Ending the myth of the historic Natchez Trace

In 1811, 17 years before his election as president, Andrew Jackson was intercepted by a federal agent while driving a group of enslaved people south. Jackson was marching his coffle along the Natchez Trace from Tennessee toward what was then the southwestern frontier, where burgeoning cotton fields were demanding ever more labor. Federal agent Silas Dinsmoor stopped Jackson to ask for documentation that he and his chattel had a pass to be in the area. Jackson, affronted, pulled out either a copy of the U.S. Constitution or a pair of pistols, depending on who's telling the story. "Here's my permission," he is supposed to have said. "I always carry it with me."

He was allowed to continue on his slaving mission, recounts historian Greg Grandin in The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. But Jackson could not move past the encounter, which he considered undue infringement on his liberty. He began writing to the federal government, suggesting that citizens might pursue vigilante justice if the agent were not fired. "My God, is it come to this?" Jackson wrote. "Are we freemen or are we slaves? Is this real or is it a dream?" He was successful: The state's lawmakers pressed their federal representatives to remove Dinsmore from office. The enslaved were sold. "Freedom" had its day.

Hundreds of years of foot traffic carved 'sunken' sections into the Trace.

Jackson looms large over the Natchez Trace: He made his fortune as a frontier lawyer, land speculator, horse-breeder, and slaver in Nashville, the route's northern terminus. As a military officer and later statesman, he was instrumental in expanding the nation's territory down its route. Jackson traversed the road to expel the British from New Orleans in the War of 1812; as president, he oversaw the removal of the Chickasaw and Choctaw from their Trace-adjacent ancestral homelands. Into the newly emptied lands—as with those from which Jackson expelled the Creek and Cherokee further east, and the Spanish and Seminoles further south—rushed the barbarous white-supremacist regime that Jackson both championed and embodied.

The evolution of the Natchez Trace parallels the evolution of the South more broadly.

While Jackson is the only president known to have himself driven coffles across the South, he had plenty of nonpresidential company. The years from 1830 to 1860 saw a forced migration of slaves from the tobacco South—Virginia and the Carolinas—to the cotton South, a migration unparalleled in early American history: one million souls sold southward in what writer Edward Ball calls the "Slave Trail of Tears." Fearing the potential of revolt thanks to growing numbers of the enslaved across the South, the United States banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 (although illicit traders managed to work their way around the ban). At the same time, cotton was beginning its ascent to become the United States' largest export, demanding laborers working in brutal heat to harvest the crops. While traveling by boat was faster and safer than the arduous trek down the Trace, it was also more expensive. The Trace became King Cotton's lifeline.

The Trace crosses the Tennessee River in Northwest Alabama in the fading light. George Colbert, a Chickasaw tribal leader and military colonel under George Washington, ran a ferry across the river from this site in the early 1800s, and he is said to have charged Andrew Jackson $75,000 to carry his men back across the Tennessee on their victorious march home from the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

The evolution of the Natchez Trace parallels the evolution of the South more broadly. It began life as a Native trading route, part of a larger system of Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez paths through the area's relentless forests. When white American settlement started to creep upward from the mouth of the Mississippi—in the aftermath of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and the War of 1812 soon after—the fledgling country needed a way to connect its new provinces with its centers of power to the northeast, and the path to what was then the country's "Southwest" was built out. Before steam power, "Kaintuck" traders from Kentucky and Tennessee would float down the Mississippi with a boatful of goods, sell their boats for lumber, and wind their way back up the Trace by land. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the road fell into disrepair. Now, thanks to preservationists during the last century, it is a National Scenic Trail winding 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, and is especially popular with cyclists. Much of the original footpath—the Old Trace, as the Park Service calls it—snakes alongside.

The Trace became King Cotton's lifeline.

I first traveled down the roadway two summers ago and was beguiled. Turnout by turnout, it reveals a comprehensible social and ecological history of the region: tupelo swamps and Appalachian foothills, temple and burial mounds built millennia apart, Confederate cemeteries and bygone blues meccas. Signs along the way offer visitors a guide to these many past lives. Each landscape is an epoch. The Trace captures something of the soul of the region, a patchwork of its brutal depravity; its rich musicality; its explosive, horrible flora; and ultimately its head-shaking moments of grace. Toward the Trace's southern terminus, 23 stone columns jut skyward in a forest clearing, their connected mansion having survived the Civil War only to be burned down by an errant cigarette 25 years later. Farther north, waterfalls splash down horseshoe-shaped grottos in a cool shade.

