Grinder's Stand in 1809. In 1811, the steamboat New Orleans made its first appearance at Natchez. By 1819, twenty steamboats were operating between New Orleans, St. Louis, Louisville, and Nashville. With the steamboat's ability to easily travel upriver against the flow, it was no longer necessary for the traveler to use the Trace, with all its discomforts and dangers, to journey north. The Natchez Trace was then used less and less as a national roadway, and finally reduced to use only by local people who lived around it. As it was used less, it started to be reclaimed by the wilderness from which it was cut. By the early 20th century it was all but forgotten, and overgrown ~ reduced to a quiet forest lane. Starting in the early 1900's, the Daughters of the American Revolution began a campaign to make people more aware of the old Natchez Trace and the role it played in the history of the old Southwest. Around the 1930's, the historical importance of the Old Natchez Trace was finally realized, thanks to the efforts of U.S. Representative Jeff Busby of Mississippi, and Trace land was set aside to be preserved. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt allotted funds from his "emergency funds" for the construction of the Natchez Trace Parkway, under the direction of the National Park Service. Today the Natchez Trace Parkway basically follows the Old Natchez Road. The parkway is still not completed, but 313 miles stretches across Mississippi, 33 miles across the Northwest corner of Alabama, and the last 103 miles into Tennessee. The National Park Service estimates that nineteen million people travel the Natchez Trace Parkway each year, making it the most popular, and most visited, unit in the National Park Service system. Along the way, the Park Service has set up nature trails, historic markers, and exhibits which explain all of the area's history. Archaeological sites, early inns, Indian sites, Civil War battlefields and even sections of the original old trace can still be seen today. The Natchez Trace Parkway is a picture album of the beauty and enchantment of a wilderness trail.
- The Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace. Coates, Robert M. Macaulay Company, University of Nebraska, 1930, 1962.
- The Devil's Backbone: The Story of the Natchez Trace. Daniels, Jonathan. McGraw-Hill Book Company, NY, 1962.
- A Way Through The Wilderness: The Natchez Trace and the Civilization of the Southern Frontier. Davis, William C. Harper Collins Publishers, NY, 1995.
- The Natchez Trace. Black, Patti Carr. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS, 1985.
- Natchez; An Illustrated History. Sansing, David G; Callon, Sim C, and Smith, Carolyn Vance. Plantation Publishing Company, Natchez, MS, 1992.
- The Natchez Trace. Crutchfield, James A. Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, TN, 1985.
- Mississippi; American the Beautiful. Carson, Robert. Childrens Press, Chicago, 1989.