The Devil’s Backbone.

Who made the first roads in America?  Animals did, mostly bison and deer.  They migrated from place to place and then returned.  Often, they preferred to travel on ridge-lines.  Vegetation was less dense there and height gave them what soldiers today call “observation”: they could see danger coming.  Native Americans then followed these paths for many centuries, either migrating or hunting or bound for war.  The trails became more distinct.  Then came the European-Americans.  These travelers had horses and cattle, vehicles and tools.  The pathways became rough-and-ready roads.  European-Americans called any such path-to-road a “trace.”

The “Natchez Trace” was a somewhat improved dirt road connecting Nashville, on the Tennessee River, with Natchez, on the Mississippi River.  The lands between Nashville and Natchez remained thinly-settled for a long time.  Weary travelers looked forward to sight of isolated inns, called “stands,” where they could eat and sleep.[1]  It being only “somewhat improved,” 450 miles long, and lawless, most travelers referred to it as “the Devil’s Backbone.”

All sorts of people of people flowed along the Natchez Trace in the early 1800s.  Presbyterian and Methodist preachers of the “Second Great Awakening,” an emotionally powerful revival movement, were all over the place like a duck on a June-bug.[2]  Westward migrants hoped for better cotton lands in the Mississippi valley.  With the white planters went their African-American slaves.  Merchants from Nashville and elsewhere used the Trace as a river of commerce.  The Mississippi Valley blossomed from the combination of cotton, and the north-south trade between New Orleans and the “Old Northwest.”  “Kaintucks” manned the flatboats that carried the river’s trade.  They walked home along the Trace.

Because money flowed in both directions along the “Trace,” so did crime.[3]  The little U.S. Army was stretched thin, so there weren’t many soldiers to provide protection.  Sheriffs were few and far between.  On the Western end of the Trace, merchants, “Kaintucks,” and slaves all congregated in the wide-open town of Natchez-under-the-Hill, where gambling, girls, and drink abounded.  So did fights.  When crime got bad enough, a posse of “Regulators” would go hunting outlaws.  Court trials did not always follow captures.

For example, Samuel Mason (1739-1803) served on the frontier in the American Revolution, then he turned to river piracy in Ohio, Illinois, and Arkansas (which then belonged to Spanish America).  (This isn’t the sort of thing that the Daughters of the American Revolution like to play up.)  He fell in with a family of serial killers named Harpe until the Spanish arrested him in 1803 in what would later become Missouri.[4]  He didn’t have any good explanation for the twenty scalps found in his luggage (but really, who could?), so the Spanish turned him over to the Americans.  They would have hanged him, but he escaped for just long enough for two of his confederates to kill him in hopes of collecting a reward.  Instead the confederates met their own grim fates on a tree limb.

In the 1820s, the steamboat (which could carry goods and people upstream against the river currents) and other roads made the Trace irrelevant.

[1] In one of these inns, Meriwether Lewis— burdened by debts, drinking hard, and depressed–shot himself in 1809.

[2] Revivalist preachers stressed that individuals had to repent their sins to be saved.  Thousands of enthusiasts attended camp meetings like the one at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801.  The emotional, salvation-is-at-hand message of the revivalist movement had a profound effect on slaves, perhaps helping to inspire Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia in 1831.

[3] There’s a B-movie called “The Natchez Trace” (dir. Alan Crosland, 1960).

[4] The Louisiana Purchase was at hand, but had not yet taken place.  So, Missouri remained part of the Spanish empire.