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Archive for the ‘Mississippi’ Category

Location: Natchez,  Mississippi

View from Emerald Mound near Natchez, Mississippi

Our recent blog on Cahokia Mounds described the culture of the mound builders, whose handiwork all over the American landscape would have been part of everyday life for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Cahokia Mounds is a great stop for those in the St. Louis area. Today I want to talk about a couple of sites that are equally fascinating and easily accessible to those retracing the last journey of Meriwether Lewis along the Natchez Trace.

Emerald Mound was constructed about 1400. Second only to Monk’s Mound at Cahokia in size, it would have been the site of an enormous temple that served the ancestors of the Natchez Indians. It is believed to have continued to be used for about three centuries. Studying the residents and how they lived is frustrating because much of the site, including a number of additional mounds, was destroyed by farming before the National Park Service stepped into  preserve it  starting in the 1950s. Today, you can easily walk to the top of Emerald Mound.

These ancestors would have been among the Native Americans who violently repulsed the first Europeans to visit the area back in1542, when Hernando de Soto and the Spanish came calling. Unfortunately, the Spanish probably had the last laugh, as foreign diseases swept through the people of the area in the next decades. By the time the French ventured up the river 140 years later, the earlier civilization had been replaced by the Natchez, who lived not far from Emerald Mound in a city known as the “Grand Village.” Other smaller villages of Natchez Indians were scattered in the surrounding area.

The Grand Village was impressive to the French, though its ceremonial plaza and temple mound were much smaller than those found at Emerald Mound and Cahokia (it is believed to have been constructed back around 1200 and then resettled.) At first it seemed that the French and the Natchez might have a lot in common. The Natchez were ruled by a man known as the “Great Sun” (not unlike the French Sun King) and his brother, the Tattooed Serpent. A highly complex and stratified society still held proudly to its traditions on a spot with some of the richest farmland in America and a well-tended forest loaded with deer, walnuts, and peaches, plums, and figs.The French established reasonably decent relations with the Natchez and documented many of their beliefs, ceremonies, and customs, which included human sacrifice, ritual suicide, and infanticide.

In 1716, after four French traders were murdered by Natchez, the French set up a garrison known as Fort Rosalie. A handful of soldiers maintained the fort to protect French traders, those tobacco farmers crazy or desperate enough to seek their fortune in one of the most remote areas on the planet, their families, and their African slaves.

Mary with one of the reconstructed dwellings at the Grand Village of the Natchez

The Great Sun died in 1728, and his successor, the Young Sun, lost any control over his people, who were fed up with the French demanding more land for tobacco farming. In an incident reminiscent of today’s headlines, Natchez warriors strolled into Fort Rosalie and asked to borrow the garrison’s guns. To the surprise of the French, they proceeded to slaughter some 200 men and take hundreds of women, children, and slaves back to their village, where they were held hostage. (The slaves were given the option of becoming Natchez and many did.)

The incident proved to the last stand for the Natchez. In the war that followed, the French, along with Choctaw allies, hunted down the Natchez and took a terrible revenge. The Natchez were driven from the Grand Village and other towns. Those not killed were sold into slavery in the West Indies. A handful escaped to join the Cherokee and Creek, but their civilization disappeared forever. The region was completely destabilized, and war continued among area Indians for years, with lasting consequences. The French chose to arm their slaves, leading to a path to freedom and a free black society that had a huge impact on the history of Louisiana.

Archeological work began at the site of the Grand Village in the 1930s. Today you can visit the site, explore the mounds, and take in a small but very informative museum.

I know there are many other surviving Indian mound sites in the United States, including other smaller mounds along the Natchez Trace. I’d love to visit many more sites. If you have a site you recommend, please leave a comment.

For more reading:

Ancient Architects of the Mississippi

Indian Mounds of Mississippi

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When traveling on the Natchez Trace, you've got to have the right headgear

The ancient, mysterious Natchez Trace, which wends its way through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, is rich in Native American history and host to dozens of important Civil War sites. But for Lewis & Clark aficionados, it holds special significance. It was on the old Trace that Meriwether Lewis made his final journey, and where, on October 11, 1809, at the age of 35, his life came to an end.

