Monday, November 2, 2009

Natchez Trace IX: Old Hickory and the Death of the Old Trace

Though there is no clear beginning to the history of the animal runs and footpaths that became the old Trace, its end is easier to pinpoint. In 1811, the New Orleans demonstrated to a multitude of skeptics the possibility of coupling steam engine to riverboat and pushing up current, past the treacherous sawyers, snags and whirlpools on the Mississippi.

Once upriver navigation became reality, smoke-stacked paddle wheelers proliferated like algae blooms on tamer waters. Within a decade nearly a thousand steamboats plied the Mississippi. By that time even the poorest farmer could afford the third class passage that entitled him a spot on a crowded deck where he would sleep out in the elements. Given the accidents and violence on the river, the water route was no less treacherous than the Trace, but it saved at least a month in travel time and avoided a 500-mile walk back to the Cumberland Valley. It should have meant less business for the Native Americans who by treaty had exclusive rights to operate the inns, known as stands, along the road's desolate stretch through the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations.

Though at the same time the road was losing its northbound traffic, greater numbers pushed south. Unscrupulous characters drove chained men for whom they had no or dubious title. Otherwise they too would have taken the quicker, and more policed, river route to the Mississippi bottomlands where cotton production was booming and the demand for human capital insatiable. Settlers with an eye for this wilderness, now within the boundaries of the young republic, arrived in increasing numbers hungry for land and confident their government would soon wrest it from tribal control.

The Trace was already losing its commercial viability by the time Andrew Jackson earned his most famous moniker on this road. At start of the War of 1812, Jackson led the volunteer Tennessee Militia down river to aid the defense of New Orleans. Yet his troops were delayed, then abandoned, in Natchez due to the perfidious maneuverings of Jackson’s military superior in New Orleans, Major General James Wilkinson. The treasonous Wilkinson, archives have established he had once worked as a spy for the Spanish Crown, wanted no competition from the able Tennessean. Rather than allowing Jackson to join his forces in New Orleans, Wilkinson commanded him to proceed no further than Natchez while he worked to secure orders from Washington that would dismiss the Tennessean from command.

Denied permission to join forces along the Canadian front, and cut off from the government commissaries, Jackson staked his personal fortune to march the 1500 Volunteers in his charge from Natchez back to Nashville. Along the way the commander who was tough as a hickory tree offered his own mount to the sick and encouraging words to the dying. By 1815, the scalawag Wilkinson had stood court-martial for incompetence during the war and Jackson was a national hero for repelling a superior force of the British regulars at New Orleans. Jackson’s march home was a last hurrah for the road that Jefferson had deemed to be of vital national importance a decade before.

Old Hickory would commence with his most villainous legacy along the same road that had catapulted him to greatness. In 1820, at the close of that last relevant decade for the Trace, Jackson arrived at Doak’s Stand, just a few miles southwest of Kosciusko, as an agent of the federal government. There he set the terms by which the United States would claim the rich bottomlands of the Choctaw, who a few years prior had fought alongside Jackson in the Creek War. Jackson repaid his allies by pushing the tribe into Arkansas on the false promise that these new lands lay beyond white encroachment. Within another decade, Jackson had ridden the western vote into the White House and rewarded his constituents with the Indian Removal Actthat pushed the Choctaw, along the with other Indian Nations, even further west. When the last Native Americans east of the Mississippi shed their tears across the Trace, the road no longer held national importance. Nor could it be thought of as a cohesive unit. In the 1820’s the Trace began splintering into a series of local throughways. They would not be fully reconnected until my 29th birthday, the day when the last stretch of smooth pavement was opened to the public, over seventy years after the Natchez Trace Parkway was first conceived as a Depression era WPA project.

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