The Pharr Mounds in northern Mississippi were built between 100 and 200 A.D. as burial sites, predating other burial mounds along the Trace by more than a millennia. The Trace hints at a deep human history of the area, in flux for many centuries before European contact.

But the site that has played through my mind ever since my first visit is the humble Pharr Mounds in northern Mississippi, just short of the Alabama line. Built nearly two millennia ago to house the dead and their belongings, the nine gentle humps now sit scattered in an open field amid waist-high grasses. A baking sun offers a distraction from the fire ants underfoot, until the sharp pinch of their bites demands attention. Sturdy as the land itself, the mounds have borne witness to centuries of the region's human history. They were already ancient at earliest colonial contact. Amid the crescendoing drone of insects and occasional distant gunshots in the surrounding woods, their quietude invites contemplation, whispering of a timescale far beyond this nation's. We are here but a moment; some larger story endures. In hopes of parsing the Trace's role in that story, I returned to the trail last September, the wet air still buzzing with late-summer heat and the earth sheathed in layers of green.

Sturdy as the land itself, the [Pharr] mounds have borne witness to centuries of the region's human history.

Natchez itself, where the Trace spills into the Mississippi, showcases the wealth squeezed from the Slave Trail of Tears. From the 1830s until the Civil War, the city's Forks of the Road slave market was the second busiest in the region. As the cotton flowed through Natchez, the merchant class there grew fat: In the 1850s, the city was home to half of the country's millionaires. Many of their grand estates survived the Civil War and act today as a major tourist draw. Isaac Franklin, one of the region's chief merchants of human chattel, used his immense profits to buy six plantations across Louisiana and Tennessee. One he named Angola—it lives on as Louisiana's infamous Angola Prison Farm today.

"Remember I told you my great-grandfather had gotten some land after the War? It's different when it's your own."

The Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture occupies a stately stone building downtown. Founded in 1990 by local Mary Lee Davis Toles, the museum is filled with documents and artifacts donated by locals, with books on Black liberation, photographs from Natchez native Richard Wright's trip to Ghana, and a life-sized mannequin picking cotton. The docent I spoke with, Viola, recounted that her great-grandfather, who was enslaved, acquired his own plot of land in nearby Fayette in the aftermath of the Civil War. Her grandfather, she said, was the last of her family born into bondage. She herself had grown up picking cotton: She offered to take a photograph in front of the mannequin, but I worried that might be too uncomfortable. Still, she said, "Remember I told you my great-grandfather had gotten some land after the War? It's different when it's your own."

Viola is a docent in the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture.

As the Trace winds northeast, it transitions from tourist-genteel into Southern Gothic, not yet reconstrued by tourist dollars. At the end of my first day on the Trace, I pulled in late to Port Gibson, Mississippi, a town Ulysses S. Grant spared on his way to Vicksburg as it was reportedly "too beautiful to burn," its grandeur now crumbling. Kudzu gulps buildings left alone too long. In the lone establishment whose sign blinked "OPEN," I met a duo who assured me that the town's fortunes were soon to change. CJ King, owner of the Royalty Lounge and Bistro, relayed that upon moving to town he began receiving divine visions, among them that he would soon meet a man who would "change Port Gibson forever."

That man turned out to be Alderman Scott Davis, to King's and to Davis' own surprise. And here he was: Wearing an oversized black shirt advertising his office, drinking Coronas, and puffing away at an e-cigarette. Davis had moved to Port Gibson some years back with his mother to refurbish a local estate they called Idlewild. In 2018, the federal government designated a portion of Port Gibson's Claiborne County an "Opportunity Zone," providing incentives for private investment as part of a program designed to boost impoverished areas. Now, Davis was working to broker a deal to bring a natural gas pipeline from Vicksburg southwest to Port Gibson, where the gas will be pressurized into liquid natural gas and sold further afield. As he told me this, he suggested that there was more stimulus to come, thanks to his roots in an international fruit company whose remaining assets still spill across the hemisphere. He dragged his vape pen. "It really feels like a higher power brought us all here together for a special reason."

Left: Sunset at the Windsor Ruins. An errant cigarette burned down the antebellum mansion in 1890, leaving a skeleton in the woods.
Right: The reclamation of an abandoned old house in southern Mississippi.