The “suicide or murder?” debate rages on, but one thing is certain — a day spent on today’s Natchez Trace Parkway is an incredible experience. The Natchez Trace Parkway is an magnificent scenic drive, beautifully maintained and marked. But it is the stops that give you the idea of what once was a natural highway through the wilderness. For us, it was a chance to see a time and place come to life that had hitherto existed only in our imaginations.

The Natchez Indians built the mounds seen in the background

The Parkway begins in Natchez, Mississippi (a place I am dying to visit). For our visit, we joined it at Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis Presley and once the site of a large Chickasaw village. The village ruins are one of the many stops maintained by the National Park Service. The foundations of several homes are still visible, and it’s fascinating to learn how this small but mighty tribe dominated the area thoroughly during the period of early European exploration, fiercely repelling the French when they ventured into Mississippi and Tennessee. At the time of Lewis’s journey, many whites and blacks had moved into the area, but the Chickasaws remained the dominant power (and would until removed by Andrew Jackson in the 1830s).

Mary on the Old Trace

Other stops allow you to hike portions of the original Trace. Be sure to take your bug repellent before you walk into the woods! Overhead, vines intertwine in the tree canopy to make a dense green roof. Along the path, fallen trees lie with generations of old leaves and sticks.

The graves of unknown Confederate soldiers, buried along the Natchez Trace

At one stop we saw the graves of unknown Confederate soldiers; at another, stands of dogwood that evoked the memory of Meriwether Lewis and his companions riding this wild, lonely road in the final, desperate days of his life.

Buzzard Roost Spring

At the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (called Tenn-Tom), we were interested to see a modern inland sea passage — later learned that this project, though beautiful and technologically amazing, is considered one of the great federal boondoggles of all time. After viewing an incredible swamp, we fled from a giant bumblebee. We stopped to let a family of turkeys cross the road before enjoying a lovely creek at Buzzard Roost Spring, where Levi Colbert of the Chickasaw nation once had a “stand” (stands were stops that offered conveniences to travelers, including food, a place to camp, and sometimes lodging). We found an adorable but frantic black puppy here who had obviously been abandoned (a big pile of dog food had been dumped nearby).

At Colbert's Ferry, Tennessee River. In today's prices, Colbert charged the equivalent of $57 per person for his ferry service.

Our next stop was Colbert’s Ferry, where we stopped by the ranger station to report the puppy and then partook of our picnic. It was fun to relax here and gaze upon the wide and beautiful Tennessee River. And instead of the exorbitant ferry rides that made George Colbert notorious, we crossed in style on a nice bridge.

Liz on the Old Trace

In the afternoon, we walked several more sections of the Old Trace and drove an amazing portion into the deep woods. It was a strange and wonderful feeling to go back in time and experience something so historically significant and personally meaningful.

Grinder's Stand, where Meri-wether Lewis died on October 11, 1809

Finally we arrived at the stop called simply, “Meriwether Lewis,” the final resting place of the great explorer. Here you can view a recreation of Grinder’s Stand, where Meriwether Lewis lost his life on October 11, 1809, and visit the broken shaft monument that marks his grave. Near Lewis’s grave lies a small pioneer cemetery, but Lewis remains alone. We left a flag in remembrance of this great American who has come to mean so much to us.

We stayed and refreshed ourselves for a while, then made our way to Hohenwald, Tennessee, a dinky burg with a modest motel catering to Trace visitors. We found a surprising good little Mexican restaurant for dinner, then retired early, sated with the emotion of the day’s sights.

Mary with another tree down!

But the Natchez Trace Parkway does not end in Hohenwald. The next morning, we spent a little time exploring the remaining portion of the Trace before reluctantly leaving 1809 behind and traveling forward to 21st century Nashville. It turned out we had lucked out during our Meriwether Lewis pilgrimage; our second day on the Trace was much hotter and more humid. Still, we made a few more stops and got to walk some more sections of the Old Trace, see a beautiful waterfall, and take in a brick home built by one of the early ferry operators (this in a time and place where most people lived in log cabins).

The Sheboss Place. When people asked the owner's husband a question, he simply nodded to his wife and said, "She Boss."

The most fun stop was the Sheboss Place. There’s nothing to see here, but once it was the site of a stand, or inn, in which the husband of the owner answered every question by jerking his head towards his wife and muttering, “She boss.” We laughed so hard at this place we could hardly see to drive the car!

