For those of you that enjoy reading these blogs to keep up with the places we visit along the journey will be glad to know that after the past couple of months without much to report, we will have more locations to report on beginning this week. For the last month and a half we have been following the Tombigbee Waterway staying at Corps of Engineers campgrounds. For this week we headed a bit more to the west to the Davis Lake Campground on the Tombigbee National Forest. This section of the National Forest straddles the Natchez Trace Parkway, upon which we will be spending a lot of time. Once again, we did not travel very far as this campground was just over an hour from Aberdeen. We took our time leaving, yet we still arrived at Davis Lake before 1:00 on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Davis Lake Campground has only a single pull-through site, which cannot be reserved, so our reserved site was a back-in and angled in such a way that we had to circle all the way through the campground to get the RV headed the right way. I knew backing in was going to be a challenge with large trees across the road that was going to make it difficult to get the truck swung around. Thankfully, the volunteer running the campground came around in his golf cart and offered to trade our site with another site down at the lakeshore that would be much easier to get in. None of the sites near the lake could be reserved, but operated on a first-come basis and since we were early on a Monday, we could have the site if we preferred. There was no doubt it was a better site, however, we would have to wait until the family currently occupying the site left and they had until 2:00 to do so. So we pulled the RV around to the day-use area parking lot and waited for about an hour and a half for them to leave. It was definitely worth the wait. The site was very easy to get into, we were within a stones throw of the bathroom, and the view of the lake out of the back of the RV was stupendous. I can certainly understand why these sites close to the lake were in such demand.
For those of you not familiar with the Natchez Trace Parkway, it is a 444 mile long national park that averages only 800 feet wide. Speed limit is set at 50 mph (although motorists often want to go a good bit faster), the woods provide a screen of any houses, and cross traffic is controlled with over passes or bridges. This makes for a very pleasant drive through the countryside of Mississippi, stopping only when you want to and there are plenty of reasons to stop. There are over 100 historical, cultural, or natural points of interest along the Parkway, which means every few miles there is something to stop and take a look at. Of course, most of these are simple pull-over areas with a single interpretive sign about something close by on the Old Natchez Trace, but there are a few hiking trails or paths along the Old Trace. The Natchez Trace began as a loose association of Indian trails in the “southwest” wilderness in the 1700s. By 1800, it had become a well used trail through the Indian lands of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. In 1801, President Jefferson, declared it to be a National Post Road, which meant it was widened and maintained for the delivery of mail. There was not much trade along the road, as most of the territory was under the control of the three Indian tribes, the Natchez, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. However, it was an important route for the mail and settlers traveling from Nashville to Natchez and New Orleans. It also became an important route for the “Kaintucks” to travel back north. Without initially going to the Visitor Center at Tupelo, we were not sure who these Kaintucks were. Kal made an educated guess that they could be farmers and traders traveling north after taking produce and goods down the Mississippi River in the early 1800s and it turned out she was exactly correct. Farmers and tradesmen in the Ohio River Valley would take their goods down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to be sold at the markets in Vicksburg, Natchez, and especially New Orleans. Since these wooden flatboats could not make the journey back against the current, they would be broken down and sold for lumber. With pockets full of money, the “Kaintucks” would then walk or ride back north using the Natchez trace. This also meant there were a number of inns, known as stands, constructed along the trace. This practice continued until the 1820s when steamboats made it possible to make the trip upstream much quicker, safer, and less expensive. After the Indians were forced to sell their territory and move to Oklahoma in the 1830s the Trace fell into disuse, although sections were maintained for local needs and some of these sections played a role in the Civil War.
Exploring the Natchez Trace Parkway is going to take a long time and this spring will only cover the Parkway from here, north to Nashville. We spent two days during this week exploring the Trace. On Tuesday, we headed south from Davis Lake about half way to Jackson and Thursday was north to Tupelo. Instead of mentioning everything we learned or saw along the Trace, I will only hit the highlights here with more details on the Natchez Trace Parkway page for those interested. Tuesday began with a stop at two Indian mound sites that were an interesting comparison. The first was Owl Creek Mounds which were constructed about 800-900 years ago during the Mississippian Era. Of the 5 original mounds, there are only 2 remaining after they paved the county road through the middle of the site. Although not as large as other Indian mounds we have seen in Alabama, these mounds had the traditional flat tops and likely had ceremonial structures on their tops. It has been hypothesized that this could be the location where Hernando de Sota spent the winter, however, dating of the site indicates it had been long abandoned by the 1500s. The other mounds are known as Bynum Mounds and were actually dated back to the Woodland era over 1200 years ago. Excavations have identified that these mounds began as burial mounds which ties in with the Indian traditions about their origins. The two remaining mounds are much more rounded and did not likely have any structures on their tops.