Daniella Shorter, the county district attorney and King's spouse, shook her head as talk of the grander economic visions—intercontinental in scope, seemingly harebrained, unverifiable, and very possibly real—drifted through the room. She joked that she might prosecute Davis if he overstepped the boundaries of his office. Good luck, he told her. "I'm undefeated this year, Scott." He, confident in the midst of his election season, shot back: "I'm undefeated too."

The pipeline project may well provide jobs in an area that could use them; it also comes with environmental risks, as does any such pipeline. Already, Port Gibson is home to the state's only nuclear power plant, one whose construction led to charges of environmental racism from the get-go. In the first two years after it came online, reports the Nation, infant deaths in the surrounding five counties increased by 35 percent, miscarriages by 58 percent. A reworking of the taxation structure in 1986 meant that locals only get a paltry portion of the taxes levied on consumers for the power produced, despite shouldering the risk. They filed suit in 2009 to redress the taxation structure, claiming the policy—passed by the state—was racist. That suit was dismissed. Now, in the poor region, another risky energy project beckons. 

Foliage looms over the road, hefty oaks and leafy beeches dappling the sunlight.

As the Trace winds north past Jackson, Mississippi, the kudzu relents a bit, and the hillocks give way to hills. Named for the plantation-owning president who empowered the white everyman at the expense of everyone else, Mississippi's capital city is now administered by Chokwe Antar Lumumba, profiled by The Nation as possibly "the most radical mayor in America." His lineage is more radical yet: Lumumba's late father, the former mayor of Jackson, was before his time in office a leader with the Republic of New Afrika, a Black nationalist movement that pushed for reparations in the form of a nation for Black descendants of the enslaved in the Deep South. I met a group of schoolkids on a field trip from Jackson's Michelle Obama Early College High School and asked them about the younger Lumumba. "I got a lot of pictures with him," one told me. "He actually cut the ribbon at our school. People say he looks like Drake."

Jackson is 10 miles off the Trace, its ramshackle urbanity a world apart. Throughout Mississippi, the green along the Trace is hypnotic, primordial. Foliage looms over the road, hefty oaks and leafy beeches dappling the sunlight. Fields of cotton, corn, and grass open to either side; bales of hay loll serenely. North of Jackson, a "Cypress Swamp" turnoff offers a short walk around a grove of cypresses and tupelos, dropping their seeds with irregular kerplunks into the tea-colored water below. Alligators hide somewhere in that timeless soup. The greedy forest threatens to swallow anything the alligators do not.

After cutting briefly through Northwest Alabama, the Trace spills past cutesy mountain towns into Nashville. Just to the city's west is Andrew Jackson's old plantation, the Hermitage, today a National Historic Landmark. In his old age, Jackson, having become rich, held about 150 humans in bondage. He died before seeing them emancipated. Beside the rotunda of Jackson's tomb, interpreters at the Hermitage tell a story to visitors who linger. Alfred, Jackson's personal servant, lived to become a freedman. By farming, he made enough money to buy some of the family's affairs in an estate sale; when the family decided to turn the Hermitage into a museum, he had some leverage. I'll sell you back these artifacts, he offered. But in return, I want to be buried in the family plot. And I want to give the tours of the estate. Alfred got both his wishes. Now, his grave lies beside Jackson's rotunda, and the interpreters who lead visitors through Jackson's estate tell a story based on the ur-interpretation Alfred himself gave.

"Sometimes," Maddy told me, "on weekends, when I'm not doing nothing, I go down there and just listen."

Having reached the end of the road, I left the Hermitage to pick my way back toward the Mississippi, watching the blurring stretches of leafiness deepen as high noon gave way to dusk. On my way, I stopped in Tupelo, in northern Mississippi: the birthplace of Elvis, another turnout where aging myths lure in passers-by. Tourists flock to his childhood home, now a museum and giftshop. Maddy, a local barista, directed me elsewhere, toward an enormous freestanding guitar that had recently been erected south of downtown. I found it in a parking lot beside a machine warehouse. All day, the guitar plays Elvis songs. "Sometimes," Maddy told me, "on weekends, when I'm not doing nothing, I go down there and just listen." Ghosts are excellent company, after all. 

Sammy Feldblum studies geography at UCLA and reports across the southern half of the United States.