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Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos y Amorín

Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, Governor of Natchez

One of the most interesting and intriguing figures in early America was Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, the Spanish governor of the Natchez district during the time period covered in our book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe. Gayoso was not only a shrewd and able public administrator—which makes him stand out in any era—but a figure of larger-than-life proportions, with a life full of romance, adventure, and tragedy.

Manuel Luis Gayoso de Lemos y Amorín was born on May 30, 1747, at Oporto, a charming coastal town in Portugal known for its world famous wine. His father was a Spanish consul in the Portuguese port and his mother was a native of Oporto. Gayoso may have been educated at Westminster College in England; he was said to have the accent and manners of the British. On July 7, 1771, he entered the Spanish army as a cadet in the Lisbon Regiment.

Gayoso was handsome, good with languages, and naturally friendly and diplomatic. He rose quickly in the ranks, earning promotion to sub-lieutenant in 1772, sub-lieutenant of grenadiers in 1779, and lieutenant in 1781. For more than a year in 1781 and 1782, Gayoso served on the Spanish warship La España. The ship boasted 64 cannons and cruised around the Iberian peninsula, looking out for British warships (Spain had entered the Revolution on the side of France, and against England). During the Siege of Gibraltar, Gayoso had a chance to see some of the Spanish commanders in action. Spain and France were defeated by the superior British navy, but with impeccable timing, Gayoso secured another diplomatic assignment.

Aboard a Spanish ship

Aboard a Spanish ship

Gayoso’s excellent performance as a diplomatic assistant gained him promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1786. During this time, he met and wooed a beautiful Lisbon belle, Theresa Margarita Hopman y Pereira. Theresa was planning their wedding when he received the unexpected news that he was being considered for an assignment in America—namely, governor of the Natchez District, a huge extent of territory in West Florida that stretched from Point Coupee in the south to the mouth of the Yazoo River in the north, with the Mississippi River forming its western border. It was a sparsely populated, heavily disputed territory that had already been the focus of a considerable amount of intrigue since Spain had won it from the British during the Revolution. It also had lots of bears, and the temperature got up to 107 in the summer. Who could refuse?

Spanish Louisiana

Spanish Louisiana, 1762-1800 (courtesy Discovering Lewis & Clark site)

Gayoso married Theresa in 1787 and was delayed setting off by the birth of their first child, Manuel Gayoso Hopman, in 1788. Accompanied by his wife and two servants, the new governor finally set out in September 1788. They reached Havana in December and remained there for several weeks. In February 1789, Gayoso left Havana with his wife, small son and new infant daughter, on their way to New Orleans. A violent storm blew the ship off course, and for nine days they were in danger of sinking. They put in at the Yucatan and lingered there for a month before they eventually got another ship and arrived in New Orleans in April 1789, where Gayoso met with his new boss, Governor General Esteban Miró of Louisiana, and got briefed on his duties in Natchez.

Tragically, the trip had been too much for Theresa Gayoso. Weak from her recent childbirth and seized with fever, she died shortly after they got to Natchez. One of Gayoso’s first duties was to bury her there. Their infant daughter, likewise, did not survive long in the New World.

The Jolly Flatboatmen by Caleb Bingham

The Jolly Flatboatmen by Caleb Bingham (1857)

Natchez was a rough, lawless frontier settlement when Gayoso arrived in 1789. There were about twenty houses, most of them rough framed affairs, sparsely furnished. Kentuckians and other westerners descended the Mississippi with flatboats of goods to sell, unloaded their cargoes, then raised hell in the taverns. Often they stole a horse to get back home, via the Natchez Trace. Stolen goods frequently changed hands in the taverns for the price of a few drinks. Counterfeiting was big business, and slaves were common targets for thievery. Gayoso himself was ripped off by an American traveler to whom he extended hospitality, losing two slaves, a shotgun, carbine, bridles, and two saddles. (The thief was caught and returned for trial.)

