Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Natchez Trace: The Devil's Backbone, Highwaymen, and Wayfaring Strangers

I've been happily writing a story set in 1790, titled Terms of Indenturement. It’s the first of a series and releases in the fall of 2017.

So, anyway, writing in the 1790s is a bit of a departure for me as most of my research has been between the 1850-1890s. But this story was one I wanted to write and for it to be historically accurate, it needed to be set before 1812 when the first paddle-wheels started plying the Mississippi river.

Why, you ask?

Well, because part of the backdrop for the series is the old Natchez Trace, also known as The Devil’s Backbone. The old Natchez Trace is centuries old and runs from Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS, over 400 miles long.

Back in the 1700s and even before that, the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and the Natchez hunted along trails all over the hills and hollows. Eventually, the easiest routes became the most common and what we know as the old Natchez Trace was born.

By 1733 the French had mapped the trail from Natchez heading northeast. In the late 1700s, Ohio River Valley farmers began floating their crops down the rivers to Natchez and New Orleans. It was easy, and quite pleasant to float down the river on flatboats, but going back up the river wasn’t easy at all. It was nigh to impossible. Instead, they sold or abandoned their flatboats for lumber, returning home by way of the Natchez Trace, either on foot or horseback.

It didn’t take long for the trail to become a clearly marked road. By 1810, many years of travel had made the trace the most heavily traveled road in the South. Inns, also called “stands” sprang up. By 1820, over 20 stands were in operation. Some provided basic food and shelter, with owners that might not be the honest, upstanding citizens that travelers longed for. Other inns, like Mount Locust, were well-known and owned by respectable, God-fearing folks who welcomed and treated visitors with hospitality, as well as a safe place to stay.

Mount Locust

Travel along the trace wasn’t without its hazards, the least of which were swamps, floods, disease-carrying insects, mosquitos the size of bats (okay, not really. But when one bites you, it FEELS like it!). But worse than that were the bands of highwaymen that plied the trace, attacking travelers that might be flush with cash from their recent transactions downriver.

The trace was a lawless frontier in the 1700s, and many a man lost his life traveling along the dark trail. It wasn’t until the invention of the steamboat that wealthy planters, merchants and their families could make the return trip on the water instead of along the trail. In January 1812, the steamer New Orleans arrived in Natchez. Soon steamboats from New Orleans and Natchez were calling regularly at St. Louis, Nashville, and Louisville and all points in between.

Travelers who could afford passage on the steamboats preferred the relative safety and comfort—and the speed—to the slow pace of going overland. Before long the busy trace became a peaceful forest lane. The overland travelers with lots of money in their pockets were on the riverboats, and the highwaymen sought other avenues to line their pockets.

But the years and years of travel along those roads had worn some areas down to where the banks are 5 to 10 feet high. My mother and I walked part of the sunken trace a few years ago. It was quiet. Nothing could be heard except the birds, some rustling that could have been squirrels.

The Sunken Trace
I have my characters traveling along this very stretch of road. It’s so much fun to write about an area that’s only a couple of hours away. I really, really want to go back to the area before this book is due, but I’m not sure I can fit in a trip—even a short one—in the next 6 weeks, but I’m going to try.


  1. Very interesting post. Thanks so much for sharing. Another great history lesson learned here on the HHH!

  2. I've always wondered where the term "trace" came from. Do you know? Was it adapted from a French word? I bet it was cool to travel along a trail with so much history.

  3. Thanks, Debbie! Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Vickie, good question! :)

    One of the definitions of the word trace is "a trail or path, especially through wild or open territory, made by the passage of people, animals, or vehicles."

    Also, if we think of the other definitions of the word "trace"... mark, sign, evidence, tracks, then it makes sense that the word "trace" might be applied to a heavily travelled path or trail.