It should be noted that the Natchez Trace Parkway only roughly follows the path of the Old Trace, which tended to wind around the landscape. Consequently the Old Trace crosses the modern Parkway numerous times and every once in a while, there is a pull-out where you can walk a short section of the Old Trace. There were two such locations as we traveled south. Where the ground is soft, especially as the trace descended towards a creek, the traffic on the Old Trace would often create “sunken roads” with banks up to 6-8 feet on either side. I suspect that continued erosion as these road beds became drainage ditches over time would have contributed to the depth of these sunken areas. In any case, they make it obvious that you are walking in the path of the Indians and Kaintucks from over 200 years ago. Pretty cool.
Also by traveling south you come to a camping and picnic area named for the Congressman that pushed for the creation of the Parkway, Jeff Busby. A short drive up the hill brings you to one of the highest points in Mississippi at just over 600 feet. While not an impressive height, it does give a nice view to the east and west from on top. We ate lunch there, took a mile long height along a nature trail that dropped from the top, and headed back to the campground.
The weather kept us from continuing our exploration of the Natchez Trace, although we did use the Trace to take a pleasant trip to Tupelo to go to the store. On Thursday, we repeated this same trip north along the Parkway to Tupelo, although this time we stopped at each of the historical sites along the way. This section of the Parkway runs through the heart of the Chickasaw Nation that controlled the area until the 1830s when they were forced to agree to a treaty to sell over a million acres to the federal government. There were given “equivalent” land in Oklahoma and promises that they would receive the proceeds of the sale of the land, which they were decades collecting on. Therefore, many of the historical sites related to the Chickasaw Nation and short lived Missions that provided education and Christianity to the Indians. Of the three largest Chickasaw villages, the largest, know as Old Town, was close to the Trace and is near the present town of Tupelo. Just south of Tupelo, the NPS has created a nice set of exhibits about a typical Chickasaw Village. Along with interpretive signs and a short nature trail, they have used paving stones to outline a typical summer and winter homes and a wooden stockade that they Indians would go into to defend the village. The stockade would not surround the village, but only provided a location to hide within when attacked. There is also a trailhead for a 4 mile hiking trail to the Visitor Center. Since it also goes to the next stop along the Parkway at Old Town Creek about 2 miles away, I decided to take the trail and meet Kal at the next stop. While it was a pleasant walk on a warm spring day through the woods, it never got out of sight of the Parkway itself and had another road on the other side for the second mile of the trail. I suppose I should not have been surprised since the Parkway is only a couple hundred feet wide. The only interesting thing that happened on the hike was that I actually got stopped by a train where it passed under the Parkway!!
We continued on up to the Visitor Center where we had lunch and finally learned the full history of the area and the Natchez Trace. They have a very nice movie about the Trace that gives a very good overview of what you will find along its entire length. Over the 444 miles of the Trace, it crosses through 6 distinct ecosystems and 8 major watersheds at travels from the Southern Appalachians to the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.
We decided to also take the opportunity to visit the NPS site for the Tupelo National Battlefield, as it was only a couple of miles off the Parkway in Tupelo. In fact, the site is right across the street from the Kroger we went to the day before without realizing it. This is not surprising since the urban sprawl of Tupelo has completely occupied the battlefield, The National Park site is only an acre site with a monument, two cannons and a couple of interpretive signs. As it turns out this monument is on the very edge of the battlefield, if even on the original battlefield itself. It obviously took only a couple of minutes to visit. I got some quick pictures and we left to return to the campground. For those of you interested, the Battle of Tupelo is also known as the Battle of Harrisburg. The original town of Harrisburg was essentially abandoned by the time of the Civil War with residents moving to the new town of Tupelo where the railroad was located. The Battle of Tupelo took place in July of 1864 in support of Sherman’s battle to capture Atlanta. This campaign was dependent on the supply line which consisted of a single track railroad from Nashville to Atlanta. Confederate Major General Forrest’s mounted infantry was attempting to destroy this railroad and in response Sherman sent Union troops to eliminate this threat. In June, Brig General Sturgis led a sizeable force into Mississippi to eliminate Forrest, but was roundly defeated and almost captured at Brices Cross Road, that we will visit next week. Following this defeat, command was given to Major General A J Smith with another sizeable force. Rather than falling into the same trap as Forrest, Smith came cautiously south and set up a strong defensive position at Harrisburg. This threatened the Mobile and Ohio Railroad at nearby Tupelo and the Confederates had to respond. The attacks on July 14 were uncoordinated and across open ground against a fortified position. Multiple attempts were all repulsed, even an attempt after dark. Instead of pressing his advantage, General Smith decided to withdraw on July 15 citing low supplies and ammunition. The Confederates gave pursuit resulting in a surprise attack in the afternoon as the Federal troops were making camp along Old Town Creek to the north. Once again the Confederates were quickly repulsed and Smith was able to withdraw to Memphis. Even though neither Sturgis or Smith were able to destroy the Confederate army in the region, they did take the pressure off of Sherman’s supply lines and seriously reduced the threat, which was the more important goal of the campaign.
Since we are going to have a lot of opportunities over the next few weeks to explore more the Natchez Trace, we decided to just take it easy over the weekend in the campground. Except for doing laundry and cleaning the RV, we really did not accomplish anything notable.