Gayoso sought to lower the high rate of homicide in his frontier district by banning knives and pistols, but outlaws with a penchant for stabbing circumvented the law by fashioning effective stilettos of hardened wood. As governor, Gayoso was the chief magistrate and possessed the power to adjudicate disputes and arrange settlements. In Natchez Saturday was court day, and Gayoso spent virtually the entire day hearing complaints of various types and rendering his decisions. He was as tough on miscreants as his authority allowed, petitioning Miró unsuccessfully for the funds to build a jail. Gayoso had considerable power over the church in his district. Because the governors were considered the Spanish King’s representatives the new world, they had the power to create new bishoprics, dioceses, parishes, and other church posts. Gayoso was tolerant of various religious sects in Natchez, but he didn’t take any guff off the priests and didn’t hesitate to let them know who was boss.

Francisco Luis Héctor de Carondelet

Francisco Luis Héctor de Carondelet, Governor-General of Louisiana

Miró left the governorship of Louisiana in 1791 and returned to Spain. Gayoso had hoped to replace him, but was disappointed when Francisco Luis Hector de Carondelet was appointed in his place. Despite initial reason for tension, the two men seemed to have had an effective working relationship. When Carondelet arrived in 1791, he was appalled at the state of Spain’s defenses on the lower Mississippi. Together, Gayoso and Carondelet set about a long-term program to beef up Spain’s military defenses. At Gayoso’s urging, Carondelet created the Squadron of the Mississippi, which came to include six galleys, four galiots, one bombardier, and six cannon launches. In 1795, the crew members numbered over 300. The larger galleys boasted an 18-pounder cannon and eight to ten swivel guns. They were used for reconnaissance expeditions up and down the Mississippi.

Gayoso also recommended to Carondelet construction of additional forts in the Mississippi Valley. They beefed up defenses in Nogales, Natchez, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. Gayoso beat the Americans to Chickasaw Bluffs through painstaking negotiations with the Chickasaws, who finally consented to let Spain build a small military post there. Gayoso was supported by a majority of the ships in the Spanish squadron when he established a new military post at Chickasaw Bluffs in 1795.

The new fortifications aside, Gayoso believed that the primary defense of Louisiana lay not in expensive permanent forts, but in the willingness of Natchez settlers to defend their homes and plantations. Louisiana had a regular battalion of infantry—at least on paper (in fact, the battalion was never at full strength despite recruiting efforts in Mexico and emptying out all the jails in the Spanish empire). Gayoso persuaded Carondelet to organize a real militia, though Carondelet was mistrustful of the French settlers in Natchez and was reluctant to give them too much leeway. Gayoso persevered, and by the fall of 1793, he had organized two companies of infantry, two of cavalry, and one of artillery for Natchez.

Gayoso’s mansion, “Concord,” was the social and political center of Natchez. A lady who remembered the mansion as a young girl gave this description:

The very first sight of the house, seen through a long vista of noble trees, as you enter the gate, forms a splendid picture. About half way from the gate is a large pond surrounded by gnarled old cedars, after which the road branches into two, on each side of an extensive sloping lawn, and the end of the delightful drive brings us to the house itself.

Built of brick with walls fully two feet thick, there is an air of massiveness and solidity about this grand old house that gives promise of centuries of useful existence before it shall succumb to the leveling hand of time.

On the ground floor a broad gallery paved with brick completely circles the house, and lofty pillars reaching to the roof support another broad gallery upon which all the second story rooms open. These pillars are about four feet in diameter, made of brick covered with mortar, which gives them the appearance of stone. Two winding flights of stairs, one on each side of the entrance, made of the purest white marble, lead from the ground to the upper gallery, where they meet in  a solid slab of snow white marble about six feet wide and ten feet long … A vestibule paved with alternate squares of black and white marble, after the houses of Pompeii, leads through the richly carved front door into a broad hall extending the full length of the house.

Concord mansion, Natchez

Gayoso's home, Concord, in Natchez. This beautiful mansion burned in 1901.

Gayoso filled his mansion with ornate furniture imported from Spain and Santo Domingo, spent wildly and entertained lavishly. A friend described Gayoso during this time as “of high stature, and stoutly built,” and added, “he was fond of horses, of good cheer and madeira.” He owned matched bay horses, and a black and a roan. In 1799, he ordered a special “elastic jacket, which is very convenient apparel for a corpulent person to ride on horse back.”

