Saturday, February 20, 2016

Tracing the Natchez Trace - Part One

When we drew a line from where we were in Louisiana to where we needed to go in Alabama, it intersected the state of Mississippi with a diagonal that stretched towards the northeast.  That's when we realized that there was an All-American road that took that same diagonal.  So we made plans to trace the same path of that road--the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Stretching 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee, we learned the footpath known as the Natchez Trace was used for hundreds of years by the area Indians.  In the early 1800's, it was also used by men called "kaintucks." A kaintuck was a boatman from the Ohio River Valley, who would float merchandise down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to sell in Natchez.  They would also dismantle their boat and sell it as lumber.  Then the kaintuck would walk northeast towards home on this footpath that became known as the Natchez Trace. We hiked this section of the trace that was easy to follow because in places it was 30 feet lower than the forest around it.

So our plan was to follow the Natchez Trace from its southern terminus in Natchez through Tupelo, Mississippi--the closest point to our motor home repair.  It is a scenic road that would be beautiful in the fall with its changing foliage, or the spring with flowering trees.  We thought it was still very nice in the middle of the winter.

At the national park information center, we got a map of the many historical stops available as we traveled northeast on the trace.  The first stop for us, at mile marker 10.3, was the Emerald Mound. Built by the native Indians hundreds of years ago, they carried soil to form the first mound that was 35 feet high and a whopping eight acres across. It is the second largest temple mound in the United States, built to support ceremonial structures like the secondary mound. The photo shows Mark standing on top of the second mound on top of the first mound. Considering that all of this soil was hand carried in baskets, it was a monumental task.

At mile marker 15.5, we explored Mount Locust Inn and Plantation.  One of the oldest structures in the area, this home was built in 1780.  It was home to five generations of the Chamberlain family, who farmed the land with the help of their slaves.  They also ran an inn where the kaintucks stayed on their walking journey north towards home.

At mile marker 17, we parked the car and rode our bicycles down the dirt road through the forest.

Another four miles down the paved road of the Natchez Trace Parkway, brought us to the other end of the trail.

That would allow us to hike the three miles back to the car, making our total hike and ride into a loop.  Most of the hike was easy to follow with the well-traveled trace sunk deep into the forest floor. There was also a good number of trees that kept Mark entertained.

Other entertainment came from this dead tree with two curious growths attached to it. This is one of the growths still hanging in the inside of the hollow tree.

The other was even larger, so we took a picture with Mark's hand to show more of its size and texture.  We left it in the forest, but after doing some research we found out that we should have carried it home with us.  It appears to be an edible mushroom, usually called a "lion's mane" or a "bearded hedgehog."  It grows on hardwood trees, and is a great source of protein that tastes like lobster or shrimp.  Who knew that something that looks like that would be a gourmet mushroom?

After our bike/hike loop, we drove to another area road to see Church Hill, Mississippi.  Built in 1820, it is the oldest Episcopal church in Mississippi.  We have come to find that cemeteries outside these old churches teach us much about history.  Most of the tombstones were from the 1800's, telling the story of people that were natives of Maine, Scotland, Pennsylvania, Maryland . . . They were obviously pioneers that came from afar to make a better life in Mississippi.

Our next big stop was at mile post 54.8.  We had a nice hike through the forest, where we are still amazed at seeing huge magnolia trees growing in the wild. That is why Mississippi is nicknamed the Magnolia state.

This hike brought us to the abandoned town of Rocky Springs, Mississippi.  In the 1790's this was a thriving town, and in the 1860 census there were 2,616 people living here.  But between the Civil war, a yellow fever epidemic in 1878, the cotton boll weevil, and the hardships of pioneer life, the town's population dwindled to zero.  The only structure left is the church, and again the cemetery told us sad stories of families in this community.

The next picture shows the tombstones of three of the children born to John and Sarah Powers.  They had a 15-day-old son that died in 1853, and two daughters that were less than a year old that died in 1852 and 1853. The process of putting together names and dates made us sharply more aware that these weren't just tomb stones--these were real people that led lives in very harsh times.

As we walked through the old cemetery we could watch family trees unfold before us. 

We found a whole section of tomb stones with ties to James S. Winters, who buried his 17-year-old wife named Lucy Ann in 1842. That young mother had given birth to a daughter that was buried at the age of 3. 

Mr. Winters married again, and later buried this 26-year-old wife named Dorothy in 1851, as well as their one-year-old son in 1849. There were grave stones for more children he had with his third wife named Caroline.  Finally we found the head stone for James, who died at the ripe old age of 48. He had certainly lived through the pain and loss and hardships of the 1800's as attested by all the graves in that section of the cemetery.

There were 25 different historical stops in the first 114 miles we have traveled so far on the Natchez Trace.  We stopped at 13 of them, learning about life on the Trace for the Indians, Civil War soldiers, kaintucks, and pioneer families.  It is a very educational "All American Road."

Driving a motor home down the Natchez Trace means that you don't have to worry about the wind sheer from meeting 18-wheelers.  No commercial vehicles are allowed on the Trace, and the maximum speed limit is 50 miles per hour.  Also, no billboards are allowed.  All of the signs we have seen are those little brown signs that point to the next national historical stop. It's not a road for making good time to your next destination, but is a good road for having a good time!  We'll be back on the Trace for "Part Two" after a little time in a campground north of Jackson, Mississippi!

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