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a publication centered on life in Mississippi.
Today is August 23, 2017

Time Traveling on the Natchez Trace

By Debbie Stringer

Time Traveling on the Natchez Trace

Melanie Sander, park ranger

In contrast to the spectacular mountains and canyons found in some of America’s national parks, the Natchez Trace Parkway is a hushed, intimate landscape of woodlands, swamps, farm fields and prairies.

With many sections of the parkway walled in by dense forests, modern society is held at bay as the blacktop winds 444 miles from Natchez to Nashville, Tenn.

Melanie Sander, a park ranger at the Tupelo Visitor Center, sees the parkway’s ability to help travelers escape commercialization as one of its great assets. “You could be in the middle of nowhere, when in reality the park itself is only an average of 800 feet wide.”

Yet the Natchez Trace offers far more than a scenic cruise. As a U.S. Registered Historic District, the parkway encompasses historic sites of national importance, including many still considered sacred by Choctaws and Chickasaws.

“There is significant importance to this travel corridor that warrants our respect,” Sander said.

The Natchez Trace preserves and commemorates the general route traveled by American Indians, European explorers, traders, post riders, soldiers and frontier pioneers. Boatmen traders, known as “Kaintucks,” floated goods by flatboat from the Ohio River Valley down the Mississippi River to markets in Natchez and New Orleans. They sold their boats and walked homeward on the trail, until steamboats made travel upriver easier and faster.

Construction of the paved Natchez Trace began in 1937; the last sections were completed in 2005. The parkway preserves some of the original trails, called the Old Trace, as well as American Indian mounds and village sites, historic structures and archeological sites—not to mention thousands of plant and animal species inhabiting seven different ecological regions and 40 forest types.

Terry Wildy, the parkway’s chief of interpretation, has worked years to develop new interpretive panels and audio for wayside exhibits at several sites relating to American Indian prehistory.   

Illustrated with photography, graphics and artwork, the panels’ content was created in partnership with members of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations in Oklahoma.

“They were critical for making sure we got the story right,” Wildy said. “They had a lot of very important information to share, and we wanted these exhibits to be historically accurate and culturally sensitive.”

Both Chickasaws and Choctaws faced forced removal from their Mississippi homelands in the early 1800s under land-cession treaties with the US government.

“When we talk about removal from the homelands, that is definitely an area where we want to understand what that perspective is from our tribal partners,” Wildy said.

The new interpretive display relating to Choctaw removal at the Upper Choctaw Boundary site in Madison County is one of three so far that include interpretive audio. “Visitors will push a button and actually hear tribal members talk about the significance of these sites to them, so you are hearing the voice of the people that are associated most closely with these sites,” Wildy said.

New interpretive panels have also been installed at Emerald Mound, located 10 miles north of Natchez. The mound was used for some 500 years as a ceremonial center by the Natchez Indians, starting around 1200. Covering eight acres, the flat-top earthen mound is the second-largest of its kind in the country.

Although many Indian burial and ceremonial mounds throughout Mississippi have been lost to erosion, development and farming, many are preserved and protected along the Natchez Trace. The oldest is Bynum Mounds, a burial and village site between 1,800 and 2,100 years old.

The eight burial mounds and village site at Pharr Mounds, located 23 miles north of Tupelo, were built between 100 BC and 100 AD. Distributed over an 85-acre field, the mounds make up one of the largest Middle Woodland period ceremonial sites in the Southeast.

“Pharr Mounds is my favorite,” Sander said. “I feel like I can immerse myself in the landscape as if [I were] with the Woodland Period Indians that would have called it home.”

Content for the parkway’s new interpretive panels was created to help visitors understand the relevance of mounds to today’s tribes. “For the American Indians, these mounds have an important cultural connection and a spiritual connection. They want people to understand that and to help treat them that way,” Wildy said.

Mount Locust, a four-room, furnished farmhouse built in 1780, is a historical highlight on the southern end of the parkway. Located a day’s walk from Natchez, the farm served as an inn for the traveling Kaintucks, who slept overnight on the porch or the grounds. After the Mississippi Territory was formed in 1798 the inn’s owner erected a two-story annex to accommodate an increasing number of travelers.

The house is also significant as an African American heritage site. Enslaved families worked in the cotton fields at Mount Locust. A cemetery on the property holds the remains of 43 enslaved workers, and a marker lists the names of some who may be buried there.

Beginning this month, visitors and school groups can watch a team from the Southeast Archeological Center conduct ground surveys and excavations at Mount Locust. The goal is to learn more about the lives of the slaves by examining the area where their cabins once stood, according to archeologist Chris Smith, the parkway’s cultural resources specialist.

Archeologists will use ground-penetrating radar and other methods to detect buried objects from Aug. 6–12. Based on findings, they plan to excavate from Aug. 28–Sept. 15. Project updates will be posted on both the Natchez Trace Parkway and Southeast Archeological Facebook pages.

Educating the public about all aspects of the parkway’s resources—whether recreational, natural or historical—is Sander’s mission. She oversees ranger-led educational programs tailored for all ages at the Tupelo Visitor Center, including school field trips.

She encourages students’ “emotional and intellectual connections” with the parkway, thus helping to preserve and protect it for future generations.

“There’s something more to it than a road, and there’s something special about why this road was put where it was,” Sander said.

For more information, news and updates, visit the Natchez Trace Parkway on Facebook and at www.nps.gov. Download a visitor’s guide at www.ScenicTrace.com.

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