To his beautiful home, Gayoso brought his second wife, an American beauty named Elizabeth Watts, in April 1792. Unfortunately, Elizabeth contracted a fever and died within three months of their marriage. A curious legend sprang up that the grief-stricken governor kept his dead wife in a tub filled with embalming fluid on the second story of Concord.

Bishop Luis Ignacio Maria de Peñalver y Cárdenas

Bishop Luis Ignacio Maria de Peñalver y Cárdenas of New Orleans

Several years passed before Gayoso began courting the younger sister of his second wife, Margaret Cyrilla Watts. However, the road to matrimony was far from smooth. When Gayoso sailed north to New Madrid in 1795 (where he happened to run into young William Clark), ugly rumors circulated to the effect that he was keeping a mistress there, had built a house for her, and intended to marry her. Governor Carondelet heard the rumors and was disturbed enough to write to Gayoso, reminding him that it was common knowledge that he had “lived as a husband” to Margaret Watts in Natchez and that if he didn’t behave himself, he was going to get in trouble with the Bishop of New Orleans.

Gayoso finally requested a royal license to marry Margaret in early 1796. Carondelet forwarded the paperwork through the captain-general of Cuba to the secretary of war. Official permission was not forthcoming until March 1797, by which time Margaret was noticeably pregnant. Concerned about their status, Gayoso asked Carondelet to grant interim permission, which he declined to do.

On July 14, 1797, Margaret gave birth to a healthy son, whom they named Fernando. When the Gayosos went to New Orleans later that year, an interesting religious ceremony took place, in which the Bishop baptized young Fernando and married his parents.

Gayoso died of yellow fever in Louisiana in 1799. Unkind gossips claimed that hard drinking with a visiting American general—by the name of James Wilkinson—was a contributing factor. American politician Andrew Ellicott wrote this description of Gayoso after his death:

He was educated in Great Britain, and retained in a considerable degree the manners, and customs, of that nation until his death, especially in his style of living. In his conversation he was easy and affable, and his politeness was of that superior cast, which showed it to be the effect of early habit, rather than an accomplishment merely intended to render him agreeable. His passions were naturally so strong, and his temper so remarkably quick, that they sometimes hurried him into difficulties, from which he was not easily extricated. He was fond of show and parade, which he indulged to the great injury of his fortune, and not a little to his reputation as a paymaster. This fondness for parade showed itself in all his transactions, but in nothing more than the ordinary business of his government, to which, method and system, were too generally sacrificed. In his domestic character, he merited imitation: he was a tender husband, an affectionate parent, and a good master.

Coming next week: Gayoso, Wilkinson, and the Spanish Conspiracy

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Location: Tupelo, Mississippi

Liz at Elvis's birthplace. He was born in the front room on January 8, 1935.

History is a lot like onions (and ogres). It has layers. And northeast Mississippi, a crossroads since ancient times, has more layers than most.

On September 4, 1809, Governor Meriwether Lewis left St. Louis to begin an arduous journey to the Federal City (Washington, D.C.). Just three years after the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the 35-year-old Lewis was no longer the national hero he had once been. He now found himself deeply indebted, trapped in a political job in which he could not succeed, and accused of malfeasance by the War Department. Even as he embarked on a trip that he hoped would clear his name, he was battling demons that would lead to his death on the Natchez Trace just six weeks later. Whether those demons were severe physical illness, alcohol or drug addiction, mental illness, a political conspiracy to destroy him, or some combination of the above, are questions that historians still debate and that we explored in our first book, To the Ends of the Earth.

After traveling by boat down the Mississippi, Lewis spent a lengthy stint at Fort Pickering at the site of present-day Memphis, recovering from something (again, it’s not clear what). By September 22, he had weighed the risks of going to Washington by sea via New Orleans, or taking the rugged and dangerous Natchez Trace overland through the wilderness. There were significant risks involved in the sea voyage too, not least of which was potential capture of Lewis and the priceless Expedition journals by the British, with whom tensions were running high at the time. Lewis’s decision to take the Trace may have been ill-fated, but it was not naive; one of the most experienced wilderness travelers in the world, he was also familiar with the Trace and the resident Chickasaw Indians from his days as a young officer (a period of his life explored in our new novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe).

