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 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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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!