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Jefferson and the Natchez Trace     

Two centuries ago Natchez became a destination for keelboats and barges carrying commodities and manufactured goods down the Mississippi River. After delivering their products and selling the barges for lumber, the boatmen, needed a place to unwind before starting the long walk home to their Kentucky and Tennessee River valleys.

They then headed north on a new route conceived and ordered built by President Thomas Jefferson, the Natchez Trace. They could walk the 450 miles from Natchez to Nashville in three to four weeks, while post riders could carry mail between the two cities in about two weeks.

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Jefferson envisioned further westward expansion. He decided, therefore, to bind Mississippi (and the region that would become Alabama) to the rest of the country by broadening the 450-mile forest trail called the Natchez Trace.

Even on the newly widened trail, however, the journey was daunting. The route zigzagged through canebrakes, skirted cypress-filled swamps and crossed several large rivers and dozens of smaller creeks before rising 1,000 feet along ridgelines into the Eastern hardwood forest, an expanse of dense virgin timber.

By 1810, more than 10,000 people rode or hiked northward each year up the trace. At night they slept in one of perhaps 20 way stations, or rude inns, at stopping points with names like Buzzard Roost and Sheboss Place that advertised "wilderness entertainment" with "great provender and provisions." During the first three decades of the 19th century, the Natchez Trace functioned as the southwest United States' most-traveled road, although it was seldom more than 12 feet wide.

Natchez Trace traffic began to decline in 1817, after construction began on a larger, more direct highway linking Nashville to New Orleans. But it was the steamboat that really did the Trace in. By 1820, a paddle wheeler could make it upriver from New Orleans to Louisville in 15 days.

Today it is possible to cover the same distance in ten hours or less on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a scenic two-lane highway that parallels the Old Trace. Maintained by the National Park Service, the 444-mile road angles diagonally across Mississippi and cuts through northwestern Alabama before cresting the Tennessee Valley Divide and dropping into Nashville's Cumberland Valley.

The parkway is at its most beautiful in spring and fall, when cyclists pedal beneath massive oak canopies dripping with Spanish moss and hikers follow nearby trails bordered by clover, black-eyed Susan and purple chicory.

But it's beyond the parkway that the region's history truly comes alive.

Natchez is at the beginning, or southern end, of the Natchez Trace. This hidden jewel is once again a destination, not for keelboats and barges, but a destination for tourists.

With narrow streets originally designed for carriages and more than 600 antebellum structures Natchez attracts visitors from all over the world. In addition, in the early 1800s Natchez stood at the edge of America's vast frontier. Thus, the surrounding area is also steeped in historic sites and many tourists enjoy the wonders side trips provide.

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