The route from Memphis to the main Chickasaw village, a place called Big Town, was called Pigeon Roost Road. And while the forests and their millions of passenger pigeons are long gone, you can still take a jaunt down Pigeon Roost’s successor road, today’s US 78, and meet up with the Natchez Trace Parkway at the crossroads where Big Town once stood. Today the bustling junction is known as Tupelo, Mississippi, and it just happens to be the birthplace of Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll.

Chickasaw village. Courtesy of ExploreSouthernHistory.com

The history of Tupelo and northeastern Mississippi has been called “dark and tragic.” Among the fiercest of Native American tribes, the Chickasaws first came to the notice of Europeans when the Indians violently drove off the advances of Hernando De Soto way back in the 1540s. They continued to take on all comers–British, French, and Americans–not meeting anyone tougher than themselves until Andrew Jackson came along and forced them out of their ancestral homeland and on to a reservation in Oklahoma. By that time, the Chickasaws were already sharing the area with hard, flinty backcountry settlers. Among these families were the Presleys (sometimes spelled Preslar, Presler, or Prisley). In fact, some of Elvis’s ancestors may already have been living in the area when Meriwether Lewis passed this way in 1809. It is strange to think of Meriwether Lewis sharing a bench at a backwoods tavern — or a song — with a great-great-granddad of the King.

 There is some fascinating genealogical research about Elvis’s family on the internet. The key point is that the Presleys (as well as the Smiths, the family of Elvis’s mom) were poor, rootless, and landless. Unlike the frontier elite–people like the Lewises, the Clarks, and the Boones–the Presleys never made the leap over the Appalalachian Mountains to the west. Instead they remained trapped in an endless cycle of sharecropping and tenant farming, where they cleared and planted the land on behalf of an absentee landowner, who could just as easily turn around and sell the land out from under them as soon as it had been improved enough to become profitable.  

So why didn’t the people try to better their situation? The answers are complex, but certainly much of the misery was due to their almost total isolation from the outside world and their lack of education (free public education was all but non-existent until well into the 20th century). The fact is that whites and blacks alike remained mired in a system rigged against them, each generation seemingly doomed to blinding ignorance, grinding poverty, broken families, and lives shortened by ill health and substance abuse.

Mississippi family by Dorothea Lange (1938)

Tupelo itself came into being as a rough-and-ready saloon town built to serve workers building the first railroad along the route of the old Pigeon Roost Road. Burned to the ground during the Civil War, it eventually rebuilt and became a shipping center for cotton, the economic king of the region. In 1935, when Elvis Presley (along with a stillborn twin) was welcomed into the world by his parents Vernon and Gladys (both age 19), there no reason to expect that he would ever be anything but a restless itinerant laborer like his forebears from time immemorial.

Liz and Mary with the statue of the 13-year-old Elvis

Given this pretty dismal history, there are surprises to be had when you visit Tupelo. For one thing, we found it to be much larger (population 34,000), prettier, and more prosperous-looking than we expected. It still seems to be a center of shipping, trucking, and commerce for this part of the state. And the house, though tiny, is hardly the shack it is sometimes described as. Solidly built by Vernon and his brother with $180 worth of materials, it is outfitted with a wood stove and outdoor water pump and privy, and probably stacked up pretty well against any of the young couple’s neighbors. Unfortunately, Vernon was never able to find steady employment, and the house was repossessed when Elvis was about three years old. The family beat around Tupelo in various housing for the next ten years before finally fleeing their impoverished lives and moving to Memphis in 1948.

Elvis's triumphal return to Tupelo, 1956

The prodigious talent of Elvis Presley, his rise to unimaginable stardom, and his tragic squandering of his gifts are well-known to everyone (or should be) and there’s no need to rehash it all here. It’s worth noting, though, that he never forgot Tupelo. The area surrounding his birthplace is located in a very nice park that he funded for the city. Nor have the people forgotten him. It is well worth the time to tour the excellent visitor center and chapel that are adjacent to the park. I especially enjoyed reading the wall which contains interesting and touching reminiscences from the people of Tupelo about “the boy who dared to rock.”

From the Rhineland to Graceland (fascinating Presley genealogy)

Elvis’s American Trilogy (Dixieland, All My Trials, and The Battle Hymn of the Republic)

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